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Reviews Tue Jan 28 2014

Trouble in the Ghetto: Alex Garel-Frantzen's Gangsters & Organized Crime in Jewish Chicago

9781626191938_eaf3665bc64fc8592dad158a3f847a0d.jpgAs I was reading it or mentioning it to friends, I kept forgetting what, precisely, debut author Alex Garel-Frantzen's new book was called. It does feel a bit like a subtitle in search of a title, an absence of flash that's emblematic of the style of Gangsters & Organized Crime in Jewish Chicago, now out from The History Press. The writing is reminiscent of a masters thesis, although apparently it's not; the precocious Garel-Frantzen is a law student at the University of Illinois. His core assertion--that organized crime shaped the development of Chicago's Jewish community from the mid-19th century through the 1920s--is a modest one, made methodically. Fans of, say, Devil in the White City-style dramatization and trans-temporal mind-reading will not find much to engage them here.

But if Garel-Frantzen is more the meticulous academic than a natural-born storyteller, his brief volume still touches on a number of striking stories. Rather than focus on characters affiliated with big shots such as Al Capone who simply happened to be Jewish--and there certainly were a few--Garel-Frantzen spends most of his time examining forms of organized crime that were particularly bound up with Jewish community life, first in the Maxwell Street ghetto on the near South Side, and later in Lawndale.

Some passages function as a reminder that, whatever the perceived faults of urban youth today, concentrated poverty and fierce competition for any toehold on the ladder of social status are liable to produce familiar forms of misbehavior in any group, in any era. Around the turn of the 20th century, Jewish boys like many others coalesced into gang-affiliated groups as soon as they were able to leave the house alone. As they aged they developed complex pick-pocketing schemes and scrapped with other gangs on street corners. And even then, gun violence in the schools was a concern. Garel-Frantzen notes one incident in which a 12-year-old boy was accidentally shot with a gun he'd brought to school in order to attack a group of Jewish classmates.

Editorials in the Jewish and mainstream presses often laid the blame for such incidents on the children's parents, accusing them of turning a blind eye toward their offspring's gang involvement. But clearly, for Jewish adolescents, virulent anti-Semitism was also an incitement toward violence, if only in self-defense. Early on Garel-Frantzen lays out a division in Chicago's Jewish community between the German-born Reform Jews, who tended to have arrived in the city earlier and to be more integrated into gentile society, and newer, Orthodox arrivals from Poland and Russia. While religious persecution drove both waves of emigration to some extent, those arriving from Eastern Europe had often been pushed out more violently by pogroms in their home countries. Being poorer and less easily assimilated--that is, more identifiably Jewish--they now found themselves frequent targets of anti-Semitic attacks in Chicago, too. In 1919, a Polish group even announced plans to stage its very own pogrom in Douglas Park; they were deterred by police presence but also, reportedly, by unarmed Jewish boys who stood ready to defend their community.

For the newer immigrants especially, assimilation--and protection--often meant joining the impressive web of organized crime, bribery, and relationships with police and politicians that suffused the edges of the Loop throughout the 1920s. They didn't necessarily leave their congregations to do so, either: a major scandal of 1909 involved the refusal of one Orthodox congregation to remove from its presidency one Julius Frank, accused with his brother of fostering prostitution at the saloons they owned.

Incidents such as these further fueled tensions between Orthodox and Reform Jews, the latter of whom viewed Orthodox criminals as bringing shame on the entire Jewish community. (Meanwhile, the former shot back that Reform Jews were barely worthy of the name in the first place.) The threat of a bad reputation sometimes merged with more immediate dangers. In 1913, a pair of Chicago Tribune staffers intending to publish an exposé of a Maxwell Street gambling house found themselves pursued by patrons alarmed by their flashbulbs and fired into the crowd, severely wounding young Russian Jew Alexander Belford.

Some of the most interesting stories in Gangsters involve food and drink, both important to Jewish practice. Labor racketeering among trade groups such as ritual slaughterers and kosher bakers resulted in dramatic episodes of kerosene poured into vats of dough and even a 1912 riot of Lawndale housewives against a proposed increase in the price of bread. Jewish dietary traditions also intersected with the world of bootleggers in the 1920s. A loophole in the Volstead act allowed rabbis (and Catholic clergymen) to allot sacramental-wine permits to congregation members. Predictably enough, this engendered an entire underground wine market built on permits issued to people who were often dead, long moved away, or assigned to nonexistent congregations.

In these cases, religious ritual directly shaped the forms crime took in a community. But most of Gangsters is equally a story about immigration, poverty, and Chicago's byzantine native forms of corruption as it is about Jewish criminals in particular. However soberly told, it reveals a particularly heady time and place in the city's history.

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