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Brownsville Revisited

A graphic look at the neighborhood that spawned Danny Kaye, Mel Brooks, Jerry Stiller

Ben Birnbaum
August 02, 2006

Between 1910 and 1950, the neighborhood of Brownsville, in northeast Brooklyn, may have been the closest thing to a full-range Jewish metropolis that this country has seen. Tagged “the Jerusalem of America” because it supported more than 70 Orthodox synagogues, Brownsville also elected socialists to public office, hosted factories and Yiddish theaters, and at one point was home to some 300,000 Jews (90 percent of the neighborhood’s population) who had fled Galicia, the Pale, and the Lower East Side, Brownsville’s only competitor for Jewish-American capital status.

Neither community can claim that laurel today, of course, but while the Lower East Side has turned into Plymouth Rock—replete with walking tours, potted synagogues, a restored tenement flat, and an industry of scholarly study—Brownsville has somehow become a whiff of nostalgia, a once-upon-a-time oasis at which Jews tarried over egg creams before continuing their providential wandering eastward to Long Island. When Brownsville does assume concrete shape in Jewish cultural memory these days, it’s usually as the site of the Ocean Hill school wars that sundered New York’s Jewish-black alliance in the late 1960s, or as the spawning ground, earlier in the century, of two remarkable groups of neighborhood boys.

One group fattened on schools, libraries, and cultural programs offered by benevolences such as the Hebrew Educational Society. In the 1930s, its members began to beat their way back across Brooklyn and then over the bridges into Manhattan, where they turned uptown and became known by such names as Alfred Kazin, Norman Podhoretz, Danny Kaye, Sol Hurock, Gerald Green, Jerry Lewis, Joseph Papp, Mel Brooks, Marty Glickman, Gil Kane, Jerry Stiller, Irving Shulman, Steve Lawrence, Zero Mostel, and Phil Silvers.

Members of the second group, who never really left the neighborhood, nourished themselves in the shakedown, theft, and vice rackets. Also in the 1930s, and working out of a candy store in the shadow of the New Lots elevated line’s Saratoga Street platform, these sons of Brownsville built a coast-to-coast enterprise that handled mob hits wholesale, and which, in a coldly brilliant stroke, they named Murder Incorporated. They themselves became known by such names as Louis (Lepke) Buchalter, Abraham (Kid Twist) Reles, Albert (Allie Tic Toc) Tannenbaum, Martin (Bugsy) Goldstein, Arthur (Dutch Schultz) Flegenheimer, Charlie (The Bug) Workman, Mendy Weiss, Harry (Pittsburgh Phil) Strauss, and Abraham (Pretty) Levine.

It’s this bloodstained fraternity that’s at the center of Neil Kleid and Jake Allen’s Brownsville, a graphic novel that tells the story of Murder Inc. from its origins in commonplace thuggery to its development into one of the 20th century’s most efficient non-ideological purveyors of violent death, and then to its implosion, in the early 1940s, under pressure from the politically ambitious district attorney Thomas Dewey.

Unfortunately for the authors, Murder Incorporated’s Jewish hoods were a rather drab bunch. Unlike Bugsy Seigel, who bedded starlets and dreamed of mob hits on Goering and Goebbels; or Meyer Lansky, who dealt bloody mayhem from inside a life cagily lived with all the style of a retired greengrocer; or Arnold Rothstein, on whom both Scott Fitzgerald and Damon Runyon (both astute judges of magnetism) based fictional characters; or Benya Krik, who in Isaac Babel‘s retelling ruled 19th-century Jewish Odessa with the appetite and munificence of a medieval king, the boys of Brownsville were simple (some in two senses of the word) businessmen whose business was killing for a fee.

Kleid, this book’s writer (he is also the award-winning writer-illustrator of a solo volume, 99 Candles, a spare and moving account of a comic book author’s long life), tries to get around the charisma problem by pinning his story to Albert Tannenbaum. Called “Tic Toc” because he talked incessantly, Tannenbaum came from the middle-class and was considered urbane as compared with the gang’s “muscle,” such as Reles—who seems to have evinced subtlety only when slipping ice picks into brains by way of the ear canal—and Weiss, who is said to have committed 500 murders (but none on Shabbes, when the sociopath went to visit his dear Mama, says the unlikely legend). But Tannenbaum was also a famously muscled heavy and murderer, and Kleid ends up trying to humanize him by inventing a starchy moralist father who slips in and out of the story on winds of estrangement and reconciliation—a soppy theme of Jewish-American fictions old enough to have moved Mrs. Weiss to tears in 1927, when her boy might have taken her to see Jolson in The Jazz Singer. “Can I bring you some popcorn, Ma? Maybe a Hersheys? You mind if we sit in the back row where no one can get in behind me?”

Kleid’s main handicap in Brownsville is, however, self-imposed: his apparent commitment to cramming a fairly complete history of Murder Inc. into a comic book (this one comes with an index of 36 sources). The genre is just too slight to handle the heavy traffic. Even this reader, raised within a mile of the Murder Inc. epicenter at the corner of Livonia and Saratoga and alongside elders who had seen Lepke plain, was left disoriented by the procession of Gurrah, Greenie, Gangy, Dasher, Happy, two Meyers, two Ambergs, three Goldsteins, a Bugsy, a Bugs, and a “Pittsburgh Phil” (who is also called “Pep”) that gives the book’s opening sections the feel of Genesis 11: “These are the generations of Shem.” Nor did it help that each man seemed to be jowly, swarthy, fedora-ed, and part of ever shifting alliances formed beneath streetlamps at midnight. Forty or so pages in, I had to pull over and map out men and affiliations on notepaper, like an undergraduate breaking things down for the mid-term.

Kleid does eventually taper off on the history lesson—sending two, instead of the historically correct three, assassins to take out Dutch Schultz, for example—and Brownsville begins to run more smoothly. The last third of the book, which treats the trials of the mobsters, Abe Reles’s plunge from a hotel window while in protective custody, and Tannenbaum’s (invented, I assume) return to the corner of Livonia and Saratoga after he’s been released from prison, is conceived and executed with restraint and particular grace by author and illustrator.

Allen’s black-and-white illustrations, while more homage to, than advancement upon, the post-war masters of true crime comics, are a treat: well-drafted, well-paced, and enriched by just enough historic detail—a braided cord on a telephone, the typeface on street signs. Several of the book’s near-wordless sequences are particularly strong, including a brief but hypnotic chapter that takes us with Mendy Weiss to pull off a hit in Detroit and then returns us to Brooklyn, where Weiss is greeted at the railway station in perfect Brownsville argot with “Went good?” and suitably replies, “No complaints.”

I imagine that Brownsville will hold the most charm for readers who find Murder Inc. important as a metaphysical matter: readers for whom the notion of Jewish gangsters—”tough Jews,” to borrow the title of Rich Cohen‘s puppy-lovish history of these thugs—seems a comforting correction of the historical record of tender Jews as victims of violence. Those who don’t need such reassurance, however, may still find Brownsville a pleasure for its energetic mastery of 1950s true crime fundamentals: dark alleys, chattering tommy guns, sour wise-cracks, low skies, wide-lapels, the collapse of a criminal enterprise—and all served up with a sweet-and-sour garnish of Yiddishkeitisms.

Still, 28 years after Will Eisner’s A Contract With God made comic books safe for adult minds, and following the revolutions staged by Katchor, Crumb, Pekar, and Spiegelman, we have to ask: What could Brownsville have been if the young authors, who seem serious about their art form, had dropped their commitment to honor history or bind the psychic wounds of a people and had instead done what artists are supposed to do, which is to make art without pity or mercy? Babel, it’s appropriate to note, whose obsession with Jewish vulnerability was of blue ribbon quality (and for good reasons), pressed the clay of Mishka Vinnitsky until he formed “Benya Krik,” a shtarka who was not only potent and bold but vain, comic, and ensnared, and in the process gave the gangster and the Moldavanka ghetto mythic and immortal life. The clay of Murder Inc., by contrast, still awaits its pneuma supplier. Kleid in particular, given 99 Candles, and what I have seen of a forthcoming book about his handicapped brother, appears to be capable of much more than has been accomplished here.

And Brownsville—the place where a teen-age Norman Podhoretz got his literary start writing for Night Hawk, a comic strip drawn by his teen-age neighbor Gil Kane (born Eli Katz)—Brownsville, as always, deserves better.

Ben Birnbaum is a writer and editor in Brookline, Massachusetts.