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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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But what does it mean to play Jewish? Do you wear a costume apart from your character’s name? Affect an accent? After I wrote the piece, I thought more about these characters and discovered that most of them possessed another trait, which is something that I’ll call compulsive justice. This can be directed outward or inward—or in both directions at once—but it manifests as a preoccupation with power and with victims, and the ways that rules are applied or misapplied. You could attach these characteristics to almost anyone, and yet their flame burns a bit brighter in characters I consider Jewish. Barton Fink is a good example here: He has an almost pathological obsession with the downtrodden that is, even within the movie, presented as risible. In other cases, this sense of justice is welded to the memory of historical injuries, whether recent or more distant. This characteristic dovetails with another: Historically, Jewish characters have inhabited (sometimes voluntary, sometimes not) an outsider role that grants them perspective on social power without necessarily giving them leverage. In 21st-century America, where Jews have an appreciable amount of power and standing, it may not make as much sense to think of Jewishness as somehow at the margins of society or outside of the dominant, and yet there’s also a persistent distrust that this power is safe. A friend of a friend, who I will call “my mother,” sent me a quote from a newspaper column a few years back. I didn’t know the source, though I have since traced it to the Houston Chronicle’s website. The writer was reflecting on the peculiar nature of Jewish insecurity regarding social standing: “I myself remain taken aback by the few among my Jewish friends and colleagues who will admit to me that they keep a packed suitcase and a stash of cash ready for the moment in which they need to flee the country to escape persecution. I find such a thing mostly inconceivable, and inconsistent with the facts on the ground in the United States regarding Jewish prominence.”

I don’t have a suitcase packed. That strikes me as crazy. You could always just buy clothes when you get there. But on other levels I understand this idea perfectly. Jews, packing or not, are unwilling and perhaps unable to accept anything about society at face value, because they know where obedience of that sort leads. And yet, they have their own internal rules that must be followed to preserve identity. What results is an ongoing, sometimes comic, struggle to justify or dissolve certain rules. (Walter Sobchak is a perfect example here, for his obsession with bowling-league schedules and, more famously, with the Sabbath.) I will append a very non-literary footnote. I recently showed my kids Trading Places, the classic Dan Aykroyd-Eddie Murphy comedy of the 1980s. In the film, of course, a street hustler (Murphy) and a commodities broker (Aykroyd) are forced to switch places by the villainous Duke brothers, who are wagering whether nature or nurture will prove a more accurate predictor of character. The movie turns on race and on different approaches to generating (and keeping) power and privilege. I won’t ruin the plot in case you’re one of the dozens of Americans who hasn’t seen it. Afterward, my younger son, who is 8, asked me about the religion of Aykroyd’s character. He’s portrayed as a stereotypical WASP, which was a little tricky to explain, but I tried. Then he asked about Murphy’s character: “Is he Jewish?” He had a look on his face that could have been curiosity, though his mouth was curled up in what could have been railery. I didn’t know what to say, so I nodded and shook my head at the same time.

***

And so I wrote a novel with no Jewish characters and came to see in time that some of them were Jewish. And then, shortly after I finished writing it, I moderated an event downtown in which normal old adults revisited their bar mitzvahs. In going back to the scene of the crime, they reconsidered their sense of family or revised their notion of community or relived their teenage triumphs and humiliations. It was a casual event, with lots of humor and a surprising amount of pathos. One of the participants, a man in his forties who now works in television, talked about the Torah portion that he was saddled with as a 13-year-old. I won’t identify him because … well, he didn’t ask to be part of my crackpot theory. His Torah portion concerned leprosy and the insane folk cure of said disease, which involved dipping a live bird in the blood of a dead bird, sprinkling the blood on the leper seven times, and then letting the blood-soaked bird fly away. (I tried it, by the way, and it didn’t even take the edge off of my cold.) He wondered at its relevance and proposed an alternate ceremony where kids heading toward bar or bat mitzvah could work with rabbis to pick a more pertinent text. In the question-and-answer period that followed the presentation, I asked him half-jokingly about the importance of the leper as a symbol of exclusion for a teenager. At 13, I said, I would have totally identified with the leper. He laughed and I laughed and I went home, not planning on thinking about it, but the idea stayed with me.

I remembered another episode. In college, a million years ago, a secret society at my university asked me to join. I said no and then went back to my room, where my roommate objected strenuously to my decision. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in this group that set itself apart from everyone else, I said. That seemed arrogant. That seemed wrong. He shook his head. “No,” he said. “Your problem is that you’re even more arrogant. You want to be in the even smaller group of people who said no.”

I wasn’t sure what to do except to disagree with him, mostly because he was right. His criticism was a less energetic, less paradoxical, far sadder restatement of Groucho Marx’s old line (clubs, members). But it was also, I thought at the time, particularly Jewish. Never mind that this secret society had a long history of excluding Jews and women. My decision wasn’t based on actual social justice. It was based on a more abstract notion of my Jewishness, the part that I thought of—and, I suppose, still think of—as connected to my identity as a writer. Not being part of a group is not something that just happens to a writer. It is something a writer brings upon himself. Much of my book is about benighted characters who can’t really see clear of their marriage, or their job, or their errors, because they are fully invested in a society that rewards their participation. And then there are the marginal characters, who both profit and suffer because they can’t quite participate. Those are the characters I think of—even as I cringe at the idea of granting them this privilege, even as I cringe further at the notion that it’s considered a privilege, even as I remind myself that the same can be said of any immigrant group or for that matter any social minority, even as I now want to backspace word-by-word over this entire piece, erasing it as both apology and camouflage—as Jewish.

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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

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