The 13 Worst Jewish Fathers in Literature, From Abraham to Mr. Portnoy
They lie. They cheat. The treat their kids terribly. This Father’s Day, be thankful your own dad is such a mensch.
We are a people with mommy issues. Jewish mothers, after all, are the ones we joke about, obsess over, stereotype—and spend hours discussing with our therapists. But what about the Jewish dads? You think they’re all prizes? If you look at literature through the ages, you’ll see that they’ve had their own mishegas, right from the very beginning. So, in honor of Father’s Day, here’s a list of bad Jewish dads that’ll make you appreciate your own father.
1. Let’s start with the biblical jerks. Abraham was a tough act to follow—it’s hard to top the whole “sacrificing your son on an altar” thing. Yes, God told him to do it. I can only imagine how comforting this was to Isaac. Plus Abraham was a lousy father to Ishmael, too. He sent Ishmael and his mother Hagar off to the desert, presumably to die, because Sarah wanted Hagar gone. (Feel free to tell me that exiling her was more merciful than killing her. Yes, God made a plant to shelter them and everything turned out fine, but who can count on the appearance of a plant? You know how God is.)
2. Then there’s Jacob. Talk about playing favorites! You have 12 sons and you give only one a super-snazzy coat? And when that son starts lording it over his brothers, you don’t put the kibosh on it? Parenting 101, Jake! But given Jacob’s own familial legacy of awesome parenting, and given how he favored Joseph’s mother Rachel over her sister Leah, and given his history of deceiving his own father to steal his brother’s birthright, is his bad-dad status such a shock?
3. I’m limiting myself to two bad biblical dads, because otherwise we’d be here all day. So, let’s take a leap in literary time now to talk about Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (1598). Leaving aside the whole pound of flesh thing, Shylock is not a fab dad. He’s overprotective, cold, and won’t even let his daughter listen to music. He’s like the dad in Footloose.
Hear you me, Jessica.
Lock up my doors, and when you hear the drum
And the vile squealing of the wry-necked fife,
Clamber not you up to the casements then,
Nor thrust your head into the public street
To gaze on Christian fools with varnish’d faces.
But stop my house’s ears—I mean my casements—
Let not the sound of shallow foppery enter
My sober house.
He’s also totally bossy and imperious, full of “There are my keys” and “Look to my house” and “Hear you me.” And when Jessica finally runs off with the goyish Lorenzo, Shylock seems as grief-stricken about the money she took as about the loss of his child.
My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!
Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!
Justice! the law! my ducats, and my daughter!
A sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats,
Of double ducats, stolen from me by my daughter!
And jewels, two stones, two rich and precious stones,
Stolen by my daughter! Justice! find the girl;
She hath the stones upon her, and the ducats.
Did I say “as” grief-stricken about the money as about the daughter? I misspoke. He’s more grief-stricken about the money. As he puts it, “I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear! Would she were hearsed at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin!” Granted, she did trade his turquoise for a monkey, but still.
4. Fagin in Oliver Twist (1838) is not technically a lousy Jewish father, but he is a lousy Jewish father figure. He induces a motley underfed band of children to steal for him, threatens them, and doesn’t use the money they bring him to improve their standard of living. Also, he lets them smoke. (Incidentally, Dickens later felt bad about his portrayal of Fagin. After a Jewish woman named Eliza Davis wrote him that the book “encouraged a vile prejudice against the Hebrew,” he cut out 180 references to “Fagin the Jew” and put a nice saintly Jew in Our Mutual Friend.)
5. Reb Sender in S. Ansky’s play The Dybbuk (1914) is also not a mensch. When his daughter Leah falls madly in love with a brilliant Talmudic scholar, Sender won’t let her marry him because it’s just as easy to marry a rich man as a poor one. But Leah and Hannan are beshert, meant to be, and a desperate Hannan starts trying to change the future by dabbling in Kabbalah. As you do. When Sender announces that he’s found a rich boy for his daughter, Hannan drops dead, because mysticism. Then a dybbuk possesses Leah, and she rushes to the grave of a bride and groom slaughtered on their wedding day. As you do. It turns out that Sender actually had promised Hannan’s father years earlier that their children would marry, so Sender is a big lying liar who lied, as well as a horrible father. His daughter winds up stepping out of her chalk circle of protection to be together with her predestined husband. Cue the spooky music.
6. Reb Smolinsky in Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers (1925) is no winner either. All he cares about is studying Torah and making his wife and four daughters work like slaves to support him. (They’re the bread givers.) He won’t let any of his daughters get married, even when they’re in love, because he’ll lose them as providers. He tells them their prayers mean nothing because they’re women. He loses the little money the family does have by investing with a con man. He won’t even sit by the bedside of his dying wife, telling her, “I can help you more by running to the synagogue to pray than by staying with you.” When the novel’s heroine, Sara, moves out of the family’s Lower East Side tenement at 17 to get an education, her father berates her. Very nice.
7. But at least Reb Smolinsky wasn’t physically abusive, like Albert Schearl in Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep (1934). This, too, is an immigrant story. But this father is no scholar; he’s a violent, rage-filled milkman who catches a man trying to steal from him and beats him with a whip, possibly to death. At one point in the story, he nearly does the same to his own son. It’s not until the son is nearly electrocuted that he shows any compassion or affection at all. Charming.
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