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Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams

3.78  ·  Rating Details  ·  598 Ratings  ·  55 Reviews
In an L.A. delicatessen, a group of Brooklyn natives gets together to discuss basketball, boxing, the weather back east, and the Jewish gangsters of yesteryear. Meyer Lansky. Bugsy Siegel. Louis Lepke, the self-effacing mastermind of Murder, Inc. Red Levine, the Orthodox hit man who refused to kill on the Sabbath. Abe "Kid Twist" Reles, who looked like a mama's boy but onc ...more
Paperback, 304 pages
Published April 20th 1999 by Vintage (first published January 1st 1998)
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35th out of 76 books — 54 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 1,313)
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Mar 18, 2013 Michelle rated it it was amazing
Oy. This is not an easy review to write because it's going to sound like I am enchanted by or wanting to defend the organized killers chronicled in Tough Jews, and I am neither enchanted by nor wanting to defend. However...

Rich Cohen has not glamorized the actions of the Jewish American gangster, yes Jewish, American gangster in any way, yet I find Cohen, his father, his father's friends, and myself owning a degree of admiration for a group of young Jews who had not yet heard that we were suppos
Alex Yalen
Nov 30, 2012 Alex Yalen rated it it was amazing
Shelves: crime, nonfic
One can't and shouldn't condone crime, but it's by-god outstanding to find a book that allows us Jews to have more traits than just "the brain" or "the accountant" or "the Holocaust victim."

Unlike shit like MUNICH, where a bunch of Mossad officers get mopey about killing the fine folk who blew up Israeli athletes (can you actually imagine Mossad officers being upset or conflicted about doing this? Because I fucking can't) this book celebrates in a folk-hero way the lives of Jewish outlaws who r
Okay, Cohen can write. His prose is fantastic -- moody and evocative and memorable. I loved his book on Da Bears, for example, and ask me how much I care about football. His style particularly well-suited to dreamy remembrances about gritty New York gangsters and days long gone.

But. A++ prose aside, I'm not sure where to even start with the problems I had with this book. It's definitely not about Jewish gangsters, so much as it is about Rich Cohen and his love affair with Jewish gangsters. In th
Robert Rubenstein
Nov 05, 2010 Robert Rubenstein rated it really liked it
This is the one that talks about what we heard in the whispered conversations of our fathers. While we kept our hands clean, they knew about the unclean, savage race that fought for dominance in the streets of the ghetto. Tough Jews is off the charts. But that was my first reaction. Finishing the book, however, I am left disappointed. Cohen veers off a straight course to an
unsafe wilderness. He delivers, ultimately, a double cross. I felt I was riding shotgun. My best friend behind me when up c
J.H Gaines
Jun 21, 2012 J.H Gaines rated it it was amazing
Another great crime book and insight into america in the early part of the century. If your looking for a no hold barred book then this is it.
before the Italian Mafia there was the Jewish Mafia, men like Arnold Rothstein who mixed in circles both high and low in society.
the book is easy to read and does not confuse you, it is more enjoyable if you already have some knowledge of the USA or New York crime scene, many of the well known names are mentioned, Lansky, Bugsy, Luciano and Capone.
Very enj
Oct 25, 2007 Seán rated it it was ok
If one wants to really learn something about Jewish gangsters, I recommend they pick up Albert Fried's Rise and Fall of the Jewish Gangster or Nick Tosches' King of the Jews (scholarly and literary contemplation of Arnold Rothstein). Those are terrific works; Cohen's book ain't.

My chief complaint? How Cohen bookended things with enervating tales about his father and his father's cohort of ancient ex-Brooklynites, who, although they haven't lived in New York for over sixty years, like to pretend
Sep 27, 2014 Emma rated it really liked it
Excellent book, though the style might not be to everyone's taste as it was mine. As much as it is about the generation of Lepke & Gurrah, and of the 20s/30s heyday of New York City gangsters... It is also about 4 generations of Jewish Americans: the first generation immigrants; the generation split between the straight arrows and the gangsters (amongst many other divisions); the children of that generation, who may have inherited (if you believe Cohen) the gangster ethos if not the tactics; ...more
Nov 27, 2015 Still rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Organized Crime and True Crime enthusiasts

Thorough and engaging account of the Jewish gangsters stretching from the early 20th century all the way up until shortly after World War II.
Special focus is given to the activities of the hit-for-hire organization Murder, Inc started by Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, Albert Anastasia, Aniello Dellacroce, Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, and the unforgettable Abe "Kid Twist" Reles.

These were the glory days of Murder Inc. If the gang were a rock band, this is when they would record most of their hits. If they
Dec 25, 2007 Max rated it did not like it
What should/could have been a research novel about the transformation of the American Jew from gangster to nebbish in pop culture instead is a series of anecdotes without factual weight. The author's attempt to honor his father's stories and memories is undercut by his lack of hard facts and biographies of some notable and fascinating characters. The "tough Jews" that were the precursors to the Italian Mafia deserve better.
Jonathan Meola
Apr 13, 2014 Jonathan Meola rated it it was amazing
The author does an exemplary job of putting together a history of this little known, and almost forgotten chapter in American Jewish history. The stories captured within take the reader on a journey through long-gone neighborhood hangouts & street corners across New York City, populated with a cast of characters straight out of a Damon Runyon tale.
May 29, 2016 Chrissy rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2016-books
I was blown away by how much I enjoyed this book. A non-fiction about real life gangsters that inspired a lot of the "Mafia style" we know today. Buried beneath the glamour and the grit of the glamorous life of the Jewish Gangster, I also got a sense of what it must have looked like for the Jewish and Italian people during the start of the century who were early immigrants to America. I've never been more excited to devour a book like this before and in a way, I'm craving for more. The writing s ...more
Sep 28, 2014 Steve rated it it was amazing
Doctor, Lawyer or...Gangster. The history of the Eastern European Jews who lived down in the Bowery and Brooklyn and ran a criminal Empire. Murder Inc before it was a record label was the name of the Jewish for Hire Assassins of Brownsville Brooklyn. Bugsy Siegel invented Vegas, Lansky the brains, Tick Tock, brutal, efficient ....then walked away from the life after WW2
Jul 21, 2014 Melissa rated it liked it
This was an extremely interesting book that taught me different historical facts that I was unaware of prior to reading the book. However, the author definitely has a case of ADD. Nothing seemed to flow. The story seemed to lack a chronological element that it needs to make the story easy to follow and he would just bring someone else into the story out of nowhere without explaining who they were. Had the flow of the story been better, and the characters easier to follow, my rating would have be ...more
An OK analysis of the Jewish Mobsters of the 20's and 30's. Focusing mainly on Murder Inc, Abe Reles, Many Weiss et al along with Lepke Buchalter it does spend a little bit of time on Meyer Lansky, Dutch Schultz and Bugsy Siegel. It just doesn't have a detailed story line of any one gang just kind of an overall storyline of these were the Jewish Gangsters until they faded from the scene by going to jail, the electric chair or in the case of Lansky dying in jail.
Chas Bayfield
Nov 07, 2014 Chas Bayfield rated it really liked it
Who knew? Anyone thinking New York and Chicago tough guys were all Italian think again. Welcome Meyer Lansky. Bugsy Siegel. Louis Lepke et al who shoot bash and whack like the rest of them. You'll never think of Jewish people the same again.
Dan Cohen
Jun 06, 2016 Dan Cohen rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
An entertaining book about Murder Inc. but also about the author's relationship with his father and the fascination of Jews leading more conventional lives with the behaviour of some of their less conventional forebears. Worth a read.
Doctor Sax
Nov 09, 2012 Doctor Sax rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really enjoyed this read! After reading volumes of material about the Italian mafia, it was re-freshing to finally learn about another ethnic culture who contributed to organized crime. The gang from Murder Inc. including Abe Reles, Harry Strauss, Bugsy Goldstein & Siegel are just a few of the heavies who give this chronicle all the flavor it needs. Not the most comprehensive mob book, but it is the most conprehensive Jewish mob book I have ever digested. Cohen writes from the position of ...more
Dec 17, 2014 Laurie rated it it was ok
can't get into it. Every time I think the story is starting to pick up, he wanders off in some other direction. Could have been an interesting novel.
Doug Cordova
Sep 02, 2015 Doug Cordova rated it it was amazing
Great read into a part of the mafia that many people do not know about.
Apr 15, 2015 Rebecca rated it it was amazing
this is, without a doubt, one of my FAVORITE books. absolutely fascinating!
Mar 24, 2015 Lenny rated it it was amazing
Informative book about all the Jewish gangsters from Bensonhurst New York.
Feb 08, 2015 Dov rated it really liked it
An enjoyable shabbos read and my neigborhood.
Jack B
Feb 18, 2015 Jack B added it
January 30th: 30 min
January 31st: 30 min
February 1st: 30 min

2/6: 30 min
2/7: 30 min
2/8: 30 min

2/14: 90 min
- I initially put my reviews on the comment section. That is probably why you missed it.
Jul 27, 2014 Lb rated it it was ok
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Sep 17, 2010 Noah rated it it was amazing
This book probably could have shed about eighty pages (I seem to say that about a lot of books, which says something about either bloat in nonfiction publishing or my attention span), but it's a fascinating spotlight on a mostly-forgotten era. Cohen has an eye for detail and uses it to develop his characters and create a great sense of place, putting you right there at a union strike in the Garment District or on a Brooklyn street corner. If a book about Jewish gangsters sounds at least a little ...more
it's hard to rate this book. i read it years ago when i was in college and it didn't resonate the same way with me as it did now that i am older, have had a little more time to think about my relation to judaism and antisemitism, and the past. yes, cohen does lionize some pretty terrible men, but he does it in a way that makes it... understandable. written more like a novella about these men than a history book, it's easy to be swept into the violent world of the 1920s and 30s, and feel like you ...more
Emeka Uwam
Sep 27, 2015 Emeka Uwam marked it as to-read
Good and incisive
Sep 09, 2007 Jared rated it really liked it
Awesome book about mid-level Jewish Gangsters. The most interesting aspect of this book is that it put its focus on the mafia soldiers instead of the leaders. Only criticism is that the author tries to relate this back to his father and Larry King, which is a distraction from the story. Who really cares that his dad grew up in the same neighborhood as these guys, hung out with Larry King, and idolized these gangsters.
Sep 01, 2012 Eddie rated it really liked it
Who knew that I lived in the neighborhoods that this book discusses? I never learned about any of these gangsters from my parents. In fact, it wasn't until The Godfather that I learned about some of them. A very interesting book about a period in American history that is never gone over in schools, especially in Jewish neighborhoods of New York. These mobsters are all but forgotten.
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RICH COHEN is the author of Sweet and Low (FSG, 2006), Tough Jews, The Avengers, The Record Men, and the memoir Lake Effect. His work has appeared in many major publications, and he is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. He lives with his family in Connecticut.

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“The way the kids of immigrants heard about America, you would think it was not down the stairs and out the door but still across the ocean, a distant place where everything is promised and, for hard work, everything is given. From the day he left his parents' house, Abe [Reles] had to know his father was right, that America promises everything, but he also had to know his father was wrong--America gives nothing. Those things that are promised, they cannot be worked for but must be taken, conned away with good looks, obsequiousness, mimicry; or traded for with bit of your soul or the morals of the stories your parents told; or tricked away with lies; or wrested away with brute force.” 3 likes
“Where you end up is the thing, not how you get there. How you get there, that’s just something to be debated by the suckers who never make it out.” 1 likes
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