This seemingly too-incredible-to-be-true story actually took place. It was during WW2 where twenty-four rabbis were being held in Italy and faced being returned to Nazi- occupied Europe and certain death. Rabbi Aharon Kotler, founder and head of Lakewood Yeshiva and a leader of Judaism in America, turned to the well-known Orthodox Jewish activist and subsequent author of Ethics From Sinai, Irving Bunim, and asked him who could intercede on behalf of these 24 rabbis. Irving Bunim suggested the Mafia could intercede! Rabbi Kotler urged Mr. Bunim to contact them immediately.

After contacting them he asked Rabbi Kotler, “Who are we sending to the meeting?” Rabbi Kotler replied, “You and I are going.” Off they went to meet the godfather of the Mafia, Joe Bonnano. Rabbi Kotler did not speak English, so it was Mr. Bunim who explained the problem of the 24 Rabbis trapped in Italy. The Mafia chief asked Mr. Bunim, “Who is the elderly man sitting next to you?” He told him, “He is the godfather of the Jewish people.” “Really?” asked the Mafia chief . “Yes!” replied Mr.Bunim emphatically. “Tell him I want a blessing.”

So Mr. Irving Bunim turned to Rabbi Aharon Kotler and in Yiddish told him, “Ehr vill a Brocha fun de Rav. (He wants a blessing from the Rabbi).” “Zog eim ehr zol leiben lang un shtarben in bet.” Irving Bunim turned back to the Mafia chief Joe Bonnano and told him, “The Rabbi blesses you with long life and you should die in bed.” Upon hearing this, the Mafia chief replied, “I like that,” [both parts!] and promised within 2 weeks to arrange the freedom of the 24 Rabbis stuck in Italy. Which he did indeed accomplish.

Twenty-something years later, in 1964, a shiny black stretch limo pulls up in front of Lakewood Yeshiva in Lakewood New Jersey. Two fancy-dressed guys get out and walk up to the office. They say are looking for Rabbi Kotler. Out comes Rabbi Kotler and introduces himself. “No, not you,” say the two Italian guys. “We are looking for an older man.” “That was my father, but he passed away a number of years ago,” states Rabbi Kotler.

The Italian guys explain that they are the Bonnano brothers, and that their father always “attributed his long life to your saintly father’s blessing. Now that he has just retired, we are taking over the business and we came here for the same blessing.” “I’m sorry,” says Rabbi Kotler, “my father could do that, but I am not on that high level.” Disappointed, but clearly understanding the concept of “yeridat hadorot” – “the descent of the generations,” the new Mafia chiefs bid farewell to the [then] current Rabbi Kotler.

For saving 24 Rabbis from the Nazis, and with Rabbi Aharon Kotler’s blessing, Joe Bonnano – the Mafia godfather – lived to 97 years old.


My Comment: I do not know if this story is true, partly true or a complete falsehood, but I do know it’s a helluva story.

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