They were known as the "Potato Bag Gang," a group of Russian criminals from Odessa who emigrated to the Brighton Beach area of New York City and victimized other Russian emigres.
According to a 1986 report by the President's Commission on Organized Crime, the group sold Russians sacks of potatoes disguised as bags of gold coins.
These days, potato sack scams have been replaced by more complex crimes, from cellular phone fraud to extortion, according to last week's California Department of Justice report on Russian organized crime throughout the state.
Though Jewish leaders here debate the level of Jewish involvement in the Russian mafia, both as victims and perpetrators, no one likes the idea of a new American — Jewish or otherwise — left holding a sack of potatoes and filled with anxiety and confusion about how to report such a crime.
While there is no hard evidence the crimes involve the Jewish community, most observers agree the Russian emigres feel uncomfortable reporting incidents to the police or even to Jewish agencies.
Simon Klarfeld, executive director of the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal, points to a survey his agency recently conducted of Jews in Saint Petersburg.
Of more than 600 Jews interviewed, 50 percent had experienced an anti-Semitic incident. Almost none reported the acts, which ranged from being pushed into the street to being spit on and harassed.
A total lack of faith in government officials prevented those Jews from reporting, Klarfeld says. They take that fear with them to America.
Furthermore, adds Klarfeld, "emigres are unclear on their rights. They wouldn't know where to turn to."
At this point, panic about the Russian mafia is premature. But as Klarfeld contends, this may be an ideal time for the Jewish community to offers emigres a civics lesson along with basic necessities such as food and shelter.
If we educate newcomers about the relationship between citizens and a democratic state, they may be less vulnerable to all kinds of scams — mafia or otherwise.
Armed with information about their rights, emigres, it is hoped, will never be left holding the bag.