In the Media

Book Review: Mind Mapping for Genealogy
The Independent Genealogist


Oct 2014

Book Review: Mind Mapping for Genealogy
Evidentia Blog



Book Review: Mind Mapping for Genealogy
The Accidental Genealogist



Book Review: Mind Mapping for Genealogy
Gena’s Genealogy



Book Review: Mind Mapping for Genealogy
The Genealogy Guys Podcast



Book Review: Mind Mapping for Genealogy
Elyse’s Genealogy Blog



Book Review: Mind Mapping for Genealogy



Interview with Ron: The Genealogy Professional Podcast


When a Genealogy Hobby Digs Up Unwanted Secrets

Sue Shellenbarger

Author Lectures on Jewish Bigamists, Murders, and Thieves

Elliot Resnick

Ron Arons on Susan King’s Radio Show
Researching Black Sheep in the Family


Listen to an mp3 of Ron’s appearance on Susan King’s Genealogy Radio Show show on BBS (Internet) Radio on May 31, 2009.

Ron Arons on Boston’s WTKK Radio
Interview with Eddie Andelman


Listen to an mp3 of Ron’s appearance on WTKK Radio’s Sports Huddle show in Boston on May 24, 2009.


Reading New York
Tours, Tycoons and Crazy Joe


Sam Roberts
Sam Roberts gave my book a nice one-paragraph write-up. Thanks, Sam! READ

New York Archives Magazine Article
Counting the Black Sheep


Ron’s article regarding his journey to research not only his own criminal ancestor’s past but also the lives of many other Jewish criminals appears in the Fall 2008 issue of the New York State Archives magazine.

Ron Arons on Air America (Nat’l) Radio
Ron Interviewed by Ron Kuby


Listen to an mp3 of Ron’s appearance on Air America Radio on October 7, 2008.

Gangsters, Genes, Guns & Gamblers
These days, it’s almost cool to be related to a (dead) Jewish mobster.


Susan Fishman Orlins
The article, found both in the July/August 2008 issue of the hardcopy magazine and on the website, talks about descendants of famous and not-so-famous Jewish criminals.

Author Tells Of Jews Who Stayed At Sing Sing

media_4Robert Marchant

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.

The Jewish Americans

media_1David Grubin

THE JEWISH AMERICANS is a three-night documentary that explores 350 years of Jewish American history. Written and directed by award-winning filmmaker David Grubin, THE JEWISH AMERICANS is a journey through time, from the first settlement in 1654 to the present. It is about the struggle of a tiny minority who make their way into the American mainstream while, at the same time, maintaining a sense of their own identity as Jews. Focusing on the tension between identity and assimilation, THE JEWISH AMERICANS is quintessentially an American story, which other minority groups will find surprisingly familiar. Narrated by actor Liev Schreiber, this landmark series features Jewish Americans who have made significant contributions to American life – from Louis D. Brandeis and Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Henry Morgenthau, Hank Greenberg, Betty Friedan, Molly Goldberg, Carl Reiner, Sid Caesar, and Tony Kushner. However this story is also about Jewish American tailors and shopkeepers, soldiers and bankers, peddlers and merchants, labor organizers and civil rights activists, all of whom also helped shape the American landscape. Preview the video in Quicktime Format or Windows Media Player.

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.

Building Bridges To The Past
Local Woman Attends Jewish Genealogy Conference In Las Vegas

media_3Amy Fellner

Legends about organized crime figures Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel and Meyer Lansky have become part of our popular culture. You probably know that both men were Jewish. But did you know that Lansky’s family emigrated to New York from the town of Grodno in Belarus, or that Siegel was also called by his Yiddish name, Berish? These were just some of the interesting tidbits presented at the 25th annual Conference on Jewish Genealogy of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) held July 10-15 at- where else?- the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, the resort and casino that Siegel helped establish more than 50 years ago. In addition to using such standard genealogy research sources as census and vital records, writer Ron Arons utilized FBI files obtained through the Freedom of Information Act to compile profiles of Siegel and Lansky. His seminar, attended by a standing-room-only audience, was one of many interesting and instructive lectures presented during the conference. I joined more than 600 Jewish genealogists in braving the Las Vegas heat to meet, learn, research, network and enjoy our shared interests. Conference participants came from throughout the United States (including 11 registrants from Arizona) and Canada, as well as overseas from such places as Israel, England, Venezuela and Japan. Just two floors above the Flamingo’s busy sea of slot machines and gaming tables, the scholarly crowd passed on gambling and focused instead on an intensive week of lectures and meetings. More than 80 speakers presented lectures at the conference. These highly regarded experts came from Austria, Canada, Czech Republic, France, Israel, Scotland, Ukraine and the United States. In all, there were more than 135 scheduled lectures and meetings on such topics as researching archival holdings in Ukraine and other Eastern European countries, the use of specific documentary sources, research being done in new geographical areas and the use of technology in research and organizing data. The breadth of programming offered something for everyone, regardless of their level of expertise or particular areas of interest. Beginners as well as seasoned genealogists were well-served by the impressive program. The IAJGS comprises more than 75 member organizations throughout the world. Jewish Genealogy Society (JGS) chapters can be found on every continent with the exception of Antarctica. IAJGS annual conferences offer Jewish genealogists opportunities to learn and share information and resources, all with a high degree of professionalism. The 2004 IAJGS annual conference was held in Jerusalem. Next year’s event will be in New York City. This year, the conference was hosted by the JGS of Southern Nevada. The timing and choice of location were a good fit, since Las Vegas is currently celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the city’s founding while the IAJGS conference celebrated its milestone 25th anniversary. As conference programming chairwoman Carole Montello explained, conference organizers ‘wanted to have a Western flavor’ in creating this year’s conference program. Thus, the conference offered programs on such specialized Western topics as crypto-Jewish genealogy sources, Jews of the West and the Las Vegas Jewish community, in addition to the lively lecture on mobsters Siegel and Lansky. The conference officially opened with a keynote speech by Congresswoman Shelley Berkley (D-Nev). Rep. Berkley, who is Jewish, discussed how her family roots helped shape her career and goals. As she described her family’s European roots, the impact of the Holocaust on their ancestral communities, her family’s migration to and development of roots in Las Vegas and her ongoing commitment to Jewish causes, she gave voice to the emotional connection to genealogical research and the bigger picture of Jewish continuity that many of us feel. Many of the pioneers and leaders of Jewish genealogy were present throughout the week to share their insights and tips about the newest resources available to genealogists. The contributions of these dedicated individuals to the field of Jewish genealogy are remarkable. They have opened the doors of Eastern Europe, making archival records available for research. They have undertaken extensive and difficult labor-intensive projects involving the obtaining, indexing and translation of the surviving records of Jewish communities destroyed by the Nazis. They have developed databases to share archival resources and records. The conference also demonstrated that genealogists are involved in more than researching family trees. Several programs addressed the utilization of genealogical tools in researching family traits and genetic diseases. In one program I attended, Stanley M. Diamond described how genealogists are assisting families with medical and genetic issues. For example, genealogists are helping pinpoint ancestral roots to help families find unknown relatives who may be able to serve as bone-marrow donors for the gravely ill. ‘It’s natural that our archives would react quickly to these life-saving matters,’ Diamond said. Although our daily schedules were full of lectures and opportunities to network and learn from the leaders in the field, there was also time to share resources and undertake additional research. A wide variety of research materials and resources were made available for participants in a designated resource room and online through available computer banks staffed by knowledgeable volunteers. Visiting archivists offered access to special databases, and translators were available to provide assistance. To me, the conference presented a unique opportunity to learn about new resources and meet and share experiences with those who share my passion for Jewish genealogy. I found it to be a tremendous learning experience. Genealogy offers bridges to the past as we seek through our research to learn who our ancestors were, how they lived and how they perished. Genealogy also offers bridges to the future, as research efforts of Jewish genealogists have opened European archives, discovered evidence and produced testimony, brought families together and even aided in genetic and medical research. As noted by Nevada Gov. Kenny C. Guinn in his welcoming letter to participants: ‘Much good can be accomplished when large groups of like-minded people unite in a valuable project of this magnitude.’ Amy Fellner, a faculty associate at Arizona State University and a retired attorney, has been involved in Jewish genealogy for more than 20 years. She has traced branches of her family to the early 18th century, visited all of her ancestors’ towns in Eastern Europe and conducted research in archives in Lithuania and Poland. She can be contacted at

Arons Wins Hackman Research Residency Award



The New York State Archives and the Archives Partnership Trust selected Ron Arons as one of 2005’s recipients of the Hackman Research Residency Award, given to qualified applicants to pursue research using historical records in the New York State Archives. The Larry J. Hackman Research Residency Program is intended to support advanced work in New York State history, government or public policy by covering research expenses. It also encourages public dissemination of research products. The program honors the New York State Archivist who managed the dramatic development of the State Archives between 1981 and 1995.

Black Sheep

media_2Ron Arons

For better and for worse, my parents raised me to be a mensch. In the business world, sticking to the strong moral values they instilled in me hasn’t always been easy, but I can safely say I’ll never be the type who could stab a co-worker in the back. Little did I know that at least one of my ancestors wasn’t troubled by such compunction. During my genealogy research I was surprised to learn that my great-grandfather was a real scoundrel. While it’s impossible to know what was happening inside of his head, I’ve found clues that give me a better understanding of who he was. I first stumbled onto his sordid past when I found several documents that detailed four separate birthplaces. On a census record, Isaac Spear listed his birthplace as New York. On his wedding certificate, it’s written as London. On his son’s birth certificate, he claimed Hanley Staffordshire, England. And, in 1900, an Isaac Spier in Sing Sing prison claimed to have been born in Pennsylvania. While visiting my grandparents’ apartment in Brooklyn as a child, I remember that my grandmother once told me to not say the word Sing Sing in front of my grandfather because it upset him. I flew to New York to examine Sing Sing’s admissions records. In one hour I confirmed that my great-grandfather, registered as Isaac Spier, alias Herbert Edward Spier, was a criminal. Isaac’s trouble started when two women took their separate grievances to the Kings County Courthouse. My great-grandmother Ida complained to the judge that Isaac had abandoned her. The other woman, Minnie Ott, accused Isaac of bigamy. Several newspapers provided different perspectives of the story. According to one account, my great-grandmother went with my then-infant grandfather and a policeman to Minnie’s house. After realizing who was at the door, Isaac darted into the street and hopped onto an eastbound trolley car. A mile down the road he realized the policeman was following him, so Isaac jumped off the trolley and hopped on another one headed in the opposite direction. Eventually Isaac was apprehended. Another newspaper captured the dialog between my ancestors. Isaac first denied ever knowing my great-grandmother. In response, she held up my grandfather in front of Isaac and said, Do you deny that this is your son? Isaac’s only response was a gulp. He was later convicted of bigamy and sentenced to four years at Sing Sing. Police suspected that Isaac might have had as many as four wives. As I continued to research Isaac’s nefarious past, I found a 1916 New York City Police Department report that detailed how Isaac laundered money from Gretsch, a guitar manufacturer. In 1925, he made The New York Times when he was accused of extortion. As an auditor for the New York State Income Tax Bureau, Isaac was the target of a failed police sting operation. Although the process took years, I finally determined that Isaac was born in London, the son of a rabbi. By comparing my great-grandparents’ marriage certificate to my grandfather’s birth certificate, it is clear that he was conceived out of wedlock. His headstone at Mount Hebron Cemetery in Queens, located right next to the grave of his third wife, Rose, shows his name as Joseph in English and Isaac in Hebrew. If nothing else, his tombstone is an amusing final tribute to his use of aliases. Criminal behavior among Jews has been far more rampant than what our parents or the Jewish community are willing to admit. I was amazed to find thousands of Jewish criminals as I delved deep into Sing Sing’s records. The goniffs ranged from big-name gangsters to small-time crooks and included physicians who performed illegal abortions. As a genealogist, I have come across numerous fellow descendants of Jewish inmates who have been kind enough to share the stories of their ancestors with me. I find solace in the fact that I’m not alone. And the odds are likely that you might have a black sheep like Isaac in your family, too.