IT’S CURIOUS how a chance event, in this case the death of an actor long removed from pop culture’s attention-deficit stage, initiates a chain of observations. While yet in bed I was informed today of the death of Robert Hegyes, made famous by the ’70s television show Welcome Back Kotter. Reflecting on that program, as well as on its circumstances and legacies, I found myself adrift among flotsam which I’m obliged to share.
My journey began with an obituary of Hegyes reflecting on the theme of the “tough Jew.” Reading this article I was reminded of a time, I am sorry to report, when I thought there was such a thing as a “New York Jew” and that this category of person was fairly represented and summarized in the films of Woody Allen. This phase of my life fortunately but also awkwardly came to an end when I spoke the words New York Jew to a family friend who happened to be Jewish and from New York. What is a New York Jew? he dryly asked me. Almost thirty-five years later, I recall with picture-perfect clarity where we were when he asked me this question — delivered free of sarcasm and presumably in expectation of an answer — and how effectively it exposed to me my crass ignorance and stupidity.
The above scene took place in the home of my Italian uncle, the husband of my maternal Mohawk aunt. I mention this by way of transition to the common and long-standing practice in Hollywood to press Italians into the role of the Indian. For decades, the odds were quite good that a Mohawk character (or Cree or Cherokee, or whatever) would be represented on-screen by a Tuscany- or Sicilian-extracted Jersey accountant, or something along roughly comparable lines. This ought to have served me sufficient warning, and yet there you have it. At least until my mid-teens I thought you could learn something about the world from television and film, simpleton that I was.
It happened however that when the time came to portray the Jewish Puerto Rican character Juan Epstein, a Hungarian-Italian was pressed into the role. The surname Hegyes, pronounced roughly as Hey-gish, is a word meaning something like “spiky” and has been applied both to specific towns as well as to several of Hungary’s mountainous regions. (A Jewish community existed from the 1850s onward at Kunhegyes, Hungary, subject to persecutions and the recurring policies of anti-Semitism.) The character Epstein was itself consciously modeled on the example of Chico Marx, Leonard Marx’s psuedo-Italian persona redacted from common vaudeville-schtick ethnic stereotypes. The business of stereotyped ethnic characters is as old as public performance itself, and was familiar to and much indulged by the audiences — both high and lowbrow — of William Shakespeare.
Welcome Back Kotter indulged but did not much challenge the prevailing ethnic stereotypes, which is perhaps unremarkable for a program of its time. Not only ethnic stereotypes, but class-based tropes were given free range. At present I am re-reading Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, which reminds us that as late as 1953 a Jew and an American could be, and were, considered discrete categories of persons. Hegyes — who both grew up and died in the predominantly “white” Middlesex County borough of Metuchen, New Jersey — survived into, but by no means originated in, our new era of supposed post-racial consciousness. This, above all else, was uppermost in mind when I went back to those vaudevillian days of the Sweathogs.