Sisterhood Blog

New York's First Female Crime Boss

By Sarah Breger

The press called her a “Queen Among Thieves” and the person who “first put crime in America on a syndicated basis.” In 1884, The New York Times named her “the nucleus and center of the whole organization of crime in New York City.” During the Gilded Age, Fredericka Mandelbaum, a German-Jewish immigrant, rose to power as the country’s premier fence—seller of stolen goods. Described as “a huge woman weighing more than two hundred and fifty pounds” with “extraordinarily fat cheeks,” Mandelbaum was the head of one of the first organized crime rings and a driving force behind New York City’s underworld for more than twenty-five years. J. North Conway, who has written the new biography “Queen of Thieves: The True Story of “Marm” Mandelbaum and Her Gangs of New York,” talks with The Forward’s Sarah Breger about life in the Gilded Age, chasing the American dream and why no one has turned Mandelbaum’s life into a Hollywood blockbuster.

Courtesy of Skyhorse

Sarah Breger: What brought Fredericka Mandelbaum to New York?
J. North Conway: A combination of factors including the infamous potato famine of 1848 and increasing restrictions against Jews in Germany brought Fredericka to the United States in 1850. Her husband Wolf, had sailed a few months earlier, so she was traveling alone in steerage with a new baby. She was so tall that some documents I’ve seen said she had to stoop the whole time.

SB: Why did Mandelbaum enter a life of crime?
JC: This is a story of coming to America for whatever reasons and trying to make good. Like every immigrant she was trying to make a better life for her children. She came for the American dream and it happened to be the only job she could get was in crime. And she was good at it. I couldn’t find where she learned the ropes or if she had an innate ability but she knew how to set up this criminal network. She knew enough to bribe the right people, and she knew protecting her interests meant protecting a cadre of criminals; if they went to jail, they couldn’t steal things, if they couldn’t steal things, they couldn’t sell to her, and then she couldn’t sell to other people. If you were to do a flow chart of her enterprise, it would look like a very functioning business today. As a business model you would say she would be up there with the Bill Gateses of the world.

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At 97, Holocaust Survivor Plays Lincoln Center

By Rachel Delia Benaim

97-year-old Emily Kessler shows off her mandolin technique / Courtesy

When Emily Kessler escaped the Nazis, she stopped enjoying the music she used to sing with her parents in pre-war Ukraine. But after 40 years, Kessler finally returned to the songs she loved so much. Since then, she hasn’t stopped.

Now, this 97-year-old Holocaust survivor will fulfill her dream of playing Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall on Monday night.

Kessler’s debut concert will be the special performance at the annual charity dinner of the Blue Card Fund, a nonprofit organization that provides support to Holocaust survivors. In her melodic voice, Kessler, who has personally been a beneficiary of the Blue Card Fund for nearly two decades, will sing the Yiddish and Russian folk songs of her childhood, and play her beloved string instrument, the mandolin.

Kessler remembers the first time she was exposed to this sort of music in her shtetl, Khmelnik, in Ukraine. “I was singing at home since I was a child with both of my parents,” she recalled. “They had very nice voices.” Kessler learned to play both the mandolin and the violin in 1927 when she was just ten years old.

“Her music expresses the ghetto, Ukraine, and losing family,” said Masha Pearl, the executive director of The Blue Card Fund, explaining why Kessler will be this year’s special performer. Pearl believes that Kessler’s music “represents both sorrow and hope.”

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How Ultra-Orthodox Woman Found an Egalitarian Minyan

By Frieda Vizel

The author (left) and her son at the Museum of Natural History in New York // Courtesy of Frieda Vizel

On Saturday, I was walking on Amsterdam Avenue in New York City, crossing over to the other side with my son Seth when a man with white stubble and a New Jersey accent stopped me and asked: “Do you want to be a tenth to minyan?”

I was shocked. I looked at him and asked: “Me?”

“Yes, why not?”

I was caught so off guard; I wore nothing that gave me away as Jewish. Just black leggings and a red shirt; boots. An ordinary outfit. I felt so integrated into the New York City weekend scene. But my eight-year-old son, who often chooses to be more religious than me, had his yarmulka on, so he gave me away.

I never thought anyone would ever ask me to be a part of a quorum for prayers. According to Jewish tradition, the presence of God descends to where there are ten men. Only in egalitarian synagogues women are also counted. I’ve watched men look for a tenth for minyan many times, because I grew up Hasidic and the men needed a minyan three times a day. When my grandfather was old and frail we held prayers in our house and finding ten men older than 13 who could make it was often a problem. We called the extended social network; cousins and neighbors and far away relatives who would make the effort for the sake of the grandfather; but I would never be called. I often helped get the men by running after younger brothers and knocking on neighbor’s doors to ask if someone could come be a tenth. After I got married at eighteen, I could help by sending my husband to be part of prayers when there was a need for minyan, but that was the only extent to which I could participate. Then I left the Hasidic community and began to explore small, tentative ways I can express my Jewish identity and be part of the Jewish community.

I stood there on this rainy Saturday and looked at the kindly Jewish man in astonishment. A part of me wanted to remind him that I was a woman and couldn’t be part of the minyan even if I wanted to, and a part of me was so deeply touched that this man valued me for religious services as much as he would a man.

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When Fanny Brice Made the Follies

By Chana Pollack

Forward Association

Fanny Brice (born Fania Borach) of Forsyth Street, and later on, further uptown and even New Jersey, opened her career-making act as the Yiddish “Salome” with this line: “I’ve been a bad woman, but such good company, Nu?”

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My Matchmaker Divorced Me

By Susan Shapiro

Dan Brownstein / Susan Shapiro and her husband

You would think finding someone their bashert would ensure a lifelong friendship, not a vendetta. When I was 29, my friend Valerie set me up with “Aaron,” “a smart handsome screenwriter mensch” she said I should marry. After a tumultuous off-and-on courtship, I finally heeded Valerie’s advice. She applauded my decision, danced at my wedding, then she dumped me.

Valerie’s rejection of me was painful and confusing, since she’d been a close confidante for a decade. We first met when she was a 30-year-old acclaimed filmmaker in Greenwich Village. I was a 20-year-old NYU English grad student sleeping on a futon in a one bedroom I shared with Ellen, another Midwest Jewburb refugee. I was good at typing, proofreading, editing. Interning at Valerie’s company, Ellen came home one Friday asking, “Can you work on Valerie’s screenplay over the weekend for two hundred dollars?”

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Dawn Zimmer, Thorn in Chris Christie's Side

By Julie Wiener

(JTA) — Eight years ago Dawn Zimmer was a stay-at-home mom and freelance photographer.

Now, the 45-year-old Democrat, elected the first Jewish mayor of Hoboken, N.J., in 2009, made the front page of The New York Times.

Since last week, when she accused Gov. Chris Christie’s lieutenant governor of trying to make Superstorm Sandy recovery funds contingent on her backing a real-estate project favored by the administration, Zimmer has been in the spotlight. Coming on the heels of revelations that the governor’s aides blocked access to the George Washington Bridge as payback to another Democratic mayor, Zimmer’s allegation has prompted an FBI investigation.

The Times article, which focuses on Zimmer’s political ascent and reputation both for honesty and not always being “the easiest person to bond with,” does not mention the mayor’s Jewish identity. However, other articles about her have noted that she converted to Judaism several years ago.

A 2010 piece in the Hudson Reporter said the Unitarian-raised Zimmer and her husband, Stan Grossbard, agreed when they were dating to raise their children Jewish but that Zimmer felt uncomfortable converting just for marriage.

However, a few years after their two sons (now 12 and 13) were born, Zimmer and Grossbard, who runs a family diamond-and-jewelry business, took an introduction to Judaism course at the Hoboken Synagogue. The family now sets aside Friday nights for family time. They are also frequent donors to the synagogue.

We think it is safe to assume the governor will not make the guest list of Zimmer’s son’s upcoming bar mitzvah.

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Michael Bloomberg Bans Low Self Esteem

By Elissa Strauss

Thinkstock

New York City just launched an offensive on yet another modern plague: low self-esteem in girls. The city started a new public health campaign aimed to encourage girls, aged 7 to 12 years, to challenge the unattainable notions of beauty foisted upon them by pop culture and advertising.

The campaign, which consists mostly of ads on public transportation, was the brainchild of Samantha Levine, the mayor’s deputy press secretary. Levine said she was moved to start the project after learning that 80% of 10-year-old girls report being afraid of being fat and most girls’ self-esteem drops at age 12 and doesn’t improve until 20. The Sisterhood spoke with Levine about what she hopes the campaign will achieve and why we need to redefine beauty.

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Oy! Latest Conspiracy Theory on Huma Abedin

By Elissa Strauss

Getty Images

Huma Abedin, woman or Rorschach test? It’s hard to tell these days. When it comes to Huma, everyone’s got a theory, and these theories do more to reveal the particular neuroses of their creators than they do to shed light on what she might actually be going through.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd claims that Abedin’s problem is that she is from Saudi Arabia, “where women are treated worse by men than anywhere else on the planet. Comparatively speaking, the pol from Queens probably seems like a prince.”

Gloria Steinem wonders if their child is keeping her by his dirty-text sending side. On CNN.com, Pepper Schwartz suggests that it is her “insane ambition,” and Jennifer Senior at New York magazine sees Abedin as a woman in love with a narcissist. “Like [Hillary Clinton], she fell in love with a narcissist, someone who looms one-hundred-feet high in his own imagination, and like her boss, she has elected to participate in his delusions.”

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Celebrating a Birthday in the Shadow of 9/11

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

I was busy blowing up balloons, hanging streamers and assembling goody bags when I heard about the September 11 attacks.

September 11, 2001 was my son Eitan’s fifth birthday. Just a few weeks earlier, I had returned to my home in Israel from a year-long sabbatical in Connecticut, and, with the house full of unpacked boxes, I had decided that I would pull together a celebration for him anyway. I had invited three of my close friends – all American immigrants to Ra’anana and their children, had hurriedly set up some climbing toys and put out arts and crafts materials. It was supposed to be a relaxed afternoon for moms and kids, with some low-key activities and then a cake and candles. Little did I know that this party was going to be one that I would never forget.

The phone rang. It was my mother-in-law calling from the car on her way to my house, asking if I’d heard about some kind of attack in the U.S. I switched on CNN and then froze in disbelief. I had no breath available for the balloons.

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Woe Unto the Single, Jewish Actress in New York

By Rebecca Honig Friedman

While working on a story about the theater, I came across an interesting, though as yet anecdotally-based tidbit: There are more female than male actors in New York, and the women are more talented to boot.

I learned about this phenomenon from the members of The Dark Lady Players, a Shakespearean theater company devoted to exploring, through performance, the theory that the works we know as Shakespeare’s were actually written by a Marrano Jewish woman named Amelia Bassano Lanier. I touched on this topic before, when I interviewed the founder of the Bassano theory, John Hudson, but this time, for The Jewish Channel’s “Week in Review”, I also spoke, on camera, with the actors in Hudson’s company, who are currently staging “Shakespeare’s Anti-Christian Satires: The Virgin Mary Parodies,” and who are all women.

Was it an artistic choice to make the Dark Lady Players all female, I asked? Turns out, not exactly. The company has had men perform in some of their productions, but they have predominantly female actors because when they hold auditions, significantly more women than men show up, and, according to Hudson, the men who do show up tend not to be as talented as the women.

When the cameras turned off, these classically-trained women actors were more than eager to dish about this phenomenon, which, they said, holds true even for auditions for parts that have nothing to do with demonstrating that Shakespeare’s works were written by a woman. There are generally more women than men at auditions, men always have an easier time getting off the open call wait list, and casting directors go gaga over men’s performances more readily than over female actors’ performances. (And a different but related, if not surprising, phenomenon: male Hollywood actors make a lot more money than their female counterparts.) When it comes to The Dark Lady players specifically, director Jenny Greeman told me, the women are also more interested in sticking around for future productions and collaborations.

Does this gender imbalance in the New York acting scene sound strangely like the situation in the New York Jewish singles scene to anyone else?

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