If you haven’t been watching HBO®’s Boardwalk Empire, you’re missing out on something rare. A Jew portrayed on camera as a tough guy.

The stereotypical Jewish character on television is not usually one we can be proud of. From Woody Allen’s nebbish and neurotic to Mrs. Seinfeld’s overbearing and oblivious, the Jews might have a reputation as scholarly, but never sexy. This must be what Italians feel like watching Jersey Shore.

The coolest Jew in television history was a young Henry Winkler – he could get any girl he wanted, start a jukebox by hitting it and even jump over a shark while not getting his leather jacket wet. Of course, the character he played was Italian. No one would believe all that could be done by Arthur Fonzewitz.

But Boardwalk Empire is a bit different. If you’re unfamiliar, the series chronicles the based-on-a-true-story of bootleggers and gangs during prohibition, with the three main factions being the Irish in Atlantic City, the Italians in Chicago and the Jews in New York. That’s right – the Jews.

According to the show (and history), while Al Capone was just getting his feet wet in Chicago, the most powerful boss in the country was Arnold Rothstein. Best known as the man charged with fixing the 1919 World Series, Rothstein is portrayed by the series as a handsome and rich tactician; while his rival gangs are quick to anger and too power hungry to see the big picture, Rothstein is even-tempered and the smartest one of the bunch.

My favorite scene was when Rothstein was hiring three small-time gangsters to transport his money, and as insurance, made them each sign life insurance policies with Rothstein as their beneficiary. Brilliant, cold-blooded and terrifying. But brilliant. Rothstein is the enemy of the show’s main character, but I still find myself rooting for him.

Also getting some camera time is Meir Lansky. The modern world was briefly introduced to Lansky in “Bugsy” and again in the made for TV movie “Lansky.” But despite helping start Las Vegas, Lansky is not a common household name. I always knew who Lansky was, because he’s the man who taught my father’s father to play pool. In a strange coincidence, my grandmother on my mother’s side met Bugsy Siegel a few times. If the Jewish mob still existed, I’d probably be pretty connected. Being involved in USY, having worked at Camp Ramah and being on the JDate.com billboard isn’t quite the same thing.

But I’m not rooting for Rothstein and Lansky because of my family’s passing acquaintance. I’m rooting for them because part of me is proud to watch Jews be gangsters, instead of just their accountants. Thank you, “Carlito’s Way.”

When “The Passion of the Christ” came out, a lot of Jewish groups protested the film, saying that its depiction of Jews as Christ killers was anti-Semitic. I had a slightly different view.

See, Jews have never been seen as an intimidating people. Maybe this is one we should start taking credit for. If someone is going to say we killed Christ, why not let them say it? Sure, we got him. And Kirk Cameron is next.

An aside, the best part of Mel Gibson’s legal troubles is that no self-respecting Jewish lawyer will represent him. Hey Mel, I bet you’d like to be friends with a few Jews right now, huh?

I know that the vast majority of Jews in the 1920s were not like Arnold Rothstein, Bugsy Siegel or Meir Lansky. Even Rothstein’s right-hand man in the show is Italian. But it is nice to see a few of us actually portrayed as tough guys. I’m not encouraging criminal behavior, but it’s nice to see we aren’t all Uncle Leo.

While I am enjoying Boardwalk Empire, I am glad that Jews eventually went legit. I can’t imagine how lame Goodfellas would have been if Joe Pesci was replaced by Jackie Mason. And reality TV wouldn’t have worked either. “Growing Up Goldberg” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

I do, however, try to break the shlubby stereotype whenever possible.

After joking that I was going to get my friend a lousy Christmas present, he joked that I shouldn’t even be celebrating Christmas since I killed his savior.

“Sure,” I said. “What do you think I’m celebrating?” 

Steve Hofstetter is an internationally touring comedian who has been seen on VH1, ESPN, and Comedy Central®, but you’re more likely to have seen him on the last Barbara Walters Special.

*Comedy Central is a registered trademark of Comedy Partners, a wholly-owned division of Viacom Inc.’s MTV Networks.

  1. It is hard to believe a Jew could be so misinformed about Jews.

    Chistian America’s TV and film generations have grown up fawning over Jews as sex symbols, tough guys and even gangsters, but has not always correctly
    perceived them as Jews, since their Jewishness is not trumpeted.

    The Hyman Roth character, played by Jewish actor Lee Strasberg, was actually based on Meyer Lansky. However, America’s all-time most famous movie gangster was Edgar G. Robinson, born as….Emanuel Goldenberg!

    More generally, Americans could watch a series like Bonanza for 20 years without stopping to think that pin-up boy Michael Landon was actually Jewish, nor that his TV father was in fact Jewish too (Lorne Green).

    If they switched over to Star Trek, they didn’t suspect that two-fisted Captain Kirk was Jewish (William Shatner), nor that his unemotional Vulcan Number One was Jewish (Leonard Nimoy).

    Of course, they may were used to the dapper, chain-smoking Rod Serling introducing his compelling tales on The Twilight Zone, but they may not have known that Rod himself was born and raised Jewish, and was a former fighter pilot and boxer, who wrote “Requium for a Heavyweight.”

    An exception to Jewish anonymity in drama was “Thirty-something,” where handsome Jewish actor Ken Olin played a Jewish main character.

    Over the years, Jewish actors have been leading men in films as well, from Dustin Hoffman to today’s Ben Stiller, and the fact is that America’s most outstanding tough guys tend to be at least half Jewish, such as Paul Newman or Harrison Ford. Ford has been quoted as saying he feels “Irish as a person, but…Jewish as an actor.”

    So Steve….someone is oblivious, but it may not be “Mrs. Seinfeld.”

  2. My late uncle -Louis E. “Davis” was in the army in 1917 in Larado TX on the Army Boxing team- later a Merchant Marine (I was too)
    I met Myer Lansky @ my friends podiatrist office on Miami Beach -he was an accountant.
    My late uncle Jim was known as “the Duke”
    I sold life insurance on Arthur Ave, Bx (Italian neighborhood) where all my Italian grandmas tried to set me up with their beautiful granddaughters –
    I played Pop Warner & Sandlot football(see the Wanderers) back in “Da Bronx” as did my cousin “Hambone”6’5 in the Inwood section of Manhattan, only jewish bouncer in an Irish bar. My late father was an attorney (as I am ) I never accepted the sterotype Hollywood jewish writers gave us -hell my hero growing up was Lloyd Bridges (jewish)and when I moved to Florida I became a certified scuba diver (YMCA Miami). Al Capone knew he couldn’t take over Detroit & instead became partners with the Bernsteins

  3. If you’re looking for examples of tough Jewish “good guys” as portrayed on TV and film, consider these:

    • Charles Bronson as Israeli General Dan Shomron in “Raid on Entebbe”
    • Daniel Craig in the movie “Defiance” as the leader of a courageous group of Jewish rebels who fought back against the Nazis
    • Tony Curtis as Jewish escape artist and athlete extraordinaire Harry Houdini
    • Kirk Douglas in the movie “Cast a Giant Shadow” as American Col. Mickey Marcus who commanded units of the fledgling IDF during Israel’s 1948 war of independence.
    • Charlton Heston as Moses in “The Ten Commandments”

    The fact that these ultimate tough guy actors were called upon to play strong Jewish characters speaks volumes.

  4. Max, all the examples of Jewish actors playing tough non-Jews illustrates Steve’s point more than yours, no?

  5. You sound a little racist, a bit anti- christian…. predjudice goes more than one way, eh?

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