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Yiddish and Mezuzot on ‘Boardwalk Empire’

How the Prohibition-era HBO show portrays its Jewish gangsters

Alexander Aciman
October 20, 2014
Scene from Season 5, Episode 7 of 'Boardwalk Empire.' (HBO)
Scene from Season 5, Episode 7 of 'Boardwalk Empire.' (HBO)

Episode seven of Boardwalk Empire’s fifth season, which aired last night, may have been the most ‘Jewish’ of the entire series. It was action packed with mezuzah-kissing, Bugsy Siegel’s antics, a lot of nagging, and a firm focus on Meyer Lansky’s growing empire. In fact, as Lucky Luciano barters an exchange with Nucky Thompson for the return of his good friend Bugsy Siegel, Luciano, born outside of Palermo, turns to Siegel and asks, ‘Khamoyer, vos machstu?’ It goes to so show that even the Sicilian pioneer of the American mafia can pick up some Yiddish by hanging out with Jews for long enough. (Earlier in the series, Luciano referred to Siegel as meshugana).

Later in the episode, Thompson’s hit squad goes after Salvatore Maranzano, who was called the Capo di Tutti Capi—the boss of all bosses—in an attempt to cut a deal with Lansky and Luciano. Maranzano had opposed Luciano’s dealings with Jewish associates like Lansky. In reality, however—and not pictured on the show—Maranzano’s assassins were members of the Murder Incorporated hit squad. Among them was Siegel himself, and Samuel Levine—the gunman who refused to kill on Shabbat. (Luckily, Maranzano’s hit was planned for a Thursday).

After the hit on Maranzano, Lansky essentially allowed the American mafia to separate itself into the five-family system that still more or less exists today, and with Lansky’s help, designed the National Crime Syndicate.

Boardwalk Empire has a strange way of addressing our modern-day concern over the idea of a Jewish mafia: how can Jews possibly justify this sort of behavior to themselves? This isn’t to say that Jews can’t be sociopaths (the collection of gangsters who started their criminal careers before hitting puberty can attest to this); but HBO seems to understand that the very same viewers who will laugh when an Italian mafioso speaks Yiddish might also dislike the idea of Jews unequivocally behaving badly. There’s so much moral ambiguity to the idea of Jewish killers that the very notion of a hit man who won’t work on Shabbat seems ironic as opposed to criminally, misguidedly insane.

HBO’s solution is to create a delicate balancing act between having characters play ‘Jewish’ and simply be criminals: Bugsy Siegel kisses a mezuzah before entering an apartment to sleep with someone’s wife. Better yet, when Siegel is kidnapped (which never actually happened in life), it’s important for viewers to see that Meyer Lansky will do anything to protect his friends and family. If he is a killer, he is still loyal when it matters.

Having been nebbish-ified over the last 40 years, American Jews—men in particular—may well appreciate ruthless depictions of fellow Hebrews (there’s an entire scene in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up dedicated to a discussion on how great it is to be Jewish and to watch Munich). We call these gangsters ‘Tough Jews,’ not ‘Terrible Jews.’ It’s hard to condemn a murder that happened more than 80 years ago, especially so long as we know the culprit spoke Yiddish.

Meyer Lansky may have essentially helped invent the heroin trade in the U.S., Arnold Rothstein may have been a world-class racketeer, and Bugsy Siegel may have been a murderer, but on TV, these characters are a reminder that there used to be such a thing as a not-so-nice Jewish boy, and perhaps to our own moral disappointment, it’s a whole lot of fun to watch.

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.