IT took years for Lisa Novick Goldberg to sit down and watch the award-winning television Mafia drama The Sopranos.
Viewing the groundbreaking Mob series may not seem a big deal for most, but for Lisa it was part of her therapy.
Due to being raised by a man intrinsically linked to the Mafia, immersing herself in such dramas as The Sopranos was a huge step for her.
More than that, Lisa strongly identified with the protagonist Tony Soprano’s relationship with Livia, his bitter, pessimistic and narcissistic mother.
The 61-year-old has written about her relationship with both her parents, particularly her father, Herbert Novick, in the shadow of the Mob in The Apple and The Shady Tree: The Mafia, My Family and Me (O’Possum Press).
“I watched The Sopranos for the first time two years ago — I could not handle it when it was first shown, or anything related to it, because it would set off a panic attack,” Lisa, who has been diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder, told me from her home in Miami.
“I don’t know anything about murders or anything like that, but it portrayed the family dynamic very accurately, especially the relationship between Tony Soprano and his daughter, Meadow.
“My mother would say films Goodfellas and Casino were the closest to reality, but from what I could see, when it comes to family relationships, it was definitely The Sopranos.”
There were several reasons behind her decision to pen The Apple and The Shady Tree.
Lisa, who is married to Stan Blake, said: “Several people told me I should write down my memories, either as a screenplay or a book.
“I had moved to Miami from New York in 2013 but, less then a year later, my husband, who is a celebrated circuit court judge, was diagnosed with cancer.
“I knew that our social life was going to take a dive, so I would have time to sit down and write.
“I started to write vignettes and gave them to people I knew, who said they were good.
“Everyone has asked me if it was cathartic writing it all down, but it wasn’t — it excavated and stirred up a lot of anxiety, but I am glad I wrote it because it is a good story.
“I worked with my therapist on whether or not I should write it and she helped me through the process.
“It was good to see in writing what has transpired in my life.”
Herbert became known as ‘Johnny’ by his Italian friends, having been recruited by Albert Anastasia, the founder and boss of Murder, Inc, which was made up of Italian and Jewish mobsters.
Lisa’s father became the money man for the Genovese crime family and among his close friends were Venero ‘Benny Eggs’ Mangano, the family’s underboss, and Frank ‘Funzi’ Tieri, who was its front boss.
Born in Brooklyn and Long Island, Lisa’s memories of her early years are not happy ones.
Her parents fought all the time, while her mother Janet’s depression and anxiety only exacerbated matters.
Lisa, 61, recalled: “My relationship with my parents was a study in codependency.
“My mother struggled with severe depression and anxiety that was mostly left untreated.
“My father, although he lived at home with us, was largely absent from our daily activities and he compensated for this by playing the ‘good parent’ to my mother’s ‘bad parent’.
“My sister and I suffered greatly as pawns in their battles.
“When my father was angry at my mother and I sided with my mother, he’d say, about me, ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’, which is where the title of the book comes from.
“My mother would say the same thing to me if I sided with my father, which I frequently did because I was a daddy’s girl.
“I realised that he wasn’t necessarily the ‘good parent’ — I made him that because he wasn’t home as much, while my mother was the disciplinarian.
“I fell for a lot of his stuff, which was equally as damaging. There was a lot of fighting and screaming.
“I kept my sister deliberately anonymous in the book, as she, too, has inherited mental health issues. She and my mother did not get on from the day she was born.”
Lisa received a bachelor’s degree from Vassar College and a masters in international affairs from the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs.
It was in December, 1988, when she was working as a regional director for the Israel Tennis Centres, that her world was shaken.
Two FBI agents entered her office, handed her a subpoena, and told her she was to appear as a witness before a grand jury in Brooklyn.
Lisa was also informed that the FBI had wiretapped the phones at her parents’ house as part of an investigation into ‘Benny Eggs’ Mangano.
Lisa, who had recently married her first husband, Mark, was being asked to testify about a few of her father’s businesses that listed her as a corporate officer.
Both her parents were unsympathetic about their daughter’s intense worrying.
The whole situation resulted in her having a nervous breakdown, as well as subsequent Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“It was a culmination of anxiety, worrying about my father,” Lisa said. “A breakdown is not a word I regularly use, but, putting all the components together, I probably did have one.
“I didn’t even know what a grand jury was, so my father hired me a criminal attorney.
“It was holiday time and Mark and I had just moved into a new home, so while all our friends were celebrating, I was going through this.
“I was told that I would only have to testify for around 20 minutes, but it turned into two-and-a-half hours.
“When I walked out, I was never the same person again.”
Unusually, unlike most Jewish American families of that era, when assimilation was rarer than it is today, Lisa’s parents eschewed Judaism.
“I remember being six or seven and walking with my grandma through Crown Heights, and seeing all the Lubavitchers,” she said.
“I thought, ‘if they are Jewish and I am Jewish, why am I not like them?’.
“We didn’t do Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Pesach or Chanukah and, when most of the kids were off school for those festivals, I was in class, with the small number of children who were not Jewish.
“I even went to the rebbetzen’s Sunday school because I wanted to learn, but I had to stop going as my parents would not pay the tuition fees.
“I once asked my grandma about why we did nothing Jewish at home and she said that they didn’t want any part of it, that the family had left religion behind in Russia.
“Because of my mother’s mental illness, she did not have any hobbies or friends — she couldn’t form attachments, let alone do religion, so I fell through the cracks.”
In later years, however, she embraced her Judaism and became involved in several Jewish and Zionist organisations.
And, when she was in her 40s, Lisa returned to Crown Heights to learn about the people she had been so curious about 35 years earlier.
When it comes to the Mafia, the ‘business’ has been endlessly glamourised by the film industry, with The Godfather trilogy and Goodfellas, for example, becoming huge hits.
Then there was The Sopranos, which is rated by some critics as the greatest TV drama of all time.
In those films and series, in particular, there are Jewish characters, such as Hyman Roth and Herman ‘Hesh’ Rabkin, who inhabit the Mafia world.
It was the same with ‘Johnny’ Novick, although he could never become a ‘made man’ as he was not ethnically Italian.
“My father had the qualities that the Italians prized — he was a big strong guy, who was known as being very loyal and he was not intimidated by anyone,” Lisa added.
“He had no formal schooling, but he was fabulous with numbers, which is why he became the money man for the Genovese family.”
Unlike the older generation, the generation her father and his associates belonged to did not want their children to follow in their footsteps.
Like Lisa, many of them went on to receive a university education.
There was a worry, however, about Mob retaliation when it came to her book.
She explained: “The one thing I did not want with the book was for it to become another source of anxiety for me, so I chose the words very carefully.
“Most of the people mentioned in it are now dead, with a few in prison.
“I was conscious that these people have children and grandchildren, so I did not want to throw anyone under a bus.
“The anecdotes are mild and there is nothing about these guys in the book that you cannot find on the internet.
“I also contacted the FBI for information they had about my father, under the Freedom of Information act.
“The FBI had 29,000 references on him, but what they sent me was redacted, so it was not much use.
“I needed to set myself free by writing the book and connecting the dots.
“It has been successful at answering some questions, like why did we go to Curaçao (a Dutch Caribbean island) so many times in the 1970s when we never went anywhere else and why did we always go to one particular hotel in Las Vegas.
Lisa’s father died in 2010, while her mother lives close by in Miami in an assisted living facility.
The pair still do not have an easy relationship.
Lisa continued: “I would say she has borderline personality disorder because she cannot control her emotions.
“It is a destructive illness, where the person cannot take responsibility for their actions.
“When my father died, I became my mother’s husband, daughter, friend, psychiatrist and whipping boy.
“I make sure she has the best care, and I visit and talk to her every day, but she is still capable of hurting me.
“She wanted nothing to do with the book, but, on a rare occasion she was in a good mood, she gave up some excellent stories.”
Lisa is a mother herself, to daughter Maggie, who lives in Texas.
Sadly, she also suffers from depression and anxiety.
But, unlike Lisa’s parents, she encouraged Maggie to attend therapy and take medication. Today, according to Lisa, she is a “successful person”.
“When Maggie finished reading the book, it was a revelation to her because she learned everything about my background and her grandparents,” Lisa said.
“The tears were pouring out from the realisation and the understanding where she comes from, and her issues with mental illness.
“There is something I want to leave with readers — that there is a familial love which is strong and overcomes a lot of disappointments and fears in our lives.
“We also cannot escape our past — a person needs to confront it, otherwise it will haunt and torture them.”
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