A Nickel Lost, A Fortune Found

Legend has it that sometime in the 14th Century, Jews were invited to settle in the then Lithuanian-controlled city of Grodno, a town on the border with Poland that was just beginning to make the change from small agrarian village to prosperous market town. The Lithuanians believed the Jews, reputed to be excellent craftsmen and traders, could help bring commerce to the community.

As in so many European cities, the Jews were tolerated when the community prospered. However in Grodno, as in other cities, anti-Semitism was common. In the 17th Century, the Russians, who had taken control of Grodno, wanted to expel all of the Jews. At another time, the Eastern Orthodox priests ordered the Jews to brick up any window which faced the church. And still later, Jews were forbidden to speak Hebrew. Jewish children were sometimes kidnapped from their parents to be raised as Christians or to be ransomed by their families.

Under the rule of czars, Jews in Grodno suffered greatly. There were restrictions on their business practices and their rabbis were sometimes martyred at the hands of their Gentile neighbors. By the end of the 19th Century, many Jews felt the pressure to emigrate as the Russian pogroms targeted them, their homes and property.

Among those who emigrated was Max Suchowljansky who in 1909 left his wife and three children behind in Grodno as he crossed the Atlantic to forge a new life in America. Two years later, 10-year-old Meyer Suchowljansky and his mother, brother and sister followed Max to New York City. Max had saved the money to bring his family to America by working as a garment presser in the clothing manufacturing industry.

On April 3, 1911, the S.S. Kursk landed at Ellis Island and after numerous processing delays the Suchowljanskys were reunited in a tenement in the tough Brownsville section of Brooklyn. In the pre-World War I era, New York was teeming with immigrants from all over the world. To the 10-year-old Meyer it was an exotic and fascinating place.

"I loved to walk around and see things I had never seen before, like peaches and bananas and other exotic fruits" Lansky told Uri Dan, his biographer. "I had no money to buy anything. I saw some other boys stealing, but I always remembered my mother telling me not to touch anything that did not belong to me."

Shortly after moving to Brownsville, the Lansky family (the surname had been Americanized by Max shortly after he emigrated) moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, "by no means a step up in the world," according to Lansky biography Robert Lacey.

Meyer’s mother Yetta was the dominant influence in his young life; his father was never able to overcome his depression over his abject poverty and would be only a minor influence on his children. To please his mother was the most important thing to the young boy and to let her down was unacceptable.

For her part, Yetta Lansky was devoted to her children. She would forgo food for herself on those days when the cupboards were almost bare so that her children would not go hungry. And each week she would scrimp and save for the Sabbath cholent, a traditional meal of potatoes and eggs, beans and vegetables. On the weeks when things were good for the Suchowljansky family, there would be meat in the cholent, but more often than not it was served as a meatless dish. Cholent is prepared before the Sabbath, for on the Sabbath no cooking is allowed.

On the Friday before the Sabbath, Meyer’s mother would hand the cholent to her eldest son and it was Meyer’s job to take the dish down to the local bakery because the family didn’t have an oven large enough to fit the dish. Proudly carrying the family’s Sabbath dinner and a nickel to pay the baker for the privilege of using the large oven, Meyer would walk down Delancy Street past the small storefronts, pushcart vendors, and street corner craps games.

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Young Lansky
On one fateful Friday, young Meyer, who had vowed that one day his family would have wealth, decided to risk the nickel on one of those street corner games. Although he had never gambled before, Meyer had often watched in fascination as the Irish and Jewish immigrants played with what looked like a fortune to the youngster. Confident that he would win and would be able to return home with more money for his family, Meyer placed his bet.

"I handed the money over to the banker, sure I was going to win – and to my dismay, I lost it!" he recalled years later. "Nobody in the game paid any attention to me, and I stumbled away. For a long time I couldn’t go home...I felt worse than a criminal. I had let the family down."

That Sabbath there would be no cholent. It was a defining moment in the young boy’s life.

"I was genuinely concerned at the way I had upset my family, but what troubled me more than anything was that I had lost that money," he said. "That night before I went to bed I swore to myself that one day I would be a winner – I would beat them all."

Meyer began to watch the games more than ever, determined to learn the secret. He began to notice that other men would often stop by the crap games and collect winnings from the bankers manning the games. He also noticed that the bankers were using shills – men with whom the bankers were in cahoots – to get others to play the game.

"I kept my eyes wide open and soon understood the tricks," Lansky said. "Then I decided it was time for me to try my luck again. This time I knew the rules and I understood exactly how they were doing it." On the Friday before Sabbath, with the cholent in one hand and a nickel tightly grasped in the other, Meyer watched a game until he saw the shill place a bet. Following the shill’s lead, the young man placed his own bet just as the dice were tossed.

"That was one of the most fateful moments of my life. It may sound very strange when only a nickel was at stake, but it was truly a turning point."

Meyer won that bet like he knew he would and for weeks he played the same game all over the Lower East Side. Moving from street to street, staying one step ahead of the bankers and shills, Meyer never gambled with the cholent money again.

Meyer had a head for figures and his father, a hardworking, gentle man who toiled in the sweatshops of the garment industry, was determined that his son would be a success. He decided that Meyer would excel in school and would grow up to be a mechanical engineer. In deference to his mother and his paternal grandfather, Benjamin, who had made it to Jerusalem, Meyer continued his religious studies and at 13 was Bar Mitzvah.

But Meyer was living a secret life, as well. Lansky was taking his education from the public schools of New York, the schools that were meant to help immigrants develop the tools to realize the American Dream and to indoctrinate them into the ways of their new home, and putting it to work on the streets of the Lower East Side. Hidden in a hole in his mattress was an ever-increasing bankroll which the young man won by playing the street corner gambling games.

As Meyer continued his solitary winning, he saw that the Jews of the Lower East Side were frequent targets of the organized Irish and Italian gangs. It wasn’t so much an anti-Semitic assault as it was an attack on the less organized, law-abiding immigrants.

One day, walking home from school, Meyer was set upon by a group of Sicilians, boys much older than Lansky, who demanded tribute from the teenager. The leader of this shakedown group was Salvatore Lucania, who would become better known to the world as Charlie "Lucky" Luciano. Salvatore liked picking on solitary Jews because they rarely fought back. But this time, he realized he had cornered a small, but dangerous opponent.

"Pay up," Lucania told Lansky.

Drawing on his past, on the way the Jews of Grodno had stood up to their oppressors time and time again, Lansky told Lucania to "go f__ yourself." He would not pay one cent to the Italian or anyone else for that matter.

Years later, Lansky would tell an Israeli writer that he "never got on my knees for any Christian," something of which Lansky was very proud. Standing toe-to-toe in the dirty snow of New York, Lansky and Lucania both realized that there was something special about the other. "We both had an instant understanding," Lucania remembered later. "It was something that never left us."

Lucania and the Sicilians let Meyer pass without paying.

In 1917, Lansky left school for good, a few weeks shy of his 15th birthday. Max Lansky, determined to have his eldest son do better than himself, got his son a job as an apprentice in a tool-and-die operation, with the hopes that one day Meyer would be a mechanical engineer.

"The foreman at the tool-and-die shop where he started to work used to praise his dexterity," Lacey writes in Little Man: Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life. "’You have golden hands,’ he told the youngster. ‘in 20 years you will be a professional worker and make good money. You’ll earn a dollar an hour.’" At the time, Lansky was working 52-hour weeks for 10-cents an hour. The 20-year climb to a dollar an hour was a joke to the 14-year-old who could make that in a few rolls of the dice. Meyer continued to work at the tool-and-die shop, but he knew he would never be "a professional worker." The most important education he was getting came from his work after the shop closed, when he and an Irish friend worked as strong-arm men in a crap game run by Yudie and Willie Albert.

In a few short years, Lansky was known to union organizers as a shtarke, a strong-armer who would do violence for a price. It is as a shtarke that Lansky’s name first appears on the police blotters. In 1918, 16-year-old Meyer Lansky was charged with felonious assault, only to have the charges dismissed. Shortly afterward, Lansky was arrested again, this time for disorderly conduct. Lacey alleges that Lansky was leaning on some of the local prostitutes on Madison Street in an effort to become a pimp. He pleaded guilty to the charge and was fined $2.

In 1921, a year after the Volstead Act ushered in Prohibition, Lansky quit the tool-and-die shop. "He never worked for anyone again," Lacey writes. "And he was never again employed in a conventional ‘job.’"

1. The Mythical Meyer

2. A Fortune Found

3. Bugs & Meyer Mob

4. Meeting with the Brain

5. Italian and the Jew

6. The Carpet Joints

7. Havana

8. Vegas

9. Israel

10. Lansky's Legacy

11. Bibliography

12. The Author
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