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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Amish Mafia: Real Gangsters or Social Misfits?

     Between 1693 and 1697, a Swiss Mennonite bishop named Jakob Ammon broke free of the Mennonites, bestowing his name on his followers--the Amish. Ammon's people fled to North America to escape religious persecution in Europe. They drifted in clusters across the continent, occupying parcels of land in some 26 states, concentrating in central Ohio and eastern Pennsylvania where more than one-quarter of this nation's 250,000 Amish reside.

     The Amish are honest, hardworking people known for their self-sufficiency and simple uniformity of dress. The women wear bonnets, shawls, heavy black shoes, black stockings, and plain, dark-colored dresses. The men grow beards (they do shave their upper lips) and dress in blues and blacks. The most conservative sects, referred to as Old-Order Amish, avoid the use of electricity and do not own motor vehicles or telephones. (Some use phones for business.) Their dwellings are unpretentious, furnished in spartan fashion and do not feature indoor plumbing.

     Members of this male-dominated society refer to those outside their faith as "the English." The Amish worship in clusters of 25 to 30 families led by an ordained elder called the bishop, the spiritual and cultural leader of the group. The bishop's authority is great, and his word, in matters of Amish life, is law.

     The Amish are stoical, keep their feelings to themselves, abhor violence, and loathe publicity. They do not abide departures from their principals of conformity, humility, devotion to God, and detachment from the modern world. Excommunicated transgressors are "shunned," sometimes permanently.

     The Mafia, a criminal syndicate that originated in Sicily, Italy, is a loose affiliation of professional thieves and killers involved in a variety of rackets and vices that include extortion, illegal gambling, drugs, prostitution, loan sharking, arson-for-profit, hijacking, and labor union corruption. A group that claims racketeering sovereignty over a particular territory is called a "family."

     Nothing could be more different than the Mafia and Amish versions of the family. The two subcultures are on the opposite extremes of American society. The Amish are quiet pacifists who shun materialism and conspicuous wealth. Mafia types are violent, vulgar, and ostentatious. The notion that there are Mafia types operating within old-order Amish society is not only shocking, it's hard to believe.

     One of this year's cable TV hits is a docu-series on the Discovery Network called "Amish Mafia." Set in the heart of Lancaster County's Amish country in southeastern Pennsylvania, the show, through reenactments, on-camera interviews, and the interactions of the series' main characters, chronicles the lives and adventures of Lebanon Levi and his three-man crew of Amish Mafioso.

     The star of the series, Lebanon Levi, is a tall, pudgy-faced, clean-shaven, soft-spoken Amish man in his late 20s or early 30s. (I presume he is from Lebanon, Pennsylvania, thus the name. I've never heard of a Mafioso with a name like Chicago Tony, or Brooklyn Paulie.) A roofer by trade who owns local real estate, the unbaptized godfather wears go-to-church Amish garb, and drives around in a Cadillac SUV. He conducts his "Mafia" business behind a desk in his barn.

     The mildly illicit business conducted out of Lebanon Levi's barn includes setting up and collecting "insurance" payments from local Amish businesses. (One owner of an Amish enterprise identified as one of Levi's premium payers has denied making protection payments.) Another source of income involves the operation of so-called "Hut Parties" where Amish and English kids gather, for a fee, to drink, dance, and do whatever. The godfather also organizes a small gambling operation connected to organized softball games.

     Lebanon Levi's bodyguard and right-hand-man is Alvin, a clean-shaven Amish man who dresses like his boss, drives a fancy pickup truck, and poses on camera with a baseball bat. No one can see the godfather without going through Alvin, Levi's most loyal and trusted soldier.

     Jolin, a tattooed Mennonite who drives a Mercedes, and poses a lot with assault rifles and pump-action shotguns, plays the role of enforcer. Notwithstanding his job description, Jolin is rather soft-spoken and mild-mannered. He comes off as too thoughtful to be violent. Like Levi, he has a minor arrest record featuring disorderly conduct type offenses. Like his boss, he has not spent time in jail, and none in prison.

     John, a tough-talking Amish man who spends a good deal of time getting advice from his sister Esther, functions as Levi's errand boy. Humiliated by the fact he has to get around on a foot-scooter, John wants desperately to take on bigger assignments and have access to a car. John wants more power, and to move up in the organization. But first he has to earn Levi's trust. John is also not above discussing, for the TV audience, the possibility of challenging Levi for control of the organization. He seems to have his sister's blessing on this issue. Eventually, by conducting business behind Levi's back, and associating with an Amish hood from Ohio who wants to expand into Pennsylvania, John gets into trouble with his former boss.

     Through his small squad of "Mafia" foot-soldiers, Lebanon Levi mainly functions as the enforcer of the Old-Order Amish code of conduct, an odd role for a man who doesn't even belong to the church. In one episode, Levi's men confront and photograph a high-ranking member of the church who's with a prostitute in a seedy motel. In another segment of the series, Levi's men confront an Old Order Amish man who has been taking advantage of an Amish woman whose husband has abandoned her. A member of Levi's crew, in a third show, visits the mobile home of an English guy involved in a buggy hit-and-run case. When the English fellow doesn't admit wrongdoing, and tells Levi's operative to get the hell off his property, the Amish Mafioso fires a shotgun slug through the windshield of the man's unoccupied parked car.

     It's what Lebanon Levi doesn't do that distinguishes him from a real Mafia leader. He doesn't sell drugs, run prostitutes, fence stolen goods, finance heists, or operate a loan sharking business. Instead of Mafia hits and severe beatings, Levi's men issue stern warnings, do a lot of tough-talking, and pose with high-powered weapons. "Amish Mafia" is not HBO's "The Sopranos."

     "Amish Mafia" is essentially a soap opera featuring four social misfits who aren't Amish, English, or Mafia. Since the show doesn't accurately depict the Amish or organized crime, I'm surprised it's so successful. Given the popularity of "Amish Mafia," next year we may be watching "Amish Housewives." 

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