Tony Soprano, a man more known for murder and malapropisms than for pithy one-liners, once quipped that Italians were “Jews with better food.” Debates about the merits of babka versus cannoli aside, Hesh Rabkin, resident Jew on The Sopranos, proves the hollowness of the Mafioso’s words.
Hesh (Jerry Adler), the elder Jewish statesman of North Jersey, is—what else?—a loan shark and an informal advisor to Tony, as he was to Tony’s father before him. A man of business acumen, Hesh made his money in the recording industry, garnering writing credits (and royalties) for songs recorded by young black musicians in the 1950s and 1960s.
His business savvy and fiscal shrewdness aren’t lost on Tony. Late in the series, Hesh lends the boss $200,000 to cover gambling losses, a debt that the former follows up on with a persistence that irks the latter; in one scene, when Hesh comes to collect his payment, Tony, rubbing two coins together, says, “I got some spare change here, too,” tacitly invoking the trope of the money-hungry Jew. But Tony isn’t above using Hesh when it serves him; during a period in which he stops seeing his psychiatrist, he enlists the older man as his not-entirely-willing sounding board. (Fitting, as Tony’s mother describes psychiatry as “a racket for the Jews.”)
Because Hesh is not Italian, he can never be a made man; relegated to the status of eternal outsider, orbiting the periphery of the mob world without ever being entirely of it, he serves as Tony’s sometimes-confidante without enjoying the full benefits of the Mafia brotherhood.
The moment that defines the crux of Hesh’s insider-outsider status comes early on, in the third episode of the first season. Silvio Dante, Tony’s consigliere, comes to Tony with a business proposition: Shlomo Teittleman, the Hasidic owner of the Flyaway Motel is having a dispute with his son-in-law, Ariel. See, Shlomo’s daughter wants to divorce Ariel, but Ariel will only grant the divorce if he’s given 50 percent ownership of the motel. Tony, Teittleman hears, has—how shall we say?—a history of getting people to do what he wants; maybe he can work his magic on Ariel in exchange for 25 percent of the business?
Tony approaches Hesh asking for his advice. Stay away, Hesh warns. Does Tony listen? Please. There’s business here.
Tony tracks down Ariel and first strongly suggests that he grant the divorce without a fight. He refuses. A second, violent encounter still yields no results; Ariel proves to be a not-incompetent fighter and, what’s more, isn’t afraid of death. Finally, out of options, Tony again solicits Hesh’s advice.
“I’m here with my non-shellfish-eating friend,” he tells him over the phone. “I gotta tell you something. I’m tapped out. This guy won’t listen to reason.”
“Didn’t I tell you, huh?” says Hesh. “Didn’t I warn you to keep away from those fanatics?”
“This guy’s willing to go down with the ship like no man I’ve ever seen,” Tony tells him.
Maybe, says Hesh, but there’s one thing no man would want to go without—“Make like a mohel, huh?” he prods, “Finish the bris.” Indeed, the threat of bolt cutters sets Ariel straight.
The Sopranos trades in tribalism; the fierceness of the Mafia bond is the only true law in a world of chaos. Loyalty is the defining credo. So much so, in fact, that Tony believes it must also be true for Hesh, manipulating the loan shark’s perceived closeness to other Jews to solve the Ariel problem.
But it isn’t true for Hesh. If the reigning order-establishing principle of the world of The Sopranos is fraternity—the notion that you are a member of an entity larger than yourself, and that there is a deep and innate connection among members of a tribe (an idea which, applied differently, often rings true for Jews)—then here Hesh not only betrays his capacity for sadism and indifference, but commits an act of self-excision. Willing to offer up another Jew for torture, Hesh reveals that there are more important things to him than his bond to his own community; specifically the tenuous bonds to a group of which he will never fully be a member. He proves himself to be that most pathetic of creatures: a striver, a man of naked yearning. Groucho Marx put it best: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”
No, what Hesh wants is that which is always beyond his reach—membership in some other, better club.
What separates Jews and Italians in Tony Soprano’s universe is more than the difference between bagels and manicotti. Jewishness is code for difference, an unbridgeable gap. Hesh, to his Italian counterparts and, seemingly, to his own chagrin, is just the wrong kind of chosen.
Previously on Network Jews:
Eli Gold, The Good Wife’s Political Operator
Howard Wolowitz, the nerdy, sex-obsessed engineer on The Big Bang Theory
Paris Geller, Rory Gilmore’s high-intensity, over-achieving friend and foil on Gilmore Girls
Sala Levin writes for Moment Magazine.