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.
In the late 40s & early 50s, whenever he passed the ruins of a burned out building, my father (born in Brooklyn in 1893, of Irish ancestry) used to pronounce it “a successful fire”. I never heard him refer to “Jewish lightning’, and not for lack of animosity toward Jews, either.
In 2000, I passed a fire scene, and a few minutes later came upon a couple of guys who had seen the fire engines and were wondering where the fire had been. I told them what I had seen, and called it “a pretty successful fire”. They responded as if hearing a familiar phrase. With the expression in my mind, I asked several people of my age (born in the early 1940s) whether they knew it. One a New Yorker of Jewish ancestry, had never heard it. Another, a New Yorker as Irish as Paddy’s pig, smiled and said “hit by that old Jewish lighting, eh?” My wife, born in western Pennsylvania & of Scots ancestry, said that she had never heard it until she had begun hanging out with low company, meaning me and my father.
George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of “The African Theatre”, Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998, but nothing much since then.