Friday, 17 February 2012

Former Gambino family associate Louis Ferrante recounts his transformation from violent criminal to observant Jew

The majority of ex-mobsters don’t keep kosher or observe Shabbat, but then again, most ex-mobsters don’t convert to Judaism in prison, or go on to donate their time speaking to Jewish educators.

His name is Louis Ferrante, and clearly he isn’t your typical ex-mobster. After years of criminal activity and nearly a decade behind bars in prison, the former associate of the Gambino crime family is now living what he calls “the right way”, a lifestyle that includes quality time each day with his siddur and tefillin, and writing books about his past. The transformation appears to have paid off as Ferrante’s most recent book, “Mob Rules,” has been translated into 11 languages, netting him appearances on “The Daily Show” and earning him shared speaking engagements with Nobel Prize winners and the dean of Harvard Business School.

Lois Ferrante
Ferrante says: “I didn’t know what I was going to say as I was walking out on the stage, There are Nobel laureates, CEOs of major companies, and I have to turn my mafia experiences into something that will go well in front an Economist audience.” He recalls “I reminded myself of what God told Moses: ‘I will be thy words."

Whoever did the speaking that day, the performance was a massive hit, for the same reasons Ferrante’s story has proven irresistible to book buyers and an ever-widening set of audiences at his speaking engagements.

The book: Mob Rules
Ferrante, now 42, was born and raised in Queens and he entered organised crime as a teenager, a story he tells in his first book, “Unlocked,” which recounts his years “sticking guns in people’s mouths and hijacking trucks” for the Gambino family.

Ferrante in Prison
Although the book is full of mafia-style colour, characters named Bobby Butterballs and Tony Porkchop, for example, it doesn’t glamorise Ferrante’s violent history or glorify his work in organised crime. Subtitled “A Journey From Prison to Proust,” the book instead focuses mostly on Ferrante’s jailhouse discovery of literature, philosophy and music, a revelation that led him to abandon his earlier life of violence and theft.

Capping off the redemption story is Ferrante’s unlikely embrace of Judaism, the result of a lengthy exploration of the major religions.

“I read the Gospels, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, and studied Buddhism,” he writes. “But the Torah was the book for me.”

“I decided to take a close look at the Jewish people, the first to receive the Bible, After all, could God have picked the wrong horse?”

The answer, Ferrante concludes, was no, leading him to intensively study the religion and adopt its customs, despite early scepticism from prison chaplains.

Fourteen years later, and nearly a decade since his release, Ferrante describes himself as modern Orthodox or ultra-Conservative. He said “I keep Shabbos like an Orthodox person,” he says. “I keep kosher, I daven, I lay tefillin. I read Torah in the morning and at night.”

Speaking by phone from the Catskills, where he lives partly to avoid running into old Gambino family associates, Ferrante discusses Judaism with the zeal of the convert he is. “You’re a Jew when you wake up in the morning, regardless of if you pick up a Torah or not,” he says, referring to those born into the religion. In an echo of Hillel, he asks, “But if I don’t do that, what am I?”

Ferrante now commands significant fees for most speaking engagements, but says he makes an exception for Jewish audiences, addressing them for free or for just the cost of expenses. A speech at a Jewish summer camp, of all places, led to his appearance last month at Limmud NY, a four-day gathering focused on Jewish learning. “I get paid pretty well for speaking now and swore to myself that I wouldn’t do any more freebies,” the ex-gangster says, “but I figured it’s a mitzva.”

Ferrante acknowledges the possibility that some may dismiss his jailhouse transformation as a “gimmick,” but says the feedback from “Unlocked” was positive. The acknowledgements section of “Mob Rules” thanks Arthur Rulnick, the Conservative rabbi who converted him, as well as the man who sent him his “first complete edition” of the Babylonian Talmud. The acknowledgements close by expressing gratitude to “Almighty God.”

Ferrante's arrest as circulated in Newspapers
While probation officers initially warned him against meeting with criminals from his past, he’s not being hunted, and isn’t risking trouble by writing. On the rare occasions when he crosses paths with an old colleague during a visit to Queens, “I say hello and goodbye, but I keep moving because I don’t have anything in common with them anymore,” he says. “They don’t like me writing books, but that’s not enough to send a hit team after me, I never gave up anyone for crimes.”

That’s not ordinary talk from a modern Orthodox or ultra-Conservative Jew, but Ferrante says his religious devotion is what has made his new life possible. “It’s important to me to get that across to any Jews I talk to,” he says. “I do know some who are very religious, and many more who aren’t, and sometimes it pains me because they’re missing a lot.”

UK JDL Comment: "In Jewish tradition, the man of bad deeds, the Rasha, is closer in nature to the righteous man, the Zadik, than the good, the ordinary, or the clever man. The reason for this is that the bad man is a man of passion, his evil behavior is the only outlet he has for those passions and passions can easily turn from bad to good. Bad and good are synonymous in that both are vehicles for passion. It is simply up to the passionate man to choose good. This passionate man has done just that. May G-d bless him.

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1 comment:

  1. Mmm, very beautiful story. I have a feeling he was from a Jewish family that converted years ago out of safety and is now back where he belongs; he just looks Jewish! :))