The Couch Becomes Him
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.