If you learned that one of your ancestors served time behind bars at one of the most famous prisons in America, would you tell anyone or try to keep the information a secret? Ron Arons faced this dilemma a decade ago when he learned that his great-grandfather had done a “stretch” in Sing-Sing. Rather than suppress this story, he embraced the news and embarked on journey to learn more about why his ancestor had committed crimes that landed him in jail. After Ron was told by the publishing industry that it “did not need another memoir” (in Ron’s case, a book about both his great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather, a rabbi), Ron decided to expand upon the topic by exploring all Jews who served time in the famous “Big House,” located “up the river” from Manhattan.
Arons spent more than five solid weeks plowing through the prison’s admission record books located at the New York State Archives in Albany, taking a photo of every record where the inmate claimed to be Jewish upon admission. Maybe it should come as no surprise then, given the prison’s proximity to Manhattan, nearly always home to America’s largest Jewish community that, between 1880 and 1950, there were thousands of Jews behind bars at Sing-Sing.
The Jews of Sing-Sing takes a genealogical approach to assemble the lives of a dozen individuals, locating and analyzing documents that provide details beyond their more publicized crimes. The book traces both famous gangsters and lesser-known gonuvim (plural of the Yiddish word gonif, meaning thief), exploring their childhoods and the lives of the people around them, as well the impact they had on their descendents. These Sing-Sing inmates were complex individuals who, on many levels, tried to live normal lives. They married and had families. Some enjoyed sports, while others traveled for pleasure. Many exhibited a sense of humor and cunning, using aliases and taking imaginative steps to avoid law enforcement officials. The Jews of Sing-Sing also reveals forgotten details surrounding many of the more well-known Jewish gangsters, debunking many popular myths, and shows their interconnectedness over decades.