The Allure of the Jewish Tough Guy, From 'Exodus' to 'Boardwalk Empire'

The notorious Bugsy Siegel is returning to the screen in the upcoming season of Boardwalk Empire, the latest in a long line of characters who defy Jewish stereotypes


FX, AP Images

I once heard a story about my great-grandfather, Sam Elias, a former boxer from Salonika who came to New York in the early 1900s. He was taking my grandfather and family to a baseball game between "The Boys of New Lots" and "The Boys of Bensonhurst." On their way in, Sam's brother-in-law, Dave, ran up and stopped them. He had just lost money to a group of gamblers across the street and suspected they were using loaded dice. Sam told his wife to take the kids down the street. As my grandfather was led away by his mother, he turned around to see his father beating the crooked gamblers in the face with a baseball bat. I love that story.

There's a theme that runs through every generation of American Jewish youths. We're captivated by members of the tribe who, through their work, profession, or general behavior, transcend the stereotypes we associate with Jewry: the Shtetl Jew, the bread lines in the ghetto, the arrival trains in Auschwitz. It's that feeling you get when you pass Koufax's plaque at Cooperstown, when you first read Exodus, or when your carpenter mentions his son's bar mitzvah. For me, it was most apparent when I learned about the Jewish gangster. They were a breed of thugs born out of the tough immigrant streets of the Lower East Side and Brooklyn in the late 1800s. They made a name for themselves during Prohibition, created notorious clans like Murder Inc, and ultimately fell into obscurity with upward mobility.

When I opened Rich Cohen's Tough Jews, a book that depicts the life and impact of its title characters, it was like a scholar opening the Talmud. Other pieces of film or literature, like Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America and James Toback's Bugsy were equally as intriguing. I even read The Great Gatsby for a second time to try and fully understand Fitzgerald's depiction of Wolfsheim. And this all explains why I'm so envious of Michael Zegen.

Zegen, a young Jewish actor from the suburbs of Jersey, will be playing Bugsy Siegel in the second season of HBO's Boardwalk Empire. Ben Siegel, nicknamed Bugsy because people said he was crazier than a bedbug, is one of the most infamous Jewish gangsters. His life story is a mix of fact, fiction, and tragedy, and his murder came before he could see the full fruition of his dream—turning a patch of Nevada desert into a profitable gambling Mecca.

I felt compelled to meet Zegen when a mutual friend told me he would be playing the part. I'd never heard of him, nor had I seen him in Rescue Me, the FX show where he had a reoccurring role. In fact, I didn't much care about the previous work he'd done, or the roles he might be offered post-Boardwalk. I only cared about Bugsy, and the fact that a kid who grew up in a town much like mine, with a narrow and fragile frame much like mine, would get closer to the Jewish underworld than I'd ever been.

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Jeremy Elias is a freelance writer and digital advertising professional living in New York City. His work has been published in the Jerusalem Post, Huffington Post, Penthouse magazine, and Business Insider.

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