Bernie Madoff vs. the Jewish gangsters of yesteryear.

Scrutinizing culture.
Dec. 18 2008 7:14 PM

Where Are the Jewish Gangsters of Yesteryear?

Or, what we can learn about "respectability" from Bernie Madoff and Meyer Lansky.

Bernard Madoff. Click image to expand.
Bernard Madoff 

Four days before the Bernie Madoff bust, I found myself, through circumstances too complicated to explain, in a Bukharan Kosher restaurant in Queens, eating skewers of lamb, beef, liver, and sweetbreads with a wildly mixed group of guys that included a retired Jewish gangster I'll call Lucky, since most of his rackets involved gambling of some type. Lucky had great stories to tell. He saw himself as the last of a dying breed—"I'm the caboose," he kept saying—a breed that spawned legends like Meyer Lansky, Mickey Cohen, Bugsy Siegel, and Longy Zwillman. He was never a boss, more of an independent operator who specialized in running gambling rackets in South America, street lotteries in Africa, you name it. But it seemed he'd been on speaking terms with—and had stories to tell about—all the icons of the Jewish mafia. He was over 70 but looked like a tough 50 and wore a baseball cap advertising some fighter he was backing, and he fought like a wildman to pick up the tab for the table of eight from a thick roll of big-number bills.

Anyway, the more I read about Bernie Madoff, the more disgusted I am, not just with him but with the whole crowd of country-club suckers he allegedly conned, the phony "gentility" (in every respect) they represent.

It began to seem to me that the whole Bernie Madoff scandal was not about Jews and money but Jews and respectability. (And, by the way, let's cut the crap about Jews and money in the first place. If you look at the history of America, the big money has always been made by criminals of non-Jewish persuasions. The non-Jews who committed genocide to steal the land in the first place. The non-Jews who built up big fortunes through the disgusting and murderous crime of slavery. The non-Jews who built "respectable" old-money fortunes on the broken backs of the wage slaves they exploited. As Balzac famously said, behind every great fortune is a great crime. Old money in America is for the most part just old crime well-varnished by time.)

Still, as I found myself more and more disgusted by the (alleged) crimes of Bernie Madoff, I kept thinking—in light of my encounter with Lucky—"Where are the Jewish gangsters of yesteryear?" These were people an ethnic group could be, well, if not exactly proud of, then certainly not entirely ashamed of. At least Meyer Lansky—or "Hyman Roth," as they called him in the subtly anti-Semitic Godfather II—"always made money for his partners." Bernie Madoff, if the charges are to be believed, always stole money from his partners. (It should be remembered that while the perp was a Jew, oh so many of his victims were, too.)

A great civilization, a great people, is always known by the most brilliant, talented, and learned among them: Einstein, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Leonard Bernstein. But it's also known by the quality of its crooks. (Singer knew that.) And as Jewish crooks go, Bernie Madoff would be a sad step down.

What went wrong? If you ask me, the Bernie Madoff scandal was a tragedy of misguided upward mobility—not about Jews and money but about Jews and a sadly imitative notion of status.

Here's the New York Post on Bernie and his alleged victims:

Working the so-called "Jewish circuit" of well-heeled Jews he met at country clubs on Long Island and in Palm Beach, and through his position on the boards of directors of several prominent Jewish institutions, he was entrusted with entire family fortunes.

"The guy was totally respected. ..."

The key words here are country club and respected. This is a scandal that hinges on a false connection between country-club membership and "respectability." Bernie seems to have preyed on those Jews who worship the false idol of WASP respectability. The sham gentility of country-club life.

Give me a break. Give me a gangster over a golfer any day.

A couple of caveats and a personal confession. First, I don't want to over-romanticize—as some do—Jewish gangsters or gangsters in general. The incomparable Murray Kempton, the greatest writer to grace the pages of newspapers in the past century, had a line about this. Talking to be about the gangsters he knew—and he knew a lot of them (he was pen pals with Carmine "the Snake" Persico when the Snake was in the clink)—he noted that not all of them deserve the raffish, Guys and Dolls dignity they are so often endowed with. Here's what Murray said:

People are very romantic about these guys, but the only thing I've ever learned is that if you talk to gangsters long enough you'll find out they're just as bad as respectable people.

Bada bing! Murray always found the site of contestation, the node of friction, in the way we construe our idols. I loved that inversion of our conventional definition of "respectability."

On the other hand—second caveat—I don't want to hear people, Jews or non-Jews, worrying that we can't talk about Jewish financial crime without arousing cretinous anti-Semites. I think my credentials on this point have been established well enough by the 600-page book I edited on anti-Semitism, Those Who Forget the Past. Yes, Bernie's a Jew, and he seems to have stolen a lot of money, but, as I've noted, stealing is not a genetically Jewish crime that Jews should be afraid to talk about. What's worth talking about is how he got away with it. Which is where the fetish of "respectability" comes in. 

Here, I'll admit that one reason I want to talk about Jews and respectability is, in part, personal, familial. There were two sides to the family I grew up in. One, my mother's side, the country-club side (some of them, anyway) made clear—in ways subtle and overt—that they looked down on my father, because he couldn't afford—actually, better, wasn't interested in—joining country clubs, much less seeing them as symbols of status and, yes, respectability.

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.