Very often at a reading I am asked about Jewish criminals. The very idea seems at once perverse and nonsensical, like gay plumbers or red-haired Japanese. These days very few people cross to the other side of the street when faced with an oncoming trio of Jewish accountants. Those who think this funny never faced an oncoming Buddy the Body Builder.
This thing, half man, half muscle, was a graduate of the gang I traveled with as a boy in the impoverished Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York/Brownsville. Rather than spring for the funds to build an electrified fence around the place and call it a prison, the city fathers eventually bulldozed the whole shebang. To say that crime and criminals were rampant there in the fifties and early sixties would be like saying Maggie Thatcher leaned to the right. At twenty-two Buddy the Body Builder, having graduated from kid stuff, made his living as a collector. No, not art or model trains. Nor did he call you on the phone and threaten to alter your credit rating. He visited in person and threatened politely to alter you. Very often, he told me, all he had to do was show up in the delinquent’s place of business. One day he showed up in my place of business, the street, and asked very politely to have a word.
At this time I was all of twelve but already embarked on entrepreneurial activity of the Brooklyn variety. Parking meters had just been installed on the commercial streets –that is, those with shops; however even residential streets were rife with buying and selling, often drugs but also everything from half-price cartons of cigarettes to fur coats, to say nothing of the favor of judges. As a mere child this high-class stuff was beyond me: instead I approached shop-owners and offered to feed dimes into the parking meters in front of their shops so that they wouldn’t have to bother leaving their premises every hour in the middle of a sale; also my friends and I would make sure no one scratched or defaced said vehicles, or slashed their tires. The tabloids called this a protection racket. My colleagues and I preferred to think of it as protection pure and simple. Where was the racket?
Buddy the Body Builder cleared his throat. “Kid, allow me to explain you. You wish to liberate apples and bananas from a fruit stand, go for it. You desire to jump the gate on the subway, be my guest. But in protection you are competing with a established monopoly what does not suffer no competition.”
The message could not be more emphatic, especially considering that it took place in the shadow of a building occupied only a decade earlier by Murder, Inc., a very Jewish business that provided targeted rub-outs to the then-dominant Italian mobs. Despite The Godfather movies, these otherwise brutal goombas were uncomfortable with murder. Not on principle. It was a matter of blood. A Mafioso knocked off Tony the Turd, his brother Louis Craterface went after the person likely to have ordered the hit, Fishlips Phil let’s say, whose grieving brothers then proceeded to erase Louis Craterface’s cousin Sal Scuseme in an unbroken chain that threatened to de-organize crime. Enter Murder Inc.
Even on a golf course it would not have been wise to dispute the protection issue with Buddy, who represented a tradition of Jewish criminality that had been nurtured by Roman emperors, medieval nobility and even described by that noted crime writer William Shakespeare, whose Merchant of Venice presented a blueprint for the pathogenic Jew. To paraphrase the bard: “Wilst fuck with Shylock? Shylock wilst fuck with thee.” The story has been the same from Christian Europe to Moslem Araby. Take the Inquisition –as the Jewish-American comedian Henny Youngman liked to say, “Please!” One day Spain’s Jews, doctors and lawyers and cobblers and tailors and housewives, were just walking around enjoying the Costa del Freedom; the next they were, by decree of Ferdinand and Isabella, illegally alive. The Hebrews’ reaction to this was no surprise: if this is the law, screw the law. As we all know, even Moses himself went on the lam for knocking off a royal overseer. In fact the great man himself would not have been alive at all but for the criminal activity of a pair of Jewish midwives, who defied the law in keeping this particular first-born son alive. Later Moses would pull off one of the biggest heists in history by walking off with two million Israelite slaves and Egyptian citizens. At 21st century prices of $1000 a head, that’s a cool $2 billion, to say nothing of livestock and treasure. Not bad for a stuttering yid.For a fee these tough Hebrews would take care of Tony the Turd with elegant efficiency –for instance, decapitating him and leaving his burning body in a vacant lot. But since Jews carried family names that did not end in a vowel, retribution could not, by definition, exist. This would be like killing the surgeon because your uncle died on his operating table. (This was known to happen, but considered bad form.) By my bar mitzvah Murder Inc. had left the neighborhood, having gone on to bigger and better things –Las Vegas maybe you heard of?—but the corner was still hallowed ground.
Now unfurl the scroll of history and we come with no effort to the Third Reich, whose legally elected legislators democratically voted into law decrees that were upheld by duly appointed judges and carried out by the legitimate police apparatus of a legitimate state. It was a criminal act for a Jew to live.
In New York in 1963, the year in which THE IRON WILL OF SHOESHINE CATS is set, a last generation of Jewish gangsters plied their trade. The next generation would be a disappointment: Lawyers, doctors, accountants, business people. Where were the Jewish hoods? The answer was not police efficiency but sociology –not even the strongest DNA can prevail against environmental change.
From its birth the United States, unlike Christian Europe or Moslem Araby, was and remains a secular state. The rule of law prevails, and when it fails it fails all religions alike. Without legalized Jew-hating, Jews no longer were forced into us-against-them criminality. Democracy had put an end to the Jews’ sense of themselves as outsiders, because to be a Jew was no longer, in and of itself, a criminal act. As Buddy the Body Builder might have put it: “We was now legit.”
An honors graduate of the Brooklyn streets, where he grew up across from the former headquarters of Murder Inc., Hesh Kestin reported on war, crime and terrorism in the Middle East, Europe and Africa. His work has appeared in publications as diverse as Forbes, Newsday, the Jerusalem Post and Playboy. After hanging up his trenchcoat Kestin founded two prize-winning newspapers, the independent Israeli daily The Nation, and The American, a weekly for expatriates. He is the author of The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats, which was Stephen King’s recommended read for World Book Night, and a collection of novellas, Based On A True Story. “You never stop being afraid,” Kestin says of a former life in which he was often the only unarmed man in the room. “But having grown up in a part of New York where every day was a war, I had a unique advantage: I was used to it.”