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My Father and the Ghost of Bugsy Goldstein
By Michael 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 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 memorial. 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 my father's 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 Burton B. Turkis, the DA who tried and convicted him, 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 pounds, 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 provider; gentle.

Either I was a monster, or -- when it came to me -- Frank Bookman was possessed by one.

Bugsy lived not only in my father's rage, but in his heart. In my father's 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 armpits. 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; Harold Robbins' A Stone for Danny Fisher.

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 an enigma. I remained adamantly unaffiliated: "Who your boys Bookman?" they wanted to know. My "boys" were in their 40s, their 50s, their 60s. 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 '50s. 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 I'm OK."

Not long ago, I transferred a childhood obsession into sixty-five thousand words of narrative. It is my story; it is my father's story. A story I could not have told if not for Bugsy Goldstein.

Frank Bookman's hero.

My muse.

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