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A Mobster in the Family

My husband’s great-uncle was generous and entertaining—and a member of Detroit’s Jewish crime syndicate

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Boesky’s delicatessen on 12th and Hazelwood in Detroit, Nov. 24, 1937, after the fatal shooting of gangster Harry Millman; “Millman’s death signaled the end of the Purple Gang as a force in organized crime in Detroit.” From Robert A. Rockaway in Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 20.1 (2001) 113-130 (The Detroit News via Virtual Motor City collection, Wayne State University Library.)

While the Purple Gang disbanded by the late 1940s due to infighting and long prison terms, Norber remained in the “business,” building alliances with other criminal groups. In the 1970s, he swapped his trademark mustache for a diamond-embedded tooth and helped to finance one of the largest heroin rings in Michigan.

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Sam Norber (left) with siblings, 1972
Sam Norber (left) with his siblings, 1972, at the author’s husband’s bar mitzvah. (Courtesy of the author)

While Norber was clearly no mensch, his relatives remember him as being generous, frequently donating items for charity auctions and distributing his rolls of bills. He also maintained strong family ties throughout the years. My father-in-law, Norber’s nephew, recalls being present at one of the mobster’s many trials. Norber’s sister Sarah and her family attended Sam’s prison performances, and Sam even celebrated at my husband’s bar mitzvah in 1972. Another nephew helped take care of Norber after he suffered a stroke.

Although Norber stayed in contact with relatives, there seemed to be no campaign to involve family members in his criminal activities. Rockaway indicates that this was typical of Jewish gangsters: “While American Jewish gangsters were as important as American Italian gangsters, many of whose crime ‘families’ remain to this day, with the Jews, it was that one generation, the second generation, the children of immigrants, and it ended with them.” In my husband’s family, it ended with Uncle Sam.

Some people would argue that Norber’s generation of Jewish Americans had limited opportunities to make money, and that’s what drove them to a life of crime; others think that’s letting them off the hook. If Mickey Cohen and Sam Norber had been born a decade or two later, when the post-war GI Bill and reduced anti-Semitism opened more doors for Jews, would they have pursued legitimate careers? Or would they have led a life of crime under any circumstances?

Norber died in 1995 and is interred in Detroit’s Hebrew Memorial Park. While I never met him, his story has intrigued me for years because it stands in stark contrast to my own upbringing. As a second-generation American, raised in the post-war era, I was taught to follow the rules, to always remain above suspicion. Worried that all Jews may be condemned because of the actions of a few, I cringe when fellow Jews were convicted of wrongdoing. A part of me fears that even the perception of Jews as criminals places us one step closer to scapegoating and other horrors. However, examining Sam Norber’s life has helped me to recognize that his actions and those of other Jewish gangsters represent all Jews no more than Al Capone characterizes all Italian Americans. Armed with a new understanding of the man behind the gangster cliché, I now choose to see Sam Norber as the flawed individual that he was: colorful, clever, and corrupt. And a member of the family.

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Very nicely written. I have always been fascinated by Jewish mafia history.

I think the GI bill was huge. Tough Jewish kids came back from the war and all of a sudden had another way to go.

Dick Jones says:

There was an ex-cop from Chicago who made aliyah to Israel, named Norber – he became a cop there, too and was nicknamed “the refrigrator” because he was so huge, was he related? (He looked like the big guy in the 1972 picture on the right)

This is a fascinating story & I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I think all families have black sheep as my mother used to call her brother. My uncle was thrown out of a nursing home for swindling the old women out of their money. To this day I find it hard to believe. Thanks again for the story.

Gary Droz says:

Naomi, though I never met Sam Norber, I was friends with one of his proteges, Milton Silverman; in regards to the aspirin heist, I had first hand knowledge of it; purchased some of the aspirin & had it confiscated by the FBI & followed the trial & appeal. Feel free to contact me for further input. I am in the discount perfume business now. Gary Droz 734-434-0692

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A Mobster in the Family

My husband’s great-uncle was generous and entertaining—and a member of Detroit’s Jewish crime syndicate

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