It was springtime, 1978, and my girlfriend and I were living in sin. At least we’d kashered our little flesh pot by pledging troths. Now it was time to pick the place for the wedding simkhe. We’d already had fair warning: my late father-in-law had come from Germany as a young adult in 1926. His wife was born here in 1911 to immigrants from Odessa. Generational and cultural conflicts filled the air. It was the late 70s, and flower power still filled the air. We thought of a picnic in the park. Herr Stern and his missus had other ideas. Ones we had to honor, if not obey.
Rosoff’s stood at 147 West 43rd Street. This German-American hotel and banquet was the cat’s pajamas in 1939, with World War II about to break out. But all of that was long gone by ’78. Miss Havisham would have felt right at home: dark and dust-covered main rooms made my bride and I instantly recoil as we peeked inside one warm day in May. We picked another venue, the top of Butler Hall at Columbia University. Had I known Rosoff’s history we could have saved the visit. The place was inauspicious for our purposes, to say the least. As the Hotel Metropole, it had become infamous as the site of a gangland rubout early one July morning. The year was 1912.
What’s not to like about Big Jack Zelig, in his broad-brim Panama and smiling punem? He’s instantly likeable from the cover photo on Rose Keefe’s The Shtarker. Ms. Keefe’s book offers lots of promise, backed up by a ton of scholarly work. His name long forgotten, Zelig Zvi Lefkowitz was one of New York City’s first Jewish gang leaders, a heavy-set, gun-toting son of the Lower East Side slums.
“Is it good for the Jews or bad for the Jews?” goes the customary refrain. For once, in this case, the answer was clear. Big Jack was a shande for his race, though he went around bashing in the heads of pimps who tried to recruit poor Jewish girls into white slavery. In post-World War II America, violent Jewish gangsters diminished in importance, turning instead to white collar crime and financier roles. The resurgence of Russian-Jewish immigration to America in the early 1970s reversed the trend again. The more recent gangs operate under the radar of public consciousness. The days of mugs like Jack Zelig’s being recognized and feared by the man in the street are permanently gone.
Born in 1888 to an orthodox couple on Norfolk Street, Zelig was one of nine children, all of whom grew up to lead respectable lives. Ephraim “Frank” Lefkowitz was a successful tailor and one of the founders of the Free Help Association in the neighborhood, where poor Jews could borrow money at nominal or no interest to help establish businesses and tide them over in tough times. His wife, Sarah, ran an observant home, keeping kosher, observing the Sabbath and struggling to stretch her husband’s earnings to feed so many mouths and keep her family healthy. Life on Norfolk Street and the surrounding environs was admittedly grim, and rife with opportunities for a child to go wrong. But only Zelig, among his many siblings, turned the wrong way. As with all things he essayed, he did bad very well.
We look at the pictures of Hester Street back in the day, teeming with pushcarts and disheveled looking Jews, we tour the Tenement Museum down on Orchard Street, we listen to Di Grine Kuzine and kvell. Rose-colored glasses slip down over our eyes, and gauzy sentiment clouds our brains. Poor and pious, that’s what our grandparents were. Sentimental plopl in many a case. Jews were gamblers, pimps and murderers. Con men, prostitutes. You name it, we did it, (and do it today). It’s no big discovery, just a slice of history. Mutatis mutandis: only with the necessary changes.
It was early in the morning of July 16, 1912, and gambler Herman Rosenthal sat his table in the Café Metropole on West 43rd Street near Sixth Avenue. The pudgy ne’er do well had been doing a lot of complaining about harsh treatment at the hands of Lt. Charles Becker, NYPD, head of Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo’s elite Strong-Arm Squad, created a few years before to centralize the Department’s efforts to control gang violence. Becker was no white lily, though, and had used his office to terrorize and shake down gangsters big and small, all over Manhattan. His hatred for Rosenthal well-known.
Herbert Bayard Swope was a rising star at the New York World, and his acquaintance with Rosenthal produced bounteous results that summer, when the gambler turned to his reporter friend and delivered affidavits spilling the beans about Lt. Becker’s grafting skills. New York County District Attorney Charles Whitman took immediate note of Rosenthal’s evidence and called him to his office to investigate. The process had little time to mature, though.
A gray Packard turned onto 43rd Street from 6th Avenue right before 2:00 a.m. on July 16th, and pulled to the curb a short distance from the café entrance to the Metropole. As the passengers (members of Jack Zelig’s gang and poker players of Rosenthal’s acquaintance) got out and headed to the door, Herman noticed from his watch that the morning papers were probably available. He headed out into the steamy darkness and quickly returned with the hot-off-the-press news. Within minutes he’d become the next bunch of headlines. A dapperly dressed man approached Rosenthal at his table and summoned him outdoors to speak with a man who had supposedly come calling. A waiter soon followed with a tablecloth, but only for decency. Rosenthal lay in the doorway, blood flowing from a gaping head wound. Three bullets had felled him. He was DOA. The same patch of sidewalk bears no trace today. Gangland murders were an everyday occurrence, and the public’s appetite for lurid
newspaper coverage was unquenchable. Rosenthal’s grisly demise and the instant suspicion thrown on Lt. Charles Becker as the criminal mastermind became a cause celebre. Big Jack Zelig was also in very hot water. After all, the triggermen, duly apprehended, were easily identified as part of Zelig’s mob. DA Whitman, though, had it in for Becker, and the case filled the tabloids’ pages for months on end. Cries of a frame-up were ultimately to no avail. One man and one only could have saved Becker’s skin, a man with intimate knowledge of the tangled web of relationships among the Jewish underworld. Unfortunately Jack Zelig was deprived of the opportunity, when Red Phil Davidson, a disgruntled associate, clambered aboard the rail of a Second Avenue streetcar on which Zelig was riding on the night of October 5, 1912 and put a bullet in his head. Lt. Becker was tried twice and and convicted of Herman Rosenthal’s murder. Nine jolts of juice were needed to do the job when he sat in the electric chair.
Big Jack Zelig
Herman Rosenthal (L); Lt. Charles Becker (R)
The Hotel Netropole is mid-block with the heavy cornice.
It’s a crazy story that Rose Keefe’s written. I thought I would love it: New York’s my game. Yiddish-speaking gangsters. Lower East tough-talking gamblers. But I feel like a guy who’s been cheated on a bet. This is a very complicated story. Characters by the dozens appear and then go. It’s a tricky business, reconstructing history. But this tome reads much like a book report.
Ms. Keefe has obviously done her homework. My problem is how she’s done that job. It’s one thing to assemble and digest all published sources: newspapers, magazines, books on New York gangland from mid-19thcentury on. What’s missing here is a significant amount of primary source research and a touch of creative imagination. There lies true color, but it isn’t here.
The Shtarker is replete with endless stabbings. Brass-knuckle events are on almost every page. In the service of scholarship, Ms. Keefe won’t kill her babies. There’s just too much detail to make sense of it all. Separately, there’s the question of with whom an author should partner: though Keefe displays significant awareness of the Jewish context of the story, it lacks a Jewish tam.
It’s trivial, what I’m going to complain about, but it stuck in my craw: Conscious after an unsuccessful assassination attempt, Big Jack Zelig was badgered by an ambulance attendant to name his aggressors, and then, according to Ms. Keefe’s source, snarled an answer that she quotes: “Freg mir b’acharayim” (Ask my behind.)” Keefe thanks Rabbi Meyer Schiller for translating an unpublished letter from Zelig’s relative, but the whole sequence caused me terrible angst. “Freg mir b’kheyrem” means “Ask me, but I’m clueless,” and more literally, “Ask me in the void of excommunication.” Akharayim (using klal YIVO transliteration of Hebrew letters, whether used for a Yiddish or a Hebrew word) in Hebrew could mean what we Yiddish speakers call tukhes. It’s all now a Babel. And that’s the point.
We pick up books like The Shtarker and hope for connection. Much like some of us go to shul once a year. The voices of yesterday, the hope for salvation, reside in finding and knowing one’s roots. Perhaps Big Jack Zelig really said it, the words transliterated by his letter-writing family member. But I doubt it. His Yiddish was probably pretty fluent, though perhaps his relative’s was not. The expression quoted would be a big mix-up, but to attribute to Zelig the use of what is, at best, a strange construction (b’acharayim) without examination of the questions raised means the author hasn’t much clue. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a language text book. It’s a true-crime work that has larger aspirations. The goal is missed by a very wide shot.
Big Jack Zelig was a fascinating character. But The Shtarker manages to hide that fact. Buried under endless re-countings of crimes, deracinated history about the struggles of Jewish immigrants to the New York ghettoes (which I daresay bears no repetition for 98% of the Jewish readers of Keefe’s book), and the needless, constant intoning of the proper names of all participants, a complicated story becomes obscured by the author’s unwillingness to simplify, to identify and pursue the dramatic and emotional core of her tale. Me, obsessively interested in NewYork City history, a boytshik from Tennessee who decided at age ten that he was moving to New York ASAP to bathe himself in being urban Jewish, had to force myself to finish this book.
Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t all bad. Profiles of DA Whitman, Herbert Bayard Swope, legal eagle Max Steuer of Triangle Shirtwaist Fire fame, and Lt. Charles Becker himself are succinct and well-drawn. But Zelig, Keefe’s main character, and many of the other oft-named names, remain curiously two-dimensional. Surely more personal information from original sources could have been found. The pictures are great, the characters probably larger than life. We won’t know until more work is done.