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July / August 2005:

Church diaries
You've all heard the rumor: Church is more fun than synagogue. But is it really true? Well, we figured there was only one way to find out. Over the course of this summer, our intrepid pilgrim went on a religious road trip to four local churches of different varieties: Catholic, Episcopal, Evangelical, and even a big African American Baptist Mega Church. A crisis of faith and more than 15,000 Christians later, he came back with one long diary.
by Benyamin Cohen

"Forget about it babe," Harold Brookes told me over the phone. He spoke like Nathan Detroit from Guys and Dolls — an old-fashioned charmer. “There’s no talking to him,” he said. It was early July and Harold, my third cousin, had just returned from dinner with my grandparents at their favorite deli on Chicago’s North Shore. We were speaking for the first time. At my grandmother’s suggestion, I had called him to find out more about another cousin of ours — Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal.

The last time Harold saw Lefty was after the car bomb. In October 1982, our cousin narrowly escaped death on Sahara Avenue in Las Vegas after a simple turn of the ignition key caused his Cadillac Eldorado to burst into flames. Later that year, Harold and his wife Dorothy were entering a casino while on their first visit to Vegas. Lefty appeared out of nowhere. The men shook hands. Lefty kissed Dorothy’s cheek, said a few words, then left. “I didn’t want to stand next to him, you know?” Harold told me. “I was afraid I’d be shot or something.”

To the public, Frank Rosenthal is best known as Robert DeNiro’s character “Ace” in Martin Scorsese’s Casino. The film was based on Nicholas Pileggi’s book about Lefty, Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas. Scorsese only changed Lefty’s name and a few details for dramatic effect. To most people, then, Lefty is an onscreen gangster, a character they probably assume is fictional. To me, he is a distant relative — my grandfather’s cousin, the infamous family member who ruled Las Vegas as a high-ranking mob associate in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s.

I first heard about Lefty when I was fifteen years old, just before the release of Casino in 1995. I was vacationing with my extended family in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, twenty of us all together at a hotel beachfront. After a day of swimming and sunbathing we settled into lounge chairs to watch the sunset. I was sitting by my aunt’s chair, mindlessly sifting my fingers through the sand as she talked to my oldest cousin Candy. It was the usual family gossip. I was just barely eavesdropping. Then words like “Las Vegas,” “mafia,” and “casino” began to filter through their conversation. When I asked them what they were talking about they were clearly surprised. They thought no one had been listening.

A movie was being made, they explained, about a cousin of ours who was connected to the mob. The words made no sense. As far as I knew, my family was made up of lawyers and accountants, salesmen and insurance brokers, not gangsters. The closest my family had come to celebrity was when my beloved great-aunt Clara starred in a Wendy’s commercial as the old lady who asks, “Where’s the beef?” But I had never even heard about this mobster cousin of ours. I nagged them to tell me more, but they quickly changed the subject.

I approached my mother and grandmother. Preoccupied with making dinner plans, they brushed my questions aside. I jumped from lounge chair to lounge chair, searching for the family member who would fill in the details about this anomalous relative. Finally, when I asked Arthur, my grandfather, he seemed to play dumb. As we packed up to get ready for dinner, I realized that Lefty was not a topic to be discussed at length. My family’s answers remained evasive and disjointed. The implication crept up on me slowly — the less I knew the better. Once our vacation ended, I dropped the matter.

The Chaim Yudas Cousin Club meets at least twice a year for a large Chanukah party and an annual summer picnic that brings together 50-80 relatives, mostly from the Chicago area. In between stuffing our faces with homemade latkes and sufganiot, we kibbitz with relatives whom we haven’t seen for a while. Sometimes we hire a professional line dancer who leads our embarrassing efforts to keep time with Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achey Breaky Heart.” At the picnics, when not eating, we partake in a series of relay races that require jumping into potato sacks and running with our ankles tied to one another’s.

In 1937 my grandfather’s maternal grandmother, Yudas, and her brother Chaim formed the club. It has survived for more than five generations, though in the old days the family used to meet socially once a week over herring, potatoes, and pastries. At that time, my grandmother explained, family life and social life were inseparable.

I had always wondered what happened to Lefty. How did he go from being just another member of the Cousin Club to a ruthless Las Vegas mobster? I set out to discover what drove this man — a member of a close-knit, light-hearted family — to pursue a life of violent crime and ill-gotten wealth. I needed to peel away the mafia associations and get back to Lefty as he was before it all happened. I had to find a way to reach him.

So I called my grandmother

"He was a nice, sweet boy," my grandmother said over the phone. Hortense Ruby Rubinoff was born in Chicago in 1919, the same year notorious Jewish gangster Arnold Rothstein is reputed to have bribed the White Sox to throw the World Series (see sidebar). At eighty-four, my grandmother, whom we call Nana, can still describe her life as a little girl growing up on the South Side in vivid detail. She can tell a story ten times over without skipping a beat. “He was blonde, like the rest of the Rubinoff’s,” she said.

Nana remembers first meeting Lefty at the Chicago Theatre in the early 1940’s. My grandparents went to see a show and Lefty was working there as an usher. “He was a teenager then, red-faced, blonde and sweet.” Lefty’s mother, Gerdie, was a great beauty. Nana remembered spending time with her at the Rubinoff Department Store on North Avenue. My great grandfather, Harry Rubinoff, had opened the store in the 1930’s. He set up benches for people to hang out and on Sundays friends and relatives would visit. “Everybody liked seeing other people,” said Nana. In 1969, on a vacation in Florida, my grandfather called the store and got the police. Martin Luther King Jr. had just been assassinated and violent riots had broken out in Chicago. Amidst the chaos, the Rubinoff Department Store was seriously vandalized and had to close down.

Arthur Rubinoff, my grandfather, has Alzheimer’s disease and remembers very little about his past. He spends hours sitting at the kitchen table looking out the window toward the street. He collects a pile of paper napkins, then folds and unfolds them continuously throughout the day. Until the disease overwhelmed him, my grandparents’ relationship had always been a traditional one. My grandfather was the head of the house and the controlling force. But as his health deteriorated, my grandmother became his caretaker and eventually she was in charge, able to finally make decisions independently. “It was a wonderful feeling,” she confided to me. Today she splits her time between volunteering at Hadassah, mah-jongg and bridge, and taking care of her husband.

Over a period of three months, my grandmother and I spoke often about Lefty either on the phone or at her house in Glencoe, Illinois. On a Friday evening after Shabbat dinner, we discussed Lefty’s life. She told me about how his mother was a homebody and his father was an accountant — an educated man, which was rare in those days. My grandfather had recently taken to humming tunes and mumbling the words to old Yiddish songs. Asking him about Lefty would sadly get me nowhere. Instead, I asked Nana to explain our family connection.

She had to go over the story a few times before it clicked: My great, great grandmother — whose name no one can remember — left Russia at the turn of the century. But her husband refused to join her in America. She arrived in the United States with her three children, including Harry Rubinoff — my grandfather Arthur’s father. Soon she met a tailor named Isaac Brooks and remarried. They had four more children, one of whom was Gerdie — Lefty’s mother.

My grandfather sat at the end of the dining room table, slumped in his chair, quietly humming a Yiddish tune. I looked up at him. He smiled and gave me a wink. It reminded me of a time when he used to be more lively. As children, every Friday before sunset, he would take me and my sisters on walks to a nearby golf course. We would rummage through the forest at the edge of the course, searching for small fluorescent golf balls, as he waited patiently on the sidewalk.

I asked my grandmother what had become of my great-great-grandfather — the husband who had stayed behind in Russia. But she couldn’t even remember his name. She had no real answers as to why he refused to leave and excused our family’s loss of contact with him: “No one wrote back then. What were they to do? When you left Russia, you left Russia.”

Like my grandmother, Harold Brookes had an obvious knack for storytelling. He spoke in a thick Chicago accent, called me “babe” and “doll,” and used expressions like “muckin’ around.” Nana had given me his phone number. She told me that, of our Midwestern relatives, he probably knew the most about Lefty.

Harold was excited to share Lefty’s story with me. He described the drama of his first cousin’s life as if he had lived through all the glamour and danger himself. “When the FBI busted him in Florida, Frank said to the guys, ‘I’ve been waiting for you for years, what took you so long?’” Harold quickly jumped from scene to scene, dropping names of powerful mobsters. “I saw him with Tony Spilotro at Ruthie’s daughter’s wedding,” he said. “You know, he’s the guy caught muckin’ around with Frank’s wife. He was found beaten to death in some farmland.” I had to repeatedly steer Harold back to his real memory of Lefty and not the Lefty of Casino. Apparently, Norman, as the family knew him before his Vegas days, had been a very different person.

Harold and Lefty grew up together on Chicago’s West Side in the 1930’s; his father and Lefty’s mother were brother and sister. While Harold’s family later moved to the north side of town, they often visited Lefty and his sister, Ruthie. Harold’s memories, however, weren’t quite as detailed as my grandmother’s. He described Lefty as “a nice boy and a great ball player.” Apparently, Lefty scored his nickname on the diamond as a left-handed hitter. According to Harold, the Chicago White Sox actually offered Lefty a position, but his mother refused to allow her son to play ball for a living. “Then look what he became,” said Harold, laughing.

For his part, Harold became a salesman. He ran a young men’s clothing shop on Devon Avenue in West Roger’s Park in Chicago. My grandfather became a lawyer and passed the Illinois Bar Exam at such a young age that he had to wait to receive his license. Both cousins moved to the northern suburbs in the late ‘50s and raised their children in white, Gentile, upper-middle-class neighborhoods. Meanwhile, at age thirty-one and already divorced from a woman that none of the family ever met, Lefty moved to Miami to start his own gambling service.

From the beginning, Harold was clear that there was little chance of getting hold of Lefty. On a visit to Florida a few years earlier, Harold had called Lefty to meet for dinner, but Lefty never returned his call. When Harold got back to Chicago, Ruthie — Lefty’s sister — called him to explain that he shouldn’t take it personally: Lefty did not return any phone calls. Of the family, Lefty had remained close only to his parents (who had passed away), a cousin — Sonny Goldstein (also deceased) — and Ruthie, who was now living in Florida. I asked Harold if he still had Lefty’s phone number but he said no. Sonny had given it to him years before and it was long since lost.

At something of a dead end, I decided to write Ruthie a letter. My grandmother still had her address in Florida. As children, she and Ruthie hadn’t been particularly close. But when both moved to the suburbs, they became great friends, partnering up for golf games and meeting regularly for lunch. Ruthie moved down to Florida in the early 1990’s and my grandparents used to visit her while on vacation.

Nana described Ruthie as “the nicest person you’d like to meet.” She said that Ruthie rarely said anything about Lefty, other than stating clearly once or twice, “Lefty is innocent.” But after my conversation with Harold, I realized she was my best chance of reaching him.

To gamble, you need odds. Lefty became so valuable to the mob because he was a genius at calculating those odds. In any sporting event, he could place “handicaps” — predictions on each team’s potential score — accurate enough to produce a pay off. As my father explained, “If a handicapper places four points on the Chicago Bears they have to win by that many points or more for anyone who bet on them to get paid. If they only win by three points, the guy who bet on them gets nothing.” I needed my dad to explain gambling terms to me, since I had never bet on sports in my life. He told me about rooms in Vegas where you can bet on everything from the score at half-time to the exact amount of points a team might lose by. I told him that Lefty was the man who first brought sports-book betting to Vegas. He was shocked. My family had no idea about the amount of power our lost cousin had once amassed.

Lefty was introduced to the gambling trade at the Belmont Race Track. His father owned a few horses that raced there. Harold also told me about the old pool hall at Lawrence and Kedzie where Lefty served sandwiches to gangsters in the front and took bets for the syndicate (or “the outfit,” as Chicago’s mafia organization is known) in the back. While Harold opened his clothing business and my grandfather studied diligently for his law exams at DePaul University, Lefty was busy learning how to collect bets as a bookie. Neither the track nor pool hall exist today. I drove by the corner of Lawrence and Kedzie a few weeks after I spoke to Harold. The neighborhood is now mostly Latino.

“I really learned gambling in the bleachers of Wrigley Field and Comisky Park,” Lefty explained to Pileggi. “There were two hundred guys up there every game and they bet on everything ... If you were talented, and you had some ego, and you knew the game, you’d be tempted to take them on.” At the age of nineteen, Lefty landed a job as a clerk for a big-time and highly illegal sports service. There his reputation as a handicapper picked up and he built strong connections with the mob. Within a year of first providing his services to the outfit, Lefty was already hanging out with the mob boss of Chicago’s West Side, Fiore “Fifi” Buccieri — a man who earned his stripes as a top enforcer for Al Capone. Around the same time, my grandparents settled into a large yellow bungalow in West Roger’s Park with their three young children.

Being Jewish, Lefty was prohibited from official membership in the mafia. But because he made so much money for Chicago’s Italian mob, the made men invited him into their circle. From them he would hear about gambling scams: horses being doped, crooked referees, and fixed fights. He became close friends with Tony “the Ant” Spilotro, a short Italian hit-man who grew up nearby. While Lefty placed handicaps on sports scores, Spilotro spent his time literally handicapping enemies of the mob. He tortured and killed for the outfit. Once, he even stuck an ice pick through a man’s testicles. Then he placed his victim’s head in a vise, tightening it until the eyes popped out.

At the time, neither Harold nor my grandmother realized how involved Lefty was. “He kept things private, you know,” said Harold. After Lefty moved to Florida, it was only through news of lawsuits, arrests, and FBI investigations that the extended family became aware of his shenanigans at all. Family members told me of the rare instances they saw him later, at his niece’s wedding or on a weekend trip to Vegas, but no one except for his mother and sister heard from him regularly. Harold explained that Lefty’s mother, Gerdie, was “closed mouth” and not too proud of her son’s career. When he pressed Gerdie for news of Lefty, “He’s fine” is all she would say.

As the FBI began cracking down on gamblers and bookmakers, Lefty’s name appeared on various lists put out by the Chicago Crime Commission. Eventually, the service he worked for broke down and 18 connected mobsters were arrested in an FBI raid. Lefty took off for Miami to start his own betting service in 1961. “I decided to go out on my own. Stop making money for other people,” he told Pileggi.

My grandfather was winning cases as a lawyer, buying prime real estate on the North side of Chicago, and raising five children. Harold was gaining success as a salesman and was busy raising his two young sons. Meanwhile, Lefty’s crime record followed him down to Florida. He was arrested more than a dozen times by local and state police and was put under continuous investigation by the FBI. The McClellan Subcommittee on Gambling and Organized Crime subpoenaed Lefty on accusations that he bribed a University of Oregon halfback to lose a game by eight points instead of six. In his appearance before the Senate committee, Lefty took the Fifth Amendment 37 times:

THE CHAIRMAN: Are you known as Lefty?

MR. ROSENTHAL: I respectfully decline to answer the question, as I honestly believe my answer might tend to incriminate me.

SENATOR MUNDT: Are you left-handed?

MR. ROSENTHAL: I respectfully decline to answer the question, as I honestly believe my answer might tend to incriminate me.

Lefty continued to be arrested. Eventually, his license to own racehorses in the state of Florida was revoked. Western Union pulled the phone lines from his house, freezing his sports service business. Lefty packed up and moved back to Chicago. His stint down south was over.

As I researched more of Lefty’s life, it became clear that many of the stories that Harold told were second-hand. His knowledge of Lefty’s life in Vegas came from the same sources as mine did: Pileggi’s book, Scorsese’s movie, and various news articles. The distance Lefty placed between his family and his career was becoming clearer each day. There was no specific break off point. Instead, Lefty seems to have steadily separated himself from the family as he became more involved in the world of gambling and organized crime.

In 1968 he boarded a plane for Las Vegas. Chicago was no longer the center of sports book betting that it had been in the ‘50s when Lefty first began his career. By the late ‘60s he was ready to start anew. Lefty rode into town as the handicapping cowboy. With the menacing fist of the mafia behind him, he would soon become one of the most feared men in Vegas.

In my letter to Ruthie, I had explained that I was Hortense’s granddaughter and was interested in learning more about my cousin’s life as a professional gambler. I’d disclosed that I was writing an article. I had asked affable questions like, “How did Mr. Rosenthal’s career affect his relationship to our family?” And, “I understand that Mr. Rosenthal is a dedicated, loving father. Was it difficult to be so distant from our large family in Chicago?” Weeks went by without a reply.

In Vegas, Lefty started out making bets from his room at the Tropicana Hotel, while hanging around with Italian mobsters he knew from Chicago. In 1969 — the same year that my grandparents’ first grandchild, Candy, was born — Lefty married Geri McGee, a former hustler, showgirl, and beauty queen. “She was a hooker,” Harold told me. To support his new wife’s lavish tastes, Lefty took a job at the Stardust Casino. Though ostensibly hired only as a floor man — the person responsible for overseeing the blackjack dealers — he was soon acting an awful lot like the casino’s boss.

When Lefty first began working at the Stardust, Allen Glick, a successful real estate developer, had just bought the casino. Though Glick had secured ownership through a $127 million loan from the mob-controlled Teamster’s Union, he had no idea the mafia bosses pulling the strings intended to use him as a front man. He was clueless about Lefty’s associations and began to contest what he thought was a lowly floor man’s interference in the operation of “his” casino.

In March of 1975 Lefty demanded Glick’s presence at an emergency meeting in Kansas City. There, mafia boss Nick Civella warned Glick to allow Lefty free reign over the Stardust, emphasizing his point with a loaded gun. A terrified Glick relented and Lefty took full control of the Stardust, along with two other mob-owned casinos. Back in Vegas, Lefty boasted he was now the “biggest Jew” in the mob. “Oh yeah, Frank,” one associate replied. “I didn’t know Lansky was dead.”

Lefty's job, ironically enough, was to make sure no one stole from the mafia. He was there to maximize profits and guard “the skim” — the process by which the casinos’ off-the-book mob owners illegally siphoned millions of dollars out of the counting rooms and into their pockets. Casino cheats got the Chicago treatment. Lefty once ordered his men to crush the right hand of a card sharp with a rubber mallet. As the man howled in pain and cradled his mangled fingers, my cousin — the “nice, sweet boy” — stood over him. “You’re a lefty now,” he said.

Around the same time, Lefty’s marriage began to fall apart. Geri had developed a dependency on drugs and alcohol. After binging, she would take Lefty’s private jet to Beverly Hills to indulge in day-long shopping trips. She would spend hours in a little room at the bank, fondling the precious gems Lefty bought for her. When they saw each other, the couple fought, sometimes to the point of drawing blood. On two occasions, Geri pulled a gun on Lefty.

Lefty spent an increasing amount of time at work or chasing other women. Geri began a dangerous affair with his old friend, Tony Spilotro, who had moved his theft and extortion operation to Vegas. As a result, Lefty’s maids raised his two young children, Steven and Stephanie. When Geri was around to take care of them, she was often strung out.

On October 4, 1982, Lefty got into his car and saw tiny flames shoot out from the car’s vents. He managed to roll out of the car and jump to the ground just as the car burst into flames. It was a miracle that he survived. As Harold had told me, Lefty’s good friend, Spilotro, was suspected of planting the bomb. One month later, Geri Rosenthal collapsed in a motel lobby on Sunset Boulevard and was reported dead from an apparent drug overdose. A year later, an Indiana farmer found two bodies, both severely beaten to death, buried under a pile of dirt. One of them was identified as Tony Spilotro’s.

The bosses were clearing house. At the Stardust, investigators had uncovered the largest skim in U.S. history and the men who had profited needed to cut all ties that might help convict them. In 1983, Allen Dorfman — the mafia associate who had approved Allan Glick’s teamster loan — was shot and killed as he stepped out of a restaurant in suburban Chicago. Still, most of the bosses went down for long prison stretches. Las Vegas, as Lefty had known it, was falling apart.

Still no reply from Ruthie. I tried calling her with the number my grandmother had listed in her address book. It was no longer in service. Apparently, Ruthie had moved. Rather than ignoring my letter, she had probably never received it. There was still hope of reaching Lefty after all.

I dialed information and found Ruthie’s new number. I got hold of her on my second try, catching her on her way out to dinner. In my most polite voice, I explained that I was Hortense’s granddaughter and that I was writing an article about Frank Rosenthal. To my surprise, she said she would be delighted to talk. We scheduled a phone interview for the next afternoon. As I hung up, I felt a burst of nervous energy. Lefty was closer than ever. Visions of meeting my lost cousin began to reemerge.

“He likes warm weather,” Ruthie explained when I asked why Lefty moved to Florida the first time around. “He didn’t like Chicago, so he moved.” Ruthie Fishman is Lefty’s only sibling, seven years his senior. We talked about her childhood growing up with him in Chicago. She clearly remembered visiting the Rubinoff Department Store with Lefty. They would run around and play games on the second floor of the building. “We used to go there and have a real good time,” Ruthie said.

I asked her about Lefty’s jobs as a youth and like my grandmother, she mentioned his work as an usher. “He would take the elevator [Chicago’s L-train] all by himself,” she said proudly, as if it was the most dangerous thing Lefty had ever done. After high school he and his good friend, Stash, opened up a hot dog place called “Mutt and Jeff.” The name came from an old expression for a tall and short duo — Lefty was tall and thin and Stash was squat. As it turns out, Stash continued working in the hot dog business. I grew up eating at a restaurant in Highland Park, Illinois that he owned and named after himself. Lefty, of course, moved on.

Ruthie was friendly over the phone. But it was obvious that certain information would not be revealed no matter what. When I asked about Lefty’s life in Vegas, his wife Geri, and his betting practices in general, she steered the conversation in a different direction. She said that she and her second husband, whom she married in 1973, used to visit Lefty at least twice a year in Las Vegas. “We were close, but in a distant kind of way,” she said. “He was always there if I needed him and if he needed me, I was always there too.”

After the attempt on his life, Lefty moved his family to California, and then to Boca Raton. In 1990, after years of legal wrangling, his name was placed in the Nevada Gaming Commission’s “Black Book.” He is forbidden from ever setting foot in a casino again.

“I have a surprise for you,” Ruthie told my grandmother one evening in Florida. It was nine years ago. Ruthie had invited my grandparents to eat at Lefty’s restaurant. They were surrounded by scenes from Casino, which lined the restaurant’s walls. The surprise was Lefty himself. He came down and politely greeted my grandparents, but left soon after without saying much more. “I haven’t seen you since you were an usher at the Chicago Theatre,” my grandmother joked. He ignored her.

Toward the end of our phone conversation, I asked Ruthie if Lefty ever felt regret about losing touch with our extended family. “He was so involved with himself, his work and children. He didn’t have time to think about it,” she said. We had spoken of Lefty as if he were a simple, honest man who worked hard and enjoyed warm weather. Ruthie had given me no insight into his criminal life. Perhaps even she didn’t know anything.

As our conversation drew to a close, I explained to Ruthie the purpose of my article one more time. “Well, it’s a hullabaloo of a story you got here,” she said. That was the closest she came to even hinting at her brother’s sordid past. I told her I wanted to send Lefty a copy of the article when it was finished and asked for his address. She said she didn’t have it. Moments before, she had told me Lefty lived only a few minutes away. I thanked her and hung up the phone.

-- Story courtesy of New Voices magazine.

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