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They had enough for a minyan at Sing Sing

The Jews of Sing Sing: Gotham Gangsters and Gonovim, by Ron Arons. Barricade Books, Fort Lee, New Jersey, 2008, 352pages

By David Strom

David Strom

SAN DIEGO–I lived in a very small portion of the American Jewish world. As a child I thought all Jews were religious, kept kosher, and obeyed the laws. Like Ron Arons mentioned,  “My parents and Hebrew school teachers taught me that Jews not only believe in but also abide by a high moral system.” I was taught and believed that myth for much of my early life. How naïve I was.

Ron Arons writes in The Jews of Sing Sing about a chapter in American Jewish history never talked about or even mentioned in Hebrew school. After he studied his family genealogy, Arons learned that his great-grandfather served time in Sing Sing for bigamy. This made him curious to know about other Jews forced to spend time in prison.

The prison was built in the early 1820s. The New York State Archives records began in 1865. The archives clearly show that Jews were represented in the prison population from this early time period. One of the first, if not the first Jewish inmate, was Salomon Kohnstamm. Salomon was arrested on November 12, 1862 on charges of presenting false and fraudulent bills to the United States Government. He was found guilty in 1864 and was given a ten year sentence.

Kohnstamm did not serve his full sentence. President Andrew Johnson gave him an unconditional pardon on April 30, 1867. Kohnstamm returned to his native Germany and died in 1876.

The records of Sing Sing of the 1870’s list many Jews, the vast majority of them of German descent. There were sufficient numbers of them imprisoned that they made a minyan on the Jewish holidays.

Arons studied the records of those imprisoned at Sing Sing. Many served time for murder, arson, bigamy, selling illegal liquor or drugs, and engaging in the lucrative business of prostitution. We may know some of the people he studied today, but others have faded from our radar screen or slid down the “memory hole” of history. One such person was Isidore Fishbein.

Isidore Fishbein landed in Sing Sing for violating Section2460 of the New York Penal Code: Prostitution. Fishbein was convicted of raping Anna Ragovin, a sixteen-year-old daughter of immigrants in July 1913

According to Anna, “she went with a friend, Mr. Bernstein, to Coney Island.” Later, at about 6:00 p.m., “…the couple met up with Isidore Fishbein.” Bernstein asked Fishbein to ”take care of Anna” for “a half hour.” Fishbein and Anna strolled around for a while and then Fishbein asked Anna if she wanted to go for a drink. Anna responded by saying “she did not consume alcohol.” Sometime later that day, Anna agreed to go with him to a hotel room. Fishbein asked/demanded she spend the night with him. She refused. According to Anna’s testimony, Fishbein forced her onto the bed, “tore her undergarments and had his way with her.”

Anna maintained that she was a virgin prior to the rape and had demanded to go home. Fishbein refused and took her to the home of a  friend Hazel Jackson. Jackson and Fishbein talked privately. Hazel Jackson talked with Anna “showing off her wardrobe, lingerie, and “diamonds.” Fishbein and Jackson each told Anna she could have “anything” she wanted. She could be her own boss.

Jackson undressed Anna. She gave her a skirt and kimono. Anna began to cry and then three “fellows” entered the bedroom. Fishbein held Anna down while one of the other men “mounted her” and raped Anna again.

She was held captive for ten days. During that time four or five men had sex with her each day. She never tried to escape for fear someone would permanently harm her. “I felt that if I told anyone, I would be shot.”

Fishbein eventually went on trial for procuring women for prostitution and was found guilty. “In 1917, after serving less time than his minimum sentence to Sing Sing, Isidore married a woman by the name of Anna Lubin. This Anna was the same age as Anna Ragovin. Is it possible that the two are the same person? Did Isidore marry his former accuser?

Vice represented a small faction of Jewish criminals in Sing Sing. Other crimes like burglary, grand larceny and robbery represented a higher percentage of crimes committed by Jews. However, the most egregious in the eyes of the Jewish community was prostitution. Arons explains, “prostitution caused emotional and physical scars that lasted for years in the Jewish community, coloring the reputation of the community and affecting family life.”

The Fishbein story is not unique, then or now. Jewish prostitution existed in Europe in the 1870s. “In 1872, for example, 17 percent of all prostitutes in Warsaw were categorized as Jewish. In 1873 a higher number, 47 percent, was found in Vilna…. Of more concern was Liviv (formerly known as both Lvov and Lemberg) and Krakow, where the percentage of prostitutes who were Jewish fell just one point below the percentage of the respective cities’ populations that were Jewish.”

Arons book is a very interesting read. Our young Jewish students in high schools and colleges would like to learn about the “other side” of American Jewish history. They need to know more than the “miracle view” of Jewish history. They might enjoy learning of the struggles of our immigrant past and know that many Jews did not always take the “yellow brick road” to ”success.” Some chose a very “rocky” road instead and many paid the price for it serving out their sentences in Sing Sing prison.

Strom is professor emeritus of education at San Diego State University

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