The Couch Becomes Him

The Sopranos

By Ami Eden

Published March 03, 2006, issue of March 03, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

If leaders are measured by how they treat their Jews, then Tony Soprano qualifies as a world-class statesman.

Of course, “The Sopranos” features its share of corrupt Jews — ultra-Orthodox and secular — as well as several marginally antisemitic wiseguys. Yet Tony has evinced a decidedly philosemitic streak — one that might, in fact, explain how this Jersey mob boss ended up on a psychiatrist’s couch.

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 Hyman Roth, did business with Hyman Roth, but he never trusted Hyman Roth. 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. Tony is livid when his daughter starts dating one of her fellow students at Columbia University, a half-Jewish half-black California kid. While Tony has plenty to say about his daughter seeing a black man, he expresses no discomfort about the Jewish half of the equation. Tony generally seems comfortable with, even proud of, his daughter’s ascent into Columbia’s heavily Jewish Ivy-League milieu, in sharp contrast to his tendency to view white-collar Italians as sellouts, not role models for assimilation. He disdains them, even as he grows increasingly dissatisfied with life as the top dog at the Bada Bing strip joint.

The key to understanding the presentation of Jews and Judaism on “The Sopranos,” however, is to recognize that the most important Jewish character on the show is not a person but a process: psychoanalysis.

As Dr. Emanuel Rice argued in his groundbreaking 1990 book “Freud and Moses: The Long Journey Home,” the father of psychoanalysis was a secularized heir to the Jewish prophetic tradition who aimed to help people “achieve a higher level of emotional and intellectual maturity” and pursue a life of “truth, justice and respect for one’s fellow man.” Or, as Tony’s megalomaniacal mother put it upon learning that her son was in therapy, “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, to be his guide.

“[My regular doctor] gave me a choice between two Jews and a paisan like me,” Tony says, explaining his decision to Dr. Melfi in an early episode, “so I picked the paisan.”

But, in the end, this Italian woman blocks his Jewish road to redemption. She means well, and makes some morally courageous decisions along the way, but Dr. 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.

It’s a dynamic that contrasts sharply with the one between Tony’s wife, Carmela, and a psychiatrist recommended by Dr. Melfi, a stern white-bearded fellow named Krakower (first name: Sigmund). “You must trust your initial impulse and consider leaving him,” Dr. Krakower tells Carmela during her 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, noting that ending her marriage would entail getting a lawyer, finding an apartment and arranging for child support. “You’re not listening,” Dr. Krakower sternly replies. “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.”

A bit over-the-top for a shrink? Perhaps. By way of comparison, however, Dr. 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.

Still, perhaps this –– the fruits of Dr. Melfi’s flawed version of the Jewish cure –– is better than nothing, especially when rival families are gunning for you and the Feds are closing in.






Find us on Facebook!
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.