“It’s part of our history,” author Ron Arons told The Jewish Press. “Just to say we have hundreds of Nobel Prize winners ignores the fact that we have problems too.”
Last Thursday, Arons spoke to several dozens of mostly senior citizens at the Lower East Side’s Educational Alliance about his book, published last year, The Jews of Sing Sing (Barricade Books).
Sing Sing, a maximum-security prison in upstate New York, saw over 6,000 Jews pass through its doors between 1880 and 1950. Grand larceny, burglary, and robbery accounted for 70 percent of the Jewish prisoners’ crimes, but Sing Sing’s Jews also committed such offenses as homicide, arson, and counterfeiting. Forty-one Jewish criminals died in Sing Sing’s electric chair.
Arons stumbled on the world of Jewish criminality accidentally when, in the course of researching family history, he discovered his great-grandfather had served four years in Sing Sing for bigamy. “I could not believe my eyes,” Arons writes about seeing his great-grandfather’s 1897 prison admission record.
Arons said he is still “somewhat shocked” by the discovery but said he feels no shame by his forbear’s transgressions. “It has no reflection on me as far as I’m concerned. You can’t pick your parents, much less your great-grandparents. I had nothing to do with it.”
Nor does Arons worry much about the image of Jews his book projects. “Every immigrant group has a criminal element to it, so to say we didn’t have it is just ignorant To be elitist and claim we only did good things brings on anti-Semitism. To say we’re more like other people I think actually reduces anti-Semitism.”
The crowd at Arons’s lecture seemed to agree with his sentiments. One local woman, Grace Cohen, told The Jewish Press, “As a volunteer for the Fortune Society I work with young people who’ve come out of prison. They’re primarily Hispanics and African Americans, and you start to think, ‘Well, it’s only the African Americans and the Hispanics who are in prison.’ But it’s not true. Look at what we’ve learned today.”
Another local woman who preferred to remain anonymous concurred. “It’s nice to know that we’re not angels, that we’re just like other people.” She acknowledged she “personally could have lived without [the information],” but at the end of the day, “it’s a fact of life. You cannot hide it.”