Rare Documents Show How the Jewish Community of New York City Battled the Jewish Mob

How did the Jewish community deal with notorious gangsters and organized crime stemming from its midst?

The gangsters who murdered Herman Rosenthal: Photo shows "Lefty Louie" Rosenberg and "Gyp the Blood" Horowitz, "Whitey" Lewis, "Dago Frank" Cirofici and the policemen who captured them. Library of Congress, Bain Collection, 1912 Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-B2-1234]

68 Second Avenue

At 68 Second Avenue, there is a restaurant in the basement floor underneath the drug store, known as Richman’s restaurant. This place is open a short while and for the past two weeks we have observed that as late as 2, 3, 4 and 4:30 in the morning this place is open. On looking into the basement from the sidewalk there can be seen eight, ten, twelve and fourteen men around the table playing cards with money or chips on the table. This place should be handled immediately.

(From a report of “The Secret Jewish Police.” The original is in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People) 

“A cancer gnawing at our flesh, regardless of the level of the crime”

East European Jews who immigrated to New York at the turn of the twentieth century imagined a new life for themselves in the “Goldene mediene” (the golden country), a place brimming with possibilities. Among the new immigrants were those who had owed money, escaped all sorts of run-ins with the Jewish community or the local law, or saw no future for themselves in the land of their birth. All of them had come to realize the American dream, but some were willing to use brute force or crime to do it.

By 1908 there were one million Jews in New York City, comprising one quarter of the population. The chief superintendent of the New York City police at the time alleged that while the Jews made up only one quarter of the city’s population they represented half of its prison population. While the facts weren’t entirely correct and the anti-Semitic overtones of the statement forced the superintendent to resign the following year, there was, nevertheless, some truth to his claim: Jewish organized crime had become a major problem in the city. There were more Jewish thieves, swindlers, gamblers, bootleggers, pimps and murderers among the Jews in New York than among the Jewish communities in Europe. They answered to such names as Kid Twist, Dopey Benny and Big Jack Zelig, among others. These were Jewish gangsters who hid behind aliases, many of them racist monikers, and whose real names were Max Zwiebach, Joseph Tublinsky, William Albert, Benjamin Fine and Harry Horowitz, to name only a few.

The Jewish community that had to contend with these Jewish gangsters was a divided one: Eastern European Jews living on the Lower East Side, in the southern part of the city, faced grinding poverty in addition to all the other difficulties of being new immigrants (language, employment, housing) while the more established Jews who had immigrated to the United States earlier, mostly from Western Europe, lived in the northern part of the city, and their ranks included big department store owners who looked down at the newcomers, and felt no sense of responsibility for their welfare.

Yiddish newspapers and leaders of the American Jewish community responded defensively to the matter of Jewish crime, viewing it more as an image problem than a social ill. Only a few took it seriously. Louis Marshall, a leader of the Jewish community, said that Jewish crime was “a cancer gnawing at our flesh, regardless of the level of crime.” It was clear that old and new immigrants needed to overcome their differences and work together to eradicate the organized crime in their midst.

This is where Reform Rabbi Judah Leon Magnes enters into the picture. Magnes, who was ordained at the age of twenty-three, served as an assistant rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, the first Reform synagogue in New York and a New York landmark. In contemporary sermons he often described the ordeals of the new immigrants, but he emphasized that Jews have undergone worse trials without descending into lives of crime or prostitution. Magnes was a man of stature, connections and influence and he raised the idea of establishing an organization that would speak on behalf of the Jews, preserve their rights and deal with the problem of crime in a real way. Thus, the “Kehillah of New York City” was established in 1909 with the participation of 222 New York Jewish organizations.

Apart from departments that dealt with assistance for the needy, Jewish education and schools, religious life, and commerce, a department was established to deal with the fight against Jewish organized crime.

Founding document of the “Kehillah” organization in New York – A list of representatives headed by Judah L. Magnes, 1914. Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People

The Unfortunate Case of Herman Rosenthal

In July 1912, the New York World newspaper published the testimony of the Jewish gambling entrepreneur Herman Rosenthal regarding his ties to corrupt police inspector Charles Becker who headed the gaming and racketeering department in New York. Becker had given Rosenthal a loan and also provided police protection for his dubious business dealings and in exchange Rosenthal had made Becker a silent partner in his gambling business. As a result of pressure from his superiors, Becker eventually betrayed Rosenthal by raiding and then shutting down his casino. Rosenthal then turned state’s witness and testified against the corrupt police officer. A few days later he was shot dead in broad daylight near Times Square.

Becker would eventually be convicted and become the first police officer to be sentenced to death. His execution by electric chair took nine minutes.

The murderers were Jewish gangsters sent by the corrupt police. It turned out that almost everyone involved in the crime – the police, the criminals and the witnesses – was Jewish. The well-publicized case once again raised Jewish awareness of the problem of rising crime among the city’s Jewish community.

The funeral procession of the Jewish gangster and gambler Herman Rosenthal. His casket is visible being loaded into the hearse. Library of Congress, Bain Collection, 1912 Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-DIG-ggbain-10540]

In light of the Rosenthal affair, Magnes reached an agreement with the city’s mayor and chief of police to establish a “social morality task force,” to be operated by Jewish detectives whose duty was to comb the south-eastern areas of Manhattan for information about crimes and then transmit their findings to the police would handle matters under the law.

The detectives presented Magnes, the “Kehillah,” the police and the mayor with reports of their impressions of visits to private gambling casinos, brothels and illegal clubs that sold alcohol and drugs. They also drew up lists of names of Jewish criminals and their aliases and provided information regarding their whereabouts, inside or outside of the city limits, or in jail.

Document from the Central Archives of the Jewish People. “Thief List . . . Thieves both male and female and of all sorts of bad men in the field of thiefdom and gangdom. The list holds particularly to the Eastside, and endeavor has not been made to step out of the precincts . . . since that would necessarily make up a new report.”
“Thief List . . . Thieves both male and female and of all sorts of bad men in the field of thiefdom and gangdom. The list holds particularly to the Eastside, and endeavor has not been made to step out of the precincts . . . since that would necessarily make up a new report.” Document from the Central Archives of the Jewish People

Below are some reports submitted by detectives containing information about particular Jewish gangsters of New York who had been scouted out. The reports are preserved at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People:

280 Broome Street – Restaurant Hangout
This restaurant is in a basement store on Broome Street between Allen and Eldridge Streets. The owner here is Max Margulies, alias Rossele. Margulies came from London a short while ago, where his chief business was picking pockets and a crook of every kind. He was also a thief in many parts of Russia. This joint is running strong.
It has become a hangout for new Russian thieves and new thieves who came here from abroad. Some of the old timers found on the premises on the evening of November 23rd were

Muttelley, gun.
Joe Trop, fence and gun.
Carl Cassel, fence and gun.

210 Second Avenue – Disorderly Furnished Room House
210 Second Avenue, a furnished room house, was visited November 29th. There are three girls bringing in men into this house.
Hungarian Mary – previously reported. She once ran 303 East 18th Street.
Mary Less alias Fat Mary, alias Mary the Bum, previously reported.
Lizzie Articles – previously reported.

From the War against Organized Crime in New York to the Founding of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The operation continued thanks to the strong personality of Magnes and the support of the city’s mayor, but when the new mayor took office, the cooperation waned and eventually stopped. Yet all was not in vain, the “Kehillah” organization was an inspiration for other collaborative efforts between Jewish organizations and Jewish communities in other parts of the United States and its educational and philanthropic branches remain active to this day.

Judah L. Magnes from the Schwadron Collection at the National Library of Israel

Magnes’ status as a community leader also changed. A pacifist, he vehemently opposed US involvement in the First World War. His stance hurt his reputation as well as his relations with the Jewish community and with other influential elements.

In 1922 Magnes came arrived in Mandatory Palestine where he took part in the founding of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A decade later, he would serve as its president. Magnes continued his controversial political activities in the Land of Israel, supporting a binational state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea and even traveled to the United States in an attempt to persuade government officials not to recognize the establishment of the State of Israel. However, once the plan was accepted, he met with Chaim Weizmann, shook his hand and congratulated him.

Judah Magnes suffered a stroke while in the United States and died six months later. Among his personal papers sent to Israel in the 1930s, following the disolution of the “Kehillah”, were copies of the many reports the detectives of the “Secret Jewish Police” had written as part of their battle against the Jewish gangsters. The rest of the Magnes estate was given to the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People where they are preserved.

Thanks to Hadassah Assouline and Yochai Ben-Ghedalia of the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People for their help in writing this article.

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The Altalena Affair: When Israel was on the Brink of Civil War

The sinking of the Altalena was perhaps one of the most incredible and divisive affairs in the history of the State of Israel. What really happened during those tense days?

The Altalena burning after being shelled, from the GPO Archive

The Altalena Affair is perhaps one of the most incredible and heated affairs in the history of the Jewish state. Barely two months after its establishment, the young State of Israel found itself engaged in a cruel war of survival against the Arab armies, when an internal battle erupted inside the fledgling country and threatened to drag its people into civil war.

What really happened during those tense days?

Summer 1947: The USS LST 138, a U.S. Navy landing ship is purchased by a branch of the Irgun (a right wing Zionist paramilitary organization) in North America. The ship’s name is changed to Altalena. The name, which means seesaw in Italian, wass the pen-name used by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionist ideology..

Miniature Model of the “Altalena” by EST

Winter 1947: The ship is packed with close to one thousand immigrants and combatants (some of them Holocaust survivors), crew members, and tons of military equipment.

11 June 1948: After a nearly month-long delay, the Altalena sets sail from France to the shores of Israel. This delay seals its fate, since the ship sails after the signing of an agreement earlier in the month to incorporate the Irgun, which had been a militant faction active in the underground struggle against the British Mandate authorities, into the newly founded Israel Defense Forces.

The United Nations Security Council, which, throughout the entire period of the war had been engaged in the question of Palestine, stepped up its efforts to bring the fighting to an end, and instead of releasing a non-binding declaration, issued an order demanding that both sides agree to retreat, and that sanctions would be applied to the side that refused.

On June 10th, 1948 both sides agreed to the terms of the ceasefire devised by the UN-appointed mediator Count Folke Bernadotte. The ceasefire, which took effect the next day, lasted four weeks.

15 June 1948: The Irgun commander, Menachem Begin, meets with the representatives of the Israeli government to inform them that the ship had sailed from the port in Paris against his orders. Begin is insistent that a fifth of the arms on board the ship be transferred to independent Irgun units in Jerusalem and the rest to the IDF (with preference to Irgun units integrated into the IDF). David Ben-Gurion approves the transfer of some of the arms to Irgun units in the capitol, but commands the rest of the weapons to be transferred immediately and without any preconditions to the IDF. Differences of opinion and suspicion are rife on both sides.

20 June 1948: The Altalena docks at Kfar Vitkin and the crew starts to unload the cargo without permission, as goverment cabinet ministers hold heated discussions over the unfolding events. The government’s decision is: “To give the (IDF) headquarters the authority to launch a counter-attack, provided they coordinate enough manpower by the appointed time. The commander must try to control the situation without use of force, but if his command is not obeyed, then with the use of force.”

“Were it not for the policy of restraint, a terrible civil war would have broken out in the midst of the besieged homeland,” a poster from The Jabotinsky Institute Collection

21 June 1948: The Alexandroni brigade surrounds Kfar Vitkin. The commanding officer issues an ultimatum to Menachem Begin – to hand over the ship with all of its contents to the IDF. They are given ten minutes to respond.

With no response to the ultimatum, there is an exchange of fire in which six Irgun fighters and two IDF soldiers are killed. Menachem Begin boards the Altalena and it retreats, sailing south to the shores of Tel Aviv.

“Remember Altalena, Her Arms and Her Soldiers” – a poster from The Jabotinsky Institute Collection

22 June 1948: Ground forces under the command of Yigael Yadin are sent to overpower the Altalena.  Heavy fire is exchanged between Irgun forces on the ship and IDF forces on the shore. Fearing the outbreak of a civil war Begin calls on Irgun fighters not to return fire, raising a white flag aboard the ship.

An artillery gunner who receives the order to open fire on the ship refuses to do so claiming that he would rather be tried and even executed, than fire upon fellow Jews. A second gunner hesitates to fire but eventually is convinced and fires on the ship. During the exchange another ten Irgun fighters and one IDF soldier are killed.

With a fire spreading on deck, Monroe Fein, the captain of the Altalena, orders all aboard to abandon ship. Menachem Begin only agrees to leave after the last of the wounded is evacuated.


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Medical Treatment of Jewish Moroccan Children in the 1950’s

The treatment of North African immigrant children for ringworm and trachoma was a traumatic episode in the annals of Israel’s social history.

These treatments were not only administered in the fledgling State of Israel with the arrival of the immigrants. Various Jewish organizations traveled to North Africa, especially to Morocco, in order to administer treatment against ringworm and other diseases even before the children and their families left for Israel.

One of these organizations—acting out of the purest Zionist intentions, and perhaps herein is the tragedy of the matter—was the international Jewish organization OSE (Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants). Founded in St. Petersburg in 1912 as OZE (“Obschtestvo zdravookhraneniia evreev,” devoted to the promotion of health, hygiene and childcare among the Jews), its mission was to provide healthcare for Jews in places with inferior sanitary conditions. After WWII the organization headquarters moved to Paris and focused on offering healthcare to Holocaust survivors and mainly the children among them. The organization also later worked in North Africa, Iran, and the young State of Israel.

One of the organization’s activities was to establish well-baby clinics in Morocco. A photograph album documenting part of its activities in Morocco was preserved in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (which was eventually incorporated into the NLI archive). Thus, photos of the organization’s volunteers have come to light showing them helping to provide milk to children, instructing parents, conducting various medical examinations, and treating ringworm and trachoma using those drastic measures, which, in retrospect, was the real tragedy.

The photographs were used by the organization for purposes of public relations and fundraising.




We Hosted Our Very First Hackathon!

We are incredibly proud of the winning teams who produced cutting-edge digital tools that will open access to the National Library's treasures in new and creative ways!

On November 23-24, some 150 programmers, project managers, web developers, and others huddled together at the Library for 24 hours with one purpose:

To make the Library’s treasures as accessible as possible.

The participants of the Hackathon had two technological challenges with which they had to contend. The first was the Creative Challenge, in which teams had to come up with, creative ways to make the Library’s treasures as accessible as possible. The second was the Data Challenge, where teams had to develop tools to improve the metadata of items kept in the Library’s collections.

The winning independent team was Team Pi! They created an interactive educational tool that enables children and pupils to do associative research through video and audio files, bringing to life historical items from various collections in the Library, making the items and subjects being researched tangible and accessible.

The tool itself is based on several AI and Machine Learning Technologies. These introduce new types of information to the library, improve access to existing information, and create innovative product opportunities. These technologies will develop new points of access for new audiences and improve the research capabilities of the library’s materials. The technologies are based on voice recognition from visual and audio files, pattern recognition in other kinds of files as well as ranking them by priority. Over time the tool will be able to find connections between items through the AI and Machine Learning patterns, as well as user based contexts placing them together.

Team Pi’s presentation is available here.

The demo for the tool is here.

Team Pi

The winning team from a company or organization was Wikimedia Israel. They created a data tool that will identify people in historical pictures even when the picture itself is lacking a description of the figures in it. This tool will help search and find famous and historical people in the Library’s collections.

This tool will enable Wiki editors to search and locate images of historical value from a wide variety of databases. In addition, a tool was developed for Wikitext that can splice scanned manuscripts into sections made up of several words or single lines, specifically for objects that don’t cooperate with OCR software. Then with the help of a chat-bot, editors can upload these sections to Wikitext via Telegram or Facebook. This tool will enable researchers and readers to search for manuscripts that have been scanned but haven’t been fully digitized.

Team Wikimedia’s presentation is available here.

Team Wikimedia Israel
And for a photo-finish – here are a few pictures from the first ever 24-hour National Library of Israel Hackathon!