Pinky Pie

Tough Jews & Me

Posted on: January 5, 2011


I thought I had discovered synergy in the entertainment world, posting on Facebook Monday: I’m watching “The King of the Roaring 20s,” a movie about Arnold Rothstein who was married to Fanny Brice (Think “Funny Girl”) and was also featured in Boardwalk Empire on HBO. In this movie, Rothstein is played by David Janssen (The Fugitive) and his cohort is Mickey Rooney. I don’t know if they are related to Kevin Bacon.

But mistakes were made; errors are regretted. (21st century-speak for I messed up).

My dear friend, Jean, associate head writer for One Life to Live and previously head writer for As the World Turns, clued me in on my errors. “Fanny Brice was married to Nicky Arnstein, not Arnold Rothstein. Arnstein was a gambler, Rothstein was a gangster.”

Ah. That does explain why David Janssen didn’t look much like Omar Sharif.

Arnold Rothstein was thought to be behind fixing the 1919 World Series, which resulted in the White Sox being renamed as the Black Sox.  He was also credited with changing crime from being performed by a bunch of thugs to being run like a corporation. He saw great business potential in Prohibition.

Nicky Arnstein twice went to prison, first for swindling and the second time for conspiracy to carry stolen securities.  He did marry Fanny Brice, who was a star of movies, stage (Ziegfeld Follies) and more. She divorced him. listed factual errors in the movie, Funny Girl, which writer  John Kenrick described as “mostly delicious fiction with an occasional fact thrown in.” It was produced by Fanny’s son in law, Ray Stark, about whom Kenrick wrote: “Keep in mind that Ray Stark’s goal was not to teach a history lesson, but to create great entertainment – and he succeeded.”

Who knew you can’t get all your history lessons from Broadway or Hollywood?

All this made me think about the book, Tough Jews, which described the early Jewish gangster of America … people like Rothstein, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, The Purple Gang, Abe “Kid Twist” Reles and more.

This is not a politically correct post because who wants to think about your own people being gangsters. But during the 1920s, there were Jewish gangsters, particularly in Brooklyn, according to Rich Cohen, author of Tough Jews.

Cohen’s theory was that it was an immigrant story – the first generation born in this country were the ones who went into that line of work. They earned enough money to send their children to college, which meant the next generations found other careers.

Jewish gangsters often were synagogue-attending murderers, just like there were church-attending murderers. They were thugs, thieves and nasty fellows despite being essentially ordinary people. I’m glad they mostly did not pass this way of making a living on to other generations.

In researching this blog post, I found some interesting notes. First, there is a website devoted to tough Jews called J-Grit. It describes itself as the Internet Index of Tough Jews.

In a Q & A, the question was asked about why there is a need for such a site. “The world is full of ugly stereotypes about Jews. One such stereotype, which is rarely challenged, is the idea that Jews are somehow physically inferior, more afraid to get their hands dirty, or less athletic than members of other ethnic groups. Everyone thinks of the Jewish lawyer, accountant or nebbish Woody Allen type, but what about the Jewish boxers, fighter pilots and firefighters? There is a tremendous legacy of physicality in the Jewish world and we feel people should be made aware of this.

It reminds me of that line in the movie, Airplane, in which the stewardess was handing out reading materials. “How about this leaflet about famous Jewish athletes?” she asks.

I hope I don’t need to remind you of the famous cricket player, Samuel Goodman; Sandy Koufax, who refused to play the World Series during Yom Kippur; or wrestler Bill Goldberg, who shares my mother’s maiden name. There are many others listed at

According to the J-Grit website, a current or historic figured has to demonstrate bravery, toughness, heroics or fearlessness to be listed. In addition to the previously mentioned criminals, the site has profiles of Jewish:

  • Adventurers, including Morris ‘Two-Gun’ Cohen, who began life as a London pickpocket and went on to become a general in the Chinese army of Sun Yat-Sen.
  • Military and Spies, including Moe Berg who was described as A major league baseball player, brilliant scholar and World War II sp
  • Public Servants, including Albert Seedman, who was the first and only Jewish NYPD Chief of Detectives, and Alan Feinberg and Dennis Weiss, who were firefighters who died in 9-11.
  • Radicals, including Emma Goldman, who was described as a radical activist, thinker and advocate for women’s rights.
  • Resisters, including Mordechai Anielewicz led the Jewish resistance against the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto.

In that Q & A, the question was asked about whether J-Grit was glorifying gangsters. The answer was, “Many of those listed in our Criminals section are unrepentant murderers and sociopaths, with few, if any, redeeming qualities. However, many do fit our criteria, that is, they are brave, physically tough, and daring. We may not like them, but they do meet our standards for entry.”

In other words, I’m just writing about gamblers and gangsters, not condoning them. I’m not tough enough.


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