, during the height of World War II, Rav Aharon Kotler, founder of the Lakewood Yeshiva, learned that several young Polish rabbinical students were detained in Italy. Fearful of these bochers’ fate in a Nazi-occupied country, the rabbi met with an unlikely ally thought to have influence in Italy: Brooklyn crime boss Joe “Bananas” Bonanno.
The mafia chief said he would help only if he received a blessing from the rabbi, who was introduced as “the godfather of the Jewish people.” Rav Aharon blessed him that he should die in his own bed after a long life. Bonanno promptly arranged for the students’ release.
Twenty years later Bonanno’s son, Salvatore “Bill” Bonanno, having taken over “the family business” reportedly appeared at the Lakewood Yeshiva seeking the same blessing. Wanting to stay on the right side of the mob but loath to impart a disingenuous blessing, Rav Shneur Kotler, who had recently taken over his own family’s business, demurred, explaining: “My father died a few years ago. He could give blessings like that, but I am not at his level of holiness.”
The mobster, respecting the rules of the fathers, understood, and took his leave. Apocryphal? Maybe. Delightful? For sure.