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Of Mensches and Paesanos

June 4, 2013

My father eschewed therapy and therapists. The day he met Joe, my therapist at the time, he looked him in the eye and said,  “So we meet again, Maggio”.  The words were cryptic to me, but not to Joe, who later explained to me that this was the line uttered by Ernest Borgnine’s character in “From Here To Eternity” upon encountering Private Maggio (played by Frank Sinatra) right before pulling a knife and killing him.

But the truth is, years before, when my father realized he needed some help dealing with the loss of his wife, he found it in the form of a therapist – a man named D’mico.

And years later, long after ending therapy with Joe, whose last name is Rizzo, both my brother and I would seek counseling from men whose names ended in vowels. My therapist of the past 92 years is named DeAngelo.

Are we beginning to glimpse a pattern here?

Noted therapist and author Sheldon Kopp and others have long observed the ying/yang dance between Jewish and Italian men. We Hebes are more intellectual, learned, nuanced, crafty. Italian men are more athletic, physical, blunt, forceful. At least so the story goes.

When I sought out therapists (I can’t speak for my dad or my bro) there was something these older Italian (and Brooklyn-raised) men seemed to have that I felt I lacked at the time. They embodied the more jagged and edgy aspects of masculinity that had been finely polished from me as I was being groomed to be a Nice Jewish Boy (from Great Neck yet) and I wanted some of what they had. A certain swagger and pride; a sense of entitlement, especially when it came to women, or an ability to just cut through the bullshit. A boldness and a bluntness to compliment my nuanced conceptualizations and sensitivities. A way to balance myself out.

I also wanted a mentor who’d feel like an ally and who’d take my side and have my back in ways my father rarely would. Whatever it was, I wanted it. And for the most part, I’ve benefited greatly.

Especially when it came to relating to women.

Is this because Italian-American males have been more in touch with their aggression and have tended to view women differently? In my life, I’ve known lots of Jewish guys who’ve worshipped women in general, and their wives in particular. But the things I’ve heard come out of the mouths of Italian guys about (their) women often shocked, appalled and fascinated me – not the least because they seemed to have little trouble attracting them. At least so it seemed to me.

Yet, at least in this country, Jewish men have had a reputation for making good husbands: Attentive, loving, good providers. Italian men seem to have more of a reputation for philandering. A Jewish guy cheats one time, and calls his wife to confess while pulling his pants back on. An Italian man cheats on his wife and calls it Tuesday.

Hey — I’m not saying either rep is necessarily deserved, but stereotypes often become so for a reason.

Stereotypically, Jewish women are more strong-willed, are less domestic and dominate their men. Italian men are more revengeful, hot tempered, and hot, and dominate their women.

I myself have attracted many Jewish women in my lifetime. I’ve been slightly less lucky with Italian women, however. The only one I’ve ever had sex with came out a week later as a lesbian.

Maybe it was something I said?

And then there’s the Car Test. In Chazz Palminteri’s “A Bronx Tale”, there’s a scene well known to many men.  Palminteri plays Sonny, a Mafioso who befriends a young man (Calogero) coming of age, and in the scene he’s giving him advice about a new girlfriend.   He says, in essence…

“When you pick her up on the first date, unlock the car and open the door for her. If, by the time you’ve walked around the back of the car to your door, she hasn’t reached over to unlock it, dump her!”

My point is: Could you picture this advice coming from a Jewish guy? I can’t.

These days, the stereotypes I’ve discussed above are mostly rooted in the perceptions of the past. Nowadays Italians, Jews and other such groups are more Americanized and homogenized, and the distinctions between them blur. (Except when it comes to food, which both still love and can talk about for hours).

These days, young men, Italian and otherwise, come to me for counseling. They may not know it, but what they’re getting is the distillation of the Jewish and the Italian New Yorker.  Much like I imagine they get when they seek counseling from my father’s sister’s son, Joe Bavonese. It’s something that runs through the bloodlines of my family…and my town.  And it is no small prize.










4 Comments leave one →
  1. Roy Alexander permalink
    June 4, 2013 1:15 pm

    Charley, you should be doing standup, a sort of combination comedic, therapeutic routine. Roy

  2. Dan W permalink
    June 4, 2013 6:16 pm

    I greatly enjoyed reading this. Interesting and relevant (to me, anyway) cultural observations.

  3. June 7, 2013 3:23 am

    I finally understand why you wanted me as a friend, to provide that same aggressive, rough-edged sheer masculinity.

  4. June 7, 2013 5:49 pm

    As you say, these days we are all heavily assimilated into mainstream American culture, so the stereotypes apply less than they did to our parent’s or grandparent’s generations. In my own case, being raised by Italian American parents, I felt less Italian than they were and sometimes less Italian than I wanted to be. I think the differences between Italians and Jews in New York can be explained in terms of the economic role that each group came to occupy in the 20th century. Italians originally came to the USA as skilled craftsmen and then slightly later as relatively unskilled laborers. They did hard physical labor and manual work. Partly due to the demands of their physical labor, partly due to their peasant roots, and partly due to the conservative character of their brand of Catholicism, Italian Americans did not pursue education as aggressively as Jews, who had a long tradition of Torah scholarship and valued bookish pursuits more. Jews on the other hand originally worked in the garment trade or in small businesses. When higher education opened up to Italians and Jews beginning in the 1930s, more Jews than Italians took advantage of the oppurtunity. It is this difference in occupational and educational experiences that largely explain the differences between the Italian and Jewish personalities. I personally excelled in school and developed a keen appreciation for intellectual work, to the point where I obtained a Ph.D. in philosophy. The result was that I have tended to have closer relationships with Jews than with Italians because Jews tend to be more intellectual than Italians of my generation.

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