You might have seen the film American Hustle, or at least seen advertisements for it featuring a permed Bradley Cooper, a shady Christian Bale and a dappy Jennifer Lawrence. Based on Robert W Greene’s book The Sting Man: inside ABSCAM, it tells a dark but funny story of power, the mob and political corruption. At its heart, though, it is the story of Mel Weinberg.
Weinberg was one of the great hustlers of the 20th century. He could magic a scam out of almost any transaction, most notably advanced fee loans (taking large fees to provide loans which never materialised). Weinberg always had an angle — why make an honest dollar when he could cheat his way to the American dream? His rough charm and urban eloquence made him rich, but then he was caught by the FBI and the poacher turned gamekeeper. Weinberg became the front man in ABSCAM, a series of “fake sheikh” stings which exposed corruption at the highest levels of American politics and brought down a number of top-ranking congressmen.
Reading the book and watching the film, I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic for a type of Jew that hardly exists anymore. Weinberg was what you might call a “wild Jew”, and in many ways was typical of the wild Jew generation. He could have walked straight off the set of Once Upon A Time in America, the great Sergio Leone Jewish mob film. This was a time of Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel — the kosher nostra, and the smoke-filled streets of the Lower East Side, where shuls and speakeasies existed side by side.
These men were first or second generation Ashkenazi immigrants, transplanted to Western Europe by the tumult of the early 20th century. Something about the friction between their inherited traditions and dynamic new surroundings unleashed a fury of ambition, creativity and restless hunger within them.
Crucially, the wildness was by no means limited to seedy criminal enterprise and “tough Jews”. The great Jewish-American authors Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and even Philip Roth followed similar paths, keeping one foot in der heim of Isaac Babel and Isaac Bashevis Singer and another in the goldene medina of F Scott Fitzgerald and Henry James. They were fully Jewish and fully American and spent much of their lives exploring the meaning of this dual identity.
Bob Dylan, Lucian Freud, Mel Brooks - all wild Jews
Nor was the wildness restricted to men. Women such as Hannah Arendt, Emma Goldman and Ayn Rand went to America and had lives full of adventure and extraordinary thought.
The list goes on and on. It can take in Jackie Mason and Mel Brooks, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan and also the Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler, about whom a documentary called The Last of the Wild Jews was made. In both mind and body, these people roamed far and wide.
This explosive Jewish immigrant experience was never fully replicated in the more demure, class-bound Britain — though Lucian Freud and Robert Maxwell gave it a fair go — but even here there was a vitality to the immigrant experience which has been lost over the years.
To a greater or lesser degree, these people all experienced what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls the “agony and ecstasy” of life as a recent Jewish immigrant. Crimes were committed, but great novels were also written, whole cultures defined and enduring myths created.
Looking at western Jewry today, I fear we have lost sight of our wildness. As the generations pass we become ever more settled into our lives as British Jews; money is inherited, middle-class comfort protected and accountancy exams are passed.
On the whole, this calm prosperity is both inevitable and no bad thing, and I am of course not advocating a return to underworld crime. But we should not forget our exilic tradition, nor the strange and wonderful things that Jews can achieve when they leave their gated communities and go wandering into the wilderness. For with the agony of dislocation comes the ecstasy of possibility. In today’s comfortable world, we should remember the hustler Mel Weinberg and the wild Jews; they still have much to teach us.