Colombo: The Unsolved Murder-Don Capria and Anthony Colombo

s-l300On June 28, 1971, the Italian American Civil Rights League (“IACRL” held a “Unit Day” rally in Manhattan’s Columbus Circle. The league was co-founded by Joseph Colombo (1923-1978), the former boss of the Colombo Crime Family. The mafia don had become a public figure due to his criticism of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) and its actions against Italian Americans. During the rally, Colombo made his way to the podium to deliver a speech when he was shot and mortally wounded by Jerome Johnson (1946-1971) who had used fake press credentials to gain access to the guarded Colombo. Three shots struck Colombo who never regained consciousness. He remained in a coma for eight more years before dying on May 22, 1978, in Blooming Grove, New York. The shooting was shown in the 2019 film ‘The Irishman‘, which earned rave reviews. The film is good  entertainment but contains inaccuracies from start to finish. Six years ago I read this book co-authored by Colombo’s son Anthony (1945-2017). I recently viewed a clip online which re-sparked my interest into the murder which never made sense. And upon reading this book a second time, I have come to see a darker unknown element at work which was determined to silence Colombo for good.

Unofficially, the murder was attributed to mobster Joseph “Crazy Joe” Gallo (1929-1972) who was known to dislike Colombo and wanted more power for himself and siblings within the family. Gallo never claimed responsibility for the murder and to this day, no mobster has ever gone on the record and tied him to the crime. The bad blood between Gallo and Colombo is no secret but no proof has surfaced that Gallo took their feud to the next level. And in this book, Colombo’s son Anthony provides even more information he learned himself after his father’s shooting that cast doubt on law enforcement’s widely accepted theory. But to understand why Colombo would have been a target, it is necessary to learn who he was as a person and that was one goal of this book. His son revisits the family’s life before the crime and peels back the layers encapsulating his father, Joseph Colombo, Sr.

I instantly took note of the family’s connections to organized crime and the fate of Joe Colombo’s own father Anthony in 1938. The events of that dark night in his father’s life, provides an eerie premonition of what comes later in the book. The tragedy was not lost on young Joe Colombo who went on to have several children of his own. Anthony recalls the day-to-day life in their home with a father determined to see his children succeed and stay out of “the life”. And with the help of Don Capria who provides snippets of historical events in each section, the book becomes an valuable tool for insight into family life within the mafia. The story is as normal as one could expect with Colombo being a dedicated family man. There are moments where he is overbearing and strictly adherent to his beliefs, but otherwise the home is stable. But when Colombo catches the attention of the FBI, everything changes and this is where the book picks up speed and never slows down.

The back story to the league’s creation is discussed and despite the accusations that it was sham and front for the mafia, the story within shows that the people behind the scenes were dedicated to the cause of civil rights for Italian Americans and the distinction between the mafia and hardworking Italians in America. However, as the FBI probed deeper in the Colombo crime family, the mafia boss went from public hero to a liability. And the FBI was determined to see him indicted and convicted by any means necessary. Readers may be both shocked and disturbed at the actions of its agents who try to get Anthony to provide them with information on his own father. Whether they believed he would do so or used it as another form of harassment I cannot say, but the term questionable to describe their antics would be an understatement. That is not to say that Colombo was an angel, far from it. We know that the mafia survived because violence was a tool often utilized to keep everyone in line. But that is why evidence is collected to prove crimes without any doubt. Without that evidence, the FBI could only harass Colombo who fought back through the IACRL. But everyone knew that the battle would one day come to a head.

In regard to the Colombo story, the pushback he was getting behind the scenes should not be overlooked. The threat of retaliation against him was high and the future of the IACRL was in question. But Colombo was determined to move forward and knew that behind the scenes, he had the support of other mobsters across the board.  However, as Anthony shows, his father did receive warnings that something dark was coming but no one knew exactly what it was. In the days leading up to the rally, there were suspicious events that took place as shown in the book. And they force the reader to ask the question, who knew Colombo would be shot? What we learn cast serious doubt on Johnson being a crazed lone gunman. Inevitably, Unity Day arrives and the moment we dread takes place resutling in pandemonium. Johnson unleashed a hail of bullets on Colombo before being fatally shot himself. The long-standing explanation was that one of Colombo’s bodyguards had killed Johnson in response, yet that person was never identified. Further, the two people with Johnson escaped through the crowd, never to be seen again nor were they identified. And just when I thought thought the story could not get any stranger, Capria’s explanation of the forensic evidence sent chills up my spine. With each page I read, my personal belief that Colombo’s murder was not a “mob” hit was reaffirmed.

But if the murder was not a mob hit, then what did happen? Well, the authors explore that question here and what was discovered is sure to make the hair on your neck stand up. And it all starts with the background of Jerome Johnson, a career criminal with a highly suspicious record. The information provided on Johnson is surreal and if he was a lone gunman, he was the craziest that ever existed to have infiltrated Unity Day and murder a famous mafia boss. Capria and Colombo also address long-standing myths about Gallo’s “close ties” to Black gangsters. This murder is shrouded in mystery and none of them leads directly back to the mafia itself. Colombo was undeniably a powerful leader who courted alliances with Meir Kahane (1932-1990) of the Jewish Defense League (“JDL”) and other social activists, and this alone would have made him a target of both overt and covert investigations. Mention is also made in the book of the role Colombo Family hitman Gregory “The Grim Reaper” Scarpa (1928-1994) played in providing he FBI with crucial information about his underworld connections. To be clear, there is no accusation anywhere that Scarpa played a role in Colombo’s shooting. There is a lot to unpack in this book which will leave you with more questions than answers. And though we know how Colombo was shot, the why remains a mystery. The shooting changed New York City history and the lives of Colombo’s family, left to grieve the act of violence that took their father known as an activist, criminal figure and a person you could speak with to discuss any problem. And it is clear is that Anthony never recovered from his father’s death. The pain in his words is evident and there is a moment in the book where he tells his dad “we can always have another league, but I can only have one father”. The full truth about Colombo’s murder may never be known but the authors have shown enough here to remove any doubt that elements of the crime remain unsolved.


Einstein on the Run: How Britain Saved the World’s Greatest Scientist – Andrew Robinson

einsteinOn January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) became Chancellor of Germany and established the Third Reich, formed under the banner of national socialism, as the country’s ruling party. The Sturmabteilung known informally as the “Brown Shirts”, embarked on a campaign of terror across the nation persecuting opponents of the Reich and those determined to be “undesirable” of Aryan citizenship. Millions of Jews had already fled the country, alarmed by the rise of Hitler’s party and the anti-Semitism spreading like wildfire. Among those who left was famed scientist Albert Einstein (1879-1955), who never returned to the nation of his birth after his departure in 1932. And though he had left Germany, he remained on the radar of the Third Reich which moved swiftly to erase his name from Germany literature. After leaving, Einstein moved across Europe before finally settling in the United States. But what is often neglected in discussions of his life and fame is the time he spent in England as the Nazi party gained strength and war with Germany became a reality.

Admittedly, I knew little of Einstein’s life after fleeing Germany. Today he is remembered for the theory of relativity and his equation E=mc2. Both were groundbreaking events in science but while Einstein was making a name for himself in Britain, Hitler was ramping up efforts to eliminate his opponents abroad and those around Einstein remained keenly aware of the threat. Author Andrew Robinson has examined the late scientist’s time on the run and compiled a story that is both unbelievable and tragic. And though it contains biographical information on Einstein, the book was not written as a definitive account. But the information is crucial to understanding Einstein’s motives and his complicated life.

There is an incident revisited in the book that played an integral part in Einstein’s decision to leave. The murder of journalist and government official Walter Rathenau (1867-1922), served as a wake-up call for German Jews indifferent to growing anti-Semitism and a new group of rebels calling themselves National Socialists. Rathenau’s assassination remains one of Germany’s darkest moments and a pivotal moment in resentment towards Jews. Einstein knew Rathenau personally and was disturbed by his murder. The crime removed any illusions that he would be safe in Germany should Hitler gain power and ten years later, Einstein and second wife Else (1876-1936) left for good. Their arrival in England as captured by the author, shows a Britain receptive and in awe of the Germany scientist. And it is here that Einstein accomplishes some of his greatest feats. However, he was still a man without a home and as Robinson shows, no one knew where he would finally end up. The couple moved around quite a bit and, in the book, Einstein reports from multiple locations playing host to the man awarded the Noble Prize in 1921.

Though the threat of assassination is always present and one on occasion, a high possibility, the author provides valuable insight into Einstein the person. I did not know previously, how Einstein felt about Zionism and his Jewish faith. His relationship with Chaim Weizmann (1874-1952), the First President of Israel, is interesting and shows that Einstein was able to view an issue from both sides when necessary. Further, his relationships with both wives, his son Eduard (1910-1965) and stepchildren from Else are complex and reveal his shortcomings. Fans of Einstein will find these parts of the book both shocking and hard to accept but the reality is that despite his brilliance, he struggled in other aspects of his life. Frankly, we see the human side of Einstein and all his faults. But despite his personal life, he remained at the forefront of science and paved the way for nuclear fission. Interestingly, Robinson provides information about the atomic bomb and Einstein’s role that is often misunderstood. Further, the idea of nuclear fission did not belong to Einstein who was quite indifferent to his own successes. However, after the bomb’s development and use against Japan in August 1945, Einstein became an ardent opponent of its use and earned himself a spot on the subversive list of none other than former Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972). I cannot say I was too surprised by this as Hoover was fanatical about “communists” and others he deemed threats to the United States.

Einstein’s stay in England was temporary and the couple eventually settled in Princeton, New Jersey. The author provides plausible explanations for the decision to leave Europe for America and the simplest reason is correct, in that Einstein needed to be far away from the threat of Nazi terror and in a place where he could find peace. America was not perfect, but it was nothing like Europe being forced to confront the growing German menace. Einstein never returned to Europe, remaining in America until his death in 1955. Today his image can be found on posters, t-shirts, websites, and other memorabilia, but there was a time when his image meant persecution and death. Hitler never succeeded in punishing Einstein, but the Nazis did confiscate everything they found belonging to him. Had they succeeded in capturing Einstein before he left, history and World War II might be quite different today. But as the saying goes, everything happens for a reason. Fans of Albert Einstein will appreciate this book.


Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 – William L. Shirer


In December 1941, CBS News Foreign Correspondent William L. Shirer (1904-1993) sailed from Europe for the final time as World War II claimed lives and destroyed cities. At the time of his departure, World War II was heading into its second year but several months ahead of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States into the conflict. The journalist said goodbye to a continent to which he had devoted fifteen years of his life. Upon his return, he assembled his diary, carefully hidden from the Gestapo and Nazi Germany officials and turned them into this account of what he witnessed as Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) embarked on a path of world domination and plunged the world into its deadliest conflict.  And the result is an eye-opening account of life behind the carefully crafted world image that Nazis put forth to keep the prying eyes of powerful nations averted as the Wehrmacht plundered its way across western Europe.

Shirer may be recognized by readers for his other phenomenal work on the Nazi regime, ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany‘, a masterpiece of writing that remains on my shelf and list of favorite books to this day. I strongly recommend it to readers in search of a thorough history of Nazi Germany.  Here, the story is focused on life in Germany as the Nazis took hold of the country. At the start of the book, Hitler has already been made Chancellor, so there is little in the journal about the transfer of power from President Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934) or the Reichstag Fire. The focus is on daily life in Berlin and the sobering Nazi conditions placed on the Reich’s citizens. As an American journalist, Shirer was allowed close access to the notorious figures of the Reich from President and Oberbefehlshaber der Luftwaffe Hermann Göring (1893-1946), Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945) and the notorious Gestapo Chief Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945). Shirer did cross paths with Hitler and witnessed his speeches, but there was no formal interview that Shirer would have referred to had it existed. Regardless of his location and situation within the Reich, he witnesses the truth behind the Reich that contrasted with what Hitler was saying to the German people.

Germany’s rearmament was a direct violation of the Treaty of Versailles, but Hitler had no intentions on adhering to the sanctions and rules placed upon the Fatherland. Western powers were slow to react to the Germany build-up but on the ground, Shirer was able to see how popular Hitler was becoming and the preparations for conflict like no other. He makes notes about German life from the peculiar behavior on the streets and Germans he knows personally. There are bits of humor in the observations yet the dark cloud on the horizon continues to approach. And in the weeks before the Germany invasion of Poland on September 1,1939, the suspense continued to build as Shirer shows in the daily entries. But there are two incidents in the notes that require a comment. The appeasement at Munich, widely seen as the last chance to stop Hitler’s plan is discussed and Shirer’s disbelief at the British actions towards Hitler’s aggression was shared by the author of this post. Former U.S. President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) once wrote about this in his classic ‘Why England Slept‘, a valuable book about the failure to confront the Austrian menace in Berlin. The other entry in the journal relates to the German advancement on the Rhineland in 1936. What he notes in his journal about the missed opportunity to stop Hitler is one of the war’s most puzzling events. The comments by German officers following the de-escalation on the Rhine highlight the ability of the Germans to bluff their way through as Hitler consolidated power and seized territory.

The journal entries pick up in intensity as the threat of war increases. And like a runaway train, we know that it is coming but nothing can stop it, and the shock felt by Shirer as a correspondent on the ground is captured by his words written after the Germany invasion of Poland. From this point on, the diary takes an entirely different course as the Nazi machine kicks into high gear and then plateaus. England is the “antagonist” in the story according to Hitler, and a sizeable portion of the entries are related to the off and on-again discussions with London about “peace”, though Hitler had no desire to let England survive. The showdown between England and Germany intensifies and soon the Royal Air Force began to hit targets within the Fatherland. Experienced German pilots were aware that England would not be easily defeated, and that Germany had its weaknesses which made winning a world war impossible. As a journalist, Shirer was intent on publishing all news about the German war front both good and bad. However, censorship was in full effect and throughout the story, there are countless battles between the author and German officials who inspected incoming and outgoing communications. The propaganda war waged by the Reich was nothing short of absurd. But it worked within Germany’s borders. Shirer takes note of this and gives insight into German mindset that explains why the people gave Hitler the power he desired. And these observations could have only come from a correspondent in the field watching the events as they happened.

There are occasions in the book where Shirer leaves Germany and travels to other European nations but most of the entries are from Berlin where the promise of a quick war rings hollow as England puts up more of a fight than expected. And the realization that Germany is not invincible begins to dawn on the German people who create crude jokes to describe Third Reich leadership. In the distance is the looming threat of American involvement, about which Shirer makes a premonitory statement that later came to fruition. Hitler also knew it would happen and pre-emptively signed agreements with Japan and Italy, realizing that America would never surrender to German domination. Nonetheless, Shirer accurately sizes up Germany’s sealed fate and the insanity of Adolf Hitler. The final entry in the book provides a fitting conclusion to an unbelievable story. As Shirer watches Europe fade in the distance aboard the vessel that will begin his journey back to America he remarks:

“For a time I stood against the rail watching the lights recede on a Europe in which I had spent all fifteen of my adult years, which had given me all of my experience and what little knowledge I had. It had been a long time, but they had been happy years, personally, and for all people in Europe they had had meaning and borne hope until the war came and the Nazi blight and the hatred and the fraud and the political gangsterism and the murder and the massacre and the incredible intolerance and all the suffering and the starving and cold and the thud of a bomb blowing the people in a house to pieces, the thud of all the bombs blasting man’s hope and decency.”

A year after Shirer returned to the United States, Japan attacked the Pearl Harbor Naval base bringing America into the deadliest war in history. For the next five years the world remained at war in a conflict between democracy and tyranny. In the end, a dictator lay dead and nations in ruins. The threat of dictatorship will never subside and to protect society from the dangers of tyranny, we must remember how it was done. This is the inside story of the Third Reich and Adolf Hitler’s hold over Germany.

ISBN-10:‎ 0883659220
ISBN-13:‎ 978-0883659229

Before the Fires: An Oral History of African American Life in the Bronx from the 1930s to the 1960s Before the Fires – Mark Naison and Bob Gumbs

BronxThe Bronx, New York is known as the birthplace of hip-hop music and the home of the New York Yankees. It is also a melting pot and home to immigrants from all parts of the world. And the history of the Bronx is as storied as the people who call him home. During the 1970s, New York City had ventured into its darkest days with the threat of bankruptcy and crime rate nothing short of astronomical. In the Bronx, an epidemic of fires emerged but not solely due to arson. In fact, arson played a minor role in the plague of fires that struck the Bronx. Regardless of how and why the fires started, the tragedies altered the Bronx landscape and left its people wondering where things went wrong. However, life in the Bronx was not always as perilous. Authors Mark Naison and Bob Gumbs conducted interviews with former residents of the Bronx to learn what life was like before the fires and drugs devastated communities.

Most of the people interviewed are Black Americans but there is one interview with a former resident who was white. The participants range in age and occupation, but all called the Bronx home, with a heavy focus on the Morrisania section. Among the speakers are a relative of jazz legend Thelonious Monk (1917-1982) and the sister of NBA legend Nathaniel “Tiny” Archibald. Their stories are interesting but there are numerous interviews in the book which are highly informative. What struck me as I read is the diversity that existed in the Bronx at a time when racial segregation in America was legal and enforced. In fact, the Bronx during the 1930s to the 1960s could serve as the blueprint for the United Nations. Speaker after speaker comment on the diversity they saw in a neighborhood home to Jews, Irish, Italian, Blacks, and anyone else who needed a place to live. Of course, there were racial issues on occasion and the presence of gangs cannot be overlooked. Names such as the Slicksters, Savage Nomads and Fordham Baldies are cemented in New York City gang lore. The dark elements of life in the Bronx are discussed but the speakers are unanimous in the position that the racial violence found in American South was unknown to the Bronx. That is not to imply that everything was perfect. In fact, during those times Crotona Park and Arthur Avenue were off limits to blacks as is discussed by more than one speaker. And though white flight did occur, the speakers also fondly remember their white neighbors with whom they created memories to last a lifetime.

There is a dark side to the interviews and that takes the form of heroin which floods New York City and turns the Bronx into a nightmare. The rise in drug addiction is the most difficult of the stories in which it is mentioned. Thankfully, none of the speakers suffered from addiction but they recall how they saw their neighborhoods change as drugs flooded the streets. The stories are heartbreaking and an eerie premonition of the current opioid crisis in America. Fentanyl has the possibility to repeat the events in the Bronx a thousand times over across America, and in some places it has already started. The influx of heroin resulted in the exodus of long-term residents resulting in a change in demographics, income level and quality of life. However, today the vacant lots are gone, and the fires in the 1970s ancient history to the younger crowd. But there was a time when the Bronx hit rock bottom and was one of the worst parts of New York City. My borough of Brooklyn had its own issues and in East New York, we were able to relate to the Bronx as we too saw the influx of drugs and escalation of violence that turned the streets into war zones.

Another thing I noticed as I read the stories was the sense of community that once existed. The Morrisania section was its own world with close bonds and unlocked front doors. The image that I formed in my head is far removed from the reality of life in the Bronx today where doors must be locked. The carefree environment discussed by the speakers sounds too good to be true, but it was a different time with different mindsets. The loss of community and the indifference on the streets today is puzzling to the older residents as can be seen in the interviews. The Bronx they knew is long gone, having been replaced by new tenants whose experiences and lives have taken different paths to the city that never sleeps. However, New York and America by large was built by immigrants and that is also evident in the interviews.  The men and women interviewed in the book had been away from the Bronx for extensive periods of time, but they are all clear about their love for the borough known informally on the streets by its nickname “the Boogie Down Bronx”. If you like New York City history, this will pleasantly surprise you.

ASIN: B01J86B22Q

Miseducated: A Memoir – Brandon P. Fleming, Foreword by Dr. Cornel West

flemingEvery so often, a recommendation shows up in my list that catches me completely off guard. This book is one of them. At first, I was not sure what to make of it and had not heard of it previously. But after seeing the high rating, I decided I had to see for myself and now that I have finished the book, I can state with certainty that it is a true gem. As stated on the cover, the book is a memoir by Brandon P. Fleming, a former debate coach at Harvard University and the Founder & CEO of The Veritas School of Social Sciences. The school was formerly known as the Harvard Debate Council Diversity Project. And though he has found success through years of challenging work, there was a time when Fleming could have become an inner-city statistic.

The book begins with all the makings of a story about a kid who falls victim to the streets. Fleming and his siblings are being raised by a single mother enlisted in the military. Added to the mix are multiple fathers and a stepfather concerned only with himself. From the very beginning, I noted the lack of a stable family structure and the impact it had on the author’s life. By his own admission, he was a problem child but for reasons that are understandable. The section about Lucas was difficult to accept but it is a common occurrence that sets the stage for future dysfunction. Around 2007, the author’s mother receives orders to deploy with her unit as United States Armed Forces landed in Iraq. For the author, this meant a change of scenery and he soon began to spend more time in the belly of the beast: on 227th Street in the Bronx, New York. It is here that Fleming admits he learned how to craft the persona that nearly derailed all his hopes in the years to come. And his term for the form of education he learns there is jolting but also an aspect of life in the ghetto. As the author and siblings age, they are ushered through the school system sometimes without care for their development as students and individuals. The author somberly reflects that:

“I had not learned a thing since middle school, or before. I had never read an entire book. I did not know how to write essays. I knew nothing about thesis statements or citing sources. My SAT scores were so low that I was put into remedial, 100-level English and math courses.” 

As I read his heartbreaking story, I thought of the young children who are in similar situations. Fleming emerges as a prime example of how young black kids are “miseducated”. Surprisingly, Fleming advances far enough to enroll at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia and has a promising basketball career. But a devastating injury changed those plans and left the author reeling and on the brink of self-destruction. And this is where his life takes a sharp turn, and the story becomes more uplifting with each passing chapter. Of course, there are setbacks, but through chance encounters with several people who influence his mind, and determination, he pushes forward. And before long, he finds a group of kids who he begins to cultivate as future debaters, giving birth to the ideas that have provided him with the platform he has today. Upon reflection, he asks this crucial question that will resonate with Black Americans:

Why is it that basketball was all I ever wanted? It’s because passion is born through exposure and affirmation.

Towards the end of the book, Fleming’s students evolve as a force to be reckoned with. And after a successful performance, he is approached with the suggestion of working at Harvard. And though I was only reading the book, I too felt elation at this point in the story. I also felt sad because a move to Harvard would mean moving away from the other young kids who need mentoring. But as Fleming explains to the young minds looking to him for guidance, they are all part of a movement. His arrival at Harvard is smooth but he soon notes that the debate program suffers from a lack of diversity. At this point, the writing is on the wall. Administrators agree and give the author the freedom to bring his vision to life and give readers the happy conclusion we patiently wait for throughout the book.

There is one part of the book that really stands out and it is the section in which he takes his first group of students out to eat. He is downcast because he cannot seem to reach them but suddenly an opportunity presents itself for debate and the light goes off in Fleming’s head. What he learns and explains is absolutely gold in the field of education and even teachers who read this book may learn something from it. Old dogs can learn new tricks.

Fleming’s story is a true rag to riches account but in no way is it standard. In ghettos across America, children remain stuck in homes that are dysfunctional and neighborhoods that are deadly. Brilliant minds are hidden due to the environment in which they live that dictates survival over anything else. Yet, that does not have to be the final word in their lives. They too can succeed but first need a path that leads from the darkness to awakening. And to drive this point home, the author sums up his experience and that of other black kids with this quote that says it all:

“Too often, Black youth, no matter how gifted or talented, miss out on opportunities because their family’s earning power is less than their white classmates’. Lack of access, not lack of ability, often keeps Black people from accomplishing what they could in a more equitable world.”

Brandon Fleming is only one person, but his story and success is a template for what can happen when brilliant minds are presented with the opportunity to create their visions and test the waters. Every action and decision do not always mean success but as he explains to one of his Harvard students, you always get back up. Highly recommended.


Against Our Better Judgment: The Hidden History of How the U.S. Was Used to Create Israel – Alison Weir

weirOn May 14, 1948, World Zionist Organization executive head David Ben Gurion (1886-1973) proclaimed the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, formally establishing a Jewish state. To Zionists, the accomplishment was the fruit of their labors, but in Washington, D.C., there was cause for concern. Officials in the State Department witnesses one of their greatest fears come true and accepted the reality that the Middle East would never be the same again. It is easy to make the mistake of believing that the term Jewish is monolithic, but the reality is far different. In fact, as this book shows, within Judaism there are sharp divisions over faith, identity, and ideology. A hotly contested issue is Zionism, the driving force behind the creation of a Jewish state as envisioned by Austrian Jewish journalist Theodore Herzl (1860-1904), who is considered to be the father of Zionism. American foreign policy makers understood that the changes to come in Palestine would not be warmly welcomed and would inflame tensions between the new settlers and Palestinians who called the area home. With hindsight, we know that they were eventually overruled and today, conditions in the region remain tense. If officials knew this would happen, then why did they agree to the partition? Author Alison Weir traveled to Israeli and Palestinian territories as part of her research into one of the most important questions of the twentieth century. 

As per the author’s words, the book originally started as an article that evolved into the larger story presented here. By no means is the book a complete discussion of the Zionist movement or the creation of Israel. Both subjects are far too extensive and intricate to cover in one book. But Weir does provide the right amount of information to peel back the layers of a story hidden from the American public. It cannot be overstated how crucial World War II was to the creation of Israel. Jews who had the means available fled Germany before the war. Those left behind faced an uncertain future that included a horrific death for millions of men, women, and children. Jews who survived were determined to never let it happen again. The Zionist cause has existed far longer than World War II. In fact, the location for a Jewish state changed more than once as detailed in the book. However, the movement initially struggled to gain the support of American Jews, highlighting the divisions that existed. 

The situation in the Gaza strip is the end result of the story at hand. But there is a darker aspect of the account to be found within that challenges the idea that I am my brother’s keeper. What Weir reveals is both shocking and disturbing. To those in power, the means justified the ends, but the revelations also reveal sobering truths about Israel’s creation. And the interactions with officials of the Third Reich are sure to make the hairs on your neck stand up. Further, the support for the Zionist cause here in America is examined and here we see the origins of groups committed to the cause of a Jewish state. Yet even as the movement gains momentum, Washington is still hesitant to support partition for reasons addressed by the author. However, President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) eventually reverses course and supports the partition. An explanation is given but I suspect there is more to his decision we may never know. Truman was a seasoned president by that time and would have known the political impact of partitioning and the pushback from the Arab world. If he did not, I am sure the Joint Chiefs of Staff would have addressed it due to their concerns revealed in the book. Truman may have agreed to the plan against his better judgment as well. 

Every movement has collateral damage, and the Zionist cause is no different. Non-Zionist Jews found themselves caught in a difficult position and the pressures they faced also form part of the discussion. And others who were receptive to the Zionist cause but also cautious about the reputation of America abroad and stability in the Middle East also found themselves under scrutiny as allegiance to the movement was questioned. The debate about Zionism is larger than this book but continues to this day among Jews. I should point out that at no point in the book does Weir challenge the right of Israel to exist. The book is a lesson in history that is not taught in schools. History is not always pleasant and filled with stories that are at times unsettling. But they are crucial to understanding how our world functions today. 

The book is short, but the author does provide an extensive list of further reading which includes discussions on Israel, Zionism, and the Palestinian people. This is the not the final word on Zionism, but it is a good place to start. 


Meyer Lansky: The Thinking Man’s Gangster – Robert Lacey

LanskyIn September 1971, reputed mobster Meyer Lansky (b. Maier Suchowljansky)(1902-1983) was denied Israeli citizenship by Dr. Yosef Burg after a careful review of the evidence presented to him. Prior to his ruling, he had consulted with Prime Minster Golda Meir (1898-1978) who proclaimed, “no Mafia in Israel”. Lansky was dejected and continued to seek out ways to live abroad beyond the reach of the U.S. Government. His next stop was South America but there he refused entry and accepted his fate as he returned to the United States. When he arrived at Miami International Airport, I am sure onlookers wondered what the commotion was regarding one man who stood about five feet four inches. The media dubbed him “the Mob’s Accountant” due to his uncanny ability to process figures in his head. And rumors have persisted that he once had three hundred million dollars hidden from investigators. The allegations are grandiose, but the truth is that Lansky was a figure of his era, nothing more and nothing less. Robert Lacey first published this book in 1991 under the title ‘Little Man: Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life‘. It was republished in 2016 under the current title and includes an updated account by the author. It is by far, a definitive biography of the late Lansky.

Mob aficionados will know Lansky’s story and readers who have viewed ‘The Godfather Part II‘ (1974) will recognize the inspiration for the fictional character “Hyman Roth” which was based on the real-life Lansky. Lee Strasberg (1901-1982) nailed the role and as Lacey discusses in the book, Lansky contacted the actor following the film’s release to discuss the portrayal of himself on screen. Lansky must have been thrilled to serve as an inspiration for a character in a film but the belief that he was a larger-than-life mobster who bankrolled La Costra Nostra may be misleading. In fact, the real story, as presented here, shows a complicated life that was anything but glamorous. There is more than meets the eye. Two marriages, a son with special needs and emotionally dysfunctional children are only parts of the Lansky story which begins in Grodno, Belarus in 1902. Like his contemporaries, Lansky emigrated to the United States as a child and the family settled in New York City. Max Lansky (1879-1939) found a new life for his family in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. I took notice of this part because the author touches on a part of the borough’s long forgotten history. In comparison to the Brownsville that exist today, known for a high crime rate and low income, the area was once a hotbed for Jewish immigrants. However, the story is just beginning and the move to the Lower East Side in Manhattan changed all their lives for good.

The section about Meyer’s childhood in Manhattan is key for it is here that he forms the alliances he would keep for decades with other immigrants, Italian and Jewish, who learned the way of the streets and the money to be made. The most famous of these friends are Charles “Lucky” Luciano (1896-1962) and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel (1906-1947). Lacey takes us back in time to the era of prohibition and crime fighting politicians such as former Governor Thomas E. Dewey (1902-1971) and former New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (1882-1947). Luciano fell victim to Dewey’s administration and was convicted on prostitution charges on June 7, 1936, and subsequently incarcerated. But his story was far from over. In fact, the United States Government would later need Luciano as the war effort heated up. And at the center of the events was Lansky himself. The covert operation and Lansky’s role are covered in the book and show that when it came to defeating the Axis powers, all avenues were open.

As his underworld life evolved, Lansky also became a family man, and that story is far more complicated and unglamorous than his criminal exploits. His two marriages and the three children he had with first wife Anna (1910-1984) provide some of the most emotional parts of the story. The family’s struggle is nothing short of heartbreaking and the private side of Lansky’s life stands in stark contrast to the public facade of the seasoned mogul who helped build casinos and fill the Mafia’s coffers. Lansky’s oldest son Buddy has a story of his own in the book and the trials and tribulations of father and son are difficult moments. Second son Paul and daughter Sandra are equally chaotic, and Sandra plays another role in the book that will shock readers. And throughout the story is the importance of Judaism and Lansky’s adherence to his faith. It can be argued that his life was anything but Jewish and one that no believer would subscribe to. But in his defense, he was one of hundreds of Jewish mobsters in the early 1900s. There is never a shortage of gangsters in America.

On New Year’s Eve, January 1959, Cuban President Fulgencio Batista (1901-1973) fled the country, evading capture by Fidel Castro (1926-2016) and his Revolutionary Army. For Lansky and other gangsters, the source of income Cuba had become was now over. The events of that night were fictionalized for the Godfather Part II and Lacey provides additional facts about Batista’s last flight from the island which I was unaware of. I also noticed that after Castro seizes power in Cuba, there are no further moves by Lansky that could be considered “big”. In fact, I saw the opposite. Aside from investments and miscellaneous sources of income, there is nothing in the book that alludes to him being a financial mogul with streams of hidden income. Even when Lansky moves to Florida later in the book, the belief that he had hundreds of millions of dollars in unclaimed income continued to haunt him. The stress from relentless investigations combined with his failing health only added to the tragedy his life slowly became. His second wife Teddy (1907-1997) stayed by his side, but also found herself under the prying eyes of the press. Her response to the press upon her return to Miami International Airport following Meyer’s failed attempt to establish residence in South America, was captured by television cameras and must be seen to be believed.

Despite the increased pressure by investigators, Lansky evaded prosecution for major crimes and that is one of the ironies in the book. If he was a criminal mastermind, he shrewdly kept himself out of long prison sentences. The reality I gleaned from the book is that Lansky was not the person he was portrayed to be. He did have dealings with mobsters and earned significant amounts of cash, but the only section in the book that shows extravagance is when he took his second wife Teddy on a first-class European vacation. Lansky did have income and the author provides details of his earnings as the story progresses, but the figures are well short of what would be expected from the “mob’s accountant”. Added to Lansky’s financial woes in Florida are the struggles each of his children had throughout their lives. This is a sobering reality in the story; Lansky could control hardened gangsters but struggled with his own kids. And what we see in the book about the Lansky home is all too familiar in mobster stories. Long nights out, weeks away from home and secrets of the streets combine to strain even the most committed marriages and bonds between a father and his children.

Lansky’s life in Miami during his final years closes out the story, but before it is over, the decline of the aging mobster plays out in the final act. Years of chain smoking and stress took their toll, and the decades-long health issues he endured came to a head. He dutifully walked Teddy’s dog Bruzzer but on the inside, his body was slowly breaking down. Readers will see the writing is on the wall and that Lansky does not have much time left. But when death comes for him, there are no last words in the form of a confession but instead Lansky affirmation that he was ready to go. He lived and died on code as the thinking man’s gangster. This is the legacy and tragedy of Meyer Lansky.


In Hoffa’s Shadow: A Stepfather, a Disappearance in Detroit, and My Search for the Truth – Jack Goldsmith

JckOn the morning of July 30, 1975, Charles “Chuckie” O’Brien (1933-2020) began his day making final preparations for a permanent move to Florida where he planned to reside with his wife Brenda and his stepchildren. But by the end of the day, his life was turned upside down due to the disappearance of his stepfather, former International Brotherhood of Teamsters (“IBT”) President James R. Hoffa (1913-1975), whose disappearance is still an unsolved mystery that has eluded investigators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) for decades. O’Brien was an easy target because of his proximity to Hoffa. The Netflix film ‘The Irishman‘ (2019) shows O’Brien (played by actor Jesse Plemons) driving Hoffa to his death. But is that what really happened? Jack Goldsmith once called O’Brien dad and later discussed Hoffa’s disappearance with his aging stepfather and this book is what he learned about the case directly from the man everyone knew as “Chuckie”.

Before proceeding, I must address the elephant in the room which is the story of Frank Sheeran (1920-2003) as told in the book “I Heard You Pain Houses: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran and Closing the Case on Jimmy HoffaThe book is sensational but there are multiple issues with Sheeran’s story. Further, the FBI never charged Sheeran, nor did they consider him a serious suspect. Also, there is absolutely no evidence that Sheeran was one of the hitmen involved the murder of Colombo Family mobster Joseph “Crazy Joe” Gallo (1929-1972) on April 7, 1972. At the time of his death, Gallo was in a bitter inter-family feud with followers of boss Joseph Colombo (1923-1978) and had been blamed for the shooting at Columbus Circle in Manhattan on June 28, 1971, that left the mob boss in a vegetative state until his death. It is true however, that Sheeran did know Hoffa and oversaw his own Teamsters Local in Delaware. Readers will reach their own conclusions, but the facts indicate that Sheeran overstated his role in Hoffa’s life and role as a Mafia hitman.

Goldsmith is a former Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Legal Counsel and was directly involved with the controversy surrounding the Stellar Wind warrantless surveillance program during the administration of President George W. Bush. At the age of twelve, his mother Brenda married O’Brien to the displeasure of the overbearing Hoffa. Despite the adversity faced by the couple, they were determined to live a peaceful life away from the complicated relationships that existed in Detroit due to the influence of O’Brien’s famous stepfather. The author revisits his early life when O’Brien became a part of the family and his path in understanding why the FBI was always interested in what his stepfather was doing and what he knew about Hoffa’s disappearance. Their relationship goes through difficult phases in the book but eventually comes full circle. The crux of the book, however, is the role O’Brien may have played in the crime, if any. And this is where the story picks up in pace and pulls the reader in. Once I reached the section surrounding Hoffa’s role as IBT President and the impending doom, I could not put it down.

Readers searching for a “smoking gun” in the case will not find it here although O’Brien affirms what researchers have long believed about the case. And the key to understanding what did happen lies in the relationship between the Teamsters and the Italian American Mafia. While Hoffa was no gangster, he was not averse to working with controversial figures or groups if it meant the improvement to the status of the IBT and its thousands of members. At the heart of this nexus was O’Brien’s mother, Sylvia Pagano (d. 1970), who is too often omitted from the Hoffa story. Goldsmith explores her connection to Hoffa and O’Brien refutes a persistent rumor about their relationship. Further, the importance of Pagano to Hoffa’s wife Josephine (1918-1980) whose mental and physical conditions were the sources of turmoil and concern in his life. Filmmakers did not include Pagano or reveal the dark side of Josephine’s story in “The Irishman“. Goldsmith had access to FBI files which contained unsettling truths about Hoffa’s marriage and his connections to underworld figures who were not as “loyal” as one might think. This relationship did not go unnoticed, and Hoffa found himself the target of the U.S. Department of Justice under Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (1929-1968). The bad blood between Hoffa and Kennedy is no secret but what is also shown in the book are the lengths to which Kennedy’s “Get Hoffa Squad” went to bring the labor leader down. The author presents moral and ethical questions about Kennedy’s actions and decisions which had unintended consequences, and inadvertently set the stage for the events which transpired on July 30, 1975. The vengeance with which the Department of Justice came after Hoffa produced important case law that would have crucial role int the author’s actions in the Bush Administration.

Hoffa was convicted in 1967 after Kennedy left the Department of Justice on charges of jury tampering. And this was the first stage in the next eight years in which Hoffa would go from contained threat to an unpredictable liability. And O’Brien was there to witness the events and divulged to Goldsmith as much as he was willing to say on occasion. There are things which ‘The Irishman‘ did get right and one of those things is the tension between Hoffa and Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano (1917-1988). The mobster is only part of the story however, and we also learn about Goldsmith’s close relationship to Anthony “Tony Jack” Giacalone (1919-2001) who is like an uncle to the young teen and Vito William “Billy Jack” Giacalone (1923-2012). All three are suspected of having direct knowledge of the circumstances surrounding Hoffa’s disappearance or having played a direct role in the crime. There is no proof offered in the book that any of them did take part but if O’Brien is to be believed, “Uncle Tony” told him in uncertain terms that Hoffa had become a liability to the powers that be in New York.

In December 1971, U.S. President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) with conditions. The intriguing story of how the pardon came to be is discussed within and it is a fascinating story which reveals the power and connections held by the labor leader even behind bars. Readers may wonder why Hoffa was pardoned if his successor Frank Fitzsimmons (1908-1981) was well-liked by the mob and the White House. A motive is discussed in and there is credence to it. Of course, secrets surrounding Nixon’s final decision are lost to history but what is clear is that Hoffa had no intention of relinquishing control over the teamsters to anyone, and intended to directly violate the pardon. And this stubbornness sets the stage for his final days. I cannot say what went through Hoffa’s mind when he decided to call out the mob publicly and blast Fitzsimmons in the media but the unbelievable story which Goldsmith revisits is astounding. As depicted in ‘The Irishman‘, people close to Hoffa were warning him to quiet down and back down. In fact, O’Brien reveals that Tony Jack himself was one of the people who tried to get Hoffa to understand the gravity of the situation. Those encounters and Giacalone’s status in Detroit are also omitted from the film. But from what we know about the “Commission”, New York’s Five Families were aware of the Hoffa problem in Detroit and there was too much at stake for the bad press to continue.

The inevitable part of the story we know is coming arrives, and when it happens, O’Brien’s world is shattered. The disappearance and the fallout compose the final part of the book where we see the FBI and others hound O’Brien mercilessly. Throughout the story he maintains his innocence and we learn that there were FBI agents who had ruled him out as a suspect. However, as stated by the author, O’Brien knew more than he was willing to say, but feared repercussions after decades of association with dark figures in the criminal underworld. But nowhere in the book is there solid information that O’Brien drove Hoffa to his death or wanted his stepfather to disappear. In fact, O’Brien shows nothing but love and praise for the man who raised him. Further, if Hoffa did not trust O’Brien with Local 299, I doubt seasoned mobsters would have trusted him with the plot to remove his stepfather from the picture. What I did see is that O’Brien was the victim of endless harassment and a smear campaign because of his relationship with Hoffa but not because the two were on bad terms. And the penalty that was paid by his family is staggering and may have broken a weaker person. But O’Brien never wavered in the goal to clear his name and this part of the story is also omitted from the Hoffa discussion. The author was with him every step of the way as he sought to preserve his reputation, and the actions by the Government are confusing on occasion. In the end, O’Brien is now gone and any secrets he possessed departed with him. But before leaving, he shared a wealth of information with Goldsmith who in turn presents a necessary side to the tragedy of James Riddle Hoffa.


Carmine the Snake: Carmine Persico and His Murderous Mafia Family – Frank DiMatteo and Michael Benson

carmineInfamous gangster Alphonse “Al” Capone (1899-1947) famously quipped that “once you’re in the racket, you’re always in it”. The seasoned gangster knew the pitfalls of a life of crime and conditions that apply. He was convicted on October 18, 1931, of tax evasion and sentenced to eleven years in prison. On November 16, 1939, Capone was released from prison due to effects of Syphilis which had spread to his brain. The disease continued to cause deterioration in the mobster and on January 25, 1947, Capone did in his sleep. It was a sad ending for America’s most famous mobster but less violent than the grisly fates met by other gangsters “in the life”. Carmine “the Snake” Persico (1933-2019), a former Colombo Family boss, also escaped a grisly fate but remained in prison until his death on March 7, 2019. And with his passing was the end of another era in New York City history. In his prime, Persico was one of the City’s most notorious figures and implicated in scores of mafia-related crimes, including the murder of Albert “The Mad Hatter” Anastasia (1902-1957), revisited by here by Frank DiMatteo is a Brooklyn native raised in the Park Slope neighborhood controlled by the Persicos, with whom his father was affiliated. This is the story of Carmine Persico and the terror his mob family unleashed on the City of New York.

Readers familiar with Park Slope might be surprised to learn how saturated the area was with mobsters in the past. Today, the area has changed significantly but remnants of the old days still exist there as they do in other parts of New York. The early part of the book focuses heavily on the Park Slope area where the budding gangsters are getting experience on the gritty streets of Brooklyn. The crimes are petty and routine, until Carmine and older brother Alphonse Persico (d. 1989) have a fateful encounter with a friend turned rival named Steve Bove. At this point in the book, the writing is on the wall that Carmine is destined for a life of crime. From this point on, the schemes become more daring and the violence deadlier. Yet, Persico always manages to slip out of tense situations, earning him the nickname of “the Snake”.

Though Matteo is writing about Persico’s life, a bonus is that the book is filled with information about mob events that shocked the city. Sadly, there are no “smoking guns” that have not been previously revealed but he does offer information that might explain why the events happened. In particular, the murder of Joseph “Joe” Colombo (1923-1978) remains controversial. The assailant Jerome Johnson, was shot and killed immediately by one of Colombo’s bodyguards but the woman he was with, masquerading as a reporter, has never been found along with a second man in their group. The hit has never been fully explained but has been blamed on Colombo’s rival at the time, Joseph “Crazy Joe” Gallo (1929-1972) and his brothers at odds with Colombo and the family’s prior boss, Giuseppe “Joe” Profaci (1897-1962). DiMatteo discusses the Colombo murder, and it is possible that Gallo was telling the truth when he stated he had nothing to do with the shooting. As the author shows, Colombo was respected by not well-liked, and the list of people who might have wanted to see him removed was long. The truth about the crime may be lost to history. But there is no question regarding the bad blood between the Gallo and Colombo factions, a simmering animosity that caused division within the family. The feud between them became so infamous that a part of it was reenacted on screen in The Godfather Part II. I won’t go into detail here, but if you have seen the movie and read this book, you will know which scene it is. Also provided is a satisfying amount of inside information about the production of the Godfather films and the filmmakers’ interactions with real-life gangsters including Persico. DiMatteo does mention other notable crimes in mafia lore such as the Air France Cargo robbery in 1967 and the Lufthansa Heist in 1978, both of which are depicted in Martin Scorsese’s mob classic ‘Goodfellas‘. The crimes are well-documented, so the author does not devote too much of the book to them, but they are discussed in relation to Persico’s story and the state of the mafia at the time.

Hollywood eventually moved on, but as we see in the book, the mob was getting stronger, and more blood was spilled on the streets of New York City before peace was established. But the difference is that the next war was within the family. With Colombo in a comatose state, the grabs for power kicked into high gear. And at Persico’s side was notorious hitman Gregory “The Grim Reaper” Scarpa (1928-1994). Scarpa’s reputation in mob history is cemented as someone not to cross. The section about Scarpa is not a biography but readers unfamiliar with him may want to read Peter Lance’s ‘Deal With The Devil: The FBI’s Secret Thirty-Year Relationship With A Mafia Killer‘ and the account by Scarpa’s daughter titled ‘The Mafia Hitman’s Daughter‘. Scarpa was a dark figure and the battles between the Persico faction and the soldiers loyal to acting boss Vittorio “Little Vic” Orena feel like a story out of the motion picture industry.

The story takes a significant turn at this point and is nothing short of wild. Combined with the inter-family wars brewing, Persico is also on the radar of the U.S. Government and was indicted multiple times as detailed by the author. Franklyn, it seemed that as soon as he was released, he was back inside yet again facing more charges. The unbelievable story as told by DiMatteo highlights the lengths to which federal prosecutors were willing to go in their mission to dismantle the Italian American mafia. The introduction of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as the “RICO Act”, signaled that the end was near for the mob. The legislation drafted by attorney G. Robert Blakely became an invincible tool in the Government’s arsenal that is still used to this day. As the convictions piled up, mobsters facing RICO charges knew the only options were to make a plea or face life in prison. Persico ended up with life in prison and had to live with the fact that his sons “Allie Boy” and Michael also followed their dad down the path of no return.

The sad fates of the major players compose the concluding section of the book and there are no happy conclusions. Death, incarceration, and financial ruin decimated the mobsters who found themselves targets of the Government. DiMatteo finished the story before Persico’s death resulting in the epilogue not containing mention of his passing. However, the sentence Persico received made it clear that he would die behind bars and that is exactly what happened. At the time of his death, the power, fame, and money he enjoyed on streets was gone but at his height, his life was one heck of a ride that even Hollywood could not have scripted. This is a fascinating look at the mob and the reality of life in it.


Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels – Hella Winston

winstonSeveral years ago, I accompanied a friend as she undertook the task of burying her late mother who had passed after several years of ill health. The cemetery is for followers of the Jewish faith and as part of the internment process, I was required to wear a yarmulke and spread dirt over the grave. The rabbi explained the meaning behind the acts, and the presence of others in attendance who did not know her mother but came out after hearing of her death. That day I was a witness to a side of Judaism I was not previously aware of. My friend was not Hasidic but strongly identified with her Jewish roots. Today when I drive through parts of Brooklyn, I take notice of the Hasidic Jewish communities in Crown Heights, Borough Park, and Williamsburg. To the public, the people of these sects are elusive and mysterious. Author Hella Winston stepped into these worlds to learn the truth about those who become unchosen.

It is imperative to recognize that Jewish is not a monolithic term. In fact, the divisions between sects, mainly the Satmar and Lubavitch, should not be overlooked. However, what is uniform is their commitment to preserving their faith and the importance of never forgetting the name of Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). The Third Reich’s determination to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population had an unintended result here in New York as Winston points out. Readers will not be surprised at what they learn but what the author does reveal, will put the Hasidic community’s cohesiveness in a clearer perspective. The horrors of World War II cannot be understated and as Winston notes,

“One of the most striking things I came to understand during the course of this research is the power of the Holocaust, and the history of Jewish suffering in general, both in the actual lives of some Hasidic people and in the imaginations of these communities as a whole. There is, of course, the plain historical fact that the Hasidic communities that exist in America today were started almost entirely by refugees from World War II”.

Of course, the Hasidic culture we see does not exist solely because of the war. The scriptures impact every aspect of daily life and readers familiar with orthodox customs are aware of the restrictions in place around the Sabbath and during holidays. The individuals she became acquainted with revealed deeply personal parts of their lives and provided information that I learned of for the first time. One section that stands out is the view held towards Theodore Herzl (1860-1904), considered to be the father of Zionism. Brooklynites may recall that a street in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn bears his name. The reason for the view of Herzl held by the Hasidim is quite simple and in the overall context of the book, makes sense. But there is far more to the story than just Herzl and the people we are introduced to are anything but orthodox.

Winston picked members of both genders and from various families and each story has similar tones but are in fact different. I did observe that although they wanted a different life, they still loved their families and the communities they grew up in. The struggle with faith is not an easy one. Critics online have blasted the book as a condemnation of the Hasidim. I disagree and did not get that feeling while reading and have no ill will towards them. Admittedly, there were customs that I would not want to adhere to but it is not for me to say they are right or wrong for others. And I feel that anyone reading this book has to do so with an open mind. There are however, parts in the stories of the women that will make you scratch your head and have feelings of disapproval and/or disgust. These are the sections that bring to light the reality for Hasidic women. We pass them on the street, on the subways and maybe even the park, but the truth about their daily lives is carefully guarded. Whether the women are happy with their lives or not is for them to reconcile but if we digest what is contained here, it is apparent that not all are content and the number of women who yearn for more out of life could be higher than we think. The same applies for men due to the number of readers who contacted Winston after the book’s publication.

The book’s star is undoubtedly Yossi, whose story is a roller coaster ride in itself. But for all that we do learn about inside the community, there is a realization to be had for those who venture outside of it; none are prepared for the secular world which might as well be another planet. And this is one the tragedies of the book. The speakers have decided to venture in the secular world but have no real foundation to do so as the majority of their lives was spent inside the community which offered not only the resources they needed but security as well. The streets outside the community are unforgiving and more than one speaker falls victim to its darker elements. Thankfully, none perish but their experiences highlight the unchartered waters that await anyone who decides they no longer believe or wish to be Hasidim.

A common aspect I found in the stories is that they were living double lives. While they believed in the scriptures, they could not reconcile that with the practices they witnessed daily. It is a difficult position to be in and the mind will find itself at war with itself. The stories of Chaim, Yitzchak, Dini, Malkie and Leah are all intense on their own and in each one we see that regardless of location or religion, human nature is strong and cannot always be contained. The quest for freedom led some to take extreme measures as they struggled with choices I have been forced to make. And this is one of the best parts of the book that is possibly overlooked. All isolated communities have their secrets and the Hasidim are no different. But what readers should come away with is that if you are not a part of the community, you have freedoms and liberties that are desired by people within the community. And the reality is that they may never know the world as you do. For them, the scriptures control their lives and those in high positions of power pick up where faith does not. The narratives are controlled but not impervious. Over time, I believe that the Hasidim will also adjust to modern times as the younger generation seeks a new path in a rapidly changing world.

Despite the information revealed in the book, there are positive aspects to the Hasidim way of life and there are followers who are happy in the community. And as Winston points out, they too are human beings. The Hasidim also have fears, concerns, passions and insecurities. Winston’s book is not about which way is right or wrong but provides a window in a world we see only from the outside. In no way is the book a definitive account of the Hasidim nor was it intended to be. But if you can see the value in the stories contained within, then you will appreciate what she has brought to light. And if there are Hasidim who have left their communities and not sure about what to do, the organization Footsteps which was started by Malkie Schwartz, a speaker in the book, provides assistance to those in need.

If you are curious about the Hasidic way of life and what happens to those who leave, this is must-read.