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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.

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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