Perhaps the greatest influence on the “Jewishness” of these men were their mothers. Many of the major Jewish mobsters, including Meyer Lansky, Dutch Schultz, Lepke Buchalter, Longy Zwillman, and Mickey Cohen, as well as those I interviewed, revered their mothers. Family and friends recounted to me how these men doted on their mothers and treated them with utmost kindness and respect. In the 1979 book Meyer Lansky: Mogul of the Mob, Lansky told Israeli journalist Uri Dan how his mother “hated to see us go hungry, and she was always ready to give us her share because, like every Jewish mother in the neighborhood, she gladly sacrificed herself for her children.” These mens’ relationship with their fathers was more problematic. Part of this resulted from the fathers never reconciling to their sons’ criminal way of life.

Jewish mothers sacrificed for their children, but they expected something in return. One of their requests was that their sons sei Yidden (be Jews) and maintain a connection with the Jewish community. At least during their mothers’ lifetime, a goodly number of these tough Jewish mobsters obeyed. Detroit mobster Harry Kasser told me in a 1986 conversation that he attended synagogue on the High Holidays solely to please his mother. All of the old-time Jewish mobsters I interviewed could speak Yiddish and practiced some of the Jewish customs. Most of their closest friends and associates in crime and outside of crime were Jews; they married Jewish women (at least their first wives) in ceremonies conducted by rabbis; they contributed to Jewish causes; they attended synagogue on the High Holidays; and they circumcised their sons and made bar mitzvahs.

Robert Rockaway writing for Tablet about the paradoxical nature of Jewish mobsters, who stole, murdered and “still saw religious observance as an integral part of their identity.”

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Photo: Wikipedia