A decade before Tony and Carmela Soprano started bickering in New Jersey, a high-level cocaine dealer called Ron Gonen and his wife, Honey, were at each other’s throats in a Long Island mock-Tudor with three bedrooms and a two-car garage.
The neighbors in Long Beach were supposed to think that Gonen went to work every day in Manhattan’s Diamond District while Honey stayed home with the kids. In reality, Gonen went to a fourth-floor walk-up on the Upper West Side that served as a base for moving high-grade Colombian cocaine to clients in New York, Europe and Israel. More often that not, the deals were made on behalf of the Israeli Mafia, a gang of Tel Aviv criminals who made a short-lived, audacious play to challenge the Russian mob and corner New York’s heroin market.
But unlike Tony Soprano, Gonen got caught. In September 1989 — just before the High Holy Days — he was arrested by narcotics agents and taken to a federal building in New Jersey. Ignoring Honey’s shrieks from the hallway, where she was insisting that she and her husband would fight any charges, Gonen decided that for him, the game was over.
He turned state’s witness and gave authorities their first full account of the “blood and volume” crimes of the Israeli gang and its leader, Yehuda “Johnny” Attias. In a space of two years, from 1987 to 1989, Gonen claims, Attias and his crew began importing quantities of heroin into New York from Amsterdam and took out a hit on a Russian mob kingpin involved in a gasoline racketeering scheme. They also staged the largest gold heist in the history of Manhattan’s jewelry district, fencing $4 million worth of gold chains and pocketing the insurance payout to double their money.
“When the bodies began to fly, no one knew from which direction — an Italian got shot, a Russian got shot, an Israeli, an Arab, one in Manhattan, one in Brooklyn, one in Queens,” Gonen said in a recent interview with the Forward. “So when they picked me up, I said, ‘Okay, you can’t even see the whole picture.’ I opened the door.”
Now, after 17 years in the federal witness protection program, Gonen has told the tale again, this time to Dave Copeland, a Boston-based journalist whom he found on the listings Web site Craigslist. Copeland’s new book, “Blood & Volume,” traces Gonen’s journey from petty thief to snowman for the “Bright Lights, Big City” crowd. With the book’s publication, Gonen says he and his family lost federal protection, but he nevertheless stands by decision.
“It’s important for me to expose as much as possible,” said Gonen, who claims that the sons of the men he encountered in the 1980s are now active in Israeli organized crime. “They raised their children to go be gangsters, not lawyers, and it’s a shande now to see the children of those gangsters, this new generation, taking this path.”
Gonen was born Roman Gershman in 1948 and moved with his parents to Israel from the Ukraine when he was a boy, adopting a Hebrew name when he did his military service. He was 18 when he first went to jail, for stealing money from parking meters. After his release, he decided to spare his parents any further embarrassment by committing his crimes abroad. After stints running heists and scams in Germany, Britain and Guatemala, Gonen landed in New York.
On his first trip to Manhattan, in 1981, Gonen stayed with a friend of a friend who knew people at the Chelsea Hotel. There, Gonen saw the lucrative possibilities of cocaine dealing. He called a friend from Tel Aviv, Ran Ephraim, who had a connection in Los Angeles, and soon he was transporting drugs cross-country.
In June 1982, Gonen met Honey Tesman, the Brandeis-educated daughter of a successful Long Island laundry-plant owner. Honey — or “Honischka,” as Gonen calls her — soon became both his girlfriend and his quality-control officer, introducing him to better suppliers in Manhattan and to the raging downtown party scene.
“She’s my disco Jewish queen,” Gonen said. “Smart like a wiz, gorgeous, speaks beautiful Hebrew, and she’s a fighter — it’s what I love about her.”
The pair married and moved to Tel Aviv in 1984, with Gonen spending three weeks a month in New York running his cocaine. But by March 1986, Honey insisted on returning full time to Long Island to be near her family. There, they settled with their newborn daughter and with Honey’s older daughter from a previous marriage.
The following year, Gonen says, his sometime business partner, Ephraim, started doing business with an Israeli gangster named Johnny Attias, who had arrived in New York from Paris with plans to flood the market with heroin. Gonen says that his connection to Attias’s crew was always through Ephraim, and that he turned down invitations to get involved as much out of distaste for the new downtown drug as out of a desire to stay independent.
“So they say, ‘Well, if you don’t want to open this market for us, give us your clients and you get out,’” Gonen said. “These guys, they’re the Gottis of the Israeli Mafia.”
After agreeing to cooperate with the government in 1989, Gonen left federal detention and drove home to Long Island in his 1985 Oldsmobile in time for Rosh Hashanah dinner with Ephraim; while Honey prepared the meal, agents bugged the house. For the next few months, agents listened in on Gonen’s deals and eavesdropped on phone calls as Honey tried to drop hints to his friends.
Within months, the Israeli Mafia disintegrated in a power struggle, with its leaders either dead, imprisoned or on the lam. Gonen and Honey went into witness protection with their daughter, Mariel; the pair eventually divorced, though they remain friends and celebrate the Sabbath together weekly. After receiving a death threat in Israel, Gonen’s 80-year-old mother came to America to join the family in hiding; a survivor of the Nazis and of Stalin, she had the easiest time adjusting to her new identity, Gonen says, quickly finding a boyfriend and getting involved in the Jewish community in the unnamed city where Gonen was transplanted.
“For me, it was always three lives: my private life, my outlaw life and the life that I present to other people,” Gonen said. “But I was always a gangster with a soul. That was crucial, because for me, before anything else the question was what you do with it, how you live.”
Allison Hoffman is a writer in Southern California.
Blood & Volume: Inside New York’s Israeli Mafia By Dave Copeland
Barricade Books, 288 pages, $24.95