Cohen, age 31, grew up in suburban Chicago, where his dad recounted being an adolescent in Brooklyn during the '30s. Notorious Jewish mobsters like Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel were heroes to Cohen's dad, Herb, and his crew of friends, a gang called the Warriors. "At this point in their lives, they seem to have a chapter in every major city in America," Cohen says of the Warriors. "I'm joking, of course, but my father said, 'There's a contingent of Warriors in L.A. They have breakfast every morning at Nate 'n' Al's. Go see 'em.'"
As a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, the New York-based Cohen had a period during the mid-'90s when all of his stories seemed to be coming out of Los Angeles. "So I just started having breakfast with them," he says, "and what I started hearing, again, were the stories I had heard as a kid."
While still busy penning nonfiction for Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, Details, and Spy, among other magazines, Cohen began writing up a few of the gangster fables he heard over lox, bagels, and coffee at the Jewish deli. Eventually an advance from publisher Vintage allowed Cohen to work full-time on the book for two years, during which he combed records at the New York Municipal Archives, read court reports and newspaper accounts, and interviewed old-timers in order to put truth behind the tales.
The result is Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams. One of Cohen's favorite stories in the book revolves around the infamous Louis "Lepke" Buchalter. Rather than face prosecution for conspiracy and extortion in 1939, Lepke hid out from the FBI for a year before turning himself in. "Lepke never left Brooklyn this whole time," says Cohen, "and I was able to follow him through research and testimony from address to address." Cohen pieced together who visited Lepke and when and what they brought him. "There were nights when he even went out," Cohen says. "He grew a beard, and he would borrow a friend's wife and kid so he could go for a drive."
Although his dad's childhood memories were an inspiration for the book, says Cohen, "The truth is he really didn't know very much. My dad knew about the manhunt for Lepke, but he didn't know any of this. In the end I had sort of the nice treat, if you will, of going back and telling my dad the complete stories of which he knew only the legends."