Robert Anthony Siegel grew up around the Hells Angels.
The outlaw motorcycle club, whose members once stomped Hunter S. Thompson, made a big impact on his childhood. Siegel’s father wasn’t a renegade biker. No. His dad, Stanley Siegel, was the criminal defense attorney who represented the infamous biker club.
Yes, it seems odd for a Jewish attorney to represent a motorcycle gang known for adorning themselves with swastikas and other SS regalia.
“I don’t know how my father first connected with the Hells Angels, but he never expressed any misgivings about representing them, or about the Nazi paraphernalia they wore,” said Siegel, who authored the memoir Criminals: My Family’s Life on Both Sides of the Law.
Siegel’s father can be seen in the 1983 documentary Hells Angels Forever—which, upon viewing, feels like a home movie of the renegade motorcycle club, underlying their passion for Harleys, violence and rowdy debauchery—completely outside the norm.
“It’s also true that they got along great with my father, who usually had a chai or Magen David hanging around his neck and was very obviously Jewish,” Siegel continued.
Siegel’s father, who was also representing members of the Jewish Defense League pro bono in the late ’70s, had to have some reservations about being the legal mouthpiece for a club that had a reputation for widespread violence, rambunctious living, crime and drug dealing. The elder Siegel’s work characterized the tightrope that Jewish people have walked inside the world of outlaw biker gangs. But, the Hells Angels respected their defense attorney who got them out of harm’s way.
“And yet how could my father not have had some misgivings, on some level?” expressed Siegel. “I think that’s why he told us such long funny stories about the Angels when he got home. In those stories, the Angels were semi-mythical, humorous, harmless, silly. It was his way of distancing himself and reassuring us, of eliminating any moral taint, any feeling of danger. Ultimately, it was a way of not seeing what we didn’t want to see.”
Siegel recently re-watched the Hells Angels Forever documentary and found that viewing the film as an adult was a powerful corrective. “The casual violence, the racism, the white power talk—it made me sad and ashamed,” he lamented.
As a young Jewish kid growing up in New York in the ’70s, it was nothing out of the norm for Siegel to rub elbows with the Hells Angels. His father even brought him to the Hells Angels Pirate Ball—a 1976 rock concert that featured Jerry Garcia and Bo Diddley, and was situated on the S.S. Dutchess. The Pirate Ball sailed up the Hudson and had nitrous oxide provided by High Times magazine. What could possibly go wrong for an 11-year-old?
“My father disappeared—he was much given to that—and I was left to wander alone, looking for him,” Siegel recalled. “I was freaked out by his absence and spooked by the chaotic adult scene—lots of weird stoned behavior, people making out, people diving from the deck into the Hudson—but the fact that these were Hells Angels didn’t bother me. After all, I saw them as characters in our story.”
The Hells Angels Forever documentary is also a time capsule of Siegel’s father, who passed away a few years ago and always insisted that the swastikas had no meaning beyond shock value.
“Whenever I heard individual Angels talking about the Nazi stuff,” said Siegel, “they tended to skip over the dark history and talk about strength, pride, bravery—as if the SS were a special branch of King Arthur’s court.”
Hells Angels Forever also features Howie Weisbrod, who was not only the vice president of the club, but also a Jewish Hells Angels member.
“I do remember Howie outside the clubhouse,” said Siegel, referring to the New York Hells Angels headquarters at 77 East 3rd Street on the Lower East Side. “He’s the only Jewish Angel I know of.”
In the documentary, Weisbrod a burly, long-haired, mustached biker in dark shades, proudly wears Nazi regalia and says, “This is a SS badge. It’s an original one. And it was a gift from a brother. And what it meant at the time—it was the elite of its corp.”
In a thick New York accent, Weisbrod then dismisses the Hells Angels of having racist tendencies: “You can say we’re fascistic, anti-Semitic or whatever. I guess I’m the proof that we ain’t. Because I’m Jewish and I sure ain’t a fascist and I sure ain’t anti-Semitic because I sure don’t hate myself!”
When pressed about his Jewish upbringing, Weisbrod bluntly stated, “As far as what my religious beliefs are—my religious beliefs are the Hells Angels. That’s my religion, my way of life, my profession. Everything!”
Weisbrod, though, was far from a Jewish boychik role model; a 1994 court document states that he distributed drugs, largely meth and cocaine, to other members of the Hells Angels. He was eventually charged with four counts relating to the sale of methamphetamine and spent 10 years in federal prison on a drugs and weapons conviction.
Angel in the Holy Land
Rabbi Moshe Schlass is a seasoned photographer. His beatnik past helps him to connect to people of all walks of life—including members of the Hells Angels. Schlass, who’s based in Brooklyn, also lives a portion of his time in Jerusalem. When in Israel, he spends four to five hours a day photographing people at the Western Wall.
In an acclaimed photo, Schlass captured a member of the Swiss chapter of the Hells Angels—wearing his biker colors along with a yarmulke and tefillin, hand on the Western Wall—praying at the Kotel.
“I walked up to him and asked him, ‘What does a Hells Angel pray for?'” Schlass told Observer. “And he answered me in perfect Hebrew, ‘Like any other human being. My parents, my wife and two children—and little for myself.'”
Schlass, a kindly man with a long white beard, who was born in Poland in 1939 and went through the deportation camps, watched the Hells Angels biker fervently praying at the Wall for over half an hour before he approached him. The outlaw biker told Schlass that his name was Yerachmiel, he was born in Israel—and was Jewish.
“This is the first time he’s been to the Kotel, since his bar mitzvah,” Schlass recalled. “I said, ‘Would you like to pray with a pair of tefillin on?’ He said, ‘Of course.’ After he put on the tefillin, he continued to pray for another half an hour.”
And that’s something both orthodox Jews and Hells Angels have in common—a love of leather, be it tefillin or jackets.
A week after their encounter, the Jewish Hells Angel emailed Schlass, asking for the address of a Chabad rabbi in Switzerland. Schlass complied. He feels that it is possible to be a member of the Hells Angel and also still be a good practicing person of faith—but you have to be committed.
“Being a Hells Angel is not a religion; it’s like belonging to something—like macho and tattoos and chains—it’s not necessarily violent, but it’s a social club,” he said. “Maybe while being a Hells Angel, you could keep the Sabbath, and put on tefillin, and become observant… But I don’t think anybody who joins the Hells Angels is concerned about their heritage.”
Regarding his thoughts on the biker he encountered, “He was born Israeli and he was Jewish, but that was the end of it,” said Schlass, who agrees with Weisbrod that being of the Jewish faith doesn’t matter when it comes to being a Hells Angels. “I don’t think they care one way or the other. As long as you’re a Hells Angel, that’s their major concern. Once you become a Hells Angel, it doesn’t matter where you come from… you’re a Hells Angel!”
Sure, sometimes a Swiss member of the Hells Angels gets free tefillin when on home turf, and Howie Weisbrod might’ve rose to the ranks of chapter vice president—but the world of outlaw motorcycle clubs can contain violence, drug dealing and white supremacy. No matter how ironic or cartoony you want to see swastikas and Nazi imagery, that combustible mix can fuel a non-idyllic outcome to the rare Jewish members of a one-percenter (a common term for outlaw motorcycle clubs—because 99 percent of motorcycle riders are law-abiding citizens).
Take the Bandidos: a motorcycle club formed in 1966 that goes by the motto, “We are the people our parents warned us about.”
Nothing could be truer.
In 2005, the Bandidos were estimated to have 5,000 members in 210 chapters, located in 22 countries. But things went hellishly wrong for the Toronto chapter when meth trafficking and use became widespread within the club.
Jamie “Goldberg” Flanz, if he were still alive, could vouch for that. Flanz was a step away from becoming a full member of the Toronto chapter of the Bandidos—but he didn’t fit the typical outlaw biker background.
“His father was a senior partner in a major Montreal law firm. He ran a small computer consulting company north of Toronto. He wasn’t druggy and was polite to women,” said Peter Edwards, author of the book The Bandido Massacre: A True Story of Bikers, Brotherhood and Betrayal. “Flanz had only been a prospect for six months. He was the only Jew in the club.”
According to Edwards, who has also written extensively about the Hells Angels, “Flanz appeared to be the only Jewish outlaw biker in Canada. His nickname came from resemblance to professional wrestler Goldberg.”
It was believed that Flanz, a six-foot burly biker who was 37 at the time, joined the Bandidos after his divorce and thought that the “bad ass” outlaw biker image would make him more attractive to women.
The result was probably the worst outcome of a mid-life crisis.
For a guy from a well-to-do Jewish family, Flanz got caught with some bad hombres. And it didn’t get more bad hombre-ish than Wayne “Weiner” Kellestine—former leader of the Bandidos who once ran a gang called “The Holocaust.”
“Kellestine was a racist and anti-Semite and Nazi-lover,” said Edwards. “Kellestine signed his name with lightning bolts as if he was a Nazi and once cut a swastika into his farm grass with a scythe.”
Needless to say, having a Jewish member of the Bandidos didn’t go over well with Kellestine.
“Most [club members] weren’t so bad, but Kellestine was an absolute nutcase,” explained Edwards. “Most, including Flanz, might act crazy and think it was funny to them, but Kellestine wasn’t acting.”
“Flanz owned a couple of properties and was one of the few—perhaps the only—Bandido who qualified for credit cards,” Edwards continued. “Kellestine and others used one of his properties as if it was their own.”
Flanz realized he was in way over his head when he came home from his part-time job as a bouncer and discovered that his fellow Bandidos had killed a drug dealer in his apartment.
Not yet a full member, and with no criminal record, Flanz was desperate to get promoted to a “full patch.” So, he didn’t report the crime; in fact, he helped his fellow Bandidos clean up the murder scene.
“I think he realized he was in over his head, but that it also seemed a bit unreal,” said Edwards.
What followed on the night of Friday, April 7, 2006, resulted in the worst mass murder in modern Ontario history. Kellestine’s meth-fueled mind devised a plan to wipe out most of his fellow Toronto members and then pin the murders on the rival Hells Angels in an attempt to seize control of the club’s lucrative Canadian methamphetamine trade.
Rabidly anti-Semitic Kellestine hated Franz for being Jewish and accused him of being a police informant. He then lured Franz and seven of his biker brothers to his farmhouse in southwestern Ontario—to discuss the matter.
What actually happened was an ambush.
Kellestine and several other club mates marched their captives out of the barn, one by one. Each was then shot dead at close range. The Ontario Court of Appeal called it a “murder assembly line.”
Flanz, because he was Jewish, was told by Kellestine that he would have to wait until all of the others were executed—so he could suffer the most.
Like a twisted scene out of Reservoir Dogs, between shootings, Kellestine danced a jig and sang “Das Deutschlandlied,” the German national anthem, while pistol-whipping Flanz several times.
Eight bloody bodies were later found in abandoned vehicles.
Flanz’s funeral reflected his good upbringing as a boy from Côte Saint-Luc—the Jewish section of Montreal. It wasn’t a biker funeral with burly guys wearing club colors with hogs parked out front. Instead, 200 people gathered to pay their respects, including Liberal Senator Yoine Goldstein, a family friend and law colleague of Flanz’s father.
“We aren’t members of any of the ‘one-percenter’ gangs, but some of us are members of other groups,” explained Stuart Sorkin, who was part of the Ridin’ Chai Motorcycle Group of Northern California, before moving away from the area. “Our club is affiliated with a national organization in the Jewish Motorcycle Association.”
Far from a band of motorcycle outlaws, the Jewish Motorcycle Association (JMA) was formed in 2004 as an umbrella organization for Jewish motorcycle clubs across the U.S., Europe, Australia, Canada and beyond. There even used to be a Hasidic biker club called Rebbe’s Riders—comprised of members of the Brooklyn-based Lubavitch sect—who naturally adopted ZZ Top-style beards.
“As individuals, we share the fundamental passion to ride motorcycles, but we are drawn to each of our own clubs by our common faith and heritage as members of the Jewish faith,” reads JMA’s mission statement.
A distinct feature of JMA motorcycle clubs is the pun-tastic names: Hillel’s Angels, Yidden On Wheels, The Sons of Abraham, Shalom & Chrome, The Chai Riders, and of course, Ridin’ Chai.
“We have a patch and a catch-phrase: Shtup It, Let’s Ride,” said Sorkin.
When these bikers of Jewish faith hit the road, they too are recognizable by their club colors—usually a variation of the Star of David and Hebrew scripts, accompanied by some sort of fiery flames, wheels or wings.
“We have laborers, lawyers, doctors, accountants, engineers, salespeople,” Sorkin explained, saying they are also open to bikers of other faiths. “If you ride and liked our ‘style’—and we liked you—you were eligible.”
Ridin’ Chai members, adorning club colors, have even attend the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota—the largest gathering of motorcycle clubs and biker enthusiasts in the country—and have always gotten a warm reception.
“As long as the group doesn’t act in an outlandish manner, we are as accepted as any other group, like the Christian Motorcycle Association, for example,” said Sorkin, which vibes with the viewpoint of the Hells Angels: “Show us respect, you get treated with respect. You act like an asshole, you get treated like an asshole.”
A big difference between Ridin’ Chai and the Hells Angels—most members are bit older; Sorkin has been riding motorcycles for over 50 years. But what clearly separates JMA groups? “[Our club] focuses on a Jewish perspective on life, politics, food,” said Sorkin, noting that motorcycling does come first. But, “Religion comes into play if there is a holiday conflict… Sharing a similar background, conversations are easier and have known references, Yiddish terminology, for example.”
“We are more of a Chavurah focused on friendship and camaraderie, with motorcycles as the thing that brought us together,” explained Steve Marion, founder of the San Diego-based Jewish motorcycle club, Shalom & Chrome, which conducts several clubs rides per month. “We’re all Jews, more or less, but that’s not our focus, it’s just something we generally have in common. Some members are very religious and some are completely secular. Some are conservative and some are liberal. Some like to discuss politics and some won’t consider it.”
Marion says ideology-speaking, members of Shalom & Chrome never come to a consensus on anything, except where to eat lunch.
And, instead of organizing for widespread methamphetamine distribution, or luring members to an ambush in a remote barn, motorcycle clubs that are part of the JMA organize charitable activities that benefit the wider Jewish community, along with the annual Ride to Remember which serves as a fundraising platform for organizations working in Holocaust education.
Because Jews bonding together over a love of motorcycles makes sense. After all, Fonzie on Happy Days was the original Jewish motorcycle outlaw.
Well, more like Henry Winkler, who played the Fonz, is Jewish. But still.