(Jewish) Gangs of New York

On our Gangster, Writer, Rabbi walking tour, we explore the lives–and funeral processions–of three iconic Lower East Side figures: writer Sholem Aleichem, Rabbi Jacob Joseph, and East Side gangster Big Jack Zelig. Though Bugsy Siegel and  Meyer Lansky usually come to mind when thinking of Jewish gangsters, Zelig was a true leader of crime in the neighborhood. As Abraham Schoenfeld, detective for the Kehilla, a Jewish communal organization, wrote: “Men before him – like Kid Twist, Monk Eastman, and others – were as pygmies to a giant. With the passing of Zelig, one of the most ‘nerviest’, strongest, and best men of his kind left us.”

Who was Big Jack Zelig? Born Zelig Harry Lefkowitz, Zelig was the leader of a band of Jewish gangsters in New York City in the early 1900s. Early in 1912, the Zelig gang was hired by corrupt New York City Police Lieutenant Charles Becker who ran a protection racket for the New York gangs to kill another Manhattan gangster named Herman (Beansie) Rosenthal whom Becker thought was an informant. Rosenthal was shot to death on a Manhattan Street on July 16,1912 by four of Big Jack’s men. Police Lieut. Becker was arrested and charged with ordering Rosenthal’s murder and put on trial with Zelig scheduled to testify against him. On Oct. 5,1912, the night before the trial was to begin Big Jack Zelig was shot to death while riding on a Second Ave. trolley car in Manhattan. Police Lieut. Becker was convicted of ordering Rosenthal’s murder and sentenced to death. He was executed in Sing-Sing’s electric chair.

Death may be final, but the story doesn’t end there. Find out how Zelig’s funeral polarized the downtown Jewish community, underscoring tensions between American commericalism and Eastern European traditions. The tour is offered Thursdays July 29  and August 19 at 7pm.

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