#48) Book Review: “Tough Jews” by Rich Cohen

Most people don’t necesarily associate the words “Jew” and “Gangster”, and those who do probably think first of Meyer Lansky and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel.  However, in Rich Cohen’s book “Tough Jews”, he outlines the extensive history of Jewish gangsters in the early 20th century, mainly in Brooklyn.  As the famous Italian crime families such as the Gottis and the Gambinos were making names for themselves, many Jewish gangsters were experiencing parallel rises and falls.  Colorful names such as “Tick Tock Tannenbaum”, “Pittsburgh Phil” (who was not from Pittsburgh or named Phil) and “Kid Twist” abounded.

Cohen tells the story from an interesting perspective.  His father, Herb Cohen, author of “You Can Negotiate Anything”, grew up in Brooklyn listening to the stories of the old-timers.  His friends, including Larry Zeiger, now known as Larry King, eventually moved and settled in other parts of the country, but kept a part of Brooklyn with them.  As one of them notes, “Being from Brooklyn is a full-time job.”  The stories were handed down to Rich Cohen, who seemed intrigued by the idea that “for once, a Jew in jail didn’t mean white-collar crime.”  Thus, the younger Cohen sought to learn more of the history of the Jewish gangster.

The result is often entertaining, although disorganized.  Cohen’s voice seems to shift frequently from an authoritative source somewhat dryly reciting names, dates and places, to a star-struck kid, fascinated by even the mundane nuances of his heroes’ lives.  Cohen presents Abe “Kid Twist” Reles as a sort of protagonist, but isn’t able to infuse him with much detail, good or bad, to make him seem human, or at the very least to distinguish him from the dozens of other gangsters mentioned in the book.  Similarly, while “Tough Jews” follows a loosely chronological outline–beginning with the influx of Jewish imigrants to New York in the early 20th century, and how they rose to power, were influenced by prohibition, the Depression and World War II–there are some back and forth shifts which seem a little out of place, disrupting the flow of the narrative.  Cohen also sometimes treats somewhat mundane events with elevated importance; it’s almost as if he’s trying to show off his own writing chops.

Still, for those interested in learning about this time in American history, “Tough Jews” is an enjoyable read.  It paints a picture of a New York that at times resembles the world of Damon Runyon, but also focuses on the grim realities of the lifestyle it describes.  One can begin to understand why Herb Cohen, Larry Zeiger and the others who grew up only a generation removed from the gangsters have a certain admiration for them.  Even Brownsville’s Mike Tyson, as it turns out, loves the old Jewish gangsters–which probably explains a lot.

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