“The Jewish-Italian connection is so central to the Mafia legend that one senses it must be operating on a kind of meta-level…”
In talking about the Mob, we airily use words like “mythological,” but there’s a sense in which the allegorical, rather than the strictly mythological, level of meaning is what makes the Mob irresistible. The Jewish-Italian connection is so central to the Mafia legend that one senses it must be operating on a kind of meta-level, where a larger conversation about Jews and Italians in American culture can get dramatized. We can readily convince ourselves that what might or might not be true about the Mob in New York—that the Italians have the passion and the Jews the production savvy—is true about movies in Hollywood, and we use the New York myth to heighten our understanding of the wider world.
It is certainly true of the masterpieces of the modern gangster movie—“The Godfather” and “Once Upon a Time in America” and “Goodfellas”—that the directors are all Italian while the producers are all Jewish, as if the New York Mob had replicated its ethnic synthesis in Hollywood. We use gangster mythology not just to tell stories about the mafiosi but to tell stories about ourselves. We want the Jewish-Italian axis to be true of the streets because it gives a dramatic form to the corresponding, if much less epic, reality of our entertainments.
Adam Gopnik, “Original Gangsters”, The New Yorker (7 December 2020), 68.