Meyer Lansky likes to go it alone, especially since he gave up his former trade in favor of robbing and stealing. Trouble is, robbing and stealing is a cooperative effort. You bring your friends into it, and pretty soon it’s a small mob, and pulling little jobs here and there isn’t enough. You need to feed the fire. Plus, the other guys, the Italians, they’ve got a mob too, not so small, and no love for a bunch of tough Jews who think they’ve got as much right to build this sort of business as any man. But Meyer does think that. Now that the Eighteenth Amendment has passed, Meyer’s mind spins with thoughts of possibility. The Goyim’s Crusade is laughable, a gag, a bad joke certain to meet with non-compliance. Of this, Meyer Lansky is sure. The government presumes to govern the ungovernable. But pursuing all the possibility that Prohibition offers means branching out and becoming big enough to stave off those larger mobs. It means facing his biggest fear, becoming known.

He steps out from his Cannon Street garage and heads to Ratner’s deli to meet a friend, Abe Zwillman. Abe got into the lottery rackets early on. He has a head for numbers. Every Friday, he comes to Ratner’s deli for lunch not only to get a proper nosh, you won’t find a Ratner’s or Katz’s in Newark, but to touch base with guys like Meyer so he can keep his finger on the pulse of the Jewish rackets.

Meyer looks forward to the discussions. Today is no exception. He hustles along the sidewalk filled with pushcarts and shoppers and the traditional bustle of Jews tying up loose ends before sunset. Once the Sabbath commences, there will be no further work until sunset the next day.

A Black Hat steps in front of Meyer blocking the sidewalk.

"You are Meyer Lansky, yes?" the Black Hat says.

Black Hats are a cliquish clan of Hasids who practice a code of ostracism toward anyone who does not practice their form of Judaism. The discrimination includes other Jews, Jews like Meyer, who clearly do not follow the ancient code. Meyer looks at the rebbe and wonders what has driven him to cross the chasm of his social divide to speak to an apikorsim. The fact that this Black Hat, a rebbe of some note, has not only spoken to him but knows Meyer by name is doubly confusing since Meyer blends into his environment with ease. The Lower East Side is full of Russian Jewish immigrant boys who look just like Meyer; wavy dark hair cut short with the slightest lick of pomade, dark eyes, weak chin, and an absence of joy.

Meyer nods.

"Perhaps we can share a cup of tea." The Black Hat gestures to the cafe behind them.

Meyer follows the rebbe into a Black Hat cafe where customers cling to a hundred-year-old dress code of shtreimels and bekishes and gartels, which are oversized round fur hats and long black silk coats and belts made of long, black woven strands that end with fringe and, when wrapped around the waist, create a physical divide between the heart and genitalia while mentioning God’s name. The bustling cafe is stunned to silence as Meyer and the rebbe sit down together.

The rebbe waves for a round of tea.

After a pregnant pause, the rebbe says, "When you were young, you fought with the Italian boys, yes? Yet you never bent a knee to the Christian. You think I don’t notice but I see many things. It is not for us to decide our fate." The rebbe points up. "He decides. And charity averts the severe decree. This is what we learn. This is what I believe."

"You didn’t bring me here to discuss religion," Meyer says.

The rebbe strokes his beard.

"We have trouble," he says to Meyer. "You understand this kind of trouble."

"Oh...trouble," Meyer says, the purpose of the conversation crystalizing.

The rebbe inches closer.

"I heard about you since before now," the rebbe confides, "but only now do I have to bother you with our problem. I hope you will not take offense. The laws of kashrut stipulate..."

Meyer says, "I know what the laws of kashrut stipulate, a non-Jew cannot open a bottle of kosher wine. You have trouble at the winery?"

"If only they would stick to the Mevushal wine," the rebbe moans.

For a moment, the two men very nearly see eye-to-eye. The waiter brings tea and sweet cakes. The hot tea and heavy cream and the prayer shawl peeking from under the waiter’s white shirt and black vest takes Meyer back to his childhood in Poland where heated conversations among adults sorted the threat of the Czar’s soldiers, the pogroms, and the reclamation of Israel. He reaches for the pack of cigarettes in his pocket then decides against it. The entire cafe is eavesdropping on the rebbe’s discussion.

"Do you have any idea who is stealing the wine?"

The rebbe says, "Whoever it is, they know that no one stands guard on Shabbat."

"That’s not a tough call in these parts. Every goy around knows about Shabbat. Ever hear of Shabbat goys?" Meyer says, exercising his disdain.The slippery slope of Shabbat is bared. There are exceptions. Jews use non-Jews, or goys, to do work forbidden by Rabbinic law on the Holy Day. If the non-Jew is paid by the job rather than by the hour or day, for example, the Jew can hire the goy. Or if the situation is of great need, great financial loss, illness, or mitzvah, the Jew can hire the goy to do the work. Of course, Meyer is no goy, but to a Black Hat, he’s not much of a Jew either. At once, Meyer casts himself as the Shabbat goy to the rebbe’s dilemma.

"I will speak with my friends. If they agree, we will take care of the trouble...and for ten percent of the Mevushal wine, we’ll make sure they stay gone. Is this agreeable?"

Ten percent echoes the Biblical injunction of tithing. The rebbe hears the undertone. His frail frame trembles as he gives Meyer the nod.

It is late Friday afternoon but not so late that even a Black Hat couldn’t enjoy a leisurely stroll and still arrive home with plenty of daylight to spare before the Sabbath. Meyer heads back to the garage on Cannon Street and calls in his gang. The garage, a stone’s throw from the East River, is, by day, a car and truck rental business. By night, something else. The East River becomes a convenient conduit for moving booze around the city.

This afternoon, Red Levine is busy fitting trucks with stolen plates lifted by local kids. At fifteen, Red lied about his age and joined the Navy but he soon tired of the inevitable fights over his Jewish heritage, jumped ship, and made his way back to New York City. The freckle-faced Levine has worked his way up from hauling heavy chunks of ice from a company truck to a client’s ice box to acting as Meyer’s right-hand man.

The gang filters in as the sun creeps toward the horizon.

Meyer says, "I was approached by a rebbe today. Somebody’s been knocking over the winery...on Shabbat. What do you think? Yids or goys?"

"Goys," Red says. "What Yid would be stupid enough to steal Mevushal wine? Nobody who has tasted it, anyway. Nobody drinks Mevushal wine on purpose."

He wipes the filth from his hands and settles in with the other members of the gang. The gang is small but effective. They’ve been together for years.

Mike Wassell says, "Are the Black Hats too holy to protect their own winery, we gotta protect it for them? Apikorsim. That’s what they call us, you know. It’s a little rich, don’t you think, to look down on somebody and then crawl to them for a favor when there’s trouble. What! We ain’t holy so it’s okay for us to get shot?"

Mike is a quiet kid who has never run from a fight. It’s the principle of the matter that gets under his skin.

"My first thought was to let the Black Hats fend for themselves," Meyer says. "I almost told him as much but then I got to thinking. If we let goys kick us around here, we’ll wind up like in Poland. This is America. You stand up for yourself."

"For yourself, sure," Mike says.

"I say it starts here with us defending our turf, whatever it is, including a kosher winery."

Red brightens. "Next year in Jerusalem. I should live so long."

Meyer says, "Like I said, these guys strike on Shabbat. If you don’t want to go, Red."

"Tonight," Red says, "I observe Shabbat my own way."

Meyer says, "You’re extinguishing a fire."

"Don’t mock God, Meyer," Red warns. "I turn the key that fires a spark. The combustion engine violates the rabbinical prohibition on work. I’m breaking Shabbat and I know it. If I get shot tonight, you’ll know why."

Tabbo, who is by birth Irving Sandler, says, "Why don’t you want to protect the winery?"

"I never said that," Mike says. "I never said nothing like that. I said it isn’t right to spit on somebody and then ask them to do you a favor. That’s what I said."

Red says, "Mike doesn’t like pacifists."

Tabbo says, "Who’s a pacifist?"

Meyer says, "Black Hats."

"Oh." Tabbo catches on. "I thought they just gave the dirty work to guys like us. That’s how I see it."

Sammy says, "Maybe their brains get foggy from wearing those black hats in the middle of summer. Maybe that’s why they think they’re so much better than everyone else."

Sammy is Red’s cousin and the newest addition to the gang.

Red says, "Maybe they’re right. Maybe we are thugs suited only for rough stuff."

Red still clings to Jewish tradition. Levine, his surname, was once Levin, a name that comes from the Jewish biblical tribe of Levi. The Levites were tasked with the duties of God’s temple and with expounding the spiritual meaning of the sacred writings. This fact hangs over Red like a lion over a gazelle. Most days the gazelle escapes but not always.

Mike says, "And maybe they’re wrong. A guy who won’t defend himself has no right to ask somebody else to do it for him. If their wine’s too holy for the rest of us to touch, then they should be the ones standing out there with guns."

Meyer says, "Yeah, picture that! And here we are just the same. For argument’s sake, let’s say an Italian or Irish mob is knocking over the winery. You let one mob walk in and take what belongs to us and soon there’s ten more riding their coattails. That’s history. Understand? Our history. Jews. Not just Black Hats. Jews. We stick together and protect what’s ours. Einstein is running around the world for Jerusalem! You think we can’t take care of one block in Brooklyn? Which one of your mothers doesn’t keep kosher? Are you going to look her in the eye and tell her there’s no more kosher wine because you think the Black Hats are self-righteous and don’t deserve protection?"

Mike hangs his head.

Meyer says, "What’s it going to be?"

The silence is broken by a young kid named Ben Siegel. He crashes through the back door brandishing a headline:


The gang looks up wide-eyed.

"What?" Benny says. "You guys look like a bunch of pissed-off Yids. You shouldn’t worry. It was a goddamned guinea that blew up Wall Street. Giacomo Caruso! Damn they love to blow things up. Thank God for the anarchists. The cops got their noses so far up the ass of these rich guys, they could give a damn about Jewish bootleggers right about now."The pockmarks on the facade of 23 Wall Street are the thorn in the flesh of J.P. Morgan’s men, a constant reminder of the September bomb that went off in the Financial District when anarchists made good on their threat. Two-million dollars’ worth of damage was inflicted with a hundred pounds of TNT carried in the back of a ramshackle horse-drawn wagon. The explosion sent a fireball tearing through the streets. Thirty-seven Wall Street workers died. Another three hundred were wounded. The horse that drew the wagon was found in pieces everywhere, his shoes smoldering on the steps of Trinity Church. Morgan men insist this is most likely an accident.

Mike looks at Benny and then at Meyer.

Meyer thinks it over. Benny has been around long enough to have established himself. He’s proven useful on several jobs. He can be trusted. Maneuvering in the moment is Benny’s strong suit and who knows what the boys will face at the winery. Meyer looks to Red. Red nods his approval. Then Mike. Then Tabbo. Finally, Sammy.

"What’s going on?" Benny says.

Mike says, "We got a winery to defend."

The boys shuttle across the Williamsburg Bridge in two trucks. The winery is housed in a large brick building in the industrial part of town. Meyer, Red, Sammy, and Benny park in an alley a block away from the winery, jump out of the truck, and meld with the hustle of Jews trying to make it home before sundown. Mike and Tabbo slip their truck in with a host of delivery trucks sitting idle for the Sabbath.

Meyer approaches the winery. The rebbe darts out the front door.

"Thank you for coming," he says shaking Meyer’s hand vigorously while pressing a key into Meyer’s palm. "We put a new padlock on the door. The Talmud says there is no joy without wine. Obviously, the Goyim Crusade knows nothing of the Talmud."

"Or of joy," Meyer says with a brief smile.

Meyer turns the inch-long key in his hand, glances at the small, round padlock that dangles from a metal strap across the door, and tries not to laugh. Only the most casual of opportunists would be dissuaded by such paltry security.

The boys make their way through the winery under the suspicious eyes of the Hasids who work there. Copper lines run in every direction from large copper pots. The place looks like something from a Jules Verne future. Everything about it is spotless: the equipment, the floors, even the ceiling beams. If cleanliness is next to godliness then the winery is suitable for the Holy of Holies.

Bottles of wine stored neatly in wooden crates are stacked no more than head high; the crates held fast to the brick wall by large straps. If the winery was secured as jealously as the wine, the rebbe would have little to worry about. As it is, a good crowbar and thieves have all they can carry.

Sweat breaks across the rebbe’s face. No one unclean has ever passed over this threshold. Suddenly the room is filled with hooligans and weapons.

If this wine is ruined, the rebbe explains, his worn, red-rimmed eyes pleading for mercy, there will not be another batch for nine months. Without wine, the Jews cannot keep their commitment to G-d. The empty vats are sealed, waiting for the next season of grapes. Each harvest must be divided into pulp and skin, and then conveyed to fermentation vats. They must remain pure, nothing at all added. Every pump, pipe, press, connection vat, is sterilized by clean hands, meaning ‘holy’ hands, and overseen by the rebbe himself. Pressing, juice collecting, filtration, cooling, sampling, opening and closing of the vats, bottling, everything is his responsibility. If polluted, a whole nation could sin.

"The Mevushal is there," the rebbe says pointing. "It is your share to take."

Mevushal is Hebrew for cooked. Mevushal wine retains its religious purity no matter who opens or pours it; no matter who drinks it. The rebbe looks at Meyer, drops his head and mutters a quiet blessing for the winery. With a handshake, he takes to the darkening streets along with his devoted followers.

Red remembers with no small amount of remorse his promise to bring kosher wine home for Shabbat. But it is too late. His mother has already struck the match and lit the Shabbat candles and recited the Shabbat blessing—

Blessed are You, our God, King of the Universe,
Who has commanded us to kindle the light of Shabbat.

The boys position themselves around the winery. Hours creep by like so many days. The mercury drops. The boys shiver behind the ceremonially clean vats. A barking dog signals a passing drunk.

Another hour passes.

Outside, Tabbo says, "I hear something."

"Another bum?"

Mike cranes around, searching the street. It is well past midnight. Moonlight falls between the crevices of the buildings, lighting the alley. Inching down the narrow pocket of land, Mike and Tabbo make out the open cabin of a flatbed truck. Three heads bob and weave as the truck crawls along the deeply creviced back alley.

"It’s the Irish," Mike says.

Tabbo squints but the moonlight refuses to yield the details.

"Oh, come on!" Tabbo says.

"Shh," Mike says. "Trust me."

The flatbed stops at the winery’s loading door. The three toughs jump from the truck’s open seat and saunter to the door, as though enjoying a spring day at the beach. Mike lurches toward them but Tabbo pulls him back.

"Wait," he whispers. "Wait for Meyer’s signal."

The interlopers rattle the new padlock, then break out laughing. One of them jams a crowbar between the lock and the door and throws his weight against the load. The door easily breaks free. With a kick, the door swings wide.

The winery is dark and silent.

"Stupid hebes," the tall one says.

Benny tenses, steadying his arm atop a stack of boxes. He sights the leader with his Colt .38, the army version 1911A chosen for its dependability in battle.

The tall one reaches for the light switch on the wall. They’ve been here before. He flips the switch and lights flicker to attention throughout the small room where the large cache of Mevushal wine sits ready to go.

"Jesus Christ, will you look at this," the tall one says. "They musta known we was comin."

"Let’s get the stuff and get out," the thug in the plaid cap says. "This place gives me the creeps."

Sammy recognizes the voice. It is the Schmatte that dates his sister, the Irish kid who fancies himself a gentleman, the stone-cold hoodlum who once put a bullet through Sammy’s shoulder as Sammy drove a load of Canadian whiskey through the Schmatte’s blockade. Sammy squirms. The movement behind the case of wine catches the Schmatte’s attention.

"You little Jew bastard," the Schmatte says. "What are you hiding in the dark for? You over there praying for your god to protect your sacred wine? Don’t you Jew boys know that when you killed Jesus, you lost all your heavenly privileges?"

Meyer steps from the shadows.

"Who needs prayers when we have .38’s?" he says.

Benny stands, the Colt now trained on the Schmatte’s head.

The Schmatte reaches for his handgun but fumbles. The Luger, a brilliant piece of Russian technology brought back by a returning WWI soldier, drops to the floor. The Schmatte scrambles for the pistol. The tall Irish flips the light switch and the winery goes black. Benny squeezes off two shots in the Schmatte’s direction. The Schmatte, searching the floor wildly, finally seizes the Luger’s steel snout. He flips it, fires in Benny’s direction.

A bullet hisses past Benny’s ear. The Schmatte makes a run for the open door. Benny aims at his silhouette passing in front of the moonlit window. He fires and takes out the window.

The Schmatte squeaks through the crowbarred door. His gang is close behind.

Mike and Tabbo are ready, Mike at the wheel of his parked truck, Tabbo riding shotgun. Mike hits the gas as the Schmatte jumps behind the wheel of the flatbed Chevy. Tabbo fires on the gang but it is Benny, springing through the winery door, who manages to land a bullet in the Schmatte’s back.

The Schmatte slumps forward dropping the Luger which sails into the gutter. The tall Irish scoops the Schmatte onto the truck’s bed as the third Irish, already at the wheel, tears down the alley. Benny sends a shot through the windshield. The Chevy fishtails, turns at the corner, and disappears.

Mike charges down the alley. Benny jumps on the running board. The jolt of speed very nearly pulls his arm out of its socket as he desperately clings to the door.

"Come on," Benny yells. "I want this little bastard."

Mike bumps the truck around the corner. Benny forms a vise grip with his arm, his head half inside the cab for leverage. The Irish skid through the intersection, drifting badly around the corner. The tall Irish and the Schmatte are thrown from one side of the truck to the other.

As Mike straightens his line, Benny shoots again, this time clipping the driver’s arm.

The Chevy hops the sidewalk and grazes the front of Klein’s fur storage, then smashes headlong into the facade of an adjoining shop. The driver overcompensates, slamming the gear shift into reverse. The truck springs from the storefront. As the back wheels hit the street, the driver throws the gearshift into first, cranking the steering wheel away from the sidewalk, but, lacking the room for a clean maneuver, wraps the truck around a lamppost. The wheels splay out at opposite angles. Steam pours from the radiator. The driver slumps motionless along the bench seat. The tall Irish, thrown from the truck in the crash, picks himself up and staggers toward the curb, unable to make sense of his surroundings.

Mike slams to a halt. Benny jumps from the running board. Wild and ferocious, he straddles the half-conscious Schmatte laid out in the middle of the road. He grabs the Schmatte’s shirt at the neck and lifts him a foot off the ground. The Schmatte’s head flops limply backwards.

Benny says, "Listen, you little piece of shit Mick. Next time you think you’re gonna take down a Jew, think again. I’ll gut you where you stand. If I even hear you talking about Jews, I’ll hunt you down and put a bullet between your beady little eyes." Benny snuggles the Colt up to the Irish chin, slides it across the Schmatte’s lips and over his nose then stops the barrel cold between the Schmatte’s eyes. "That’s a promise from me." He goes a little wild-eyed. "They don’t call me Bugsy for nothing."

The Schmatte meets this with a blank stare.

Meyer, Red, and Sammy drive up next to Benny. Benny drops the Schmatte. His head bounces off the cobblestone.

Red says, "Benny, come on...the cops."

Benny sniffs the air and says to the Schmatte, "Whadya know, your shit does stink after all!"

The next morning, a hotwire of gossip moves through the backyards of Williamsburg. By afternoon everyone has heard of Meyer’s victory. The rebbe itches to see what’s left of the wine but the rules of Shabbat must be honored. He decides to take a stroll. If the stroll should happen to take him by the winery just after sundown, so what?

He passes the wrecked Chevy where neighborhood kids scavenge the remains of the demolished truck. A newspaper reporter interviews the crowd. The kids pose for pictures around the car. A block later, the rebbe is joined by two young Black Hats.

They reach the crowbarred door and huddle in sacred conversation until Shabbat has ended. With a deep sigh, the rebbe takes in the very un-kosher mess. The other Black Hats give the rebbe an "I told you so" glower. Everything will have to be sterilized.


"Don’t judge too harshly until you have the facts," the rebbe says.

Meyer waits for the rebbe outside of the Black Hat cafe. Eventually, the rebbe arrives, Meyer hands him the key to the winery’s padlock, the one thing not broken in the raid.

Meyer says, "We didn’t need the key after all."

The rebbe says, "You couldn’t have stopped them before they jimmied the door?"

Meyer says, "It wouldn’t have made any difference. You won’t have any more trouble."

The rebbe says, "You didn’t take the wine. I put it aside for you. You didn’t take it."

Meyer says, "Do me a favor."

The rebbe says, "What kind of favor can I possibly do for you?"

Meyer writes an address on a piece of paper and hands it to the rebbe.

"Make sure this family always has wine for Shabbat."

The rebbe looks at the paper and nods. The address is a small flat in Williamsburg that belongs to Red’s family.

Copyright © 2019 by Dylan Struzan.

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