The Kosher Capones: A His­to­ry of Chicago’s Jew­ish Gangsters

  • Review
By – July 15, 2019

America’s Jews are proud of their his­to­ry and of the con­tri­bu­tions they have made to Amer­i­can life whether they be in phil­an­thropy, acad­e­mia, lit­er­a­ture, pop­u­lar cul­ture, social wel­fare, busi­ness, or pol­i­tics. There is an under­side of this his­to­ry, how­ev­er, which is less savory and has often been ignored. This has been par­tic­u­lar­ly true regard­ing Jew­ish involve­ment in crime.

Jews were promi­nent in crim­i­nal activ­i­ty in vir­tu­al­ly every major city dur­ing the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Until now, how­ev­er, there has not been a vol­ume that focus­es on the Jew­ish gang­sters of Chica­go, the most crime-rid­den of all Amer­i­can cities.

Joe Kraus’s The Kosher Capones is a live­ly attempt to fill that void. Kraus was prompt­ed to write the book by his mother’s curios­i­ty regard­ing the fate of her father, Max Miller, who, accord­ing to fam­i­ly lore, was mur­dered dur­ing Chicago’s gang­ster wars of the 1920s. Miller, along with his three broth­ers, were promi­nent mob­sters in the heav­i­ly Jew­ish Lawn­dale neigh­bor­hood of Chica­go, and had ties to Big Bill Thomp­son, the city’s cor­rupt may­or, and Al Capone. In 1924, Dean O’Banion, a rival of Capone, attempt­ed to mur­der both Max and his broth­er Dav­ey, but was unsuccessful.

Jew­ish crim­i­nal­i­ty in Chica­go and else­where was strict­ly a one-gen­er­a­tion phe­nom­e­non and restrict­ed main­ly to sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion. The chil­dren of Jew­ish crim­i­nals became accoun­tants, lawyers, den­tists, and teach­ers, and, in the case of Mey­er Lansky’s son, attend­ed West Point. Crime today among Amer­i­can Jews involves finan­cial fraud and income tax eva­sion, and there is less of the vio­lence, loan-shark­ing, pros­ti­tu­tion, shake­downs, rob­beries, and mur­ders which marked the activ­i­ties of Jew­ish crim­i­nals in Chica­go and else­where dur­ing the 1920s and 1930s.

The Kosher Capones was writ­ten for the lay read­er, par­tic­u­lar­ly if he or she resides in the Chica­go area and has fad­ed mem­o­ries of Lawn­dale dur­ing its fabled years pri­or to and after World War II. It does not explore more schol­ar­ly top­ics which would be of inter­est to his­to­ri­ans and soci­ol­o­gists. Nor does it attempt to answer the ques­tion of why Chicago’s Jew­ish crim­i­nals were so mar­gin­al. Their activ­i­ties, accord­ing to Kraus, were gen­er­al­ly restrict­ed to Jew­ish neigh­bor­hoods such as Lawn­dale and Maxwell Street, and they nev­er achieved the noto­ri­ety and city-wide impor­tance of their coun­ter­parts in New York City and elsewhere.

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

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