Jewish gangsters rode organized crime out of the ghetto to a life of violence and crime.
Jewish gangsters played a definitive role in organized crime in the 1920s and '30s. The government's attempts to regulate morality during this period, most notably Prohibition, created an active underground trade in alcohol, narcotics, prostitution and gambling. The Depression made the economic promise of illegal activity especially appealing. These circumstances provided motive and opportunity that proved irresistible to some young Jewish men, typically second generation Americans, who were struggling to find their way out of the ghettoes of the Lower East Side, Brownsville, or Boyle Heights.
Interestingly, among Jews, organized crime was not a family business; it was typically a single generation phenomenon. Jewish gangsters sought to keep their illegal activities secret from their families. Some managed to gain recognition in the Jewish community for local charitable contributions and support (both monetary and military—in the form of arms) for the state of Israel. The following profiles, abridged with permission from the Gates to Jewish Heritage, examines the activities of some of the most well-known Jewish gangsters
Louis Lepke Buchalter
Louis Lepke Buchalter (1897-1944) was nicknamed "Lepkele" (little Louis) by his mother. J. Edgar Hoover called him "the most dangerous criminal in the United States." Born on the Lower East Side of New York, where his family lived In a crowded flat over a small hardware store owned by his father, Louis was the only one of 11 children to embark on a life of crime. One brother became a rabbi, another a dentist, and a third a pharmacist....
By the time Lepke was 18, his family, except Louis, had moved out West. He turned down an older brother's offer to put him through high school and college and, instead, moved into a furnished room on the East Side.
It was in this brawling neighborhood, that Buchalter embarked on his criminal career. He joined a group of local hoods, who rolled drunks, picked pockets. and robbed from pushcarts. His close associate at this time and for the next 30 years, was Jacob "Gurrah" Shapiro, a surly, coarse young man. Just after his 21st birthday, Lepke was sent to jail for stealing a salesman's sample case. Paroled in 1917, he was back in prison the next year on a larceny charge and was sent up again for two years in 1920.
Upon his release he turned his talent to labor racketeering. Lepke commanded an army of gangsters who extorted millions of dollars from his victims. Their weapons were destructive acids, bludgeons, blackjacks, knives, fire, icepicks, and guns. For a fee Lepke protected manufacturers from strikers and unionization of their shops by intimidating workers and using strong-arm tactics. He also forced unions to do his bidding by installing his own business agents or by creating rival unions....