Only a few aging historians of the Jewish criminal underworld of the 1920s-50s will remember the “Rasha of Canarsie.” Crafting his career during the tail end of the era begun by Arnold Rothstein (the linchpin of the “Black Sox Scandal” of 1919) and closed out by Bugsy Siegel (who put the Lust, and, most of the luster, in Vegas), the Rasha of Canarsie was overshadowed in wealth, success, and fame by the “bigger cheeses” of organized crime with their larger, more lucrative turf.
Still, what he lacked in financial pull, he made up for in plain old sociopathology. He carved out what was, in the annals of a business known for its cruelty, a uniquely vicious Empire of Vice. In his day, in the few blocks of Brooklyn surrounding the intersection of Linden Boulevard, with Rockaway Avenue to the north and Rockaway Parkway to the south, he ran it all: prostitution, heroin, numbers — you name it. And he took his piece right off the top, often cutting it from unfortunate debtors with his pen-knife — without the benefit of anesthetic.
Unlike most ethnic gangsters of his era, the Rasha indulged no soft spots for his kin of the Old Country. He hadn’t the social instinct to even imagine himself as belonging to anything so morally binding as a race or a people.
Capone, for example, wouldn’t dream of pressing the daughters of Sicilian shopkeepers into his “service.” But the Rasha’s “goils” were all meidlach from the neighborhood — sisters, daughters, and on occasion even the wives of his own cheder chums, whom he seduced into the fast life and then threw away.
The likes of Meyer Lansky confined his heroin peddling to “the coloreds in Harlem”; the Rasha, by contrast, sold “reefer” to cheder boys for their meal money. In the ’40s, while other Jewish crime lords smuggled Czech rifles to the embattled Jews of Palestine, the Rasha ran a shake-down operation that diverted the pennies of 100,000 blue and white Jewish National Fund pushkes to fund his arms-race with the Luciano Family.
And his shtarkers, laughing all the way back to Staten Island, thought nothing of breaking a few knees down at the Lantzmenshaft on Ditmas Ave. for an overdue payday loan or a bad debt after a rough night at the track.
Now wouldn’t you know? He led a charmed life! The bullets of countless would-be assassins buzzed by harmlessly, drilling instead into the bodies of his luckless barbers, waiters, shoe-shiners and other attendants, whose lifeless corpses remained unburied like so many used handkerchiefs after his escape.
Indeed, the Rasha lived the good life well into his 70s. But, one day, the fast living caught up to him. A “slight touch of da gazz,” after a meal of ptchah and vegetarian cutlet at Katz’s, turned into a virulent stomach cancer almost overnight. Before his bookies could post odds on his survival, the Rasha was gone. As his oncologist, Dr. Zigismund Schvartzeyohr, put it: “What? From a few fertzlach, I should know that his kishkes, nebbich, were opgehakt inside like carp for gefilte fish?” — “Because he complained of a little gas, I should diagnose a tumor that would eat his insides up like chopped carp?”
When the time came to bury the Rasha, barely a minyan would even accept payment to show up in the decaying shtibl where the Rasha’s own father had prayed. The Rov himself, who had already lost a son to drug money thanks to the Rasha, could barely bring himself to attend the levaya, much less compose a hesped, a eulogy for this departed son of Israel.
But how to send a Yid, however vile in life, off to his Eternity without publicly recalling at least one kind deed, however misremembered or ambiguous, to place on the Scale of Merit?
The Rov consulted the Rasha’s accountants: “Had the deceased ever given from his lucrative vending machine rake-offs a dollar to a shul, a hospital, or a home, maybe, for the girls whose lives he had ruined?” No. Nothing. The Rov interviewed the Rasha’s goons. “Had the nifter ever shown a glimmer of rachmones for any of the countless fathers and husbands he’d dispatched with a baseball bat to the skull or a slug in the ear?” Not a chance. The Rasha, they reported, was “all bizniz.”
At a loss, the Rov turned to the thin crowd before him. Rising shakily on his arthritic knees, he breathed in the sour shtibl air, with its familiar odor of pickles and sardines mingled with unlaundered gabardine. And from the depths of his broken heart he spoke:
“Even, tockeh, that murderer of yeshiva boys — Elisha b. Abuyah, “ he reminded them, “even he found a eulogizer in his beloved disciple, Rabbi Meir! Can no honorable advocate, no maylitz yoisher, be found on the beis din shel matah, the worldly court of justice, to be melammed zechus, to say a good word, for our brother, the Rasha, before we return him to the bosom of his Forefathers?”
Silence. And more silence. Until slowly, at the back of the shtibl, there was a stir of air, and the shuffle of a folding chair on concrete. Alter Heikl, the gabbai, arose. Lifting above his head a fist of twisted fingerspersonally broken by the Rasha “so as to remind yas who yer frenz are,” Alter Heikl intoned the exculpation that would win the Rasha his share of the Coming World.
In a voice as clear and strong as the shofar that announces the coming of Moshiach, Alter Heikl declared in the stentorian diction of his calling:
“da brudder…vuz VOYSS!”
And that, they say, is how the Rasha of Canarsie acquired his Eternity. The moral of the story, you ask?
Good question. But ya gotta admit, it has one helluva punch line!