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How the FBI tried to bust up the Jewish mob on Yom Kippur — and blew it by smoking a cigarette

Meyer Lansky, one of the most powerful and famous Jewish mobsters in American history.
Meyer Lansky, one of the most powerful and famous Jewish mobsters in American history.
(Library of Congress)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Wednesday is Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, and a good excuse to read this great Tablet story about Jewish mobsters in the early 20th century. It's a really interesting look at the uneasy relationship between their Jewishness and their gangsterism — and, more broadly, the relationship between organized crime and the American immigrant experience.

Appropriately enough, the story begins on Yom Kippur, in 1929. Three infamous Detroit mobsters — Louis Fleisher, Harry Fleisher, and Henry Shorr — were in synagogue, as Jews are supposed to be all day on the Day of Atonement. Three FBI agents were also attending services, masquerading as Hasidic Jews in order to arrest Shorr and the Fleischers. But as author Robert Rockaway recounts, the agents didn't know Jewish tradition nearly as well as they should have:

The three gangsters didn't notice three other men sitting in the back of the synagogue: G-men disguised in black Hasidic garb who hoped to arrest the three hoodlums after the service. But when the non-Jewish G-men lit up cigarettes during the intermission, not knowing that striking a match or lighting a fire is forbidden on Yom Kippur, their cover was blown and the gangsters got away.

Rockaway, a professor emeritus at the University of Tel Aviv, wrote a book about the Jewish mob, amusingly titled But He Was Good To His Mother. He draws on that research to pull out some great anecdotes — like how Lucky Luciano's favorite assassin, Sam "Red" Levine, dealt with the problem of having to commit murder on Shabbat:

According to Martin Gosch and Richard Hammer's 1975 book The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano, Lucky called Red "the best driver and hitman I had." Red also had another persona: He was an Orthodox Jew. He always wore a kipah under his hat, ate only kosher food, and conscientiously observed the Sabbath. Levine never planned to murder anyone from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. But, according to Gosch and Hammer, if Levine had no choice and had to make the hit on Shabbat, he would first put on a tallit, say his prayers, and then go and do the job.

Arnold Rothstein, the Jewish mobster who allegedly fixed the 1919 World Series. Lately, he's been a character on HBO's Boardwalk Empire. (

Arnold Rothstein, the Jewish mobster who allegedly fixed the 1919 World Series. He was recently portrayed by Michael Stuhlbarg on HBO's Boardwalk Empire. (Jack Benton/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Rockaway also presents an interesting explanation for the rise of American Jewish gangsterism in the early 20th century. According to Rockaway, very few members of the Jewish religious elite emigrated from Europe, leaving the rank-and-file on their own to develop a version of Judaism that felt right for their American lives. The result, a kind of "folk Judaism," profoundly influenced Jewish mobsters:

The Jewish mobsters grew up in these traditional homes in Jewish neighborhoods that were infused with folk Judaism, such as New York's Lower East Side, Chicago's West Side, and Detroit's East Side. And like many of their non-criminal peers, some of them continued these behavioral patterns into adulthood. Jewish ritual remained an indelible part of their identity, a part of who and what they were.

The whole piece is fascinating, and you should go read it. If nothing else, all the murdering will help put the sins of your last year in perspective.