Painting a Fuller Picture of Ruby, Killer of Kennedy’s Assassin

By Nathaniel Popper

Published November 28, 2003, issue of November 28, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

With the 40th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death came the predictable wave of reflections on his presidency and zany theories on his assassination.

At least one assassination aficionado, however, is working to discredit the many conspiratorial narratives that seek to include Jack Ruby, the man who shot Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy’s assassin. Armed only with a personal Web site, David Reitzes, a 34-year-old freelance writer, is fighting to provide what he says is a fuller picture of Ruby and a more accurate depiction of his crime.

In contrast to conspiracy theorists who tend to paint Ruby as the linchpin of a plot, Reitzes offers a rather simple and human interpretation of Jack Ruby (known to his Yiddish-speaking mother as Jacob Rubenstein). Reitzes believes that Ruby was just an insecure and unstable Jewish nightclub owner who acted on impulse after Kennedy’s death.

In a lengthy essay on his Web site, Reitzes quotes Hillel Silverman, the rabbi in 1963 at Shearith Israel, the Dallas synagogue where Ruby was an occasional visitor during his last days of freedom, including the Friday that Kennedy was killed.

Scoffing at the notion that Ruby might be tied to a plot, Silverman is quoted as saying, “Jack Ruby would be the last one that I would ever trust to do anything.”

Silverman’s words, though, have done little to calm the lively debate that still swirls around Ruby’s motivation for shooting Lee Harvey Oswald at the Dallas police station on November 24, 1963.

Conspiracy theorists often ponder Ruby’s presence at the evening press conference hours after the assassination, when he stood up on a table in the back and corrected a district attorney who gave the incorrect name for a pro-Castro Cuban activist group that Oswald had helped. Why did Ruby not take the chance then to kill Oswald? And why had Ruby, himself, made two unexplained trips to Cuba in 1959?

When speculating about Ruby’s motivations, partisans on all sides of the debate inevitably come back to his tangled Jewish background. In the case of Reitzes, and many other respectable historians who want to extricate Ruby from the jaws of conspiracy theorists, Ruby’s unstable behavior as a Jewish thug is always premium evidence.

In one of the few published biographies on Ruby, Seth Kantor wrote: “Before [Ruby] was in his teens, he fought in gang brawls against Italian kids who taunted the Jews. In his mid-20s he was part of a Jewish pool hall crowd that attacked the hate-spewing, pro-Hitler German-American bundist meetings … In his mid-30s, as an Air Force private, he beat up a sergeant who had called him a Jew bastard.”

With this background, historians ask, is it any surprise that Ruby would impulsively choose to kill the assassin of an American president who had been a great friend of the Jews?

Kantor wrote that, “in [Ruby’s] mind Oswald had been an impersonal Nazi image.”

But those who see darker forces behind Ruby’s actions point to a different set of ongoing relationships that Ruby had with the Jewish community: those with the mob.

The most widespread theories on the assassination point to a CIA or mafia plot or, as in Oliver Stone’s 1991 film “JFK,” a combination of the two. Such discussions often lead to Ruby’s alleged connections to Meyer Lansky — the godfather of the Jewish mob — and the possibility that Ruby was an operative sent to silence Oswald.

Robert Lacey, author of the biography “Little Man: Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life,” said Ruby’s connections to the mobster have never been confirmed. “I searched like mad,” he added.

Lacey does note, however, that Ruby’s work for mobster Santos Trafficante has been documented. In 1959, the CIA reported that Ruby visited Trafficante in a Cuban jail. The Warren Commission’s lack of interest in these connections and Ruby’s undocumented trips to Cuba have always raised eyebrows among conspiracy theorists who believe Oswald did not act alone.

A more sinister theory holds that the whole assassination was a Mossad plot to kill Kennedy because of the president’s opposition to the Israeli nuclear program. This theory makes much of Ruby’s supposed connections to “the Jewish mob.”

On one antisemitic Web site, which features “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” one writer claims: “Israel gave the order. The Mossad carried it out. Ruby covered it up.”

Most scholars, though, dismiss the acrobatics needed to reach this kind of conclusion, agreeing with Reitzes that Ruby may have been involved in some shady activities, but on November 24, 1963 he was just an unstable man who got it into his head to be a hero.

In the end, these delusions of grandeur were the end of him. Before dying of cancer in 1967, Ruby was reportedly heard wailing in his prison cell that the Jewish people were being slaughtered because of his decision to shoot first and think later.

Find us on Facebook!
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war?
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah:
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • 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.