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TOUGH JEWS: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams in Jewish America. By Rich Cohen . Simon & Schuster: 256 pp., $23

March 29, 1998|PAUL BREINES | Paul Breines is author of "Tough Jews: Political Fantasies and the Moral Dilemma of American Jewry" (BasicBooks, 1990). He is a member of the history department at Boston College

Imagine that, like me, you had written a book entitled "Tough Jews," published by BasicBooks in 1990. Then imagine this: The Los Angeles Times Book Review invites you--because you are the author of "Tough Jews"--to review a new book entitled "Tough Jews" by Rich Cohen, an associate editor at Rolling Stone. And imagine discovering its dust jacket features a clenched fist with brass knuckles--like yours does. Now you can imagine how I felt when this happened. After wondering what Cohen might say about my book in his, it occurred to me that he might not even know it exists. As it turns out, my book isn't mentioned in Cohen's. He, indeed, may be learning about my "Tough Jews" only now. If so, imagine how he must feel.

Imagine. Imagining is, in fact, central in both books, as the key words in their subtitles indicate: Cohen's "Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams in Jewish America" and my "Political Fantasies and the Moral Dilemma of American Jewry." In both books, dreams, fantasies and stories play vital roles in the making of identities, in this instance, Jewish identities; both books also share a common space, the increasingly shifting space of male Jewish identity in contemporary America.

Cohen's "Tough Jews" participates in the emergence of new genres of writing and cinema: docudramas, blends of fact and fiction. The story he tells is "not so much one of facts as the noise those facts make passing through time. It is a story of shifting perspectives, the way a group of Brooklyn thugs, each with his own rise and fall, fills a need in the lives of my father and his friends, and also in my life. . . . Less a straight history than the story of a Brooklyn gang as seen through the eyes of my father and his friends, and then that story (my father looking at gangsters) seen through my eyes."

Remarkably, Cohen never explores the genres, dreams, identities, contemporary gender flux, that constitute some of the very social and cultural frames that give his gangster dreams meaning. It's as if his tough Jewish desires would be tainted (rather than enriched) by scrutiny of their roots, paradoxes and possible implications.

But Cohen could reply: "You got it, baby! That is my Jewish gangster dream: to get past the old cerebral way and on to the tough Jew way. It's not my style to analyze." Frustration with the stereotype of the brainy Jewish weakling and attraction to the gangster alternative drive Cohen's writing. With relish, he recounts an argument between Kid Twist Reles and Pep Strauss, major players in the book, over the spelling of the word friend, their limited literacy being essential to their man-of-action style and a sign of the gangster's distance from wimpy Jewish inclinations to analysis.

And Cohen's "Tough Jews" is about image, style, pose and performance. The main stage is a booth at Nate 'n' Al's Deli in Beverly Hills; the book opens and closes with Nate 'n' Al scenes, which are also interspersed throughout the accounts of Brooklyn Jewish and Italian gangsters. Cohen's father and his three Brooklyn pals, now all quite successful (and one of whom is talk show host Larry King), periodically reunite and reminisce.

They do so "with the ease of old friends. Late nights. Stories by now more fiction than fact. Stories set on the stoops and corners of Bensonhurst, Flatbush, Brownsville, in a time when Jewish gangsters, that lost romantic breed, still roamed the streets, when Italians had no monopoly on hooliganism, when a Jewish boy could still fashion his future as murderous and daring and wide open, a future shot full of holes. Alleys. Blue smoky rooms. Basements. The ominous echo of footsteps. Leather shoulder holsters."

This style is the dream that's passed from father to son. The era of Brooklyn Jewish gangster crime and killing ended by the mid-1940s. But the men of Murder Inc., the crime syndicate launched by Arnold Rothstein, bequeathed to the next generation of Jewish Brooklyn boys--Cohen's father's generation--an ethos of fighting and scraping that could be applied in the business world, and a way of talking, cursing, thinking, dressing, eating whitefish, saying "brisket" from time to time, walking into a deli. With his new book, Cohen makes this Bensonhurst styling and profiling into a way of being Jewish.

"It's all about Jews acting in ways other than Jews are supposed to act, Jews leaving the world of their heads to thrive in a physical world, a world of sense, of smell, of grit, of strength, of courage, of pain. . . . It's about being savvy, about never letting anyone know if you're real or fake, crazy or sane, righteous or fallen, good or bad. It's about risks."

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