A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006. Now a Popeyes fast food restaurant on Google Maps.

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Entry from April 15, 2005
Successful Fire (Jewish Lightning)
On June 5, 2000, NYU librarian George Thompson submitted this, on "successful fires" and "Jewish lightning," to the American Dialect Society list. I'll try to update it when I can:

I have been sitting on this note until I could get my hands on Jenna Weissman Joselit's book "Our Gang: Jewish Crime and the New York Jewish Community," (Bloomington: Indiana U. Pr., 1983,) since I thought I remembered that she had reproduced a relevant cartoon. Her discussion of arson as a tool of business management is on pp. 36-39.

It begins "Of all the offenses commonly associated with New York
Jews, arson, or "Jewish lightning," as it was popularly called,
received the most attention." (pp. 36-37) She does not give a
printed contemporary source for "Jewish lightning". The cartoon
turned out to be from Puck and undated, and not directly relevant
with regards the expression. It had been captioned "Adding Insult to Injury"; frame #1 showed members of a volunteer fire company in a businessman's office, asking him to contribute toward the purchase of a new fire engine. In frame #2, the businessman, ("Mr. Burnupski") throws an inkwell and a bottle at the fleeing firemen. The caption is: "Mr. Burnupski (excitedly) So hellup me Fadder Abram! Asks me to hellup dem puy a new undt more bowerful engine ven der oldt von put oudt four fires in mein store in der last six months!"

For the benefit of those of you who are young, or respectable, or not New Yorkers, I will explain that the expression carries a cynical imputation that the fire had been started on purpose, in order to collect on the fire insurance. The more completely the building was destroyed, the more "successful" the fire.

10 July 1975, Lima (Ohio) News, pg. 28:
Things are humming over at Columbia Pictures. For instance a project called "Jewish Lightning" will henceforth be known as "Fire Sale."

Wonder what the Anti-Defamation League of the B'nai B'rith will have to say about that title change?

29 January 1992, Daily Intelligencer (Doylestown, PA), pg. A-3:
Polin accused Whitemarsh fire marshal Calvin Bonenberger of saying, "It looks like we've got a case of Jewish lightning here."

Bonenberger denied making the comment, but Madden said it showed that the investigators were overly anxious to prove the fire was for insurance.
Posted by Barry Popik
Names/Phrases • Friday, April 15, 2005 • Permalink

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