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My Jewish Characters

A writer considers the fictions of religious identity—in life and on the page

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A few years ago, I was at BookExpo America, signing copies of a short-story collection I wrote titled What He’s Poised To Do, and a pleasant-looking woman came to the front of the line to ask me this question: “Are your characters Jewish?” She explained that she was with a Jewish book organization and that they had authors in to discuss their books, providing there was Jewish content. I thought about it. My answer was, finally, “No.” But I think I was wrong.

There is a famous author, not Jewish, who was asked how many of her fictional characters were in fact her in some real autobiographical sense. She said all of them. It’s an old saw, but I never thought it cut especially well. By that standard, all of my characters would be me, which would mean that all of them would be, in some sense, Jewish. I know for a fact this is not the case. Even though some characters stand in for me, others stand definitively outside of me. Some are created specifically as others, as characters I found foreign that helped bring the ones I needed to find familiar into sharper relief.

The tougher, touchier question is this: What does it mean for a character to be Jewish? In my new novel, The Slippage, the main character, William Day, is not Jewish. He’s not anything, really. He is a man with a deracinated name living in a bleached American suburb. He struggles with a childless marriage that may have outlasted its usefulness. He works as a copywriter in a financial services company, where he pitches words into a broad void. His wife, Louisa, has fallen into a depression with strange symptoms: hoarding the mail, for example, or making large and consequential purchases without consulting him. The two of them lurch forward in ways that are either liberating or that represent an even further cocooning within suburban repetition and repression.

But there are other characters. The third-most-important character in the book (or fourth or fifth, depending on how you read it) is Tom, Louisa’s older brother. Tom is a chart artist. He makes graphs and charts that are themselves commentaries on the ways that things are measured and given objective weight in our society. An archetypal example of his work is a line graph labeled “How Well You Understand This Chart Over Time.” The line drifts up and then falls back down. Tom is Jewish. Or rather, though he’s Louisa’s brother, born of the same parents, he’s Jewish in ways that she’s not. What I mean by it is perhaps hard to justify, but it’s easy to explain. Tom approaches the world with both profound irony and profound naivete; he is constantly on a search for moral understanding, though the fact of that search embarrasses him. Tom is a kind of conscience, a gadfly; he is a prankster but a serious prankster in a way that I think of as meaningfully Jewish.

Is this an offensively reductive statement? Is it exclusionary? Is it patently absurd to claim that these mostly positive characteristics are primarily embodied here on earth by an ancient, scattered people? Yes, to all the above. But I’m going to do it, to some degree. I could do the same for the other characters in my book: Stevie is not Jewish, Emma is, Eddie isn’t, Gloria is. This is a largely (completely?) meaningless taxonomy, but there’s meaning, perhaps, in the fact that I can spot, among my own characters, the ones I think of as Jewish, even as I suspect that what that also means is something objectionable, prideful, and likely indefensible.

***

I’m not the first one, of course, to wonder if there are essential personality traits that extend to both devout and casual practitioners of Judaism. Last fall, I was listening to the radio, and either before or after sports there was an interview with Theodore Ross, the author of a book titled Am I a Jew? Lost Tribes, Lapsed Jews, and One Man’s Search For Himself. Much of the interview was spent parsing levels of observance—how much do you have to do to be a Jew?—but at one point Ross copped to his suspicion that Jewishness is a definable characteristic: “I do believe,” he said, “that there is a certain type of self-reflection that you find among Jews and that it is not an easy religion or faith or group of ideas to define because it’s so different for so many people as opposed to, say, I think Catholics know who they are as opposed to, say, a Baptist. Jews can be many different things all at the same time.”

Locating essential traits in real people is one matter, with its own set of challenges and dangers. If it feels wrong, that’s probably because it is, mostly. It’s easier, maybe, to talk about locating essential traits in literary characters. Let me stress that literary characters are not formally Jewish. My Jewish characters, for example, are simply the characters I identify as Jewish, in my own mind, for my own reasons. It’s a matter of how characters bind to or drift from authors more than it is a census. It’s useful to think of this through the prism of other authors and artists. A while back, in Tablet, I wrote a piece about the characters in Judd Apatow’s films and how many of them were effectively Jewish even if they weren’t explicitly identified as such. I focused mostly on names, and how they were worn as a kind of badge—how in Pineapple Express, James Franco (himself half-Jewish, but with an Italian name) played the extremely Jewish-named Saul Silver. That piece noted how, in the history of movies, many Jewish characters were played by non-Jewish actors: Shirley McLaine as Gittel Moscowitz in Two for the Seesaw, Alan Bates as Yakov Bok in The Fixer, John Turturro as Barton Fink in Barton Fink, and John Goodman as Walter Sobchak (a convert, but highly observant) in The Big Lebowski. In most of these cases, the characters were fictional extensions of the writers or directors, and the actors were merely bringing these creations to life.

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James Franco does not have an “Italian” surname. The most famous “Franco” was, of course, Spanish. The surname can easily be Portuguese, which is what James’s paternal grandfather was. And there are also plenty of Sephardic Jews named “Franco”, possibly more than non-Jewish Italians.

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My Jewish Characters

A writer considers the fictions of religious identity—in life and on the page