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An ongoing discussion about conservatism in New Jersey.
Farewell, Juan Luis Pedro Philippo DeHuevos Epstein
Peter C. Hansen  (January 26, 2012, 8:54 pm)

Somehow, when I saw the grizzled mane and sunglasses on the agency photo of Robert Hegyes, I knew what I was about to read next. And so it was: "The actor died of a heart attack at his New Jersey home on Thursday." From his unmistakable look, and Eastern European name, I couldn't imagine that guy living anywhere else. What I also couldn't imagine was just how Jersey he was.

A former Sweathog, famous for playing a Puerto Rican Jew on Welcome Back Kotter, Hegyes could easily stand for Mr. New Jersey. He was a Hungarian-Italian combo, born in Perth Amboy and raised in Metuchen. He went to, and later taught at, Glassboro State (now Rowan University). He was even, so the Wikipedia entry says, a cousin of Jon Bon Jovi. (I will have to check with my brother-in-law on that one, as he is also related to the Bon Jovi clan. It's quite a large group.)

Mr. Hegyes had a pretty distinguished career, in a low-key Jersey kind of way, as a performer and teacher. If you aren't from Jersey, it's probably hard to get just how ridiculously familiar he seems. Or how utterly normal a Hungarian-Italian blend is. Or for that matter how unexceptional a Puerto Rican Jew would be. In a state where icon-doting Ukrainians can live next to Italians, blacks, Chinese, Indians and white mongrels (that last one would be me), anything is possible.

New Jersey lives multiculturalism the way American institutions (and universities in particular) just don't get. It's why "multicultural" gestures and rules seem so weird and offensive to most Jerseyans. We've been living together for a century, scrapping and teasing and calling each other ethnic names – and then going in to play D&D and eat dinner. We might have goulash, matzoh ball soup, sambar or lasagna. Maybe it's a special occasion, and it's a Central Jersey buffet complete with sausage and peppers next to the kielbasa and sauerkraut. Or maybe it's a picnic with a grill and clams from the Shore. On the way home, we drive past old Reformed churches and new Hindu temples. The only thing we don't tolerate is some outsider lecturing us on how to behave, or what to say, or how to treat the "Other" respectfully. The "Other" is the guy you play laser-tag with in Johnson's Park at night. And he has a cute sister.

So here's to you, Robert "Juan Luis Pedro Philippo DeHuevos Epstein" Hegyes! In your honor, we salute your YouTubed debut on Welcome Back Kotter, "Gabe's First Day."

Oh, and by the way, a couple days ago Gov. Christie nominated a 61 year-old, gay black Republican, one Mr. Harris, for the NJ Supreme Court. Mr. Harris stood next to the Guv with his partner of 30 years while Gov. Christie said he hadn't changed in his opposition to gay marriage. Mr. Harris's co-nominee, Mr. Kwon, is a 44 year-old Korean immigrant, political independent and former editor of the Rutgers Law Review. It all sounds pretty Jersey normal to me. Maybe they all celebrated afterwards with a good curry. Or, it being Trenton, some pork roll sandwiches. Mmmm, pork roll ...