Myron Sugerman grew up in Maplewood as the son of Barney Sugerman, a man who partnered in the gambling business with such notorious mob figures as Meyer Lansky and fellow Jerseyan Abner “Longie” Zwillman.
As an adult, Sugerman followed his father into the world of illegal gambling and wound up serving 19 months at the Federal Correctional Complex in Allenwood, Pa., after being convicted on gambling charges.
But he sees the Jewish mobsters who once dominated Newark and other American cities as heroes, not villains — especially in their fight against anti-Semitism and for the birth of Israel.
“If a Palestinian Jew was born here, he’d be a gangster,” he told NJ Jewish News during a lunchtime interview in an Italian restaurant in Caldwell. “If a gangster was born there he would have been a patriot. The Jewish mob in the U.S. was necessary for the creation of Israel, and I’ll go further: If there was a Jewish mob in Munich in 1923 and shot that little f–k Hitler, history would have been a hell of a lot different.”
Sugerman will deliver that message — probably without the profanity — when he speaks on “A History of Jews and the Mob” on Monday evening, Sept. 19, at Chabad of West Orange, where he attends Shabbat services each week.
“What the Jewish mob did was for the betterment of the Jewish people,” he said, pointing specifically to the Newark-born Zwillman, who began his gang ties running illegal alcohol after it was banned during Prohibition. In time he would expand his empire to include illegal gambling, prostitution, and labor racketeering. But to Sugerman, “Longie Zwillman was a great man.”
“They called the Jewish mob ‘the syndicate,’” he said. “They were heroes here in the U.S. during the ’30s.” They were also friends of his father, who, he said, told him about their exploits “with bedtime stories. Other people gave their kids lullabies. Not my father. He told me about the Minutemen,” Jewish vigilantes who took violent aim at local Nazi sympathizers in Irvington, Union, Springfield, and Hillside.
The man who formed the Minutemen was a Newark boxer named Nat Arno (born Sidney Nathaniel Abramowitz) who secretly worked with the United States government to infiltrate and break up the Nazi Bund meetings on the east coast.
“These Nazis started harassing Jews,” said Sugerman. “So Arno went to Longie, who called a meeting of his associates on Newark’s East Side and agreed to take on the Bund members.” Any time there was going to be a gathering of the Bundists, Zwillman would make sure the Minutemen knew about it, said Sugerman, adding, “So the Jews went in and kicked the s–t out of the Nazis. They didn’t fight back. They gave up. All of my father’s friends participated.”
He declared there was nothing negative about such actions by Jewish “mob guys.”
“They protected the ghettos in Newark, New York, Detroit, Minneapolis, wherever,” said Sugerman. “Any time the goyim came to beat up the Jews, the Jewish guys beat up the goyim. They protected the neighborhood. They beat up the Nazis and eventually got rid of them. They had leadership — and they had money from Prohibition.”
After World War II, as European Jews began fighting for a homeland in Palestine, American-Jewish mobsters came to their aid.
In 1946 David Ben Gurion sent Reuven Zaslanski, the first director of the Mossad, to meet with all the “legitimate Jewish organizations” in the United States to ask for funds to help the underground Jewish forces fighting the Arabs in Palestine, Sugerman said.
“You know what all these legitimate organizations told him? ‘Take a walk. We don’t want to get involved.’” These organizations, Sugerman said, were more concerned about violating the neutrality acts passed by Congress in the 1930s to keep the United States out of conflicts.
“You know what came next? Ben Gurion himself came over here and went to see a very wealthy Jewish man named Rudolf Sonneborn,” said Sugerman. He gathered a small group of Jewish activists in his apartment, and at Ben-Gurion’s request, they agreed to supply arms to the Hagana. And while these activists “were legitimate guys,” said Sugerman, “they worked hand-in-hand with Meyer Lansky and Longie Zwillman and [crime boss] Frank Costello so they could ship the weapons to Palestine.”
How did they get by the authorities? “They would declare dynamite as fertilizer. They would also buy up surplus trucks, jeeps, arms, and ammunition from the filled warehouses of postwar America. Longie Zwillman and Frank Costello had the connections on the New York piers.”
To Sugerman, the Jewish mob and many of its Italian allies were valuable members of the community. “If there are negative things about gangsters, I’m not there to tell that story.”
These days, Sugerman, who lives in Montclair, spends a lot of time lecturing on the Jewish mob. He said he earns a living with “gambling machine interests overseas.”
One might think that a history of Jewish gangsters might not be an appropriate topic for an institution like Chabad.
But the West Orange Chabad’s Rabbi Mendy Kasowitz disagrees. In an Aug. 23 e-mail to NJ Jewish News, he wrote, “The subject deals with very important history. The Jewish mob played a major role for the betterment of the welfare of the Jewish people.”