8/14/12 - american prostitution

In today's excerpt - in the late 1800s, America's insatiable need for labor, coupled with the continued trauma of the old world, brought huge throngs of immigrants to its shores. But this immigration brought its own heartbreak -- young sons casting off the ways of their fathers, the disruption of generations of tradition, and the poverty and economic stress of dislocation. One of these young sons, thirteen-year-old Arnold Rothstein, was destined to become New York's most notorious early twentieth century gangster, he rejected the Judaism of his pious father Abraham, amid the rampant crime of his Lower East Side neighborhood:

" 'You should be proud of being a Jew,' Abraham would tell his recalcitrant son.

" 'Who cares about this stuff?' Arnold sneered. 'This is America, not Jerusalem. I'm an American. Let [older brother] Harry be a Jew.'

"Arnold Rothstein wasn't the only young Jew rebelling against the faith and the restraints of his father. Throughout New York other young men and women proclaimed their Americanism. They wanted nothing to do with the old ways. Each day, muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens noticed young men just like A. R.:

'We saw it everywhere. Responding to a reported suicide, we would pass a synagogue where a score or more of boys were sitting hatless in their old clothes, smoking cigarettes on the steps outside, and their fathers, all dressed in black, with their high hats, uncut beards and temple curls, were going into the synagogue, tearing their hair and rending their garments. . . . Their sons were rebels against the law of Moses; they were lost souls to God, the family, and to Israel of old.'

"Abraham Rothstein's was the older generation in the shul, Arnold's, the generation who considered their fathers' world dead. This was the nineteenth century. This was America. They would make their own world.

"It was too often a criminal underworld centered on Abe Roth­stein's old neighborhood, the Lower East Side, one of the nation's most vice-ridden districts. Rebellion manifested itself in ways far worse than smoking on synagogue steps. Thievery, prostitution, gam­bling, and gangsterism ran rampant. ... Some had specialties. Gyp the Blood, leader of the "Lexington Avenue Gang," could break a man's spine over his back by bending him across his knee. For a few dollars he'd perform that act for onlookers. In a good mood ("I likes to hear the noise"), he might do it for free. ...

"All this was bad enough, but one particular vice rotted the neighborhood's moral fabric: prostitution. In the nineteenth century, white slavery was widespread, to an extent now virtually unimaginable. "With sex largely unattainable with "respectable" single women, young men paid for sex. And with so many whores on the street, in the back rooms of saloons, and in brothels (both elegant and otherwise), many married men also succumbed to temptation. Prostitution was common among all ethnic and religious groups but was particularly prevalent on the Lower East Side. Hundreds of whores plied their trade, often in view of impressionable children.

" 'Almost any child on the East Side in New York,' noted one contemporary study, 'will tell you what a 'nafke bias' [whorehouse] is.' And children needn't go as far as an actual brothel to see white slavery in operation. They could look out their windows, across the airshaft or backyard into other tenements. An old woman summoned Lincoln Steffens to her apartment to witness what her chil­dren saw every night. 'There they are watching, always they watch,' she told him, hoping against hope that he could do some­thing about it. 'They count the men who come of a night. Ninety-three one night. My oldest girl says she will go into that business when she grows up; she says it's a good business, easy, and you can dress and eat well.' "


David Pietrusza


Rothstein: The Life, Times, and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series


Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group


Copyright 2003, 2011 by David Pietrusza


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