Honoring 'Welcome Back, Kotter's' Robert Hegyes for being one of TV's first 'Tough Jews'

Robert Hegyes as Juan Epstein in 1976

As a young critic, I liked the ABC sitcom "Welcome Back, Kotter." But I had a special spot in my heart for Juan Epstein, the character played with such energy and adventure by Robert Hegyes.

I didn't really understand my affection for Hegyes and Epstein, though, until 2000 when I wrote "The Jews of Prime Time," a study of Jewish identity on network TV. (It's really a study in self-censorship by the Jewish founders and their lieutenants.)

News of the actor's death at age 60 Thursday from a heart attack sent me back to the book, and this passage is the best appreciation and context I can offer for the TV career of Hegyes. I really do mourn his passing and how little appreciated his character was in the larger scope of Jewish characters and identity in American living rooms via TV.

"Welcome Back Kotter" falls into the same kind of Jew-not-a-Jew/crypto-Jew never-never land for its leading man, Gabe Kotter, a high school teacher in Brooklyn. Again, some viewers might assume Kotter is Jewish, because the person who played him, comedian Gabriel Kaplan, is Jewish.

But you will find no evidence in the series to clearly support that, which is rather astonishing in and of itself. There is, however, one clearly identified Jewish character in the series: Juan Epstein (Robert Hegyes), a supporting player.

In the pilot, Vinnie Barbarino (John Travolta) is introducing each of the remedial students known as "sweat hogs" to their new teacher, Kotter, when he says, "That is Epstein, the toughest kid in the school. He was voted most likely to take a life."

"Your mother's Puerto Rican?" Kotter asks in response to the introduction.

"No, my father," Epstein says. "My mother's a Bibberman."

"I didn't know there were Epsteins in Puerto Rico," Kotter says.

"Oh, there weren't until the winter of '38," Epstein says, rising to his feet, "when a boat carrying a shivering Lou Epstein from Odessa to the Bronx stopped in San Juan. 'Oy,' my grandfather says, 'look at the palm trees. Feel the heat. Look at the beach. Who needs Miami?' From that point on, there were Epsteins in San Juan."

"That's very interesting, Epstein," Kotter says. "What's your favorite subject?

"Assault," Epstein replies.

Though a comic version of it, this is prime-time network television's first recurring version of what would come to be know as the Tough Jew. A few years later in 1981, we would see another version of it in another supporting player, detective Mick Belker (Bruce Weitz) in the gritty police drama, "Hill Street Blues."

The Tough Jew -- as minor a movement as it might be in the symphony of Jewish prime-time identity -- is important to note because it plays against the dominant pattern of neurotic, weak, timid, or even effeminate depictions of Jewish men on television.

In fact, part of the underpinning for the humor in the construction of Epstein is the very notion of a Jew who is tough, though the idea here is that it comes from his Puerto Rican ancestry. And the humor in that regard relies on another ethnic stereotype, that of Puerto Ricans as violent, part of an uncontrollable, volatile, dangerous, Latino element in American urban life...

Hey, if you want enlighted ethnic depictions, don't go looking to 1970s network sitcoms. But Hegyes took this TV creation and made it into a character viewers came to know, care about and, in some cases, even fondly remember.

(The book, "The Jews of Prime Time," is a 2003 publication of the University Press of New England/Brandeis University Press. It is part of the Brandeis Series in American Jewish History, Culture, and Life.)

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