For many, thinking about organized crime will conjure up images of Italian mobsters like Al Capone or the fictional Michael Corleone from the three "Godfather" movies. In actuality, many of the most notorious and ruthless gangsters were actually Jewish.
One of the mob figures with a long tenure was Meyer Lansky, a Polish Jew who grew up on the mean streets of Manhattan's Lower East Side. Along with childhood pal and future mafia boss Lucky Luciano, an Italian, Lansky began his life of crime before the 1920s, robbing kids in the schoolyard and extorting money from local street vendors in exchange for leaving their carts undisturbed.
"They started a life of crime almost before they were teenagers," said Norman Olsen, 74, who on Jan. 8 spoke to about 70 people at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park. A member of the synagogue's adult-education committee, Olsen enjoys studying all facets of Jewish history.
"I had given several courses on Jewish Supreme Court justices," said Olsen, who learned about his current topic from the book Tough Jews by Rich Cohen and from Internet searches. "We understand there had been some Jews who weren't that nice, and it's desirable to talk about the bad with the good."
An industrial psychologist by training, Olsen told the group that as Lansky became increasingly powerful, he became an enforcer in union negotiations.
As he explained, "employers were victims of their own greed when they brought the criminal element in to control unions."
When prohibition was introduced in 1920, it gave organized crime a whole new market.
"Wow, what an opportunity!" he declared. Making and selling liquor "made union activism look like peanuts."
But with an increased market came an increased need for internal discipline, so many leading mobsters created a formal organization for disposing of enemies. The enterprise, which they christened Murder Inc., was run by racketeer Louis "Lepke" Buchalter and consisted of killers – many of them Jewish – who murdered more than 1,000 people in New York in the 1930s and '40s.
"Once the question was raised [to the mob about a potential enemy]," stated Olsen, "you were gone."
In fact, because there were so many Jews involved, some killings set for Friday nights or Saturday mornings had to wait – "not because it's wrong to kill, but because it's wrong to work on Shabbat."
Olsen stated for the record that it was not just mobsters undertaking criminal activities: "All this corruption could not have succeeded without some help. Government, police – help [came] from the civilized world."
Olsen also discussed Ben "Bugsy" Siegel, who, after running a successful bootlegging operation in New York, was the driving force behind getting crime families to invest in Las Vegas and his new Flamingo Hotel.
"He ran into a little problem – nobody wanted to go" there, said Olsen. "Opening night, they had eight people."
Siegel assured them it would get better. But "one thing that characterized gangsters, they have no patience," Olsen noted. Siegel was shot and killed before he could see the town flourish into today's Sin City.
Lansky – whose story bears a striking resemblance to that of the fictional Hyman Roth in "The Godfather: Part II" – had a better ending to his biography. With police pressure bearing down on him, Lansky used his right of return to gain Israeli citizenship and moved to the country in 1970. When extradited back to the United States in 1972, he was exonerated on tax evasion charges. He died a rich man in Florida in 1983.
When an audience member asked if Jewish crime families extended for more than a generation, Olsen replied that almost none of them established dynasties. "After World War II, many did not want their kids to follow" suit, he said.
But the lecturer said a new chapter is emerging in the history of Jewish organized crime.
"This is not the end of Jewish criminality," he proclaimed, telling of how a Russian mob is now in the United States, selling drugs and, in some cases, committing identity theft.
Of the old-time criminals, he paid particular attention not to romanticize them, as so many movies have done.
"These were not Robin Hoods. They were not stealing from the rich to give to the poor," said Olsen. "They were stealing and killing for their own aggrandizement, their own gains. I don't think there is anything at all that smooths [over] my impression of how bad these people are."