“I Pity The Poor Immigrant” by Zachary Lazar— A Novel about Meyer Lansky and So Much More

I pity the poor

Lazar, Zachary. “I Pity The Poor Immigrant”, Little, Brown & Company, 2014.

A Novel about Meyer Lansky and So Much More

Amos Lassen

 “In 1972, the American gangster Meyer Lansky petitions the Israeli government for citizenship. His request is denied, and he is returned to the U.S. to stand trial. He leaves behind a mistress in Tel Aviv, a Holocaust survivor named Gila Konig”. These are the basics of Zachary Lazar’s new novel that I could not wait to read. This is a novel that moves across different time periods and continents.

The story starts when Hannah Groff, an American journalist goes to Israel to report on the murder of an author and as she investigates, she learns about her own family and its history that is somehow enmeshed in the writer’s story. Groff soon finds herself inside a violent web that includes the American and Israeli Mafias, the Biblical figure of King David, and the modern state of Israel. As she puts the pieces together between the murdered writer, Lansky, Gila, and her own father, she finds an obsession with the darker side of who she is and where she came from.  

The use of power brings guilt and Israel as a nation is a paradox— a nation that is meant to harbor and normalize the Jews has, in the process, become part of the brutality of sovereignty. This is the story of characters some of whom are real and some are fictional and their stories come together across generations. Each is affected by some aspect of Jewish history.

Meyer Lansky is a Jewish gangster from Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He invented the mob with Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel. Here we meet him when he is young with money and we see him when he has nothing and begs for Israel to give him asylum. His character represents the Jewish experience. Lansky is perfectly chosen, as his experience reflects the Jewish experience. As a young man he lived through a pogrom in Poland and his own personal past is one of violence. As he ages he becomes a bully and with his cronies Siegel and Luciano he becomes something of a pioneer in Vegas. When Israel rejects his request for asylum denied, he becomes an exiled Jew searching for a safe place and as an old man he gets to Miami where he claims to have found the promised land.

Gila, the waitress at the Dan Hotel, where Lansky lived in Israel is a Holocaust survivor. She came of age in camps for the displaced and she represents the Jew who cannot find normalcy or comfort in Israel. She wanders and has an affair with Lansky but continues wandering, ending not in Jerusalem but in Sag Harbor. Gila has an affair with Lansky. Hannah Groff grew up to be a journalist but her father’s infidelity has stayed with her. She goes to Tel Aviv to investigate the murder of a poet named David Bellen and through it she learns of Lansky and that Bellen’s death could be connected to a book in which he wrote about King David as a modern gangster. He makes David to be Meyer Lansky, on the Mount of Olives, begging sanctuary. After killing Goliath David goes into exile to Gath but returns to power and then begins to fade and become sinful.

I actually found the book to be complex and it seems to me that it is taking longer to review the book than it did to read it. Do not misunderstand me—complex is not a negative quality and any book that makes me think the way this one does could never get a pan from me. It is just that this plot is told through juxtaposition and it is through juxtaposition that it is powerful. That’s where it gets its power. It is beautifully written and filled with beautiful scenes and wonderful dialogue. As I read it I was reminded of the many years I lived in Israel and the hustle and bustle of a new nation coming into its own. But we also visit the displaced persons camps, New York’s Lower East Side, Brooklyn, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. We read of war and we read of peace and for every low point there is a high point.

Bob Dylan’s song, “I Pity the Poor Immigrant”, is the title here because it seems that Dylan wrote it from God’s point of view as a god who considers fate of those who are evil or who do not believe in a Supreme Being. Each character in the book is either an immigrant or an emigrant who is either coming to judgment or running from it. 

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