In The Media
Genealogy, Sociology And Identity: The Jews Of Sing-Sing
ON TUESDAY, APRIL 25, 2006 at 6:30 p.m., Temple Emanu-El hosted scholar Ron Arons as part of the 2006 lecture series co-sponsored by the Herbert & Eileen Bernard Museum of Judaica and the Ivan M. Stettenheim Library. In a preview of that event, we had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Arons about the subject at hand.
How did you get interested in your research about the Jews of Sing-Sing?
It was beshert [predestined]. After I lost both of my parents to cancer, I fell into a deep depression. One of the methods I used to dig myself out of that hole was researching my past. Told that the publishing world did not need yet another memoir, only after I wrote a biography about my criminal ancestor, I thought out of the box. What if I wrote a book about every Jew that served time 'up the river?' It was a total lark. Little did I realize at the time how large this project would grow.
Were you surprised to find a criminal in your ancestry?
I felt as if I was hit by a thunder-bolt. Raised as a goodie two-shoes, I suddenly understood that a criminal element was part of my DNA. Before I found certain documents about this ancestor, nothing would have led me to believe I had a black sheep in the family. As far as I can determine, my parents did not know these sordid details. Certainly my aunt did not. In hindsight, the news provided extended psychotherapy. Even though my criminal ancestor died years before I was born, his shenanigans explained events of my childhood.
What was the perception of Jews and crime in New York during the early 20th century?
In 1908, NYC Police Commissioner Bingham claimed that Jews committed half of all crimes in the city. The Jewish community complained and ultimately forced Bingham to retract his statement. Nevertheless the damage to the Jewish community's reputation had been done.
Who stands out as the most colorful character in your research?
Aside from my own ancestor, one of the most colorful characters is Irving 'Waxey Gordon' Wexler. As far as I know, no other criminal in American history served time in Sing-Sing, Leavenworth and Alcatraz. His specialties were headbashing, racketeering, bootlegging and the sale of narcotics.
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