“Wherefore it is not astonishing that with a million Hebrews, mostly Russian, in the city (one quarter of its population), perhaps half the criminals should be of that race….”
—New York City Police Commissioner Theodore A. Bingham.
Published in an august magazine in September 1908, Commissioner Bingham’s words sent New York’s Jews into a tizzy of communal outrage. The Sulzbergers and Guggenheims from wealthy German-Jewish uptown joined forces with their poorer, downtown Russian kinsmen to exact retribution for the slur. The uneasy alliance succeeded: Bingham withdrew his remarks.
But the community remained shell-shocked. The next year, delegates created the New York Kehilla (literally “community”) to address Jewish criminality. And in 1912, rocked again by Jewish gangster scandals, its wealthy German leaders approached private investigator Abe Shoenfeld to pace the streets of the Jewish Lower East Side, spy on its gangsters, and report back to the Kehilla’s “Bureau of Social Morals.”
Over the next five years Shoenfeld and his agents infiltrated all the criminal haunts and hangouts of the Lower East Side: places like Gluckow’s Odessa Tea House, Sam Boske’s Hop Joint, and Dora Gold’s candy store. They filed detailed accounts of nefarious activities—the what, where, and who—dredging up names such as Dinny Slyfox, Dopey Benny, Waxey Gordon, and Pinchy Paul.
In the process, Shoenfeld’s team compiled a catalogue of Jewish gangster slang—colloquialisms either coined or in everyday use by the denizens of the Jewish underworld. Most of the terms listed below come from Shoenfeld’s reports, a few others from contemporary police records. Together, they form an unorthodox vocabulary….
Booster — Female specialist in pilfering from department stores.
Cadet — Pimp.
Prostitution was a major industry for Jewish criminals and the moral scourge that most horrified respectable Jews. Its chief villain was the cadet—a young man who “secures a staff of girls and lives upon their earnings. He dresses better than the ordinary neighborhood boy, wears an abundance of cheap jewelry, and he usually cultivates a limited amount of gentlemanly demeanor.”
Chanele — Tender-hearted prostitute. (Diminutive of “Chana,” and possibly a play on “Chonte”—Yiddish for “prostitute”).
If a woman called out to you on the streets of the Lower East Side, one resident recalled, “she wasn’t calling you to a minyan.” Some sex workers displayed remarkable professional vigor. Maimie and Lizzie of 143 Allen Street each slept with ten customers a day for 25 years. Shoenfeld calculated that between them they had spread syphilis to over fifty thousand men.
Doorman — One who warns gamblers or brothel-keepers of trouble.
Fagin — Organizer of young pickpockets. (From the character Fagin—the Jewish king of pickpockets—in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist). Pickpocket bosses like Dopey Benny trained their charges in the art of grafting by running schools or “cheders.” One such teacher was so kind to his “talmidim” that he seemed less like a criminal and “more like a rabbi.”
The trade in stolen goods was an extraordinarily lucrative business. Queen of the fences was “Mother” Fredrika Mandelbaum, a rotund little lady who ran an enormous thievery operation. “I am Ma because I give [thieves] what a mother cannot sometimes give—money and horses and diamonds,” said Mandelbaum. “When they call me Ma I know they are happy.”
Gangster — Full-fledged member of a criminal gang.
Guerilla — Strong arm man, enforcer.
Violence was the stock in trade of all criminal organizations, its bread and batter. Extortion came in many forms and few businesses escaped. Gangsters even hired out their services to management and labor, acting as strike breakers or enforcers depending on who was paying. Big Jack Zelig charged $10 for a knife slash across the cheeks, $25 for a bullet in the leg, and $50 for a bombing.
If the ultimate form of persuasion was called for, a few hundred dollars would get you the services of gunmen like Samuel “Red” Levine—a strictly Orthodox killer who wore a skull cap and never murdered on the Sabbath.
Gun — Pickpocket and all-around thief. (Probably derived from “Gonif,” Yiddish for “thief”).
Particularly notable among the “guns” of the period were the Schorr brothers—Sam, Max, and Ikie. The Schorrs would make the rounds of Jewish weddings and funerals, bumping up against the guests during the ceremony and pocketing their valuables.
Gun-mol — Woman pickpocket.
No one could out-filch Stiff Rivka, gun-mol par excellence. During the Jewish High Holidays, Stiff Rivka would grab a front-row seat in synagogue, then “single out a woman bedecked and like the cracker thief she is, make a play for her.” As women worshippers left the synagogue at the end of services, Rivka would jostle her victim and make off with a shiny brooch or necklace.
Kishkes — Gutsy, one who doesn’t give in to extortion. (Literally “Guts” in Yiddish).
Mack — Pimp.
Some pimps became large-scale procurers. Motche Goldberg (“King of the Vice Trust”) owned eight houses of ill-repute and controlled hundreds of women. Such sophisticated operations gave rise to a fear of an international, Jewish-controlled “white-slave” trade led by the “Kaftan”—an über-pimp who “comes out of Galicia….with his white face and his long beard—the badge of his ancient faith.”
As evidence, the forces of moral outrage pointed to the New York Independent Benevolent Association, which supposedly acted as a front for a sex-slaving syndicate. The Association was in fact a burial and mutual-aid society for those involved in the sex trade and other underworld activities—Jews whom the community had ostracized.
Nafke bias — Whorehouse.
“Almost any child on the East Side in New York will tell you what a ‘nafke bias’ is,” reads a turn of the century report on prostitution.
Of all the brothels, “Mother” Rosie Hertz’ was perhaps the most successful. She wore a wig “as a pious Jewess would,” and “talked to God and of God most of the time,” while being, according to Shoenfeld, “one of the most notorious breeders and incubators of prostitutes this city ever had.”
Pipe Fiend — Opium smoker.
The Lower East Side was littered with opium dens, where Jewish criminals came both to relax and do business. The scandal that prompted the Kehilla to hire Shoenfeld revolved around a follicly-challenged opium-den keeper named Billiard Ball Jack Rose. Rose hired murderers to rub out another underworld operator as a favor to a high-ranking city official. The plot was exposed and with it the sordid cooperation between Jewish gangsters and Tammany Hall. The Kehilla was forced into action.
Rabbi — Underworld boss.
Actual rabbis played their own part in Jewish organized crime. Prohibition legislation exempted Kiddush wine from the alcohol ban, provided the rabbi had a valid permit. Within months of prohibition’s passage, sacramental wine became one of the nation’s major sources of illegal hooch. Rabbis sold their permits to bootleggers, certified bogus rabbis, or created fake congregations—known as “wine synagogues”—solely to acquire alcohol. The problem got so out of hand that the state of New York sent investigators into Jewish neighborhoods to discover why there had been “such a remarkable increase in the thirst for religion.”
Schlamme – Strong-arm man. (From the practice of beating a victim with a length of pipe rolled up in a newspaper).
The practice of “schlamming” union scabs or strikers was well established by the 1930’s, when
Jewish communal leaders approached Meyer Lansky to apply the same tactics to pro-Nazi rallies. Ever the faithful Jew, Lansky and his goons set about breaking up Nazi meetings, trusty pipe and newspaper in hand.
Shomis — Detective. (Yiddish for Hebrew “Shamash”—the lowly synagogue caretaker—and therefore a term of contempt).
Shtarke — Strong-arm man (from Yiddish “shtark” for “strong”).
The kosher poultry business was a popular target for strong arm tactics. Slaughterers who did not comply with mob-enforced price-fixing were gunned down, their homes and offices wrecked. Some of these slaughterers (“shochtim”) got so sick of being shaken down by union “agent” Arthur “Tootsie” Herbert they composed a derogatory ditty, sung to the tune of “Sing a Song of Blackbirds”:
“Sing a song of shochtim, how we love to sing
Four and twenty gangsters, done up in a sling
When the markets opened, Tootsie came around
And all the people ponied up one cent a pound.”
Shylock — Loan shark (from Shakespeare’s infamous moneylender in The Merchant of Venice).
Simcha — Pimp. (Man’s name in Hebrew. Literally means “Joyous celebration,” such as a wedding or bar mitzvah).
Smack — Heroin. (From Yiddish “shmeck” meaning “taste”).
Jews were heavily involved in the international heroin trade. Arnold Rothstein set up the first major heroin smuggling operation. And Jacob “Yashe” Katzberg became such an expert at smuggling Asian heroin into the United States that the League of Nations branded him an “international menace.” Louis “Lepke” Buchalter eventually muscled in on the ring and was soon importing thousands of pounds of heroin a year.
Trombenik — Ne’er-do-well, deadbeat.
Presumably, anyone so labeled was not long for this world.