The flagship television series “The Sopranos”, whose six-season series ended in 2007, is enjoying a brief resurrection with “The Many Saints of Newark”, a prequel starting to hit theaters and on HBO Max this week. Friday October. 1. While the original series unfolded over 86 one-hour episodes, “The Sopranos” creator David Chase chose to distill Tony Soprano’s origin story into a two-hour film featuring starring Michael Gandolfini as the young Anthony “Tony” Soprano, originally played by his late father, James Gandolfini, who died in 2013.

While everyone knows that “The Sopranos” was a rich description of the personal and business conflicts facing an all-Italian gangster gang in New Jersey (played with few exceptions by Italian-American actors, several of whom already had, real-life experience on the wrong side of the law), one of the show’s strong points – truly a breakthrough in TV drama – was the sensitivity with which it dealt with the larger world surrounding the island world of the north of Italian jersey, including characters from a pot fusion of other origins, including Blacks, Native Americans, Eastern European immigrants, and Arab-Americans. But the world of the “Sopranos” was crossed by a particularly intense journey of Jewish characters, who were often interpreted by Jewish actors.

It wasn’t new to “The Sopranos” – the “The Godfather” movies, for example, boasted of Hyman Roth’s character, based on real Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky, played by Lee Strasberg. But looking back on “The Sopranos,” one might be surprised to rediscover the depth and breadth of the Jewish characters and their stories, which often served as thematic parallels or contrasts with the main plot of How a late period segment with a strong focus on tradition Twentieth-century Italian-Americans faced the challenges of a rapidly changing world all around them.

The Secret Jewish History of the Sopranos

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The very first episode of “The Sopranos” featured the character of Herman “Hesh” Rabkin (played by Jerry Adler), a loan shark who first made his fortune in the 1950s and 1960s with an independent label focused on young people. black artists. As was sometimes the case with big names on small labels in real life, Hesh would add his name as a co-author to many tracks, ensuring himself a steady stream of publishing royalties. As a Jew, Hesh could never be a “grown man” or an official member of a “family” or “crew,” but he served as an adviser (and unofficial banker) to the deceased. Tony Soprano’s father, Johnny Soprano, then to Tony after his father’s death.

We first meet Hesh when Tony’s right-hand man, Silvio Dante – played with unique exuberance by Steven Van Zandt, better known to all as “Little Steven” (or “Miami Steve”, if you’re from ‘a certain vintage), longtime guitarist and foil for Bruce Springsteen in the E Street Band – hosts a reunion between an Orthodox Jewish friend, Shlomo Teittleman and Tony Soprano, to see if the latter can help Teittleman with a family and business feud messy involving her son-in-law. By virtue of his religion, Hesh is invited to the meeting and observes the outskirts. After Tony agrees to help Teittleman – but not before Teittleman’s son, who is also at the table, warns his father: “You create a Golem, a monster to do your dirty work. Like the rabbi of the story, he will destroy you ”- Hesh takes Tony aside and warns him against any involvement with the Hasidim, here cast as a mirror image of Tony’s world.

The resulting scenes between Tony’s henchmen and wandering son-in-law, Ariel, are acted out for a bit of comedy – after “Paulie Walnuts” Gualtieri starts bullying him, Silvio tells Paulie, “Bupkis.” Say bupkis, Paulie. This is how they say “nothing”. As the stakes rise, the violence increases, but Ariel isn’t a piece of cake, describing himself as one Masada man as he seems almost superhumanly immune to beatings. It is only when Tony Soprano follows Hesh’s suggestion that they threaten Ariel with a bolt cutter – to “act like a mohel, eh? End the breakage”- Ariel begins to give in, having gained the admiration and respect of the gangsters along the way, who even suggest that he could come and work for them, given the tenacity he has shown in not backing down.

The Secret Jewish History of the Sopranos

All of this happens during the first three episodes of the first season. And in the following episodes, we hear Yiddishisms falling slightly from the mouths of Italians even when the immediate situation does not involve Hesh or other Jews. They’ve mastered the criminal jargon enough to get rid of “shnorrers” and “gonifs” as easily as meatballs and spaghetti.

The flippant anti-Semitism of the non-Jewish characters gives the series a certain verisimilitude. When Tony concludes a particularly difficult negotiation with Hesh over a financial deal, he can’t help but make a rift about dealing with the “people of the desert” directly across the way. Hesh responds with a warm, good-natured laugh, accompanying the insult disguised as a joke, as he probably learned a long time ago that this is the only way to do business in this world. Regarding business with the Teittlemans, Paulie said at one point, “Hasidim, but I don’t believe them! “

In a not insignificant way, “The Sopranos” is about a mafia boss so stressed that he asks for psychological support. The very first scene of the entire series finds Tony in his new shrink’s waiting room. While Tony’s therapist is fellow Italian Dr Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) (we later learn that Tony received three referrals for therapists; the other two had Jewish names), he knows enough about the therapy. to quote Freud, and his therapy contrasts with the spiritual advice his wife undergoes with a Catholic priest. When Tony’s mother finds out he is in therapy, she says, “Everyone knows this is racketeering for the Jews.

Eventually Tony’s wife Carmela Soprano (played by Edie Falco) ends up seeing her own therapist, Dr. Krakower, an older Jewish psychoanalyst. The scene unfolds as follows:

“I might be pushing my limits here, but you’re Jewish, aren’t you?” “

“Is this relevant? “

“Well, we Catholics place a lot of importance on the holiness of the family. And I’m not sure your people…. “

“I have been married for 31 years.

In marked contrast to Dr. Melfi, who withholds moral judgment on his patients, favoring a relativistic approach, Dr. Krakower appears as an Old Testament prophet seeing the world in black and white. He practically orders Carmela to take her children and leave her husband immediately; suggests that Tony surrender to the police and spend seven years in prison studying Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”; and refuses to charge Carmela for the session, claiming he does not take “blood money”.

Other Jewish characters appear in the series, including Dr. Melfi’s supervising psychiatrist Elliot Kupferberg, played by Peter Bogdanovich. In college, Meadow Soprano – Tony and Carmela’s daughter, played by Jewish actress Jamie-Lynn Sigler – has a black boyfriend, Noah Tannenbaum, much to her father’s chagrin, who doesn’t object to the fact. that Tannenbaum is Jewish but cannot get around the color of his skin. Most of the doctors and lawyers in the series are Jewish: David Margulies plays Tony’s lawyer, Neil Mink; Richard Portnow plays Harold Melvoin, legal advisor to Corrado “Junior” Soprano, Tony’s uncle and nominal head of the crime family; Matthew Sussman plays Dr. Douglas Schreck, Junior Soprano’s cardiologist.

While most Italian actors play Italian characters and Jewish actors play Jews, there are a few notable exceptions beyond Jamie-Lynn Sigler. Steve Schirripa, who plays Bobby “Bobby Bacala” Baccalieri, once told a Jewish Journal interviewer: “My mother was Jewish, so I had a whole Jewish side to the family. My mother’s maiden name was Bernstein. My grandmother’s name was Moskowitz, so I know all about this world. So I was brought up in the Catholic religion, but I also identify very well as being a Jew. I had all kinds of uncles and aunts and had the best of both worlds.

David Proval, who plays gangster Richie Aprile, was probably the only one yeshive bokher in the cast; he grew up in East New York, Brooklyn, where he attended the Yeshiva Toras Chaim. Margulies plays Julianna Skiff, a real estate agent who has an affair with Tony and his nephew, Christopher. Ari Graynor played Caitlin Rucker, Meadow Soprano’s roommate at Columbia University from Bartlesville, Oklahoma Sandra Bernhard, Linda Lavin, and Sydney Pollack also made appearances in the original series.

It is not clear whether “The Many Saints of Newark” will deal with the stories of one of the main Jewish characters in the television series. The only one of importance would be Hesh Rabkin. But David Chase has plenty of stories to tell in just two hours, so the only meaningful Jewish name in the film’s credits might be that of his co-writer, Lawrence Konner, who wrote several episodes of the original series and continued on. to write for “Boardwalk Empire.”

Seth Rogovoy is Associate Editor-in-Chief of The Forward. He frequently exploits popular culture for his lesser-known Jewish stories.


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