I was 12 years old and it was a Friday night. The roast chicken was long gone but I was still sitting at the dinner table, everyone except for my grandfather had moved to the more comfortable overstuffed couches and the warm, welcoming glow of the television.
‘Pops’ sat before me shuffling the cards as if they were extensions of his being. One by one he propelled them across the table towards me until I had five. I sat looking up at my grandfather with an awe reserved only for him. He had a glass of whiskey in his hand with precisely three ice cubes gently dissolving in the golden nectar, the smell of which I would one day grow to love as much as him in time. But not yet.
“Always own the game” he said to me. He wagged a finger in the air as he spoke, the toothpick in his mouth didn’t affect his speech but seemed to accentuate his words. I was confused. How do you own a game? I thought to myself. But I would never have interrupted him. The game was five card stud, the chips were plastic houses stolen from a game of monopoly.
“Meyer Lansky always said, don’t play the game, own the game!” He said before moving for another sip from his glass. “He learnt that lesson when he was just a boy and he got chupped by some Irish kids when he was supposed to be getting his chulent warmed by the local baker.”
I thought many times of this young Meyer walking through the slums of Lower East Side Manhattan and getting attracted to a crooked game of craps being played out on the streets. I can’t imagine the shame he must have felt going home empty handed to the tenement apartment he shared with his little brother, mother and father and telling them that they wouldn’t be able to eat because of him.
I lapped up each and every one of those stories and started reading about these strange Jews for myself. Names like Tick Tock Tennanbaum, Arnold “The Brain” Rothstein, “Dutch Schultz” and Louis “Lepke” Buchalter fascinated me. But none more than Meyer Lansky and Benny “Bugsy” Siegal (but you better not call him Bugsy to his face).
These names have passed into the realm of myth, not just for the amount of power and wealth they were able to amass but for their unflinching attitude towards authority. These men were the princes of prohibition.
I was so engrossed in the subject I even wrote my Bachelor’s thesis on Jewish Organised Crime in New York 1920-40. The more people I spoke to about it the more they rushed to tell me of some small part their grandfather, great uncle or other obscure member of the family played in the lives of these Jewish Godfathers. All saying so with pride, with a smile on their face. These Jews were tough Jews. And somehow that held a great deal of meaning for me and everyone I spoke to.
These men, these Jewish crooks had evaded (though not destroyed) the Jewish stereotype. They were Jews who weren’t weak, they were Jews who weren’t afraid. They didn’t fall into the stereotype of the glasses wearing, weak Jew who was fertile ground for bullies.
They didn’t fall into the category of Jews going to the gas chambers either. They were Jews of the new world and they were determined not to suffer as their ancestors had.
There was something intoxicating about that kind of power. The kind of power which makes any thought of anti-Semitism seem nonsensical, it was the Jew haters who were scared. So when Israel came into my consciousness it was the same kind of feeling that I felt for Israelis, these sun bronzed warriors who had shed the ghetto Jew mentality, who had found a way to stand up to those who wanted to destroy them. That was what I wanted to do too, perhaps that’s why I wanted to join the IDF so badly, to serve in as combat oriented a unit as I could.
Then I grew up a little more and I realized a greater truth, that the only stereotypes about Jews that matter are the ones I carry around with me. That Jewish murderers and rapists and thieves were not people to be proud of.
But a guilty pang of pride still wells up inside me whenever I hear the name Meyer Lansky and I remember his words as echoed by my Grandfather. “Don’t play the game, own the game” and I wonder if the game he meant is that game I live each and every day.