My two favorite things in the world are 1) learning about Judaism, and 2) movies and TV shows about organized crime. Needless to say, I was ecstatic when someone told me that there was a Jewish gangster in season two of BBC’s “Peaky Blinders.”
Centering around the post-WWI rise of a Birmingham-based razer gang, this show has run for five instantly classic and bingeable seasons. If you have not seen the show yet, I suggest you STOP reading now and go watch it all because the rest of this article will be nothing but spoilers!!!
After a steady rise to prominence in the first season, the second season shows the Peaky Blinders gang interacting with the territory of the London gangs. This is what first brings the main character, Tommy Shelby (played by Cillian Murphy), into contact with the leader of the Jewish gang: Alfie Solomons.
Alfie, played by definitely-not-Jewish actor Tom Hardy, is a steal-the-show type character who is depicted as a quasi-Hasidic Jew with an eerie sense of humor and a knack for violence. Obviously, I was immediately in love with him.
It’s weirdly cool to see a Jew in a mob story not relegated to an advisory/“Shylock” position (see Hesh from “The Sopranos” for a great example of that). Even if his actions are morally reprehensible, it’s kinda nice to see a Jew being a primary actor in the action (having Jewish villains isn’t always such a bad thing). Besides, it’s true to real life: If you haven’t already, definitely go read up on famous American Jewish gangsters like Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel.
Anyway, although I absolutely loved the character and looked forward to all his scenes, some of them struck me as slightly “off.” There were moments when I even laughed out loud by how preposterous Alfie’s actions were. How could a religious Jew do the things he was doing? And how realistic were his aesthetics and demeanor? Was he based on a historical figure?
I decided to sit down and do a little research.
Alfie Solomons is based on the historical figure Alfie Solomon (the show added the “s” for some reason). Solomon was somehow involved with London’s Italian Sabini gang (also depicted in the show). The sources are unclear about his actual role, but he was definitely a bookie, and also might have led a group who would both attack, and then protect, betting at the race tracks.
What we do know for sure is that Alfie Solomon was arrested for shooting Billy Kimber in 1921 (the gang leader that Tommy Shelby kills in season one), and then again in 1924 for attempting to murder two other bookies. He served three years in jail and eventually became a police informant in 1930 out of fear for his life from other criminals. All the research points towards the fact that Solomon was just as violent a man as the fictitious Solomons, but perhaps much less powerful.
Also, he was a clean-shaven secular Jew.
Although they never refer overtly to his religiosity, I suppose a Hasidish–looking gang boss makes for much more interesting television.
In “Peaky Blinders,” Alfie’s aesthetic is a clear attempt to emulate the black-and-white style of Orthodox fashion. But more importantly, the company he keeps includes much more obviously religious Jews: some Hasids complete with peyot (side curls), beards, and hats, and others wearing yarmulkes.
The thing is, portraying a religious Jew can lead to a lot of misrepresentations and inaccuracies. Which, you guessed it, I’m about to dive into.
First off, he was barely seen wearing a yarmulke in the show. Sometimes he has one on under his hat, and sometimes he has on tzitzit, the fringes tied to the corner of a prayer shawl and worn under everyday clothing by religious Jews, but for the most part, he just has a beard. When I sent a Hasidic friend a picture of Alfie to see what he thought of the aesthetic, he responded, “the hat makes him look like he’s the Lone Ranger,” and he is not wrong. At one point they have Alfie walking around in a white scarf that has blue horizontal stripes on the bottom — almost as if to be reminiscent of a tallit, or prayer shawl, but not quite, which is just weird. His jewelry is also a little too showy and the tattoo on his hand is, well, pretty unlikely.
Although he looks a bit wrong, his zealous protectiveness over the Jewish community is believable. This can be seen most clearly in his main rule for his non-Jewish soldiers: Jewish women were “off the fucking menu” for their courting.
Also believable is his identification with the oppressed. When selling out his friend Tommy Shelby to the American mafia, he makes sure to add an extra 100 pounds to the bill because “Tommy Shelby, like me, is from an oppressed people.” (The Shelbys are Romani.) Additionally, although he is very powerful when we see him in the show, we learn that Alfie’s mother was a refugee from Tsarist Russia, where she was “hunted with dogs, through the snow.” This is all unfortunately realistic for the time period as well.
Less believable is his insistence that the mafiosa assassins convert to Judaism and be circumcised before working with him.
Last are the many problematic mentions of religion when Alfie is on the screen. For the sake of this article, I only picked two to delve into.
First is Alfie’s use of the Passover seder to set up Tommy’s brother, Arthur, in season two. After inviting him to the seder as part of their truce, Alfie falsely explains that the origins of Passover dictate that they must sacrifice a goat to kill the Pharaoh. They then bring out a goat named Tommy Shelby, slit its throat, murder the man who came with Arthur, and proceed to beat Arthur to a pulp and frame him for the murder. The problems with this scene are many (including literal leavened bread on the table!), but the most preposterous is the slaughtering of a goat, which is a ritual that hasn’t been conducted since Temple times. Later on in season three, Alfie comedically assures Arthur that he has made his apologies “via his own God for abusing a very holy day to get you clinked up and battered.” Whether or not this apology is genuine is up for debate.
The second religious moment that I want to mention is a line in the fifth season after it’s revealed that a shot to the face by Tommy Shelby had not killed Alfie. When Tommy questions the existence of hell, Alfie holds up a Tanakh and says, “According to this holy book. It gives a very, very vivid description. You and I are both fucked, mate.” Claiming that the Tanakh (which is an acronym for Torah, Prophets, and Writings) contains “specific” descriptions of the hell to which he and Tommy are destined is also just wrong. The Tanakh has mentions of a deep pit called Sheol, but the fiery hellscape we all picture (and to which Alfie alludes) is much more of a Christian innovation. Perhaps Alfie should have spent more time studying.
When all is said and done, Alfie Solomons is an amazing character that I love and return to frequently, but he is also a pretty ahistorical and inaccurate representation of Judaism. Yet, I still can’t wait to see him on screen.