In The Media
Author Tells Of Jews Who Stayed At Sing Sing
Funny what can tumble out of the family tree when you give it a good shake. For Ron Arons, who has spent more than a decade researching family genealogy through U.S. Census records and yellowing newspaper clips, a great-grandfather with a shady past emerged as a central figure. A convicted bigamist with a penchant for expensive cars, big-city glamour and flexible ethics, Isaac Spier spent time behind the stone walls at Sing Sing prison.
Arons is now taking that personal history, the kind that many families tell through code words and whispers, and broadening it into a communal story, a book about Jewish convicts at Sing Sing. It's a story of schlammers, gangsters and gonifs, one that chronicles an aspect of the modern Jewish experience that has become increasingly popular in films and books for a generation which finds fascination in outlaws of every stripe.
Arons, 50, a moderately observant Jew, worked as a marketing executive in the computer software field in California before turning full-time to writing and lecturing on genealogy. It was the completion of his family tree after both his parents died in the 1980s that began his nearly obsessive quest to track down the aliases and criminal history of his great-grandfather.
'I thought I'd research my roots and find out who I am and where I came from. And in very short order, I found out my great-grandfather was behind bars at Sing Sing. My initial reaction was, 'That can't possibly be me, my family,' ' said Arons, a Long Island native who lives in Oakland, Calif.
But the evidence was overwhelming: Isaac Spier married two women at the same time and spent time in jail, and police sources at the time speculated that Spiers may have been married to four women simultaneously.
'I had very mixed emotions. I was shocked „ I grew up as a goody-two shoes, and I have, I believe, a pretty high sense of moral values. I thought it was humorous, too, and I got a good chuckle out of it. And I have certainly embraced it „ it's been extended psychotherapy, if you will, and it explained many things in my family that I didn't realize or know about,' said Arons. 'And it's been a journey for a decade.'
After his four-year stretch at Sing Sing, Isaac Spiers, a bookkeeper and the son of a rabbi, did not exactly mend his ways. He was arrested for larceny and forgery in 1916 after he was accused of cooking the books at the company where he worked, and it was said that 'a love of automobiles and the bright lights of Broadway' led to Spier's legal troubles, according to an account of his arrest by a Brooklyn newspaper. But he beat the rap in that case as well as another arrest in 1925 on an extortion charge while he worked as an auditor for New York state. He died in 1947 in his early 70s.
It came as a revelation to Arons that someone in his family was a 'gonif,' the Yiddish word for a 'shady character' or 'lawbreaker.' But his great-grandfather had plenty of company among the people of the Old Testament at Sing Sing, as Arons found out through long hours of research. Since 1880, he estimated that 6,000 or so Jews have served time at Sing Sing, which had the largest Jewish inmate population of any prison in America. At a peak in the 1920s, when the Jewish underworld began to forge a powerful alliance with Italian crime families to carve up profits in bootlegging, extortion and gambling, about 1,200 Jews were locked up on the stony bluffs overlooking the Hudson.
Most of them were small-time crooks and white-collar thieves. Some of them were famous, like Louis 'Lepke' Buchalter, whose tailored wool suits lent an air of respectability to a blood-soaked career as a hired assassin and mobster, a criminal path that ended in the Sing Sing death house in 1944.
Others cast new light on a nefarious era in old Gotham.
'There are some wonderful stories, lesser-known characters,' said Arons. 'The Pants Gang „ when they held you up, they ordered you to take your pants down, so you couldn't chase after them, and they ran away with your money. There was a group called Baloney Bandits. Just before they held up a store, they would ask for a baloney sandwich.'
Jewish religious services have been held since the late 19th century at Sing Sing. The prison still offers kosher meals and regular religious services for Jewish inmates, who now number only about a dozen out of a current population of 1,739. 'It's definitely possible to be a good Jew at Sing Sing,' said Rabbi Charles Rudansky, a former prison chaplain from Mamaroneck.
The depiction of Jewish crime has shifted markedly in recent years from a taboo subject to a popular genre.
'Many Jews feared that the delinquencies of a few 'bad' Jews would bring shame upon the entire group, and it was a common reaction to ignore or hide the question of Jewish crime,' notes Rachel Rubin, a scholar of American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. Now, however, the legend of the old Jewish gangsters and street thugs have become 'a kind of cultural Viagra,' she said, for a new generation that takes a perverse form of pride in the outlaw code of 'tough Jews.'
For his part, Arons said he does not want to turn criminals into ethnic heroes in his unpublished book, 'The Jews of Sing Sing.'
'I'm certainly not writing the first book on Jewish criminality, and it probably won't be the last,' he says. 'I'm not out to romanticize or glorify it. I'm just trying to go some places where other people haven't. And lots of people can sympathize. People have swept these stories under the rug. By going public, I think I'm making it easier for other people to say, 'I had someone in jail, too. It's part of my past.
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