Where Are the Jewish Gangsters of Yesteryear?
Or, what we can learn about "respectability" from Bernie Madoff and Meyer Lansky.
Now, I don't think there's anything wrong per se in Jews wanting to belong to country clubs. They deserve a nice place to feel like they belong and get their children tennis lessons. Sure, some Jewish country clubbers turn themselves into pathetic Ralph Lauren manqués. (Manqué manqués?) And it's true the Jewish interest in country clubs probably derives from the "gentleman's agreement" anti-Semitism that excluded Jews from WASP clubs, driving some of the more status-anxious to build bigger and better ones—when they weren't lobbying shamelessly for admission to the very clubs that excluded most of their co-religionists. Nothing wrong with it, human nature across all ethnic groups, I suppose. Yet nothing to brag about, either, in its philistinism.
And Bernie Madoff's M.O., Bernie's milieu, Bernie's happy hunting ground was the country club. Bernie was the King of Clubs. If you read the reports in the Timesand the WSJ, people paid hundreds of thousands of dollars just to join country clubs that would allow them to hobnob with Bernie and the friends of Bernie, sucking up to the second-raters who sit on country-club admissions boards just so they could spend a weekend with Bernie, in the hope he'd let them into his exclusive money club, his ultrarespectable club of clubs: Club Ponzi.
What an inversion, a perversion of true Jewish respectability to imitate the most dull-witted of their WASP brethren. I thought Jews were supposed to respect brains, not golf bags. Shows you how wrong stereotypes can be. Or maybe the wisdom of Abbie Hoffman's aphorism: that Jews have to decide "whether to go for the money or to go for broke."
Give me a Jewish gangster any day. They go for both.
Take Meyer Lansky, or rather "Hyman Roth," Lee Strasberg's version of Lansky in TheGodfather 2. What is it we like about him? The TV dinner tray! He runs the world's underground financial system, an illicit stock exchange and banking system combined, but what he likes most is the simple life at home in front of the tube with his wife. Sure, he'll enjoy an evening from time to time at one of his luxe Cuban casinos, but country clubs? Please. You knew Meyer Lansky wouldn't care whether he got into this or that Palm Beach Country Club, wouldn't care about hobnobbing with the respectable—i.e., Wall Street-approved—gangsters.
For me, the big question about Bernie, if he's guilty of all he's been accused of, is whether he secretly despised the suckers who fell so easily for his "respectable" scams. Secretly enjoyed creating sham castles in the air for rich losers, thereby exposing their stupidity and the emptiness of their idea of respectability.
Could Bernie have seen though it all, been a kind of Buddha of bogusness, teaching the lame-os a lesson about how worthless their sham respectability was? Or did he buy into it himself? I'd like to believe the former, but I think it's probably the latter.
It made me think of something Lucky mentioned in one of his stories about the old days: the controversy among the Jewish gangster alte kockers (old guys) about Mickey Cohen and the Irgun ship.
It seems Mickey Cohen (you know, the L.A. crime boss from the '40s and '50s; he appears in some James Ellroy novels) went around leaning on a lot of respectable and nonrespectable types for money for the Irgun, the Jewish-gangster-favored faction of Zionists in the perilous period of the founding of the state of Israel. It seems Mickey Cohen claimed he'd used the money to buy a ship and fill it full of guns and ammo for the Irgun to fight for survival of the embattled state, but alas—Mickey said—the ship had sunk on its way to Haifa or something.
There were always rumors, according to Lucky, that there never was a ship, that Mickey Cohen kept the money for himself—pulled a Bernie. Lucky didn't believe it. Honor among thieves. There was a ship. He was sure.
I hope it's true. I really think there is a difference between the disreputable but colorful and—in their own way—honorable Jewish gangsters and someone like Bernie. As that Jewish folksinger Zimmerman wrote, "When you live outside the law you must be honest." A lesson about true respectability that Bernie seems never to have learned. A lesson the old time Jewish gangsters could teach us.
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.
Photograph of: Bernard Madoff by Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images; Meyer Lansky on Slate's home page by Al Ravenna/Library of Congress.