April 6, 2006
Spectator - ‘Soprano’ Sings on Jewish Couch
A month into the new and perhaps final season of "The Sopranos," it's high time to consider our favorite TV mobster's predilection for Jews.
Of course, "The Sopranos" features its share of corrupt Jews as well as several marginally anti-Semitic wiseguys. Yet Tony Soprano has evinced a decidedly philosemitic streak.
The tradition -- in life and in fiction -- of Jewish ties to the Mafia is a rich, albeit rocky, one. Tony's cinematic predecessor, the original Godfather, Vito Corleone, famously respected and did business with Hyman Roth, but never trusted him. Tony, on the other hand, not only trusts but loves Herman "Hesh" Rabkin, a mob-connected retired record producer who was close to Tony's late father. Judging from his unwillingness to take Hesh's money, Tony has more respect for his father's old friend than he does for the Italian-blooded members of the family.
And the feeling extends beyond Hesh to other characters and situations. But the most important Jewish element on the show is not a character but a process: psychoanalysis.
As Tony's megalomaniacal mother put it: "Everybody knows that it's a racket for the Jews."
The twist is that while Tony decides to engage in a quintessentially Jewish form of soul-searching, he settles on an Italian woman, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, a paisan as Tony says, to be his guide.
But, in the end, this Italian woman blocks his Jewish road to redemption. She means well, and makes some morally courageous stands, but Melfi's judgment is ultimately clouded by the exhilaration of treating a charismatic Mafioso, hampering her ability to help trigger a meaningful transformation in Tony.
This dynamic contrasts sharply with the one between Tony's wife, Carmela, and a psychiatrist recommended by Melfi, a stern white-bearded fellow named Krakower (first name: Sigmund).
"You must trust your initial impulse and consider leaving him," Krakower tells Carmela during their first and last visit. "You'll never be able to feel good about yourself. You'll never be able to quell the feelings of guilt and shame that you talked about, so long as you're his accomplice.... Take the children -- what's left of them -- and go."
Carmela resists the advice.
"You're not listening," Krakower says sternly. "I'm not charging you because I won't take blood money. You can't either. One thing you can never say: You haven't been told."
Krakower's harsh advice underscores Dr. Melfi's failures. The best she can do is help Tony become a more effective mob boss, not a better human being.
"The Sopranos" airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.
Ami Eden is executive editor of The Forward. For a longer Soprano riff, visit www.forward.com/hbo.
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