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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.

Marjorie Ingall
June 12, 2014
"The Sacrifice of Isaac" by Caravaggio.(Uffizi Gallery)
"The Sacrifice of Isaac" by Caravaggio.(Uffizi Gallery)

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.

8. To the outside world, Dr. Adler in Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day (1956) is an elegant, wealthy, cultured doctor. To his son Tommy, he’s, you’ll excuse me, an asshole. “It’s torture for me to look at you, you slob,” he tells Tommy, who is admittedly a huge nebbish. Dr. Adler lies about his children’s lack of material success because he’s ashamed of them. He creates fake careers and histories for them. He denigrates the artistic talent of his daughter, who wants to be a painter. (“I was glad enough to buy crayons for her when she was four,” he says dismissively. “But now she’s a woman of forty and too old to be encouraged in her delusions.”) When his son tells him about his challenges, Dr. Adler’s response is “What do you want from me?” Again, he refuses to help his offspring. “I want you to understand that I’m too old to take on new burdens,” he says. Feh.

9. But when I asked, “Who’s the worst Jewish father in literature?” on Facebook, the most common answer I got was “Danny’s father in The Chosen” (1967). Reb Saunders is emotionally abusive, shrieking about how the world flays our skin from our bodies and throws us to the flames and waking his son up in the middle of the night to hector him about the Holocaust. He tries to keep Danny away from his best friend, the more worldly and tolerant Reuven. In a shocking denouement, it turns out that Reb Saunders has always meant well—he treats his son cruelly not because he doesn’t love him, but because he loves him so much. (Note: This is crappy parenting.) He is cold and distant so Danny will toughen up; he actually thinks Danny has “the soul of a tzaddik.” If Chaim Potok hadn’t invented this guy, Shalom Auslander would have.

10. And now we come to Mr. Portnoy in Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). This book is considered the canonical Jewish Mother novel, but really, Mr. Portnoy is just as bad. Both parents guilt the living daylights out of their son. (And Alexander knows it, crying to his therapist, “A Jewish man with his parents alive is half the time a helpless infant!”) Both whine endlessly about Jewish suffering. Both are paralyzed with anxiety. Mr. Portnoy, an insurance agent, is so uptight he can’t even poop. Alexander rants:

Jesus, this father! Whom I have had forever! Whom I used to find in the morning fast asleep on the toilet bowl, his pajamas around his knees and his chin hanging onto his chest. Up at quarter to six in the morning so as to give himself a full uninterrupted hour on the can, in the fervent hope that if he is so kind and thoughtful as this to his bowels, they will relent, they will give in, they will say finally, “Okay, Jack, you win” and make a present to the poor bastard of five or six measly lumps of shit.

Ah, literature.

11. Have you read Good as Gold (1979) by Joseph Heller? I actually liked it more than Catch-22! Mr. Gold has nothing but scorn for his academic son Bruce’s accomplishments.

“He’s writing a book,” said Belle.
“Really?” said Rose.
“Another book?” scoffed his father.
“It’s a book about being Jewish,” said Belle.
Gold’s father snorted. “What does he know about being Jewish?” he roared. “He wasn’t even born in Europe.”
“It’s about being Jewish in America,” said Belle.
Gold’s father was fazed only a second. “He don’t know so much about that either. I been Jewish in America longer than him too.”

Even though Bruce has been approached for a high-level government job in D.C., Mr. Gold is much more impressed by his other son, the coarse and tacky Sid. He even introduces Bruce to his snowbird friends by saying, “This is my son’s brother. The one that never amounted to much.”

12. Of all the dads on this list, Vladek Spiegelman in Maus (1991) is the one who arguably is least responsible for his actions. The selfishness and toughness that allowed him to survive the Holocaust—and the fact that he’s survived at all—have a cost. When little Artie is dumped by his friends while skating and goes crying to his dad, Vladek responds furiously, “Friends? Friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week … then you could see what it is, friends!” Vladek destroys his dead wife’s diary, treats his new wife terribly, loathes all black people, is so cheap he steals paper towels from restrooms to avoid buying napkins, and is so insensitive he dumps his son’s treasured coat in the trash. But he’s suffered so much; how can Artie respond? How can a child forge an identity in the shadow of a parent’s experience of horror?

13. The Vladek Spiegelman in Maus is a literary version of the real Vladek Spiegelman, not an actual person. And perhaps the actual, historical Maharal of Prague was just a delight. But in David Wisniewski’s gorgeously illustrated, Caldecott Medal-winning 1996 children’s book Golem, he’s not very kind. Like Reb Saunders, he seems to care about the Jewish community at the expense of his own offspring. The offspring is metaphorical: the giant golem he builds to protect the city’s Jews. As I wrote in Tablet in 2011, in this version of the story, Rabbi Judah creates a creature with its own unintentional humanity. The creature does its work and loves its father. It appreciates the sunrise and the beauty of flowers. But it cannot control its own anger, even though it knows it should. When the golem sees that Rabbi Judah is going to de-animate him, he pleads for his own life: “Please! Please let me live! I did all that you asked of me! Life is so … precious … to me!” Rabbi Judah returns him to clay anyway, telling him he’ll have no memory of ever being alive. As I wrote three years ago, imagine how terrifying this story would be to a small child just learning to manage his temper tantrums.

Whew. Of course, not all Jewish fathers in literature are jerks, liars, and self-esteem-crushers. Some are generous, kind, and caring. But focusing on the bad eggs is a good way to make you appreciate your own father, right? Right? Then my work here is done. Happy Father’s Day.


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Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.