Moitle "Bugsy" Goldstein was my father's best friend
© by Mike Bookman
"I fought this Italian kid for twenty minutes; it was very,
very bloody. He wouldn't stop; I wouldn't stop. Bugsy was there
cheering me on. Kept fighting 'til we couldn't lift our hands.
Bugsy taught me how to fight."
Frank Bookman, 91, relating an incident that occurred in East
New York, Brooklyn, 1918.
As I completed my recent first novel, God's Rat, my father - Frank
Bookman - at 91, suffered his third stroke in less than a year.
He died a short time later. The novel was written because of my
father; it was written in spite of my father. It is his yartziett.
A tribute, yes. But one drenched in ambivalence.
God's Rat is, among other things, an exploration of the Jewish
criminal culture which was as much a defining aspect of life on
the Lower East Side at the turn of the century as its vaunted
Yiddish Theatre, Socialism, and thirst for Knowledge & Education.
In the garden of a nursing home, about a decade ago, my father's
oldest sister, briefly surfaced from the senescence she would
soon drown in, and spoke the last coherent words I heard from
her: "I'll never understand why these hard eyed boys were
always in our house," she whispered, her words hardly audible.
"Your father came from such a good home; he was loved."
I knew immediately whom she was talking about. But for confirmation
I asked his kid brother.
"Bugsy," he said.
Moitle "Bugsy" Goldstein was my father's best friend.
They lived in the same tenement on Cleveland Street, East New
York, Brooklyn. Bugsy, like my father, was born in 1905. He died
in 1941, electrocuted at Sing Sing for the contract murder of
a small time Boro Park thug, Irving "Puggy" Feinstein.
It is estimated by the DA who tried and convicted him, Burton
B. Turkis, that Goldstein personally murdered at least ten men.
Bugsy was a lieutenant of a notoriously efficient hit squad -
the original Murder Incorporated - under the immediate command
of Abe "Kid Twist" Relis who took his orders from Albert
Anastasia and Louis "Lepke" Buchalter.
My father's life on the street was as exotic to me - a middle
class Jew growing up in the fifties - as flying carpets in the
tales of the Arabian Knights. And it was all Bugsy. I learned
how brutal Bugsy was with his fists; how quick to fire a gun.
How he saved my father's life; how, in their late teens they drifted
apart and chose different lives. But Bugsy was never really gone.
I know - I felt Bugsy Goldstein in the beatings my father inflicted
on me - the beatings that defined our relationship. Hurling himself
on top of me fists flailing; a man out of control - completely
at one with his deepest rage; grunting, covered from head to toe
with tufts of black hair he seemed - at 5' 10", and weighing
almost 250 LB's - less a man than a huge predatory beast. Very
dangerous. Capable of beating me to death.
But the real pain was that they - the beatings - were reserved
for me. My father never raised his hand in anger to my kid brother.
And was an almost perfect spouse - uxorious, hard working, a good
Either I was a monster, or - when it came to me - Frank Bookman
was posessed by one.
But Bugsy lived not only in my father's rage.
In his words: Me, Moitle, and five or six of the boys were cutting
school, hiking in the swamps near the River - it's a garbage dump
now. Suddenly I'm in quicksand - nothing to hold onto. I'm going
down fast. I start screaming. The boys are trying to get me with
their jackets; their belts. Nothing reaches.
I'm screaming for Moitle to do something. He's screaming back.
We're screaming at each other - crying like two babies. The muck's
up to my mouth. I can't move my arms. Moitle dives into the muck
- goes under; I feel his hands under my arm pits. The boys grab
hold of his legs; they pull us in. The next day we both come down
with typhoid fever.
Bugsy Goldstein, lurked in my father's heart.
At twelve years old I became obsessed with Jewish gangsters and
found books that brought pre-W.W.II Jewish thugdom to life. Mike
Gold's classic Jews Without Money; Irving Schulman's The Amboy
Dukes; Harry Stone's The Hoods; Irving Wallaces' A Stone for Danny
This world became more real to me than my own.
Always a "difficult" kid my defiance - my anger - now
had a context. I transformed myself - at least in style - into
a "hood"; a "punk"; a "rock". I
scrapped my mother's proper English for my father's street argot;
my nondescript clothes, for hoodlum regalia - studded garrison
belt to secure my "dungarees"; Eisenhower jacket; heavy
black leather jackboots; pants with a 14" pegged cuff (black,
pink stitching on the sides); a pack of Chesterfield's wrapped
in the left short sleeve of my white "T" shirt. Saliva
was my venom -I spit continuously.
It was a good act. Nice Jewish boys crossed the street when they
saw me coming; teachers cowered when I strutted into their classroom
- and for good reason; the anger was real. The local gangs found
me something of a enigma - I remained adamantly unaffiliated:
"Who your boys Bookman?" they wanted to know. My "boys"
were in their forties; their fifties; their sixties. Many of them
dead; or in jail; or (worse! ) reformed. My "boys" were
specters haunting The Lower East Side and Brownsville/East New
York, those lost citadels of a proud Jewish demimonde: their pool
halls and candy stores and saloons and dance halls and horse parlors
and tenement brothels gone and all but forgotten -even by the
50's. My "boys" had names like Edward "Monk Eastman"
Osterman, Big Jack Zelig, Arnold Rothman, Lefty Louie Rosenberg,
Gyp "The Blood" Horowitz, Louis "Lepke" Buchalter,
Benny "Bugsy" Siegel, Arthur "Dutch Schultz"
Fleigenheimer, Maier "Meyer Lansky" Luchowljansky, Abe
"Kid Twist" Reles, Moitle "Bugsy" Goldstein.
And yes, Frankie"Curley" Bookman.
From the age of 12 until my late teens I demolished time, space,
and logic to be close to my father. It was always 1920 and Frankie
Bookman was there - in the shadows - and one day I would turn
a corner and see him, and I'd say "Hiya Frankie" and
he'd say "Hiya, Mike" and slap me on the back and I'd
smile and think: "He likes me, Bugsy's best friend thinks
Recently, I transferred a childhood obsession into sixty five
thousand words of narrative. My novel, God's Rat, is my story;
it is my father's story. And my Jewish brothers and sisters, it
is our story. A story I could not have told if not for Bugsy Goldstein.
Frank Bookman's hero .
from the September 1998 Edition of the Jewish Magazine