The rabbi thought nothing of the Flamingo Hotel as he passed it on his way to a Las Vegas area hospice. Despite the glitz and glimmer that draws people to the desert city—and the grimy edge that sometimes keeps them there for good—Las Vegas is a big place, home to real people with real (and regular) lives, and Rabbi Mendy Harlig was on his way last week to do what rabbis often do: meet with a Jewish woman breathing her last.
Harlig, a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi, regularly visits Jewish patients in municipal hospitals and hospices. This time, a family he did not know had requested a rabbi, and Compassion Care Hospice had called him. There, he met the woman, Millicent Rosen, and her family. He helped her recite the prayers for one’s final moments, which concludes with the Shema, Judaism’s central prayer. Before leaving, as he always does, the rabbi inquired about the funeral plans.
“I said that due to economic reasons, we were choosing cremation, and then she would be interred at our family mausoleum in New York,” says Rosen’s daughter, Wendy. Shipping a body was expensive; this seemed the easiest solution.
The rabbi immediately offered to find the funds to have Millicent buried according to Jewish law, explaining how important a proper burial is for the soul of the deceased.
During their discussion, Wendy Rosen mentioned her family’s long history in Las Vegas.
“What history?” asked Harlig.
Millicent Rosen, who passed away on Nov. 17 at the age of 86, was the eldest daughter of Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, the charming and notorious Jewish mob figure widely recognized as the visionary behind modern Las Vegas. For all the good, the bad and the ugly, Bugsy is the reason Vegas looks as it does today, simultaneously an oasis and a mirage sparkling in Nevada’s desert sun. He was killed in a gangland hit on June 20, 1947, in Beverly Hills, Calif., a murder that has never been solved. The man has become a legend in the more than half-century since then; gallons of ink have been spilled reviling or glamorizing him, attributing both real and imagined illegal acts to the crime boss.
“At that point, I suggested that we bury her here in Las Vegas,” says Harlig, who with his wife, Chaya, directs Chabad of Green Valley in Henderson, Nev. “We have a historic Jewish cemetery here; it seemed like a way of completing the circle.”
The importance of a proper burial in Jewish law and tradition cannot be underestimated. “For dust you are, and to dust you will return,” G‑d told Adam, the first human being. Chabad.org’s extensive section on Death and Mourning quotes King Solomon, who said: “And the earth returns to the land as it was, and the spirit returns to G‑d, who gave it.” The article explains that “the next stage in the continuing saga of a human life is that the body should return to the earth, the source of all physical life, and be reunited with it, just as the soul returns to its Divine root.”
Taking part in the proper burial of a Jewish person is considered a mitzvah of the highest order. Maimonides explains that even the High Priest, who was prohibited from attending his own family’s funerals, was required to take it upon himself to personally bury a met mitzvah, an abandoned Jewish body that had no one to attend to its proper burial.
The Rosen family immediately agreed, and on Nov. 21, following a taharah, Millicent was buried with a minyan on hand in the city her famous and infamous father had dreamed of.
“Rabbi Mendy took care of all the arrangements,” Wendy says, choking up. “What a gift from G‑d, he has been throughout this entire ordeal.”
A Fairly ‘Ordinary’ Father
Of course, to Millicent Rosen and her younger sister, Barbara, Bugsy Siegel was simply their father.
Millicent was born in New York City on Jan. 14, 1931, where she and her sister spent their early years. Her father, Benjamin, and mother, Esta (nee Krakower), who married in 1929, were both the children of Eastern European immigrants.
Benjamin had grown up poor in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn and on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where he met other young Jews looking to get ahead, including Meyer Lansky, in addition to non-Jews such Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Another childhood buddy was Al Capone. In their early years, Lansky, Siegel and Louis “Lepke” Buchalter formed a Jewish gang, busying themselves with bootlegging and racketeering. A decade later, they joined with the Italian syndicate in forming Murder Inc., which, as the name implies, carried out mob hits for hire. The businesses Siegel was a part of were many things, but unprofitable they were not; by the early 1930s he owned an apartment at the Waldorf-Astoria, and Millicent grew up surrounded by luxury.
The girls never knew what their doting, soft-spoken father did for business. In a 2009 interview with Clark County Television, Rosen remembered telling classmates at school that her father was retired.
“I didn’t know about Murder Inc. or any of those things,” she said.
Under investigation on the East Coast, Siegel headed to California in the late `30s, and his family followed, settling in Beverly Hills. There, Millicent learned to ride horses while her parents hobnobbed with Hollywood figures. It was then that the mobster began exploring the desert town of Las Vegas, at the time with a population of barely 20,000.
“Buy land,” Siegel told people at the opening of the costly and over budget Flamingo Hotel in 1946, for one day “there’ll be one million people here.”
Bugsy and Esta’s marriage ended in the 1946, and Millicent’s mother and her two daughters moved back to New York. The girls were on a train to California to spend the summer with their father when family friend and underworld figure Allen Smiley boarded to take them off.
The girls’ handsome, blue-eyed father was dead at the age of 41, shot multiple times through the head. It was in the papers’ description of her father and his line of work that Millicent first got an inkling of what he actually did.
Minutes after his shooting, mob associates Moe Sedway, Gus Greenbaum and Morris Rosen walked into the Flamingo and took uncontested control of the operation.
Several years later, Millicent married Morris Rosen’s son (Rosen was a close associate of Meyer Lansky), Jack, with whom she had a son, Benjamin, who passed away in 1956, and two daughters, Cindy and Wendy. About 15 years ago, Millicent, who worked for many years in retail in Beverly Hills, moved to Las Vegas, where she began granting interviews about memories of her father—the more personal, intimate side of him—and what she saw as setting the record straight regarding his legacy, including the veracity of his nickname, which Siegel himself never liked.
“They say that he tended to get a bit handsy with the machine gun, and that’s why he was called ‘Bugsy,’ but he wasn’t crazy, and my mother set the reporters straight on that,” says Wendy. “We were never allowed to refer to him as Bugsy; he was our grandfather.”
‘A Person in Her Own Right’
As the daughter of Vegas royalty, Millicent Rosen became somewhat of a local celebrity in recent years.
“This legacy was something Millicent had to deal with her whole life,” says Harlig. “She was trying to have a relationship with her father after everything she had been through.”
Personal and family legacies are never easy to grapple with, all the more so when the parent is someone like Bugsy Siegel.
“Comfort, honor, everyone deserves that,” says the rabbi. “More than always having to answer questions, she’s a person in her own right.”
Bugsy Siegel’s Vegas is many things. It is the City of Sin and darkness, but also home to a thriving Jewish community. Aside from Harlig’s Henderson center, there are nine other Chabad houses in Las Vegas, plus the Desert Torah Academy, a Chabad day school. All of this, too, would likely never have been created had it not been for Siegel’s vision.
In her 2009 interview, Millicent Rosen—who in addition to her daughters was survived by her sister, Barbara Saperstein, and granddaughter, Mallory Rosenberg-Hammer—recalled her father taking her and Barbara out to the back of the Flamingo and pointing to the barren land stretching out before them, tumbleweeds blowing by.
“There are 800 acres that belong to your kids,” he told his daughters.
A few years after his death, the land—today likely worth hundreds of millions of dollars—was sold for a paltry $24,000. Bugsy had known better.
Though that land was no longer in the family, 70 years later, on a Tuesday morning in a very different Las Vegas, Rosen, a Jew “formed … of dust from the earth” was returned, as a Jew, to the dust of the earth.