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The Toughest Fictional Jewish Gangsters

With Boardwalk Empire over, some other bad guys to watch on-screen

Alexander Aciman
October 27, 2014
Hyman Roth, played by Lee Strasberg in 1974. (The Godfather)
Hyman Roth, played by Lee Strasberg in 1974. (The Godfather)

Boardwalk Empire, HBO’s Prohibition-era series which ended last night after five seasons, has given viewers fictionalized portraits of several real-life Jewish gangsters over the years. In the show’s final seasons, those characters have become some of the most dangerous and fascinating. But in the last century, film and literature have given us equally remarkable fictional Jewish gangsters.

The Godfather II’s Hyman Roth (played by Lee Strasberg) is a Jewish gangster living in Florida and partner-turned-enemy of the Corleone family. Roth, who is supposed to be a portrait of Meyer Lansky, is behind the famous assassination attempt on Michael and Kay in their bedroom, and is responsible for bringing Michael’s brother Fredo over against his own family. Like Lansky, Roth’s later attempt to seek safe haven in the Holy Land was not welcomed by the Israeli government.

Meyer Wolfsheim, from The Great Gatsby, is an old-world Jewish game-fixer and a character most likely inspired by Arnold Rothstein (who was accused of fixing a World Series). Wolfsheim is so incidental to the plot of the novel but clearly fascinating enough that Fitzgerald felt it necessary to include him anyway. He’s at once a class act and a pocket-protector schlemiel—and a great gambler.

Although the character himself isn’t Jewish, Caesar Enrico Bandello in the 1931 classic Little Caesar makes our list not only because of the prescience of the film’s release in 1931 (the year Season 5 of Boardwalk takes place), but because the film’s star who played him, Edward G. Robinson (born Emanuel Goldenberg), was Jewish. One of the most ruthless cinema Gangsters, Rico Bandello hails from a time when Jews were hired to play tough mobsters, not when goyim like Daniel Craig were hired to play a series of tough Jewish characters. Also in this category is Paul Muni, who played the lead in Scarface as Al Capone. Capone was obviously not Jewish, but Muni was famously Jewish, and broke into the film scene through Yiddish theater.

Moe Green from The Godfather is perhaps the perfect cinema antagonist: He causes problems and you can’t wait for him to die. Like real-life counterpart Bugsy Siegel, Moe Green engineered Las Vegas and takes Michael’s brother Fredo in as well. He causes such insurrection in the family that Michael reprimands Fredo with the immortal line, “Don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again, ever.” In the famous final scene as the Corleone family assassinates mob bosses all over the country, Moe Green gets one in the eye.

A little known Russian film from the 1920s, Benya Krik tells the story of the film’s namesake, a Jewish gangster who runs numbers and smuggled items into the Jewish Ghetto in Odessa. Kirk, originally a character from the collection of stories Odessa Tales, turned the Jewish gangster into a symbol of machismo and intelligence; always one step ahead of the game, the tough guy burns down an entire police station to avoid arrest.

In an even more obscure film, 1934’s Straight Is The Way, Benny Horowitz (Franchot Tone), gets out of prison and wants to lead a crime-free life. He’s done with his old ways, until a former associate tries to steal Horowitz’s girl. Benny struggles to stay clean in this Jewish New York crime movie you probably can’t even find on Netflix. TMC airs the film once every few years, and you can watch Benny take control of the gang so he and his girl can drive off and start a new life.

Alexander Aciman is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared in, among other publications, The New York Times, Vox, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic.