When Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died last month, much was made in the media about his longtime friendship with fellow Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. While the two oldest justices on the court occupied opposite ends of the political spectrum, they surprised many by being, as Derrick Wang’s new opera, “Scalia/Ginsburg,” has them sing, “best buddies.”
Is there a natural affinity between Jews and Italians? As newcomers, both groups were outsiders to Protestant American society because of their religions. And both groups are still frequently lumped together in terms of their physical appearance, close families, domineering mothers and a near-obsession with feasting on fatty food.
Numerous studies have found genetic similarities between Ashkenazic Jews and Italians. An oft-cited 2000 study by Harry Ostrer and Michael Hammer, et al., challenged the prevailing consensus that Ashkenazic Jews are descended from the pagan population of ancient Khazaria in the Caucasus (the leadership of which converted to Judaism during the eighth century C.E.). Ostrer and Hammer contended that most Ashkenazic Jews can trace their origins through the male line to 20,000 Jews who emigrated from Italy to Eastern Europe during the first millennium. So of all Europeans, non-Jewish Italians in Italy are the most genetically similar to Jews.
Just 500 years ago, according to Rabbi Barbara Aiello, an American-born rabbi who is the only female Jewish spiritual leader in Italy, up to half of Sicilians and Calabrians were Jewish.
With such deeply shared roots, there is little wonder that many American Jews are married to Italians; the children of such unions often jokingly call themselves “pizza bagels.” As Suzanne Koven, a primary care doctor and writer in Boston, told Interfaithfamily.com, her Italian husband’s grandparents “spoke southern Italian dialect, drank anisette and listened to Caruso” while her own grandparents “spoke Yiddish-flavored English, drank Manischewitz and loved Uncle Milty.” At the age of 4, Koven recalled, her son announced that he was “half Jewish, half Italian, and half American.”
Solo performer Steve Solomon has made a career of doing shows about his own mixed Jewish-Italian heritage, in which he switches seamlessly between the two ethnic accents. One of his funniest bits, which is in “My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish and I’m in Therapy,” is when he recalls his Jewish grandmother trying to get his mother to keep kosher. “So if I have an egg in one hand and a piece of cheese in the other hand,” his mother asked, “it’s kosher until the chick hatches?”
Comedian Sebastian Maniscalco, who is married to a Jewish woman, suggests that Jews and Italians are part of “the same corporation, different divisions.” He complains about going to his first seder at his in-laws’ house. When he finds out that the family will read the Haggadah for two hours before having dinner, he protests that he needs to have bread within 15 seconds of sitting down. His suggestion: “Have the Italians cater the Passover dinner. I could read for a couple of hours with some meatballs on the counter.”
Jewish and Italian New Yorkers have often lived in close proximity to one another, beginning in Lower Manhattan and then again in the outer boroughs. As Ray Romano from “Everybody Loves Raymond” recalls in his 1999 album, “Live at Carnegie Hall,” about growing up in Forest Hills, Queens, he had “great Jewish friends.” He just “couldn’t compete” with them when it came not to sports, but to business, when they would keep their lemonade stands open 24 hours a day, offer Lotto tickets, and hire Korean kids to work behind the counter so they could stay home.
In his riveting 1998 book, “Tough Jews” (Vintage), Rich Cohen tells the history of colorful Jewish gangsters like Arnold Rothstein, Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, who dominated New York’s crime scene in the first few decades of the 20th century. By the 1930s, Italian gangsters were coming to the fore, and they often collaborated with Jews. When Lucky Luciano was deported to Italy, he missed Jewish food terribly. According to John Cusack, then head of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Bureau of Narcotics in Rome, and whom Cohen interviewed, corned beef, pastrami and rye bread were Luciano’s favorites. Just thinking about them “made his mouth water.”
A popular hangout for Italians well into the 20th century was the Hy Tulip, a kosher deli in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. A group of Italian gangsters once came in with a man who was weeping. They made him sit in a corner booth without any food while one mafioso stood guarding the kitchen and another blocked the front door. Meanwhile, the don and his henchmen occupied the family table in the back of the deli, blissfully eating sandwiches and deciding the man’s fate in what was called a “kangaroo court.”
The man was never seen in the restaurant again.
Ted Merwin teaches religion at Dickinson College. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the National Jewish Book Award-winning “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli.”