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The Jewish Sherlock Holmes

The world’s most famous detective, returning to TV tonight, is the embodiment of the non-Jewish Jew

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Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes on Elementary. (Nino Muñoz/CBS)

Elementary, the new CBS series premiering tonight, follows a cantankerous and excessively brilliant detective who solves crimes by applying his powers of observation and deduction. His name is Sherlock Holmes, and he lives in New York.

To some, tearing the detective away from his London residence is akin to having John Wayne spur his horse down Madison Avenue—not only an absurdity but a vulgarity as well (to say nothing about casting Lucy Liu as Holmes’ substance-abuse counselor, one Dr. Watson). But while the new show will rise or fall on its own merit, its radical premise—the revamping of pop culture’s most iconic detective—allows us an opportunity to reconsider Holmes. If we do, we may just discover a yarmulke peeping from underneath the famed deerstalker.

This, on the surface, is a ridiculous statement, one that smacks of the cheapest kind of chauvinism. Not only did Arthur Conan Doyle make no reference that identifies his creation as Jewish, but Holmes—and, by extension, his author—is not above the occasional stroke of anti-Semitism.

“The same afternoon,” writes Conan Doyle in “A Study in Scarlet,” brought “a grey-headed, seedy visitor, looking like a Jew pedlar.” A notch above the author’s Jewish peddlers are his Jewish money-lenders: “He is mad keen upon winning the Derby,” Holmes informs Watson in “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place,” speaking of a proper aristocrat. “He is in the hands of the Jews, and may at any moment be sold up and his racing stables seized by his creditors.” And while it is common to assume that Irene Adler—who in many recent adaptations, although not in Conan Doyle’s original stories, is portrayed as Holmes’ love interest—is Jewish, no specific mention of her faith is ever made. Most likely, Adler, according to Conan Doyle enthusiasts, was based on Lola Montez, an Irish dancer and courtesan. Professor Moriarty, on the other hand, Holmes’ diabolical nemesis, was probably inspired by Adam Worth, born Werth, who, like Moriarty, was nicknamed the Napoleon of crime and who honed his thieving skills in New York before sailing across the pond and expanding his enterprise continentally.

But like all things Holmes, a second look reveals greater intricacies. Holmes is the solitary type, immersed in thought, at home in his mind. “I was never a very sociable fellow, Watson,” he tells his friend at one point, “always rather fond of moping in my rooms and working out my own little methods of thought.” These methods of thought, as we know all too well, depend on the obsessively attentive study of the most minute details. To best understand the world, Holmes believes, aim not for one grand, unifying theory but for a handful of small and incontrovertible facts.

Consider the detective in action in the case of “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box.” When said box arrives at the doorstep of Miss Susan Cushing, containing two severed human ears packed in coarse salt, the hapless Inspector Lestrade is quick to announce that he has solved the case. Cushing, goes his assertion, runs a boarding school and recently evicted three young tenants for their unruly behavior. One of the tenants was from Belfast, which is where the package originated from, and all three were medical students, which would explain their access to dismembered body parts. Enter Holmes: A medical student, he argues, would have used something other than plain salt to preserve severed ears and would have cut off the organs in question carefully, using a scalpel, rather than chopping them off with a knife. The handwriting on the envelope, Holmes continues, suggests someone without much education, and the package was tied in a complicated knot, the kind only sailors use. It doesn’t take long to find the real culprit.

If you hesitate to call this kind of thinking Talmudic, consider the following story from Tractate Sanhedrin, 104a. It might as well have emanated from 221B Baker Street:

Our Rabbis taught: It once happened that two men [Jews] were taken captive on Mount Carmel, and their captor was walking behind them. One of them said to the other, ‘The camel walking in front of us is blind in one eye, and is laden with two barrels, one of wine, and the other of oil, and of the two men leading it, one is a Jew, and the other a heathen.’

Their captor said to them, ‘Ye stiff-necked people, whence do ye know this?’ They replied, ‘Because the camel is eating of the herbs before it only on the side where it can see, but not on the other, where it cannot see. It is laden with two barrels, one of wine and the other of oil: because wine drips and is absorbed [into the earth], whilst oil drips and rests [on the surface]. And of the two men leading it, one is a Jew, and the other a heathen: because a heathen obeys the call of Nature in the roadway, whilst a Jew turns aside.’

He hastened after them and found that it was as they had said.

If Sherlock Holmes wanted a concise term for his little methods of thought, he might have referred to them as pilpul, the method of studying a text, particularly the Talmud, by engaging with its every morsel of meaning.

Still, how to reconcile Holmes’ mind—the likes of which have been cultivated in yeshivas for centuries—with the rest of his person, a bohemian freak who keeps his tobacco in his slipper and shoots at the walls for pleasure? One way would be to see him as, to borrow a phrase from Isaac Deutscher, a non-Jewish Jew. In his masterpiece, The Jewish Century, historian Yuri Slezkine argues that such Jews—think Deutscher himself, or, more notably, Freud and Marx—were the paragons of modernity, representing a radical new way of being in the world that ushered in the age of cosmopolitan globalism. This, Slezkine argued, was because humanity, roughly speaking, comes in two shades: The Apollonians, who are rural folk who till the soil and live off the land, and the Mercurians, who do not. The latter, Slezkine wrote, are “urban, mobile, literate, articulate, intellectually intricate, physically fastidious, and occupationally flexible.” They are, in other words, Jewish. Put differently, they are Sherlock Holmes. They don’t announce their ethnic and religious identity; they simply embody it.

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To summarize, you are proposing that Doyle used known negative Jewish stereotypes as a foil while using unknown positive attributes as a plot device.

Sounds reasonable.

Son_of_J says:

How is it that this guy keeps getting paid to write articles? They are all drivel.

perry collins says:

The “myth” of holmes, primitive in origin, is distinguished from the accounts of it’s present manifestation, fitting & proper for the thing to remain the lovely story it shall always be, jewish or otherwise….

A. David Wunsch says:

It’s obvious that, perhaps subconsciously,Doyle has created a Jew in his detective. The name derives from the most famous Jew in English literature — Shylock, of course.
The love of Holmes’s life Irene Adler is a Yid. Recall that in A Scandal in Bohemia Holmes has inexplicably filed her dossier next to that of a rabbi.

Holmes plays the violin– a famously Jewish instrument–and uses cocaine like his coreligionist (see Freud, S). He’s cerebral and has a prominent nose– all stereo-typically Jewish.

Doyle turned against his Roman Catholic upbringing and so it’s plausible he might have created a hero derived from a group regarded, in his age, as Christ killers.

Beatrix17 says:

Why are they updating Sherlock Holmes? The whole
ambiance depended on his being part of the Victorian Era with Hansom
cabs and eerie fog. And very English

liel_leibovitz says:

Elementary, my dear Son_of_J: it’s because of devoted individuals like you who keep reading my stories and commenting on them.
Many thanks for your support,
Liel.

Natan79 says:

Because Liel Leibovitz is on the journal board. There he hires similar imbeciles: Marc Tracy, Anna Breslow.

I’ve heard it said that the World looks for a sane man, Sherlock Holmes is appearently such a person. To bad he is only fictional- who knew? And who knew the the stereotypical Jewish man making a living could be anti-Semitic ? I had an Uncle who would go into markets that had fixed prices and was able to ware done the managers of the stores to get an extra discount. Is this a bad thing? Perspective is the key. So don’t be “hating”, I love these articles, they demonstrate that we are all a part of a group of equally insane characters, (so we naturally a have a common bond).

You are reaching a little far, but then you always do.

brynababy says:

this article is ridiculous. I stopped reading it half-way through.

It can be shown that Moriarty was based on Nietzsche; hence the trip to Switzerland. As for Irene, well, Ein Adler ist beinahe schon ein Geyer. Doyle hated Nietzsche’s attacks on conventional morality. Doyle was an Irishman who had dumped Catholicism and stood for Parliament as a Unionist MP. so he gave Moriarty is a Fenian name..Nietzsche was strongly opposed to both anti-semitism and to German nationalism, so where does that leave his enemy Sherlock Holmes.

I agree with Beatrix17. Holmes is quintessentially English. He’s the sort of upper class Englishmen whom others of his ilke aren’t always happy about having in their clubs. He’s too ostentatiously clever and probably not too interested in cricket. As to his relationship to non-Jewish Jews, I do recall a rather entertaining 1970s movie, in which he became friends with young Dr Freud after the latter cured him of drug dependency. And, of course, Irene Adler was Jewish, as were many of the Grandes Cocottes of her era.

Cia Sautter says:

I like this article! I am disturbed that the creators of the BBC Sherlock didn’t consider the Jewish view when they recreated Irene Adler to be a horrible person. I wrote several little essays about the problems of not considering the implications of her Jewishness, and the resulting double-misogyny on my blog (http://cialuna.blogspot.com-see older posts). Any modernization of the Holmes studies needs to consider Conan Doyle ‘s subtle commentaries against religious and gender discrimination, which were very forward thinking for the time. All supposedly anti-semitism must be viewed in consideration of context and overall message to the reader. In the actual Scandal in Bohemia, Adler is a woman with a Jewish last name. Rather than commit a crime, she outsmarts Holmes and manages to escape political intrigue. We are not told this as a reader, but left to think through the issues for ourselves. The BBC Sherlock didn’t manage to update this story well, but there was subtle commentary (and humor). Unfortunately Elementary fails to capture this sort of depth.

Tim Symonds says:

I don’t know whether Holmes was religious or not but in my latest sherlock titled Sherlock Holmes And The Mystery of Einstein’s Daughter he is put through a testing time trying to maintain his famous disguise as a Nonconformist clergyman:

Excerpt from Chapter 111:

The sound of people engaged in fierce argument burst in on us. Two men locked in each other’s clasp fell through the door, the one an elderly cleric, the other a member of the bank’s staff trying to prevent his entry. High-pitched tones emanated from the priest as he pushed himself into the room past the employee. Under a wrap-rascal he wore baggy trousers and white tie, topped by a broad black hat, the exact dress of the Nonconformist clergyman I described in A Scandal In Bohemia. He demanded to speak to the bank manager come what may, insisting he needed to open a safe deposit box on the instant, ‘poor as a church mouse as those of my calling may be’.
With a triumphant flourish at having gained entry, the clergyman dropped a heavy pouch on the manager’s desk. It was the very pouch of gold coins given to us by the Prince Regnant of Bulgaria five years before.
‘I am sure Dr. Watson will not mind if we are joined by a clergyman,’ he expostulated. ‘I myself am a son of the manse, with a strict Presbyterian upbringing.’ ‘Not at all,’ I responded amiably. ‘The clergyman is most welcome.’
My Heavens, I thought. Holmes has gone a step too far. He will be found out within a matter of minutes. I turned to the bank manager.
‘You say you are a son of the manse?’ I enquired.
‘I am,’ he replied. ‘Every day my aged father proclaims the sovereignty of God, the authority of the Scriptures, and the necessity of grace through faith in Christ.’
‘Then I am sure our clergyman friend here would enjoy sharing his knowledge of the Sacred Book. A short test, perhaps?’

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The Jewish Sherlock Holmes

The world’s most famous detective, returning to TV tonight, is the embodiment of the non-Jewish Jew

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