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Guestwords: My Italian-American Mensch

Wed, 10/21/2020 - 19:13
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in 2013.
Shinya Suzuki / Creative Commons

My niece Annie asks me what I think of Governor Cuomo’s lucid, bayonet-like attack on Covid-19.

“He’s a mensch,” I say. “The complete opposite of that ignorant zhlub in the White House. Feh!”

“Are you for real?” she asks. “He’s a corporate Democrat. Instead of taxing all the zillionaires, he’s shortchanging public education, cutting Medicaid funds to hospitals, and cheapskating the M.T.A. Yeah, right. Andrew’s about as menschy as a mollusk.”

“And I’m telling you he’s got the gene,” I counter. “He inherited it from Mario.”

“His dad, right?”

“Yep. Governor of New York for 12 years. Young lady, I’ll have you know Mario raised the bar for embracing racial and cultural differences. Bet one of those DNA tests could trace the Cuomo mensch gene all the way back to Campania, Italy.”

The governor’s persona intrigues me. I draw on my love for Italian cinema to explore my fascination with him. Over the years, I have spent many a sunny afternoon in the darkened auditorium of an art cinema engrossed in the work of the Italian Neo-Realists: Vittorio De Sica, Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini. Pathos is the mortar that binds the bricks of their films. The eyes narrow, the brow knits, the face cracks in grief upon witnessing and identifying with the common people in their struggle to overcome tyranny, disaster, hunger, and despair.

Rossellini’s “Rome, Open City” (1946), a film about Italian resistance fighters during the German occupation of Rome in World War II, eerily parallels the sadness, loss, and heartache that both New York and Rome, its sister city, bear in these gloomy times. While a thoughtless, invisible virus replicates itself through the human body, there is yet another mindful, tangible pathogen spreading across America on a search-and-destroy mission to snuff out critical inquiry, academic excellence, discourse, and civic engagement.

Just as Mussolini threw a noose around the neck of the Italian people during the first half of the 20th century and strangled them with fascist notions of blind nationalism, so, too, we have an imbalanced, authoritarian president who seeks to mutate the genes of our sacred democratic ideals with his profane, unabashed disregard for those who sicken and die from Covid-19. Blow the shofar and arrest the germs that have damaged the synapses of the body politic — and the body electric, as the poet Walt Whitman still sings.

In “Open City,” Anna Magnani, as Pina, bolts out of the frame with her visceral performance so that the scene in which she stands up to the oppressor leaves an indelible mark on our collective memory. “Francesco! Francesco!” I hear and see her screaming and running in the streets after her lover is captured, only to be gunned down by the Nazis. In less than a minute, we witness what tragedy, brutality, and anguish look like in a war-torn state of siege. Pina’s face is forever etched in the crossfire between liberty and injustice.

I abandon my soul to Anna in payment for a glimpse into hers. As eternal as the Eternal City itself, my Mamma Roma embodies the ethos of the Italian people. How lucky they are to have been blessed with La Lupa (She-Wolf). This genius actress has unraveled the codes of human complexity for moviegoers past, present, and future.

Italianita is a term that zeroes in on the rich artistic and canonical legacy that Italians everywhere hold dear and precious to them. It also includes their well-known collective traits of warmth, big-heartedness, ebullience, and an emphasis on family. It echoes the term Yiddishkeit, which identifies the deep cultural and theological heritage of Jews around the world. Similarly, the idiom also refers to that schmaltzy, effusive, generous spirit commonly associated with Jewish people.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, millions of Jews and Italians emigrated to the United States, only to suffer from the crimes of xenophobia, racial profiling, bigotry, and murder.  In 1891, 11 Italian-Americans were lynched in New Orleans. In Marietta, Ga., a Jewish-American, Leo Frank, met the same fate in 1915.

Italians and Jews gave up their native dialects, for the most part, in exchange for acceptance into mainstream American culture. Excepting that ugly chapter when Il Duce poisoned some Italian-Americans against Jews with anti-Semitic propaganda, we have largely had an ongoing love affair with one another for over 130 years. Witness the preponderance of intermarriage, especially after World War II. Together, we are haimish, cozy kin, thick as thieves.

When the governor reminds New Yorkers that “we are tough, we are smart, we are united,” I am most struck by his last statement, “and we are loving.” These final words reveal Andrew Cuomo’s menschheit and Italianita. Underneath that pugnacious facade lies a man who has emoted and invoked the power of caritas (caring) and rachmones (compassion) in these bitter and solemn times.

While we grumble over his shortcomings in not being able to bestow prosperity and health upon 19 million New Yorkers, especially for people of color, there is recompense in knowing that his Italianita leadership style has saved a great many of our lives.


Lisa Flanzraich studies Italian-American culture at the John D. Calandra Institute at Queens College and is enrolled in the M.F.A. program in creative writing at Stony Brook Southampton. She says she has had “the bittersweet pleasure of living in Montauk when it was as wild as its blueberries and as hypnotic as its ocean waves.”


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