After losing his parents to cancer nearly two decades ago, Ron Arons set aside his career as a marketer of high-tech products to begin researching his family’s history. One startling discovery — that his great-grandfather Isaac Spier served four years in prison for bigamy — launched him into the writing of The Jews of Sing Sing: Gotham Gangsters and Gonuvim.
Between May 23 and June 2, Arons will be speaking about his book and his newest ventures at a variety of Jewish venues in New Jersey.
He discussed his book with NJ Jewish News April 14 in a telephone interview from his home in Oakland, Calif.
NJJN: How long was your great-grandfather in prison and what were the conditions like for him?
Arons: Four years. That was not uncommon for that crime. The old cell block was made of marble. I don’t think they had heating. It was very cold in the winter.
NJJN: Was incarceration there any harder for Jewish prisoners than for others?
Arons: I have no anecdotal evidence of anti-Semitism at any point in Sing Sing. But there may have been.
NJJN: Did you find that Jews commit any particular types of crimes?
Arons: Jews were in Sing Sing for everything you can name, but nearly 70 percent of those I looked at were in for just three things — burglary, grand larceny, and robbery. Certainly, Jews were in for homicide, but in comparison with their Italian and Irish counterparts, far less so.
NJJN: Weren’t Julius and Ethel Rosenberg electrocuted there for espionage?
Arons: Yes. There were 614 electrocutions at Sing Sing and, by my count, 40 to 45 of them were Jews.
NJJN: Has the Jewish population at Sing Sing increased or decreased over the years?
Arons: In the early 20th century there was an influx over time in conjunction with the massive influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe. Then, as Jews assimilated into the population and their sons got more white collar jobs, things trailed off. Unlike Italians, who wanted to keep in the family business, the Jews wanted to get out.
NJJN: What access do Jewish prisoners at Sing Sing have to religious practice and kosher food?
Arons: Rabbi Irving Koslowe, the Jewish chaplain at Sing Sing for nearly 50 years, was instrumental in bringing kosher food there. If you want a kosher meal you can get it if you prove to the current chaplain that you are Jewish. The food is, however, cold. The Jewish chaplain visits Sing Sing twice a week. They have holiday services; I actually attended a Sukkot service with five inmates. They built a sukka outside.
NJJN: Wouldn’t it be fair to say that Jews might regard writing a book about Jewish criminals to be a “shonde,” washing dirty linen in public? Did you face any resistance about doing this book?
Arons: In the main, people have been quite receptive about this book, and in the main, people are shocked when I tell them at least 6,000 Jews were in Sing Sing between 1880 and 1920. People are blown away when I tell them that. They are probably embarrassed, but in only rare instances have I received negative feedback. I gave a talk in Detroit, and an elderly woman got up and said, “Jews don’t commit crimes.” Others came to my defense and said, “Of course they do.”
One of the reasons I believe the Bernie Madoff scandal was so big is that Jews believe Jews do not commit crimes and by believing that, we make ourselves open to being taken.
NJJN: When was the Jewish population of Sing Sing at its highest?
Arons: Even though the percentage of Jews at Sing Sing reached a high of 16 percent of the total population between 1910 and 1920, in all decades I looked at, Jews were still underrepresented, compared to the percentage of New York City residents who were Jewish.
NJJN: Do you have any special message for your audiences?
Arons: Come with an open mind. This is part of our history and I quite honestly believe I am doing a mitzva. It has been considered a shonda and people have secrets, but I am providing an open, honest environment to talk about it.