Jewish Gangsters Get Their Day at Museum

Las Vegas Greets New National Museum of Organized Crime

Mob Hub: The National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement is in downtown Las Vegas.
National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement
Mob Hub: The National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement is in downtown Las Vegas.

By Daniel Brook

Published April 03, 2012, issue of April 13, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

Not everyone is thrilled with such laudatory portrayals of the Jewish criminals the museum dubs “the other people who built America.” Jenna Weissman Joselit, Forward columnist, director of the program in Judaic studies at George Washington University and author of “Our Gang: Jewish Crime and the New York Jewish Community, 1900–1940,” (Indiana University Press, 1983) thinks the temptation to glamorize the mob ought to be resisted. Museum curators, she said via email, should “attend to America’s abiding fascination with crime with the same rigor and discernment that’s applied to other cultural and historical phenomena.”

But Rich Cohen, author of “Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams” (Simon & Schuster, 1998), understands the appeal of Jewish mobsters — especially when contrasted with the loathsome, privileged Jewish criminals of today, like Bernard Madoff. “These were people who grew up in certain neighborhoods where [the mob] was one way to get ahead,” Cohen said via telephone from Hollywood, where he’s advising “Magic City,” a new TV drama about 1950s Miami mobsters. “These were very tough guys in a very tough world, in a time when Jews were being beaten up and even killed — and they weren’t taking s–t from anybody.”

Cohen is unperturbed by the museum’s family-friendly marketing efforts, which include offering discounted admission to children as young as 5. “I have little kids, and I try to teach them right from wrong,” Cohen said. “I don’t think there’s a danger of people coming out of a museum and it making them gangsters.”

As a whole, American Jews are probably more conflicted than Cohen about the community’s historic mob ties. When Cohen told his grandmother he was working on a book about Murder Inc., her response bespoke this communal schizophrenia. “A Jew should never be a gangster. It’s a shande,” she told him, using the Yiddish word for “a disgrace.” “But, if a Jew should be a gangster, let him be the best gangster!”

For his part, booster-in-chief Goodman, who bequeathed to the museum his “gelt bag”— a large briefcase in which his clients, wary of having their bank accounts frozen by the Feds, paid him in cash — zealously defends the institution’s unconventional take on the history of his city and his people. “These are our founding fathers,” Goodman said of Meyer, Bugsy and the gang. “We [Las Vegans] come from the mob.”

But even Goodman recalls that when he first proposed the museum a decade ago, he faced some pushback from constituents who complained that it would stereotype a particular ethnic group. “Apparently they meant the Italians,” Goodman offered, with his perennial grin and Borscht Belt timing. “I thought they were talking about the Jews!”

Daniel Brook is a journalist and author whose work has appeared in Harper’s magazine and Slate. He briefly lived in Las Vegas.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.