Myron Sugerman: The Last Jewish Gangster
Myron Sugerman: The Last Jewish Gangster
June 2, 2023

By McGwire (Mac) Pinkus


WOULD YOU BELIEVE that a loving devoted 85-year-old grandfather, once considered the Jewish Mafia’s father of an illicit gambling syndicate, partnered with Simon Wiesenthal to track down Josef Mengele in Paraguay? We sat down with Myron Sugarman and learned about his past mob ties, his efforts to defeat antisemitism, and his historical Nazi hunting experience. And we learned a lot more than how to say “Stick ‘em up” in 30 different languages.



Mac: What inspired you to write a book about your life?

Myron: I thought about it when I was in jail. I realized that I had all these tremendous life adventures. So when I got out of jail, I started to write my memoir. And then several years ago, I decided to turn it into a book. After the book came out, I received invitations to speak all over the United States and the U.K. from synagogues, and Jewish institutions and then from YouTubers. They wanted me to explain the history of the Jewish mob. In the last several years, I must have done hundreds of speeches.

Mac: What year did you get out of jail? Myron: November the 13th, 1996. I went in April 18, 1995, I did 19 months. 555 days of pure rest and relaxation on vacation. Mac: You enjoyed it?

Myron: You make the best out of everything as far as life is concerned. If you have the right attitude and are healthy that is a big help. In prison, we played a lot of sports, got into physical and mental condition, read, and met a lot of different types of people. At the end of the day, you learn how to say “stick’em up” in 30 different languages.

Mac: What was the most difficult part of being in jail?

Myron: The most difficult part is being separated from your family. You want to take care of them, and you’re deprived of that opportunity.

Mac: I heard that Raman noodles are like currency in prison.

Myron: Well in my time, it was tuna fish.

Mac: What was your childhood like growing up in an old Jewish neighborhood back in the day? Myron: It was fantastic. We used to go to the playground behind the grammar school with kids from all the neighborhoods in the district. The Italian neighborhood was behind the school. The Jewish neighborhood was in front of the school. We played stickball, football, softball. And everyone had a basketball net off their garage.

Mac: Did you grow up in an observant home?

Myron: No, there were no orthodox Jews where I grew up. When we moved from Hillside, New Jersey to Maplewood, New Jersey 1944, there wasn’t a temple or synagogue. So, the local rabbi of the conservative synagogue would pick up a bunch of us kids from the neighborhood and take us up to his synagogue to give Hebrew lessons.

Mac: Would you mind explaining a little about the origins of the Jewish Mafia?

Myron: They evolved from gangs. At the turn of the 20th century, many of the Jewish immigrants lived in ghettos. Some of the gangs were like clubs but many evolved into gangs that were really brutal. And they were involved in the dirtiest of all crimes; drugs, violence, prostitution, extortion, and hit crimes. And then with prohibition, the gangs become gangsters and they eventually became businessmen, but not in legitimate businesses. The Jewish mob went out of business in the 1940’s. I was born January 12, 1938. I’m 85. So, there were hardly any of the old timers around when I got started. The Jewish mob was absorbed by the Italians after the end of the of the Jewish era.

Mac: So how did you get your start?

Myron: When I came out of university, where I studied political science and languages, I went to work for my father, who had a large distribution business. He distributed and operated jukebox machines, vending machines, pinball machines, and eventually gambling machines. Though he wanted me to start a legitimate export business, which I did. I took a tremendous liking to it. I was not supposed to be a gangster. But my father passed away in 1964. I was 26 years of age. I’d only had five years in business with my father. My mother eventually sold out of the family business. And I went out on my own. In the process, I evolved into an outlaw. I was involved in contraband, meaning slot machines and illegal gambling devices that were prohibited for shipment in interstate commerce. I started to traffic in the illegal machines, including overseas.“From 1959 going forward, I traveled for business in 70 nations. And I lived all over the world from Africa to South America. So I had a tremendous international experience.” Over the period of years, we evolved from slot machines into video poker machines. And then I really got the reputation for being the founding father of the illegal gambling machine business in New York. I knew every gangster and every gangster knew me. It became a very profitable business. We put machines into laundromats, bars, and bodegas.

Mac: Was it dangerous for you in terms of the authorities? Didn’t they try to stop you?

Myron: Yes, I had three state cases and three federal cases against me. Then finally, I went to jail after many years of battling with the government. You see, what people need to understand is that you can create a monster. Everybody wants to create something which is gigantic and successful as a businessman. But in reality, when you create the monster, you don’t own the monster. It’s reversed. The monster owns you. I can’t even begin to tell you how many people depended upon my existence. Because you’re the engine to an industry and you have all the ideas and all the connections. You’re key to that business. But these people helped you to create the empire and you have a moral obligation to continue the business. You cannot just step away.

People would say to me ‘why didn’t you walk away?’ How are you going to walk away when you got hundreds of people who feed their families as a result of your very existence? The fact of the matter is when you go to jail, they have to make it on their own. And most of them couldn’t. Basically, the government put us out of business when I went to jail.

Mac: Would you have made a better life for yourself being legitimate? Myron: Probably. But by circumstances of life, you become a vortex. You’re pulled into it. All of a sudden, you’re operating in a different world with a different set of rules. It’s a different government. In fact, it’s two governments. You have what’s called the underworld, and you’ve got the overworld, so you are operating in two worlds. You have two forces pulling at you from both ends.

Mac: During your time traveling overseas, did you take your family?

Myron: I only took my family with me to Nigeria.

Mac: What was Meyer Lansky like? Did he teach you anything?

Myron: I believe it was in 1970 that I spent the entire Shabbat with him in Tel Aviv. He had just escaped the United States at that point because of an impending indictment (on tax evasion). He ran to Israel. Lansky told me that he knew my father and said very nice things about him. My father was one of the original investors in the Riviera Hotel in Havana, Cuba, together with his partner Abe Green. He had endless advice. I remember that he told me, “If you start to see your name and photo in the newspaper every day, get yourself up and run. They made me bigger than Al Capone.” He feared that the charges against him would result in an excessive punishment because the Nixon and Mitchell government wanted to come down hard on organized crime as a way of distracting the masses from the Watergate affair.

Mac: What is the best advice you have received?

Myron: There wasn’t one piece of advice that was exceptional, but rather, several things, like “timing is everything.” It’s important to understand when your time is up. And I knew at a certain point it was my time to put the key in the door and take off for Israel or go to South America. But as I said earlier, it is not so easy to run away. There was an old-time, legendary Jewish bookmaker from Newark who told me, “I made one mistake. I stayed on the block one year too long.” If I would have gotten out the year before, I’d never have gone to jail. But I stayed that one year too long and the world changed, and I wasn’t changing with it.

Mac: Were you cognizant of timing?

Myron: Yes. Nobody ever beats the system. Sooner or later the system beats you.

Mac: Were there any rules or guidelines specific to the Jewish mafia?

Myron: There wasn’t a rule specific to the Jewish mafia. But there was a golden rule that applied to anyone in organized crime, and that was, “Don’t snitch. Snitches get stitches.” Mac: Was there anything that distinguished the Jewish mafia from other mafia organizations? Myron: The main difference is that the Jewish mafia was a one-generation world. We did not pass it down to our children. My father had dreams of me going into the legitimate world, corporate, making all kinds of money, and so forth, being very successful.

Mac: It sounds like you lived in a world that was not black or white, but somewhere in between.

Myron: Life is gray. There is a Talmudic truth that says, “That for the human existence, there is no such thing as pure white and pure black, It’s all shades of gray.’” If you want perfect truth, you’re not gonna have perfect justice. If you want perfect justice, you’re not gonna have perfect truth. There’s fluidity.”

Mac: Who had the strongest leadership skills: Carlo Gambino, Meyer Lansky, or Jerry Catena?

Myron: All 3 of them. They all had natural leadership. They were gifted with natural intelligence. It’s one thing to be smart, but what we all want to be is wise. Smart leads to wisdom. So, you take your experience, and you are able to see things that other people can’t see. That’s leadership. Someone like Ze’ev Jabotinsky (journalist and founder of the Zionist Revisionist movement) didn’t lead by fear, but with principles. He acted with the same principles that he spoke. At that time especially, the mentality of a patriot and a gangster was very similar. As an example, the Jewish mob in the 1930s, throughout the United States, fought the American Nazi Party, and the head of the German American Bund Party, Fritz Kuhn. They fought the Ku Klux Klan. They fought antisemites in Chicago, in Minneapolis, in North New Jersey, in New York, in Los Angeles. Wherever there was antisemitism, there was a feeling of Jewish patriotism that manifested itself by actually beating up the Jew haters. In the 30s, it was strictly American Jews (outlaws, prize fighters, factory workers) who beat up the American Nazis.

Charlie Lucky Luciano, the boss of the Italian mafia, even told Meyer Lansky that he would send him all of the Italian kids that he needed to help in the fight. Meyer Lansky’s response to Mr. Luciano was that though he deeply appreciated the offer, it was a Jewish problem and was going to be resolved by Jews, and only Jews. So when people ask me what kind of a Jew Meyer Lansky was, I say, he was a very patriotic Jew. He was a patriotic American.”

Mac: What caused the downfall of the mafia?

Myron: The government. They’ve got all the money, all the time, all the personnel, all the structure, all the informers.

Mac: You seem very knowledgeable about Jewish history and Judaism in general. How did you gain your knowledge?

Myron: Jewish pride was transmitted. It was the inheritance from my family. The home that I grew up in was typical of its time. My father was a combination of American-born, roaring 20s, and the child of religious parents. His parents were extremely religious. My mother did not grow up in a religious home, but in a home filled with Yiddish culture. I heard my mother speak Yiddish frequently. Being proud of being a Jew first manifested itself in college because I took an interest in Zionism. I graduated in 1959. My final paper in political science was on the anatomy of the Jewish state, which at that time was just a little over 10 years old. As I traveled all over the world from 1959 on, I realized that I didn’t know anything about the Jewish religion. And that bothered me. I began to realize that they’ll never be Jews without Judaism. If there’s no religion, you’re not going to have Jewish people. They’re just going to be a one-generation people. They’re going to integrate, they’ll assimilate, they’ll disappear. So, I made a concerted effort to learn about Judaism, and to expose my family to the religion.

I have three sons, and when our son Benny was born in 1974, I made a decision to send him to Jewish day school. Today he’s an Orthodox Rabbi and Talmudic scholar in Boca Raton, Florida and has eight kids in Yeshivas.

Mac: With antisemitism/antizionism being at an alltime high, do you have any advice for how young people can deal with it?

Myron: The problem really boils down to a question of ignorance. If you’re ignorant, you’re going to be bamboozled by others, especially when faced with antisemitism or lies about Israel. You’re in a situation where you don’t know what the hell is going on. If you don’t know your own religion, you’re going to be susceptible to becoming anything except being a Jew. My father’s generation was a terrific generation in terms of its Jewish identity and pride, but most of them failed to raise their kids to continue to be Jews. That’s why today, 70% of the non-orthodox world intermarries. If you ask a Jewish person in the secular world, what’s the name of the mother and father of Jesus Christ, everyone knows the answer. But if you ask those same people if they know who is the father and mother of Moses, very few will know. If we are ignorant of our own world and religion, like I said before, you can be easily bamboozled. People always ask me how I managed in a business that was dominated by Italians. Well, one thing that they knew and were very clear from day one, I was a proud Jew. I made that point without sticking my finger in their eye. They just knew that I took pride in being a Jew. And I was confident. Confidence comes from knowledge. Knowledge is power. And the power of knowledge mixed with experience, results in the ultimate achievement of all mankind, which is wisdom. That’s what King Solomon said, didn’t he? It’s all about wisdom. ♦



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