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.

In its first season, Boardwalk Empire portrayed two prominent Jewish gangsters—Meyer Lansky and Arnold Rothstein. Though they're gangsters, and transcend the stereotype of the Shtetl Jew on that alone, they're also some of the most calm, collected, and cerebral characters in the series. Rothstein's nickname was "The Brain", and Lansky, who was the main inspiration for Hyman Roth in The Godfather: Part II, is often portrayed with rabbinical qualities—the wise old man who views the underworld as a chess game. Bugsy, in contrast, is far from the rabbi. In the words of Zegen, "He's a sadistic murderer and rapist." It's these qualities, as ugly as they are, that make him so intriguing.

"It's awesome because Bugsy was one of the worst," said Zegen. "He had a bad temper. They would say, 'Go kill someone', and he would do it because he liked it." Zegen stopped to take a sip of tea and smiled, "I'd like to kill someone." And I agreed. Onscreen, of course, where you could still feel the weight of the gun, pull the trigger, and leave the set without any guilt.

Zegen isn't exactly sure how big a part he'll play this season—which premieres in September—or if it'll continue into the third. But from what they've already shot, he plays a young Ben Siegel under the wing of Meyer Lansky and Arnold Rothstein. "We were in a room doing a table reading." Said Zegen "[Steve] Buscemi tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'You did a great job.' I told him I hadn't done much research, but he said, 'Just make it your own.'" And considering there's very little research available on Bugsy's early years, that's exactly what Zegen will have to do. But the act of 'Making it your own" as Buscemi put it, is all the more tantalizing for an actor, and a Jew, who never had to own that life to begin with.

The era of the Jewish Gangster—of Bugsy, Meyer, Arnold, Gurrah, and Reles—was never meant to be repeated. Where their Italian counterparts foresaw future generations referring to "This thing of ours", the Jewish gangster saw their children saying "That thing of theirs". Rich Cohen explains in Tough Jews, "For Jewish gangsters, crime was a ladder they pulled up behind them, a one-way 'this generation only' shortcut to power." And even though the ladder has been pulled, and it's been 80 years since they ran moonshine across New York and Sam Elias took a baseball bat to some guy's head, Zegen found a way back up.