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Boardwalk Empire Blues

The reason I don’t like the HBO drama? I want it to be a show about Jewish gangsters.

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Michael Stuhlbarg in episode 29 (season 3, episode 5) of Boardwalk Empire. (Macall B. Polay/HBO)

Yes, yes, I know. Boardwalk Empire is very important. First of all, it is very expensive. Second of all, it is on HBO. Third of all, being very important, very expensive, and very much on HBO, it always seems to be nominated for a boatload of Emmys, further adding to its aura of importance. It has fancy costumes and complex characters and an intricate, multilevel plot structure. It’s the kind of show that by any known algorithm I should absolutely love.

I don’t. I take full responsibility for this. I feel like it’s a failing on my part, an indication of something faulty in my personal wiring, like my total lack of interest in contemporary music, or my hatred for elaborately prepared tasting menus, or how somehow the thought of an impending climate-induced apocalypse never seems quite urgent enough to me to bother unplugging my computer when I’m not using it. So, every year, I try. I gear up for the new season with my hopes high and the kind of grit and determination I usually reserve for arguing with my insurance company over my dental benefits. (When it comes to teeth, I am tireless.) And every year, about this time, I hit a wall and can’t go on.

I know I’m not the only one. Better writers than me have dedicated a great deal of time and thought to figuring out just what about Boardwalk Empire makes it seem to add up to somewhat less than the sum of its parts: the lack of a compelling protagonist? A miscast Steve Buscemi? A cast of characters who are all such rare and special flowers it becomes impossible for the audience to connect to them emotionally? I suppose I can see the validity of all these statements, but after some thought of my own, I’ve realized that my apathy toward the show Netflix consistently recommends to me ahead of even the BBC adaptation of Parade’s End and all those documentaries about the Kindertransport—which, if you know me at all, is really saying something—comes from another place entirely. It isn’t because it isn’t a quality piece of entertainment. It’s because I want Boardwalk Empire to be a show all about the Jewish gangsters.

What we get on the show is just enough to whet my appetite. I thrill every time the legendary criminal mastermind Arnold Rothstein (played by the great Michael Stuhlbarg), the man who fixed the 1919 World Series and inspired the character of Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby, appears on screen, demurely sipping a cup of coffee and smiling quietly at something known only to himself; why do we get him in such small doses, and mainly reacting to the machinations of Nucky Thompson, the world’s most sheepish crime boss? When Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusuf) first showed up, I let out a Belieber-esque squeal; this season he’s playing second fiddle to Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale), your standard-issue maniac killer/sex pervert (he likes women to tie him up and choke him. Snore.) I was fascinated by the character of Manny Horvitz, the garrulous kosher-butcher-cum-bloodthirsty-gangster who calls everybody “boychik” and dry-ages his enemies on meat hooks in the deep freeze, until (spoiler alert!) they let the guy with half a face (who is Anjelica Huston’s nephew and even with his Phantom of the Opera mask on, is still attractive beyond all sense) blow him away in the first episode of the new season. That was five weeks ago. I’m still sitting shiva.

Look, this isn’t because of some chauvinistic desire to force every aspect of popular culture to be All About the Jews (although it would certainly make my job here easier). Nor is it some sort of superiority/inferiority complex need to prove that We Can Be Tough, Too. The reason I am drawn to the Jewish gangsters is that they are, unlike nearly every other character on Boardwalk Empire (Handsome Two-Face Richard Harrow excluded), totally unpredictable.

I know the Irish and German aldermen with creative facial hair are going to give long, racist speeches in rooms filled with other men as they hoist beer steins in the air; I know the Sicilian guys are going to arbitrarily beat up/kill somebody in any given scene. Case in point: The second Bobby Cannavale stepped out of the car in the first scene of the first episode of the current season, I knew the poor schmuck that stopped to help him fix his tire was going to wind up dead. (The dog, on the other hand, was clearly going to be fine. If there’s one thing Hollywood has taught us, it’s that psychopaths love animals. Particularly little dogs.)

But with the Jews, I have genuinely no idea what they’re going to do. Not because they don’t add up as characters, but because there’s no distinct paradigm to follow. Sure, there have been Jewish mobsters in the movies—Once Upon a Time in America, Bugsy, Casino, Hyman Roth in the The Godfather Trilogy. A few of them are even brutal. But for the most part they stand around on the sidelines, à la Heshy from The Sopranos, being rational and businesslike while the Italians do most of the dirty work. As Boardwalk Empire admirably suggests, this was not the case in real life. Imagine a series where the Jewish gangsters were the focus, the stars. What happens to the Yiddische kop when it turns to a life of crime? Where is the line between being a good Jewish businessman and being a gangster? How did they rationalize it (or not) to themselves, to their family, to their community? How did the people who invented the concept of guilt deal with their own with no vaguely complicit priest to help them Hail Mary it away?

That’s a show I’d like to see. It’s also a show that would probably never be greenlit in America. So, I leave it to Israeli television to pick it up, make it, and Homeland-style, sell it back to the United States. Except they’ll probably turn them into Italians.

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Kate P says:

I totally agree! The Jewish gangsters are the best characters–the A.C.
political stories bog the show down. Would love to see a show focussing
on the origins of Murder Inc, how great (and creepy would that be.) On
another note, always love what Rachel Shukert writes!

I enjoyed your article. And I enjoy watching Boardwalk. I agree that Buscemi is miscast. It almost feels like Hollywood said, hey, this guy has been a ton of supportive role characters, let’s let him have his own gig and see what he does with it. I find him difficult to watch, not quite the gangster/county treasurer I enjoy watching. But I’ve never really enjoyed watching him. His face is hard to watch and enjoy. But, I also enjoyed your commentary on the Jewish gansters. I too enjoy the Jewish gangsters in Boardwalk and I’d love to see a series all about Jewish gangsters. Thanks for sharing your ideas.

Avery Robinson says:

If you still have a hankering for Jewish mobsters, Atwater Brewery in Detroit makes a very tasty Purple Gang Pilsner that pays homage to the Jewish gang that helped booze up Detroit (and the Midwest) during Prohibition

I’m waiting for the version that only includes scenes with Michael Stuhlbarg. He might be America’s finest actor right now and his presence and brio is largely wasted here.

Dick Stanley says:

Meyer Lansky is definitely cool and would make a great series all by himself. But I still kind of lean towards Bugsy Siegel and the boys. A little Tommy gun tattoo music wouldn’t hurt.

The problem with Jewish Gangsters is not that Hollywood won’t Greenlight a series of this nature because of its “jewishness, the problem is that Hollywood is still scared (believe it or not) of possible repercussions… I submit the example of whom I consider the greatest of all Jewish gangsters: the one and only Morris “Moishe” Levy; bouncer, businessman, music “lover,” and no-BS philosopher who singlehandedly helped create what we now know as “rock and roll.” He ripped off legions of artists like Frankie Lymon, promoting the music through his iconic label, Roulette Records (he had another subsidiary, known as EMUS, a reverse take on “sue me”) He was larger-than-life, coining phrases that still live on in the entertainment biz like “money talks, bullshit walks” and ” you don’t ask, you don’t get.” I had the opportunity to spend time with this Jewish “master” of criminality while prepping a feature film on the music biz in the 1980′s with Martin Scorsese (who actually sent a fawning letter to the man asking for his cooperation). Moishe did cooperate with us to an extent on a previous documentary we produced on Frankie Lymon for PBS in the late 1970′s and continued to act like a “mensch” when negotiating for music rights for the aforementioned feature. My experience was that he was a man of his word delivering on what he agreed to but woe to you if you didn’t reciprocate. Moishe was well known for personally laying on the salami — the so-called knuckle sandwich — on anyone unfortunate to cross him or his mob associates. He had been accused of payola back in the 50′s along with his bought associate Alan Freed and while Freed was indicted Moishe managed to slither out of the problem using both high level contacts and the best lawyers money could buy. The Feds never locked him away (not for want of trying; Elohim snatched him away first) and my efforts to pitch a film on the man and his legacy well after his death still evoked true fear among music and film executives. BTW: yes, “Heshy” from the Sopranos is based on the Big Guy.

Unreconstructed Yiddishist that I am, my problem with the Jews on Boardwalk is that whoever provides the Yiddish dialog for them doesn’t know his/her tokhis from his/her elenboygn. I cringe at the misused words, the non-Yiddish syntax, the ignorance of dialectical variations. Gevald geshrign! Marty, get a real Yiddish expert on staff, already!

BTW, as Education Director of The Sholem Community’s Jewish Sunday School, I’ve encouraged youngsters preparing for our secular bas/bar mitsve ceremonies to focus on Jewish gangsters as a potential research project. Over the decades, two have been inspired to do so, and both did admirable, college-level jobs.

Hershl Hartman

I thought Horvitz was maybe the greatest Jewish character ever on TV

charles r says:

Miss Manny Horvitz too…his Yiddish needed help but he really looked like he knew his way around a kosher butcher shop.

Read TOUGH JEWS by Rich Cohen – amazing – that’s what should be the basis of a TV series — but agree with you — it’s too easy to write the other kind of gangsters — ours have tsuris in their being — Truly, author of LIE

Lanskymob says:

I’m not dissing Caroline or Cohen, but there’s a ton of stuff interested parties should read that blow the doors off of Tough Jews. Trust me, I’m an obsessive.

But…He Was Good To His Mother (Rockaway)
Little Man: Meyer Lansky & the Gangster Life (Lacy)
Meyer Lansky: Mogul of the Mob (Eisenberg/Dan/)
Gangster #2: Longy Zwillman (Stuart)
The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Gangster in America (Fried)
We Only Kill Each Other: The Life and Bad Times of Bugsy Siegel (Jennias)
Kill The Dutchman! (Sann)
Murder, Inc. (Turkus)
The Life and Times of Lepke Buchalter (Kavief)
Supermob (Russo)

There’s a heckuva lot morre, but this list is a good start.

Before she died, my grandmother once told me that some of our relatives were gangsters. I’m not sure if this is true because she was a bit loopy and I never bothered to verify this bit of family lore, but I always thought it was funny that all of my Italian friends would claim the same as a badge of honor, but my grandma told me in hushed tones. I’m not sure when being a Gangster became so cool that someone would advocate for showcasing Jewish gangsters, but my grandmother sure didn’t think it was cool and claimed to cut us off from much of my family because she didn’t want such a connection to shame us.

Before she died, my grandmother once told me that some of our relatives were gangsters. I’m not sure if this is true because she was a bit loopy and I never bothered to verify this bit of family lore, but I always thought it was funny that all of my Italian friends would claim the same as a badge of honor, but my grandma told me in hushed tones. I’m not sure when being a Gangster became so cool that someone would advocate for showcasing Jewish gangsters, but my grandmother sure didn’t think it was cool and claimed to cut us off from much of my family because she didn’t want such a connection to shame us.

Years ago I put together a proposal to the Jewish Museum to do an exhibit called “Murderers and Thieves,” something to explore the unspoken history of Jewish immigrants in late 19th century, early 20th century. I could not find any takers. Later I queried Tablet but they didn’t seem interested in an article, at least not by me. Maybe because I also wanted to do an article exploring the legitimacy of “Jews owning Hollywood.” Perhaps they thought I was nuts. In both cases, what interested me was not to cast aspersions but to explore them. The truth is Jews ran a lot of the prostitution racket in early 20th century New York. And Jews – as individuals – do dominate the entertainment business. What’s equally interesting – and worth exploring – is the sense of urgency to avoid mentioning such things. With crime, it’s as if someone is a Jewish thug, “they’re not really Jewish.” It’s as if the tribe disowns them. And perhaps the tribe is wise to do so. But it’s worth exploring all sides – the dynamic (albeit sometimes psychopathic) characters who populate that world of crime (and entertainment) and those who (possibly for very good reasons) want to sanitize our history. Anyway, I liked your essay, Rachel. As usual.

I like your take on the Jewish gangster characters in Boardwalk Empire. But I think you miss three important points in your analysis. First, they were always part of their communities in the Jewish neighborhoods of their cities. Second, there was a mix of very smart guys and really dumb shtarkers who were the muscle. Third, the Jewish gangster phenomenon grew out of the extreme poverty of the early 20th century. Rothstein was an anomaly, a real black sheep from an well-off respected family. Meyer Lansky and Longy Zwillman fit the mold better–poor guys who had the brains and instincts to run major corporations if they had had the chance. For every Lansky there were probably 10 dumb as dirt palookas who followed his orders. In between there were guys like Bugsy Siegel and the character Manny Horvath who had enough sechel to just barely contain their psychopathic mishegas and get things done.

The writers of Boardwalk Empire capture most of this dynamic in an economic way without having to spell it out for us in words.

A.L. Rickman says:

Did you like the Yiddish in “A Serious Man”? Ruth Wisse, among others, loved it. Well, for the most part the Yiddish in BE is done by the same person — me. There was one line in Season 1 that I had nothing to do with, but for almost all of Season 2 and the first episode in Season 3 that was my doing, and I stand by it. Other than that bizarre obscenity in Season 1, I have no idea what you could be referring to.

A.L. Rickman

I, too, kvell in the Jewish gangster as the ult. anti-hero and as Rick Cohen and even Hannah Arendt have pointed out there is the element of toughness and pariah-hood that lent a sense -however perverse- of pride to our long years of oppression-I can remember my grandfather wondering why “we” never put a contract out on Hitler – in the 30s – send a few schtarkas from Murder,Inc over there with orders that if he “ain’t dead, don’t bother returning”. His brother would retort that somebody would probably squeal.

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Boardwalk Empire Blues

The reason I don’t like the HBO drama? I want it to be a show about Jewish gangsters.

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