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Fathers, Sons and Gangster Dreams Paperback – 1 Apr 1999

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Product details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; New Ed edition (1 April 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099757915
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099757917
  • Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 2.2 x 19.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 355,434 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

When we think gangster, hood or wiseguy we often associate these characters with such names as Capone, Luciano or even Corleone. However, when organized crime reared its ugly head in the late 1920s in Brooklyn, at the foundation were men like Meyer Lansky and Ben Siegel--both Jews. Rich Cohen's romantic account of Jewish gangsters, Tough Jews, brings to life the story of Jewish involvement in the world of organized crime. Cohen persuasively achieves his objective by recounting the stories he heard from his father, who grew up with his friends (including broadcaster Larry King) at the end of the gangster era in Brooklyn, finding heroes in men like "Kid Twist" Reles and Bugsy Goldstein. The intriguing tales Cohen heard, although slightly embellished over time, offer a rare glimpse into a world that can barely be related to today's generation of Jews living in America. These Jews went to prison for committing violent felonies, not white-collar crimes, and got the chair for it. Inspired by their stories, Cohen went on to conduct extensive research through old journals, police records, and court reports to uncover the real stories behind the tales he heard as a boy.

Cohen warmly discusses his father's fascination with these powerful, charismatic figures, and openly envies his experiences at a time before Jewish people lived under the debilitating shadow of the Holocaust. In addition, Cohen shows compassion for the need of his father's generation to look up to "someone who gives them the illusion of strength". --Jeremy Storey --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Exuberant. . .a vivid narrative. . . . Tough Jews brings familiar history back to life." --The New York Times "Warmly and affectionately rendered. . .these vignettes bring a lost generation of antiheroes to life." --The Boston Globe "Vivid and colorful. . .fascinating." --Los Angeles Times "If the Mafia has its Mario Puzo, the Jewish troops of Murder, Inc. deserve their Rich Cohen. . .entertaining, defiantly romantic." --Newsweek

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Charles Vasey TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 5 Aug. 2012
Format: Hardcover
This is an odd book. A mixture of Gangsta Tales, reminiscences of the old neighbourhood and the author's interest in his own toughness (he even supplies pictures of himself). The three themes jostle like Rude Boys on a pavement going in different directions. The stories of the kosher nostra are no different in type from gangsters from the East End or from Calabria. The other themes though are not really connected any more than coming from South London makes you a member of a Certain Well Known Drug Family. Here I feel a Philip Roth novel is trying to escape. It did not succeed any more than the author's manufactured rage at "rats", but it did make me think about how we assemble our own identity.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 16 May 1999
Format: Hardcover
This is one of the most fascinating books I have ever read. At times lyrical and at times comical and always interesting. Cohen tells two stories: that of the gangsters of Brooklyn and that of his father's generation coming of age during a time when american jews suffered from discrimination and learned of the holocaust. Both stories are interesting and, much to my surprise, intertwined. This will make a great gift.
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By Sharon on 12 Aug. 2014
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
As with most of books bought lately, this is for a later date. Again, I've read pages here and there. As I read, and have read. many gangster books, this will no doubt be a good read.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 79 reviews
26 of 28 people found the following review helpful
Great history, not great human interest 27 April 2005
By D. Greenberg - Published on
Format: Paperback
The book does what the title implies. It sheds light on an often neglected aspect of the Jewish-American immigrant story and shows early 20th century mobster culture was much more inclusive than it is often portrayed.

The author tries to create the background by paying homageto his dad and his friends (great pictures of a young Larry King with normal shoulders), law abiding aggressive business men who grew up with the legends of Arnold Rothstein and Meyer Lansky, emulating them like kids playing army. But in the end, the metaphor falls flat. The gangsters had no more impact on how their lives turned out than did their Brooklyn Dodger heroes.

The writing style often diverges into a very personal, chatty conversational style, an off-stage commentary on the historical goings-on. A little too colloquial for the subject matter, the asides were like a fleeting stomach ache amidst a great meal.
33 of 40 people found the following review helpful
Great stories badly told. 21 Jan. 2000
By Alexander C. Meske - Published on
Format: Paperback
_Tough_Jews_, an apocryphal account of the Jewish gangsters based in Brooklyn in the 20's and 30's is an entertaining piece of light reading and a fascinating glimpse into the rationalization process.
This could best be described as a cathartic history of Jewish gangsters. Cohen's frequent fawning over the Brooklyn mob of old, to tell you the truth, could be quite ridiculous. His adulation of Murder Inc. often spilled over into out and out hero worship. The author's frequent rationalizations for his adoration, however, are rather interesting for understanding the glamour of current-day gangs in poor neighborhoods.
I completely fail to understand the reason for the last chapter, which boils down the author telling the reader, "My dad can beat up your dad," and, "I know Larry King." The even less substantive epilogue does nothing aside from defend the validity of the work.
However, despite the scattershot, intrusive method of the author, the stories do themselves justice. The characters, history and anecdotes of the gangsters were a fun, light read.
This book is not designed for any significantly deep understanding of either criminals or criminology. I suppose it could be best described as a combination of "Dick and Jane" primer to the true crime genre and a bizarre, misguided attempt at inspirational literature for people not happy about being Jewish. I recommend either buying it in paperback form or just borrowing it from the library, as it is worth one read, but no more.
21 of 26 people found the following review helpful
An Unfortunate (but colorful) chapter in American Jewish History. 31 Dec. 2006
By B. Wolinsky - Published on
Format: Paperback
Tough Jews is a book about Jewish gangsters, and how they pretty much faded after World War II. It leaves the reader to wonder exactly what created this phenomena and why it died out. The criminals whose stories Cohen tells, like Bugsy Siegel, Lepke Buchalter, Meyer Lansky, Kid Twist, Joe Amberg, were all products of harsh years. In this day and age, Jewish boys go to college. In the 20's and 30's it was much harder for Jews to go to college and have careers. It seems as though bootlegging and loan-sharking were a more attractive alternative to the rag trade. It seems as though Meyer Lansky slipped into crime because of a lack of opportunity, not necessarily greed. When his son said he wanted to be a gangster, Lansky replied "why would you want to do that when you can go to college!" With World War II, the GI Bill gave Jews the chance to go to college, and become doctors, lawyers, accountants, and....oh well, you know the rest!

It wasn't just poor opportunities that fostered the Jewish gangsters. Monk Eastman and Bugsy Siegel had emotional problems. Did Eastman have ADHD? His habits appear to be symptoms. Bugsy Siegel, a prolific rapist, had several characteristics that I see in kids in Special Ed. Shonder Burns, a Jewish Cleveland gangster (not mentioned in this book) may also have had "special" problems, along with an abusive childhood in Jewish orphanages. The Purple Gang of Detroit (also not mentioned) were a sick bunch. It's kind of hard to admire people like this. Then again, there was no Ritalin or Special Ed in those days, so a kid who couldn't do well in school was out of luck.

Cohen himself idolizes the Jewish gangsters, yet he admits that their world is gone. The Jews had left the Lower East Side by the 1950's, and the world of "Pretty" Amberg and Monk Eastman is long gone. Growing up, I admired gangsters. But when I asked my folks about the Jewish gangsters (rarely seen in the movies), nobody seemed to care. I guess Jews aren't proud of the Jewish gangs, any more than Italians are of Al Capone. Since Hollywood honchos like Meyer, Warner, and Goldwyn were all Jewish, they probably didn't want to draw attention to themselves with movies about gangsters named Abe and Mendy.

But maybe there is a reason why some of us admire these men. The Jewish people are often stereotyped as weak, cowardly, and timid, with an emphasis on intellect at the expense of the human body. Our history is one long parade of pogroms, expulsions, mass killings, and abuse, until 1948, when the Jews of Palestine defeated the Arab armies. It wasn't until the Israeli War of Independence that the Jews were seen as conquering heroes. Perhaps when you come from a persecuted nation, you admire those punch, kick, clobber, slash, burn, and strangle their way through life.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
When Jews ruled Brooklyn: High Style and Forgotten History 5 Feb. 2010
By L. Bravim - Published on
Format: Paperback
Tough Jews : Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams is Rich Cohen's novelistic shattering of a pervasive Jewish stereotype. None would call Abe Reles, Dutch Schultz, Meyer Lansky, Louis Lepke or Red Levine suburban or academic after reading about heyday from the 20s to the 40s. Tough Jews is not actually about gangsters. Rather, it recounts an era where Brooklyn Jews looked up to some of the toughest men in the world as their own. The Italian mob, living eternal thanks to Hollywood, had a deep respect and working partnership with the Jewish gangsters well into the 1940s. Cohen's purpose is to flesh out the Jewish identity of Holocaust victims to a tougher, more menacing one of bygone machismo during the Jazz Age and pre-war years.

Some readers will take issue with the author's glorifying men of violence, but in the end most get their due--killed in the streets, imprisoned or executed by the state. Cohen clearly worships their style, the way they carried themselves fearlessly. Larry King was among those who grew up admiring the easy confidence of Jews unafraid to flaunt law. Though the stories were mostly interesting, Cohen neglects probing more deeply into the best angles. Why did the mafia stick around for so much longer than Murder Incorporated? How was Dewey able to survive any number of life-endangering criminal busts? The Jewish gangster is almost totally unknown to popular culture. Cohen does a fair job of describing the men, but fails in connecting the dots of the before-and-after in American Jewish culture.
13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Good, but hardly great 1 May 2001
By Dr. Alan Zaremba - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Rich Cohen writes well at times. However, this book is not well edited. It's difficult to keep the gangsters straight. Too many of them surface and then disappear only to reappear fifty pages later. Even the main characters like Kid Twist and Buggsy Goldstein are not clearly delineated until the end.
Another problem with the book is that Cohen attempts to condone the behavior of the gangsters as if their actions were not inappropriate given their plight. He suggests that as immigrants evolve from outsiders into mainstream citizens they, inevitably, are required to become criminals. I like to think I'm a tough Jew, and my dad sure is, as was his father. When confronted with injustice my grandfather used to say, "By me, they wouldn't get away with it." And the "they" didn't. Yet both my grandfather, and dad would/consider the behavior of criminals unconscionable. I'm not sure that cutting up people makes one tough. Making it without succumbing to inhumane behavior, fighting the corrupt successfully when you don't have a knife in your hands, that makes one tough.
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