Jacob "Yasha" Katzenberg
a/k/a Jacob "Yasha" Katzenberg played a minor role in the history of organized crime, yet he helped bring down some major mobsters and then disappeared forever.
by Allan May
Jacob "Yasha" Katzenberg played a minor role in the history of organized crime. His short, but sweet appearance confirms that narcotic and drug dealing was going on during the 1920s and 1930s and involved both Italian and Jewish mob leaders.
Born in Russia, Katzenberg grew up on Manhattan's Lower East Side. In Rich Cohen's nostalgic, if not somewhat misguided, "Tough Jews," he provides us with the following description of Katzenberg:
"I do not know what he looked like, but I have tried to imagine him. I see his eyes as mirrors, reflecting not what he is looking at, but what he will see: mountains, rivers, wars. I imagine him tall and slender, wearing a hood, taking his time – something long prophesied, a nomad who has crossed wastes to get here. Or maybe he was completely unremarkable, just another curly-haired Jew boy in back of Hebrew class, saying the words but thinking only of the presents his bar mitzvah will bring. To me, Yasha Katzenberg was the ultimate example of the wandering Jew, going country to country, east to west, always on the other side of the glass, lost in the wilderness."
In the mid-1920s, Arnold Rothstein saw illegal drugs as an untapped field, one that could be developed and profited from. The drug traffic was unorganized and there was little competition on the level Rothstein chose to enter. In fact, the only competition at that time was provided by unethical doctors. Rothstein's plan was to purchase and sell in quantities so large that no one could compete with him. He could regulate supply and demand on an international basis. In 1923, a kilo of heroin, 2.2 pounds, could be purchased for $2,000. It could then be cut and resold for $300,000.