Bernie Madoff stole more than any criminal in history – so far.

American Jews became great achievers in crime, as they did in other fields, but in the immigrant generation (1880-1920), Jewish immigrants and their children, as a population, had less alcoholism, crime, and domestic violence than other immigrant groups.

A 1909 government study showed Jewish immigrants and their children committed half as much of New York City’s crime as their percentage of the population said they should have.

The explanation was in the social norms and family structure Jewish immigrants brought with them from Eastern Europe, not any superiority in the Jewish character, morality, or psychology.  Those differences shrank steadily the farther we got from the immigrant experience, and European Jewish sociology.

Big Brothers was a Jewish invention, funded by Jewish charities for immigrant chiildren we would now call “at risk.”  Later, it was copied by Christian and community charities and human service groups.  Older men would be assigned to Jewish kids after their first run-in with police, or if the kids were just hanging on the streets with a bad crowd.  Often, immigrant parents sought this kind of help themselves when they could not understand or deal with their American children.

Today, young Jews are no different from any other middle class American ethnic group.  Any marginal difference is probably because young Jews are slightly more likely than others to grow up with educated, financially fortunate, nurturing fathers, and strong, professionally active mothers.

That respect for women, education, greater literacy, and nurturing family structure was more prevalent among Jewish immigrants, and in Jewish Europe, than in other European societies, and American immigrant groups.

Alcoholism, Child Abuse, and Domestic Violence

Eastern European Jews defined alcohol as a drug, to be used only to enhance a happy occasion, not to be consumed every day for no reason, or to numb yourself at the end of a workday, or to drown your sorrows.  Drunkenness was considered tacky, and a habitual or abusive (shikkur) was pitied or censured.

There is still less domestic violence and child abuse in Jewish families today, because Jews are less likely to grow up in violent, abusive homes.  Practically all domestic violence, including sex abuse, begins when growing children see and experience it in their own families.

In the immigrant generation (1880-1920) there was considerably less alcoholism and delinquency among Jews than other immigrant groups.  There was also less wife beating and child abuse.

The farther we got from the immigrant generation, the smaller those differences became.  Today, we’re about as drunk and delinquent as other middle-class Americans.

Great Jewish Criminals of the Past

There was significantly less juvenile delinquency among children of Jewish immigrants, whether born here or overseas.  For years, there was only one adult child of a Jewish immigrant in the Maryland State Penitentiary, convicted of armed robbery.

But the immigrant generation produced several Jewish criminals colorful and important enough to be the subjects of Hollywood biopics:


Arnold Rothstein

Arnold Rothsteinknown in his time as “The Brain,” was a gambler, drug dealer, bootlegger, and occasional ally in murderous gang wars.  Many consider him the father of organized crime in America.  At least one second-hand murder, by a hired gun, is attributed to him personally.

He was a major influence on young people who later rose to prominence in the Mafia, including Frank Costello and Meyer Lansky. Most people believe he fixed the 1919 World Series, though that was never proven in court.

His last appearance in a major movie was as Nucky Thompson’s rival gangster in Boardwalk Empire.  David Janssen played him in King of the Roaring Twenties (1961), the Hollywood biopic devoted solely to him, co-starring Mickey Rooney.


Louis “Lepke” Buchalter

Louis Lepke Buchalter founded Murder Incorporated, a consortium of paid consultants that solved problems for other mobs. Tony Curtis played him in the movie Lepke.

Bernard “Bugsy” Siegel, a Los Angeles gangster, built and operated the Flamingo Hotel, Las Vegas’s first casino resort, in what had been a desert stop on the cross-country railroad.  He brought the Mafia to Las Vegas.

Moe Green, the loud, blustering casino owner in The Godfather Part 1, bears a slight resemblance to Siegel. Warren Beatty played him in Bugsy (1991), directed by Barry Levinson, co-starring Annette Benning and Harvey Keitel.

Meyer Lansky was the greatest Jewish criminal from the old days, and he lived long enough to become one of the wealthiest people in America.  He started during Prohibition with Charles “Lucky” Luciano, and put the “organized” in organized crime.

Meyer Lansky

When Prohibition ended, he led the Mob into all sorts of legitimate businesses, like trucking and labor unions. He used cash from corrupt unions to build legal casinos in Las Vegas and Havana.

He started as a youth, running illegal, underground crap games in hiding places on the Lower East Side of New York, where immigrants of all kinds, and their children, crowded into poor tenements.

His games became the most popular in the neighborhood because they were known to always be honest.  The normal odds in a crap game favor the house, which alos takes a percentage of each pot, just as modern casinos do.  That made the games plenty profitable.  To try to increase those odds by cheating was bad business in the long run, Lansky figured.  Word would get around, and people would not play in a game they did not have a fair chance to win.

His genius was in finance and hotel management.  He turned Las Vegas and Havana,, Cuba, into gambling Meccas that attracted millions of gamblers a year, who came and left their money behind.  He kept the games honest, had security people watching his dealers and croupiers for cheating as carefully as the gamblers, and provided a first-rate hotel experience with world-class entertainment.  He made arrangements with airlines to make travel to Las Vegas and Havana (junkets) cheap and easy.

Richard Dreyfuss played him in the 1999 biopic Lansky, and the wily old gangster Hyman Roth in Godfather Part 2 bears a resemblance that cannot be “purely coincidental.”

Contemporary Jewish Criminals

Contemporary Jewish criminals tend to rob with computers and fountain pens, not Tommy guns and pistols.  Without “heaters,” Bernie Madoff still stole more money than any criminal to date.

His Ponzi (pyramid) scheme was not original; he just did it better, and on a larger scale, than anyone ever before.  He was using money from new investors to pay dividends to the old investors. He used investors’ money to finance his extravagant lifestyle, and did not invest their money, like he promised.

As happens with all Ponzi schemes, it became too top-heavy to bring in enough new money to meet the obligations to long-time investors, and the scheme collapsed like a house of cards, leaving thousands of victims, including charitable institutions, with millions in losses.  The government caught up with him about the same time.

Three factors made it possible:

  • Himself, his reputation, and his salesmanship
  • Non-enforcement of securities laws, written to protect investors, during the George W, Bush administration.
  • His investors’ greed.  Every con man counts on that,  His victims were making so much more than the general markets were yielding, in good years and bad, that they never asked how he did it.

Three other Jewish criminals made headlines, and served prison time, in the boom times of recent years: junk bond kings Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky, who helped fuel the merger and acquisition mania of the 1980′s before they crossed into illegal activity, and crooked Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Jews are no better than anyone else.  Still, I get particularly upset when Jewish criminals make headlines.  I worry a little about what the gentiles will say about Jews, but mostly — and there is no rational reason for this feeling — I think Jews should behave better than that because they are Jewish.

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