By JONATHAN WOLFMAN
Needless to say, Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky are and will remain the most famous Jewish mobsters in the strange and horrid pantheon of American organized crime. Their peculiar and vicious lunacies are remarkably well portrayed by Warren Beatty and by the incomparable Lee Strasberg. And yet Bugsy and The Godfather, Part II are the extent of most Americans’ familiarity with that crowd. And, in any case, far and away the finest film of the genre is, ironically, not one of these but is the lesser-known Robert De Niro/James Woods/Elizabeth McGovern epic, Director Sergio Leone’s 1984 masterwork, Once Upon A Time In America.
Now, I’ve no desire go all pedantic on you and survey the careers of all the Jewish gangsters whose names would have been familiar to a Michael Corleone, notorious, terrible men such as, say, Vegas’ Morris (Moe) Dalitz. Nor will I run a list for you of, say, Detroit’s old Purple Gang, many of whom celebrated the Jewish Sabbath to one extent or another. Suffice to say that Italian-Americans and Jewish-Americans shared a weird, complex organized criminal and very American history and often very odd, parallel religious lives as well.
In this vein I think of Detroit’s old, notorious Purple Gang and one Irving “Slick” Shapiro, a man who brought some particularly strange ethical standards to his chosen line of work. You and I clucked our tongues and shook our heads in darkened theaters each time a Corleone family member betrayed raw and sincere feelings of familial caring one moment and ordered hits the next. Clemenza’s “Leave the gun/take the canolis” is just one of dozens of examples. Hyman Roth’s “More than anyone, I loved him,” wherein Lee Strasberg’s Hyman Roth/Meyer Lansky mourns the murder of Moe Green/Bugsy Siegal to Michael Corleone, who had Green shot through the eye, is another.
I think of Slick Shapiro, specifically, for another reason.
It is said of him that as ruthless and efficient a killer as Irving Shapiro was, he would not take a contract if it would have him carry out a hit, or even travel to fulfill a contract, on Shabbat, Friday to Saturday, sundown to sundown. Shapiro felt similarly about our two High Holy Days, our New Year, Rosh Hashana, and our Day of Attonement 10 days on, Yom Kippur.
The rest of the calendar he was ready for assignment, open for hire, but on those days, fuggeddaboudit; he was unavailable.
And what’s even more nutty is that he wasn’t, apparently, alone among 20th century Jewish mobsters in this and, nuttier still, his Italian-American and other associates appear to have respected Slick’s weird wet-work ethic. Genuinely respected it.
Irving Shapiro’s heyday was well gone by the 1980s. And then, so was he. Slick’s eternal slate, of course, can’t come close to having been cleansed by his tip of the hat to a few holidays and the Sabbath. And yet it does suggest that even some the most vicious killers, men raised in certain compelling ethnic/religious traditions.
Irving Shapiro and his cronies murdered at least 500 men in their day.
These men seemed oddly intent on honoring their traditions even as they slit your throat, ear-to-ear.