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HBO depicts Meyer Lansky through a very Jewish filter

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 22 (JTA) — “Meyer Lansky saw life entirely through a Jewish filter,” says Richard Dreyfuss, who plays the legendary mobster in an upcoming HBO television special. “Lansky,” scripted by David Mamet and airing Saturday at 8 p.m., picks up where the rash of early 1990s Hollywood films on Jewish gangsters left off — but with a difference. Whereas the earlier movies on the lives and crimes of “Bugsy” Siegel, “Dutch” Schultz, Mickey Cohen, Arnold Rothstein and Lansky himself took note of the protagonists’ Jewishness in passing, the HBO picture makes it a central motif. The two opening scenes set the tone. The first shows the 70-year old Lansky amid the cluttered tombstones of Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, trying to buy a space for himself next to his grandparents’ graves. In an instant flashback, the 7-year-old Meyer Suchowljansky watches in frozen horror as a pious, old Jew is butchered by Polish peasants during a pogrom in his native Grodno. For the rest of the two-hour telefilm, the career of Lansky unfolds, showing him as a kid on New York’s Lower East Side who loses the challah money in a crap game, while his muscular pal Bugsy defends him from Irish bullies. During Prohibition, Lansky gets his start in bootlegging, and demonstrates early on his modus operandi by striking a bargain with a rival mob to avoid a bloody shootout over a shipment of booze. Watching the operation, a buddy notes that by linking Lansky’s “Yiddish kopp” to the “Sicilian balls” of such allies as “Lucky” Luciano, the boys will go far. It was a formula that served Lansky well. He reached the height of prosperity and influence during the 1940s and 1950s, when he transformed illegal gambling from a neighborhood racket into an interstate enterprise and controlled the lucrative, high-class casinos of Havana, until Fidel Castro put him out of business. In his own eyes, Lansky was an American and Jewish patriot, and he was bitterly disappointed when both the U.S. and Israeli governments failed to appreciate his contributions. During World War II, according to Mamet’s script, Lansky was the intermediary between Luciano and the U.S. military to enlist the Italian Mafia’s help in the American invasion of Sicily. Better documented is Lansky’s role in 1947 and 1948, when he pressured Jewish and Italian mobsters to raise money for Israel. Lansky also used his contacts on the New York waterfront to expedite forbidden arms shipments to Israel, and, according to one version, to sabotage ships carrying weapons to Arab nations. In 1970, with the FBI after him for income-tax evasion, Lansky moved to Tel Aviv, spent a happy year there and applied for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, which grants citizenship to all Jews. Under pressure from the U.S. Justice Department, Golda Meir’s government turned him down, as did the Israeli Supreme Court. He was arrested by the FBI while seeking asylum in Panama. In the legends and studies of Jewish gangsterdom, there are two Meyer Lanskys. The older version, accepted by U.S. law enforcers, has him as the criminal mastermind, the brain behind the mob. He pulled the strings of a national crime syndicate that, according to some, made more money than General Motors and posed a greater threat to America than the Soviets. To comedian Jackie Mason, Lansky was the Mafia’s Henry Kissinger, for “how could all those Italians create something like the mob, unless they had a Jew to show them?” A more recent, revisionist view grants Lansky his wizardry with numbers, but sees him as a calculating but limited businessman, whose power and wealth have been vastly exaggerated. The HBO film generally sides with the latter Lansky persona, as an entrepreneur catering to necessary, if illicit, human needs. Summing up his life and vision shortly before his peaceful death in Miami at age 80, Lansky says, “I’m a gambler, an odds-maker, and people will always gamble. By the turn of the century, the government will run gambling, drugs and prostitution. That’s where the money is.” Yet, at all times, the protagonist of this move version sees himself as the embattled Jew, with the Cossacks hard on his heels. Whether battling investigating U.S. senators or FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover’s men, Lansky voices his conviction that he’s facing a bunch of anti-Semites. Richard Dreyfuss has no trouble identifying with the character of Lansky. “I know people like Lansky from my own family, my immigrant grandfather on the Lower East Side, who spoke like him and looked at the world through the same eyes,” the actor said in a recent telephone interview from England, where he is performing in Neil Simon’s “The Prisoner of Second Avenue.” “I have no idea whether all the incidents in the film are true, but I do know that Mamet has created a familiar and somewhat sad figure — the old Jewish immigrant who worked hard, couldn’t express his emotions and made certain choices,” Dreyfuss said. The actor, who aroused some Jewish sensitivities in the title role of the film “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” some 25 years ago, has no concern that his portrayal of a mobster with an in-your-face Jewish attitude will elicit Jewish protests. “The Jewish community in the United States is as intelligently assimilated as can be,” he said. “I don’t think that the bulk of the community will see the Lansky portrayal as a threat.” Dreyfuss wouldn’t mind, though, if some Jewish defense agencies launched a protest, figuring that a bit of controversy could only help ratings. Repeat broadcasts of “Lansky” are scheduled by HBO for March 2, 7, 10, 16, 22 and 25.