Herb added spice to tales that gave son such Rich pickings

Simon Yaffe talks to Rich Cohen, an author who chronicles the lives of tougher Jews

RICH COHEN'S childhood was filled with tales of tough Jews from his Brooklyn-raised father Herb.

Growing up in the Illinois suburb of Glencoe, he was riveted by his dad's stories from the predominately Jewish and Italian-populated neighbourhood of Bensonhurst.

It is a reoccurring theme in many of Rich's books: Jews who fought their way from nothing to become successful - both legitimately and not so legitimate methods.

His latest work, The Fish that Ate the Whale tells the story of Moldovan-born Sam Zemurray.

Born Schmuel Zmurri, he built a fruit-selling empire hustling rotten fruit to market to eke out the slimmest profit.

But he eventually rose to become a back-channel kingmaker and capitalist revolutionary.

Zemurray was also a close friend of Israel's first president Chaim Weizmann and was a generous donor to Zionist causes.

Rich, 43, first learned about Zemurray while reading history at New Orleans' Tulane University.

He told me: "One of the college presidents lived in Zemurray's old home in campus.

"When I went there it was like stepping back through a worm hole into 1910.

"A professor, Joseph Cohen, told me about Zemurray. A lot of the kids at Tulane were Jewish and from the north of New Orleans.

"There were misconceptions that the South was hostile towards Jews - but that wasn't true.

"New Orleans is home to the oldest Jewish community in America and Zemurray was a major benefactor to Tulane and was important in its creation."

Zemurray, who died in 1961, even helped the CIA orchestrate a coup in Guatemala and helped disposed Honduran president Manuel Bonilla back into power.

He had bought 5,000 acres of land in the Central American country.

"Zemurray sought fortune in remote frontiers and he is still admired in Honduras," Rich said.

"The banana company he formed there paid 10 times more money to its employees than other people were receiving in wages.

"The company helped to build schools and hospitals.

"He was politically liberal and made sure that his employees received free healthcare and a pension.

"Yes, he may have been viewed by some as a colonist, but he lived in the Honduran jungle, learned Spanish and rode everywhere on a little mule."

To research The Fish that Ate the Whale, Rich visited Honduras and also interviewed The New Yorker journalist Nicholas Lemon and writer Michael Lewis, whose fathers were Zemurray's lawyers.

Rich's first tome, Tough Jews, was an account of Jewish gangsters of 1930's Brooklyn.

Enjoying more affluent surroundings than his father had, Rich loved his father's tales of Jewish gangsters like Arnold Rothstein, Albert 'Tick-Tock' Tannenbaum, Louis 'Lepke' Buchalter and Abner 'Longie' Zwillman.

"These Jews were not passive or weak," Rich said. "I would ask my dad to tell me the stories and he used to take us back to his old neighbourhood."

He was so enthralled by the old tales, that he decided to write Tough Jews, which was released to great acclaim in 1998.

Rich, who lives in Ridgefield, Connecticut, recalled: "It had tons of attention.

"I was labelled the Isaac Babel of this genre - which sounds completely vainglorious.

"It was the first book I had written and I had no idea it would do so well.

"The interesting thing was that many of the gangsters went to synagogue and believed in God.

"They were central to their Jewish communities, and, in some cases, lived religious lives. It is quite an anomaly."

Jewish input, influence and power were important within the Mafia.

But Rich explained that it was only in the last few years that film bosses began to realise it and started to add Jewish characters into movies and television series which portrayed the Mafia.

Raised in a Reform Jewish family, he did not have a particularly religious upbringing, but enjoyed bagels and lox at the weekend and "could name all the Jewish athletes".

His father Herb was a well-known businessman and negotiator.

Rich recalled: "Dad wasn't an author, but he did write a book about his career.

"It was his moment of celebrity and I remember two writers coming to the house to write pieces on him.

"They told me they were freelance writers, which seemed like the greatest title in the world and a really fun job to have.

"Since I was a little kid I had always been interested in reading and writing - I even published my own family newspaper.

"But writing didn't seem a realistic career prospect - most of my family were lawyers. But once I had met these two journalists, I realised it was something I could do."

After university, he secured a job as a messenger at The New Yorker magazine, moving from his quiet suburb to the Big Apple. He wrote a column in the Talk of the Town section.

Rich said: "It was a great way to learn about a city that was new to me. I was searching for weird stories, perhaps stories that others had missed.

"It was unique training as a writer - I didn't go to journalism school, so it was my own training."

He then went on to The New York Observer before being offered a features writer job at Rolling Stone magazine, where he remains as a contributing editor, as well as to Vanity Fair.

Rich interviewed many celebrities and spent time on the road with The Rolling Stones.

He even teamed up with Stones frontman Mick Jagger and film director Martin Scorcese to produce The Long Play, a screenplay about the music business from the 1960s until the 1980s - but it has not yet been made.

It seems that Rich is something of a workaholic.

And, as he proudly accepts, most of his books contain Jewish themes.

His second book, The Avengers: A Jewish War Story followed a group of Jewish partisans in the forests of Lithuania during the Second World War.

It describes how three young Jews - Rich's cousin Ruzka Korczak, her friend Abba Kovner and Kovner's future wife Vitka Klemperer - created an armed, underground movement.

Rich said: "My grandmother left her town on the Russian/Polish border before the Second World War - but most of her family died in the Holocaust.

"After the war my grandmother found out she had a niece, Ruzka, living in Israel.

"Our family motto has always been 'It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees'.

"That is what researching The Avengers taught me too."

For his 2006 book Sweet and Low, Rich also turned to his family's roots.

It tells the story of his maternal grandfather Benjamin Eisenstadt, designer of the modern sugar packets and artificial sweetener.

But behind Rich's interest in telling the story was a sadder tone.

Eisenstadt died at the age of 89 in 1996 of complications from coronary bypass sugary.

Rich's mother - and Benjamin's daughter - Ellen had suggested the bypass surgery.

But Benjamin's wife Betty never forgave their daughter - and the Cohens were disinherited from the will.

Father-of-three Rich, who is married to Jessica, said: "They disinherited the family, so all they left me with was the story.

"I thought to myself 'I am taking that'. I felt a need to right these things that had happened.

"My maternal grandparents never approved of my mother's marriage to my father.

"They came from an established Jewish background in America, while my father's parents were Polish Jewish immigrants.

"They felt she was 'marrying down' and my father's parents were made to feel out of their depth and ashamed.

"But Benjamin's story is a great one and I uncovered secrets and skeletons. I told the story how it was."

His next project could not have been more different after he teamed up with American Jewish film producer Jerry Weintraub for his New York Times bestseller When I Stop Talking, You'll Know I'm Dead.

"Jerry is very similar to my father," Rich said of the man whose credits include The Karate Kid, National Lampoon's Vegas Vacation and the Oceans 11 trilogy.

"He recounted the same kind of stories my father used to tell me.

"I was supposed to be writing a long piece on him for Rolling Stone, but it turned into such a big piece that we decided to make it into a book.

"I had such a good time hanging out with Jerry. I stayed at his house in Los Angeles and basically shadowed him."

Rich, who said that Judaism is a strong part of his identity, has a strong opinion on Israel.

"Many culturally Jewish people in America feel alienated from Israel because they know nothing about it," he said.

"I grew up in a Zionist family and the big picture for me is that Israel exists as a real physical place - it is not something imagined.

"The creation of Israel has made Jews vulnerable in a way they have not been for 2,000 years."

Rich's passion for the Jewish state led him to penning Israel Is Real: An Obsessive Quest to Understand the Jewish Nation and Its History in 2009.

He tells the history of a nation chronicled as if it were the biography of a person.

"I have been to Israel around 30 times and lived in Jerusalem's German Colony while I was writing this book," Rich said.

The Fish that Ate the Whale is published by Jonathan Cape, priced 17.99.

© 2012 Jewish Telegraph