Farbrekhers in America: The Americanization of Jewish Blue-Collar Crime, 1900-1931

Abstract: The mass immigration of Eastern European Jews between 1880 and 1924—some two and a half million came to the United States—caused a thorough change in the nature of New York Jewry. Following wealthier German uptown Jews, it was now marked by poor Polish or Russian Jews living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The Jewish quarters functioned as the hinges between Eastern Europe and the US for many immigrants. Crime was a shade of it. Jews only constituted a small minority of American society; their Americanized criminal structures, however, became one of the most influential factors of modernization of crime from the fringes to the center of American society. Through the development of the Jewish underworld, the exclusion of and the cooperation with criminals of a different ethnic background, as well as the professionalization and the struggle for respectability, the phenomenon of Jewish blue-collar crime itself experienced an Americanization. Additionally, this process of Americanization was key not only to the rise but also to the downfall of Jewish American blue-collar crime in New York.

In the public perception, the 1920s and ’30s in the US are strongly linked to the era of Prohibition (1919-1933). Literature, Hollywood movies,1 and reminiscences of criminals and noncriminals alike evoke a time of gang fights, speakeasies, bootlegging, and the helplessness of the law enforcement against ever rising gangsters such as Al Capone in Chicago. This perception is usually linked to Italian or Irish mobsters, rarely to Jews or other minorities. In the America of the 1930s, however, Jewish participation in organized crime was a reality and Jewish Farbrekhers, Yiddish for criminals, along with their Italian counterparts had a very strong impact on the development of the modern American underworld. Of all minority groups in the US, the phenomenon of organized Jewish crime2 appears to be an oddity: Other than Italians or the Irish, Jews were always a small minority and seemingly did not have the resources to generate enough Farbrekhers that would eventually develop into some of the leading crime figures of American history. Americanization—or, in other words, the organization, the structure, and the professionalization according to the American underworld—was the crucial aspect of the success of Jewish organized crime in American society. The belief in capitalism, self-reliance, and even in democratic features in the form of corporate-style majority rule took Jewish criminal structures from the fringes to the center of the American underworld. Since the modest beginnings in the form of small Jewish gangs in the early 1900s, akin to their European counterparts and operating in the Jewish neighborhoods, Jewish blue-collar crime developed into a component of the genuinely American multiethnic Syndicate3 within some thirty years. Americanization, as it will be discussed in this article, was a dual process affecting not only Jewish criminals but also Jewish organized crime itself by evolving the very concept of it. Whereas this process was the foundation of the success of Jewish organized blue-collar crime, it was also key to its eventual downfall.Read all of this Article in aspeers's Free Full Text Mode