The ties between Jewish and Italian gangsters are legendary. From Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano to Michael Corleone and Hyman Roth to Tony Soprano and Hesh Rabkin, there is a longstanding tradition of respect—or at least interaction—between the two groups. But Judaism and the mafia have never been as intertwined as they are in the biography of Louis Ferrante. Ferrante was a hijacker in the Gambino crime family in the 1980s and 90s. The Queens native was arrested in 1994 and served eight and a half years in prison on charges of credit card fraud and armed robbery. While he was there, Ferrante made the most of his time. He began reading, writing, and searching for meaning in his life. Eventually, he found his way to Orthodox Judaism, and has been an all-out mensch ever since.
Ferrante recently wrote a memoir entitled Unlocked: A Journey from Prison to Proust. In the book, he tells the story of his life as a criminal and the transformation he experienced afterwards. His story is inspiring, in part because it is so unlikely. His voice sounds like a slightly more nasal version of Jackie Jr. from the Sopranos, but he speaks of Tolstoy and Shabbos in his thick Queens accent. A bona fide intellectual, he studied law, religion, and literature while in prison, but he could still tell you how to hijack a truck. Below, Ferrante talks to Gelf about his former criminal network, why he became a Jew, and why he preferred to write 19th century historical fiction. You can hear Ferrante and Christian-pop culture analyst Daniel Radosh speak at Gelf’s free Non-Motivational Speaker Series event on Thursday, May 29, in New York’s Lower East Side. (The following interview has been edited for clarity and Italian and Yiddish slang.)
Gelf Magazine: Back when you were a wiseguy, what did you do? What was your regular routine?
Louis Ferrante: You’re out for the hustle. Anything that comes your way, you’re ready to go. There’s a lot of different angles. You could loan shark, you could be involved in a gambling book or you could be involved in collecting money. But the thing that I was known for on the streets was hijacking. I knew people that were fences who could sell the stuff, so I would steal trucks.