May 24, 2001
A Jewish ‘Sopranos’?
In my house last Sunday evening Tony Soprano easily defeated Anne Frank as "must-see TV." Yes, even in the home of committed Jews, the rancid affairs of a New Jersey Mafia family beat out the young girl of the Holocaust. The question is, why?
All season long my friends and I, Jewish boomers, have followed and then avidly discussed the gangster Sopranos, whose patriarch, Tony (James Gandolfini) endures the slights of his own mother, suffers panic attacks and sees a therapist, Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) while conducting his nefarious business at the Bada Bing Club.
For a week or two, after Dr. Melfi's graphic rape and the particularly hideous murder of a pregnant prostitute by one of Tony's low-lifes, we swore off watching the HBO series, protesting its gratuitous violence. But we came back, as did much of upscale America, in time to see Meadow Soprano's gloomy affair with a Jewish African-American student and Uncle Junior's struggle with chemotherapy.
It never occurred to me to forego the season finale, though I didn't expect its competition to be an updated realistic portrait of the Jewish girl with the diary in which Anne's father, Otto, is played by Ben Kingsley.
Yet after watching the conclusion of "Anne Frank" on ABC Monday night, a story that concludes with a heart-breaking descent into the concentration camp, I see the truth behind my own instincts. In such small choices we discern the changing nature of Jewish life and the meaning of our history in America today.
First, I was struck by the superficial similarities between the Frank and Soprano domestic situations.
The Franks are hidden from the Nazis in an Amsterdam attic and soon are part of a new extended family, rife with suspicion, hysteria and misunderstanding. So too are the Sopranos in hiding, not only from the FBI and police but from non-Mafia Americans who might mistake their ethics; in their extended clan betrayal is the name of the game.
Otto Frank and his wife, Edith, don't get along much better than Carmela and Tony. Anne is just as attracted to her attic-mate Peter as Meadow Soprano is to Jackie Jr., son of Tony's late friend Jackie Aprile.
Otto is guilt-ridden over not getting his daughters to freedom. Tony, likewise, is beset with how his own crime career affects his wayward son, A.J.
Of course the Sopranos are fiction and guilty. The Franks are real and innocent. But those are not the telling differences. One is old-world drama fearing big government; the other is new-world drama, in which life's problems come down to class and self.
Of course we must continue to retell the story of Anne Frank, as each generation learns the horror of the Holocaust and the death of innocents, with the caveat "never again."
But if Anne Frank, great, sweeping and tragic as her story is, is the only story about Jews that TV understands, then we'll all be victims of the remote control.
It's not only out of respect to the Six Million that television continues to rely on Holocaust dramas for Jewish life, it's a failure of nerve and the imagination. We can ask if our community would tolerate stories in which the Jewish religious world duels with the realities of government and/or business as the Sopranos must. The dearth of Jewish characters on television today suggests otherwise, that we have painted ourselves into a corner called self-righteousness.
Not so long ago, Isaac Bashevis Singer won a large audience by portraying the dramatic conflicts of the religious life, including the passions that push devout people to go over the line. His stories were populated by ghosts of destroyed Eastern European Jewish worlds, but they were deeply rooted in the now.
If we want to get to the contemporary moment, we have to be ready for the bombshells. Jewish crime did not end with "Once Upon a Time in America." The newspapers tell us that we are not removed from the human dilemma: a rabbi is charged with a murder for hire; another is accused of sexual abuse; a religious husband traps his wife in a loveless marriage. Certainly we understand that commitment to a religious life does not end one's fight with temptation, but in a way it only begins the battle. In our fictions we can know ourselves.
I'd love to see a weekly script dealing with the conflicts between an observant family and contemporary life. How do we read the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and then handle labor negotiations? How does a patriarch, knowledgeable about the laws of Leviticus, control sexual jealousy? Last week, in the portion Behar, there is a warning about dealings in real estate, with the warning repeated, "Do not wrong one another, but fear your God." There's a plot device right there.
Are we ready for a Jewish "Sopranos"?