The horrific October 27 massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue (shown above) made me think of many things — including the terror the shooting targets felt, the grief of surviving families, the easy access to guns supported by Republican politicians beholden to the far-right National Rifle Association, white-supremacist Trump’s refusal over the years to strongly denounce neo-Nazis, and more.
Given what I blog about each week, I also thought about Jewish authors — and Jewish characters created by Jewish or non-Jewish authors. Characters who are depicted sympathetically and three-dimensionally, as well as characters depicted in stereotypical or even anti-Semitic ways.
Some Jewish authors focus often on Jewish themes, while other Jewish authors are more “generalist,” for lack of a better word. Some, of course, veer between the two approaches in their various novels and stories.
When one thinks of Jewish or partly Jewish authors, among the names that come to mind are Isaac Asimov, Saul Bellow, Judy Blume, Michael Chabon, E.L. Doctorow, Stanley Elkin, Nora Ephron, Nadine Gordimer, Joseph Heller, Erica Jong, Franz Kafka, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, Elsa Morante, Walter Mosley, Jodi Picoult, Marcel Proust, Mordecai Richler, Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger, and Isaac Bashevis Singer, to name just a few.
I’ve read some or a lot of each writer mentioned above, and wanted to mention several of their works with Jewish protagonists.
Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay stars two Jewish cartoonist cousins who have echoes of real-life “Superman” creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, while E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel is a novel loosely based on the 1950s case that saw Julius and Ethel Rosenberg executed for allegedly spying for the Soviet Union. Among Doctorow’s other books is his novel/memoir-hybrid World’s Fair.
One of Stanley Elkin’s novels is The Rabbi of Lud — enough said. Erica Jong’s sexually frank Fear of Flying stars Jewish journalist Isadora Wing.
Among Bernard Malamud’s novels are The Assistant and The Fixer — with the first featuring Morris Bober, an aging Jewish refugee who operates a struggling grocery store in a working-class neighborhood of Brookyn, NY; and the second focusing on Yakov Bok, a Jewish handyman unjustly imprisoned in Czarist Russia.
Elsa Morante’s most famous work is History — a tremendous novel, set in fascist Italy during the World War II era, about the struggles of a timid half-Jewish woman (Ida) and her two sons (Nino and the precocious Useppe — the latter born after Ida was raped by a German soldier).
Walter Mosley is more known as an African-American writer, but he’s half-Jewish. One of the notable supporting characters in his popular Easy Rawlins mystery series is union organizer Chaim Wenzler of A Red Death. Who reminds me of the liberal politics of a good percentage of American Jews.
Philip Roth burst into major literary celebrity with Portnoy’s Complaint — starring Alexander Portnoy, a lust-ridden Jewish guy who is quite interested in non-Jewish females and has some mother issues. Goodbye, Columbus and a number of other Roth novels also have strong Jewish themes.
Mordecai Richler’s multi-generational Solomon Gursky Was Here might be the only fictional work that includes a section starring a Jewish Eskimo! Considered by some a candidate for “The Great Canadian Novel,” the book is loosely based on the Canadian-Jewish Bronfman family of liquor renown.
I’ve read many of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short stories (none of his novels yet), and they of course wonderfully chronicle Jewish life.
Then there are non-Jewish writers with prominent Jewish characters.
For instance, George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda features the memorable Daniel (a wealthy ward who initially doesn’t know he’s Jewish), the kind/beleaguered Mirah Lapidoth (who crosses paths with Daniel), and Mirah’s visionary brother Ezra Mordecai Cohen — along with various equally memorable non-Jewish characters. It’s one of my very favorite novels.
William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice has Nathan Landau, the Jewish lover of the Catholic Sophie years after her devastating Holocaust trauma.
One character in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is Simon Rosedale, a Jewish businessman interested in marrying Lily Bart for the social prestige she could bring him. Simon is sort of stereotypical in a way, but he does have a kinder element or two.
And among Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe cast are the Jewish characters of Rebecca (non-stereotypical) and her father Isaac of York (a rather stereotypical merchant and money-lender).
Yes, there are of course some troubling depictions of Jewish people in literature — also including the miserly villain Fagin in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and the money-lender Shylock in William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. Also, the great Fyodor Dostoevsky has occasional bits in his novels that can be considered anti-Semitic.
Who are your favorite Jewish authors and characters? Your thoughts about them?
My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about the upcoming November 6 election and more — is here.