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The Summer’s Hottest Video Game Is About a Scholar Named Hershel

Forget blowing stuff up: Nintendo’s new hero is a brainy, puzzle-solving Jew

Liel Leibovitz
August 08, 2014

Jewish mothers worried that their darling ones are spending too much time playing video games may find comfort in knowing that one of the summer’s hottest gaming titles features a well-educated young man who applies his considerable intellectual blessings to pursue justice and aid the needy. In a medium where protagonists are usually ripped and well-armed bruisers, this celebration of cerebral capabilities is uncommon, and it’s of little surprise that it should focus on a distinctly Jewish gentleman.

Meet Hershel Layton, a British scholar and the hero of a wildly popular franchise of games for Nintendo’s portable DS/3DS platform. The first game in the series, Professor Layton and the Curious Village, was released in Japan in 2007 and, together with the five sequels that followed, sold more than 15 million copies worldwide. Rather than require a rapid sequence of jumps and shots and punches and stabs, the Layton games unfurl at a leisurely pace: The professor and his sidekick, a young boy named Luke, become involved in fantastic mysteries involving supernatural elements and have nothing but their sechel to save them. The player, then, is tasked with solving a sequence of increasingly difficult puzzles, riddles, and other brain-twisters. How many times in the course of one day will a digital clock display three or more of the same number in a row? If you have a full 10-quart pitcher of milk, an empty 3-quart pitcher, and an empty 7-quart pitcher, how will you divide them so that the 10-quart pitcher and the 7-quart pitcher both hold exactly 5 quarts of milk? If you find yourself feverishly trying to solve these puzzles as you read, Layton is for you.

But look away from the puzzles for a moment, and you’ll find that the professor is himself a fascinating character. While his religious affiliation is never explicitly stated, and while his creators are Japanese, there’s a strong case to be made that Layton wears his signature top hat for reasons that have more to do with observance than with style. First, there’s that name, hardly anyone’s natural choice for a genteel British scholar. At some point in the series, we learn that Hershel is the son of Leon and Rachel Bronev, warm and studious parents kidnapped when Hershel and his brother Theodore were young boys. Orphaned, Hershel was adopted by Roland and Lucille Layton, a kindly, aristocratic couple who raised the wee lad to be, like them, the quintessential Englishman. But like so many other British Jews who’ve tried to engage in the extreme sport of assimilation, Hershel can hardly hide his true identity behind an exaggerated love of tea and a posh accent. When he himself has a son—a young man whose beak makes a very strong case for his intended ethnicity—he names the boy Alphendi, a name that strongly recalls the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

But these are just the biographical details. More important is Layton’s approach to life: While Jews hardly have a monopoly on logic, Layton displays the kind of fierce engagement with the life of the mind that so many of us have come to see as the chief characteristic of a certain breed of Jewish intellectual.

Consider, for example, Layton’s formal field of study. The professor, we know, is an archeologist but shows nothing of Indiana Jones’ rugged joy. In fact, we rarely see Layton out in the field, digging or searching or being physical. Instead, he sails through each game moved by the calm winds of reason alone, kibitzing with other characters, gathering clues, and then retreating into his own intellect and producing ephemeral solutions to theoretical problems. He is, in short, the quintessential Luftmensch.

And the pleasures of spending time in his presence are considerable. Ever since their rise to the pinnacle of the mass entertainment pyramid, video games have increasingly become tense and muscular creatures, thrusting players into high-adrenaline situations and demanding that the thumbs—not the brain—do the talking. That’s great catharsis, but if you’re a geeky Jewish kid, you turn off the gaming console and go back to a world that stresses the exact opposite values, back to a life of contemplation and study and reflection, slower and satisfying in different ways. If you’re that kid, the Layton series will feel intimately familiar, a late but very welcome acknowledgement from the world’s coolest entertainment industry that you can be named Hershel, can pursue a graduate degree and take an academic job, and still be a bona fide video game hero.

For extra credits, the new title will pit Layton against Phoenix Wright, another beloved Nintendo icon, an impassioned lawyer who defends the innocent with his analytic mind and his love of pointing his finger in an accusatory manner once he’s uncovered all the evidence he needs. Wright is probably not a member of the tribe—although he did get his start as a piano player in a joint called the Borscht Bowl Club, a name one shade too close to Borscht Belt for comfort—but he makes Layton double-down on the braininess: After the traditional puzzles are solved, Layton and Wright must go to court, cross-examine witnesses, and win their case. Parents who dream of their child becoming a lawyer or a professor can ask for no more.


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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.