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Coping with coke

            In Tough Jews, Rich Cohen sets out to explode this particular stereotype, rehearsing the deeds of the legendary brawlers and assassins of Jewish organized crime in America. More ambitiously, he attacks the purportedly commonplace idea that "Jews are supposed to be weak." As he sees it, the Jewish thugs of yester-year are more than mere curiosities, symbols of the less savory side of an immigrant success story. They are the success story--model Jews, every one of them. "The gangsters were a prototype of a new kind of Jew," Cohen claims. They were the toughest Jews in America. Here were men who had no idea Jews are supposed to be weak, so they weren't. The Jewish gangsters were among the first Jews to scrap the notion of Jewish exceptionalism, to set Jews adrift in a world of killers and thieves, to set them free. "When kids on the block were faced with the image of the German concentration camp, the memory of the gangsters would give them another image: tough Jews, Jews who will not be led to the slaughter. What do you think Pep Strauss would do to a guy like Heinrich Himmler? Drill fifteen holes in him, the Kraut bastard!" "When the extent of the Holocaust became clear, when refugees began turning up with stories and tattoos, Jews who had never really considered the virtue of violence, considered it now. Remembering Jewish gangsters is a good way to deal with being born after 1945, with being someone who has always had the Holocaust at his back." The emergence of a strong Israel was proof that not everything the gangsters believed was wrong. "These killers seem about as skillful as the Israeli commandos who slipped into combat. When Abe Reles was ambushed by the Shapiro brothers, "it was a bad night for the Kid- -his own personal Night of Broken Glass." When Lepke Buchalter decides to go into hiding, "Lepke would do what Anne Frank and so many other European Jews would do just a few years later.

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