RIP Dennis Farina, aka Cousin Avi

To most people, Dennis Farina, who died Monday at age 69, may be best remembered as a tough-talking Chicago cop (which he actually was, for 18 years, before becoming an actor) or as a tough-talking New York City police detective, which he ably played for two seasons as Joe Fontana on “Law & Order.”

But I think of Cousin Avi, the foul-mouthed, kipah-wearing Jew that Farina played in “Snatch,” the delightful British comedy crime movie (2000) directed by Guy Ritchie. The film, which opens with Brad Pitt playing a jewelery thief disguised as a hasidic Jew, showcased quintessential Farina. Here’s a taste:


The four Chassidic Jews pass through security with only a minor delay. They take an elevator to an upper floor.

They walk down a hallway. They enter a diamond merchant’s workshop.They pull guns from under their coats and threaten to blow people’s heads off if they don t hand over a huge 84-carat diamond.

Welcome to “Snatch.”

The latest movie from British writer-director Guy Ritchie – known both for his film “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and for being the father of Madonna’s newborn son, Rocco – “Snatch” is the story of the aftermath of that heist.

It’s filled with Jewish characters. Or is it? After the raid, the “Chassids” strip off their beards and coats to reveal that one of them is Benicio Del Toro, an actor in the mold of a young John Travolta who has played supporting roles in “The Usual Suspects” and “Basquiat.”

The hood he’s supposed to deliver the diamond to, “Doug the Head,” is described as “not being Jewish but pretending to be.”

Doug the Head’s American cousin, Avi, wears a black kippah and sprinkles his speech with Yiddish, but he’s played by the Italian American actor Dennis Farina.

Ritchie, whose comic gangster films put him firmly in the tradition of director Quentin Tarantino, best known for “Pulp Fiction,” and 1960s British caper comedies like “The Italian Job,” researched “Snatch” himself.

Joel Grunberger, a Jewish jeweler who works in London’s Hatton Garden diamond district, was called in to advise Ritchie about Jews and diamonds.

“Guy wanted authenticity,” Grunberger said. “I tried to infuse the Jewish characters with Yiddishisms and phrases that are used in the diamond industry,” he added.

“Jewishness is not a running theme of the film. It’s incidental, just a vehicle to move the film onwards,” Grunberger said.

“It’s not a haimishe version of what Jews are supposed to be like,” he concluded.

“Snatch” is not the only recent British film to feature Jewish characters.

“Solomon and Gaenor,” a sort of Welsh-Jewish “Romeo and Juliet,” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film of 1999. And Sandra Goldbacher’s 1998 film “The Governess” tempted British actress Minnie Driver to return from L.A. to make her first movie in England in three years.Unlike in American cinema, where Jewish characters have been ubiquitous for generations, British movies have traditionally not featured Jews.

“They’ve been invisible in British films,” said Helen Jacobus, a writer on arts and culture for the London-based Jewish Chronicle newspaper.

Judy Ironside, director of the Brighton Jewish Film Festival, said that recently there had been a clear increase in the number of Jewish characters in British films.

“It feels like there’s a much wider diversity of Jewish images than even five to 10 years ago” because British Jews are more confident today than their parents were, she said.

“The younger generation doesn’t have the fear of being recognized” as Jews, she added. “They know their peers will be interested rather than suspicious or critical.”