Literature and media have been pivotal in shaping us as people. They are what we have been consuming ever since the time we learned how to read and understand language. The uber-self-aware would already have noticed how, but for most of us, the literature and media we have exposed ourselves to has and continues to subconsciously impact us, shaping our personalities and preferences. For me, something that caught my eye in recent years has been representation. And being a Jew, it couldn’t escape my notice how Jews have been represented in literature and media.
The Harsh Truths
Whether it is known or not, it is an ugly truth, and frankly quite unfortunate, that Jewish characters were assigned as villains and antagonists in even the most well-known stories.
Plays like Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice perpetuate vile stereotypes of Jews. Shylock, the moneylender, was a Jewish villain. Note the emphasis made on his Jew-ness and its association with him being a villain was something he and the people he dealt with brought to the fore. Isn’t it ironic that one of the most famous Jewish characters in literature is a result of historical aberration and possibly antisemitism? I say ‘possibly’ because I don’t know if it was intended. But I do know, and what’s problematic here, is that every such character and the traits erroneously attached to them and their religious or cultural identity, add to the stereotype the world starts to believe in as true.
It is well known to many Jews how Dickens’ Oliver Twist has continuously portrayed Jews in a terrible light, making them grotesque caricatures and twisting the Jewish faith into something perverse. He referred to “The Jew” 173 times in the book. And this has been done for centuries, with examples like blood libel, and making any villain have a large nose and an obsession with money. Even more modern authors like Roald Dahl have shared antisemitic views in their writing.
Antisemitism had its hooks in all parts of the world, both real and fictional. Even now, there is a great amount of antisemitism in the US and around the world. 58% of religious bias crimes in 2020 in the US were against Jews even though they are only 2% of America. And though thankfully I have never been the victim of it, its presence in the world impacted me, as it would any Jew.
My Jewish Experience Growing Up
As a Jew growing up in a country where we are clearly a minority, I learned about Jewish characters just in Hebrew school, as nothing was covered in public school. Not only that, my experience of learning about Jewish topics in literature and movies mostly involved the trauma of the holocaust. As a result, I didn’t seek out Jewish stories because it was only natural to assume they were all about the holocaust. After all, that was all we saw in the movies we watched.
Growing up, I dreaded the holocaust unit that was taught every year in Hebrew school.
I was repeatedly told the story of Kristallnacht, and the horrors of the aftermath of the camps. The bales of human hair, the crates of wedding rings. One memory, in particular, stands out even to this day. It was in 5th grade, and my Hebrew school class was being shown Schindler’s List. I remember being told to turn off the TV, and I couldn’t turn the TV off in time to spare my classmates the sight of a man being shot in the head. I still remember the bang and my classmates’ shocked screams.
Then there was Christmas. Apart from being made to sing carols that I could not relate with, since I didn’t grow up Christian, I also felt the pain when everyone sang Hanukkah songs just to ‘balance it out.’ Even in literature…
Everything I read always had a chapter, or chapters, devoted to the winter holiday.
And at first, I thought what I always felt was annoyance. Later on, I realized it was sadness, or quiet anger, for always being left out. It was just a constant reminder that I was different, and because there was never a Hanukkah chapter in any of the books I read, it felt like I was different in a bad way. Unfortunately for us, being left out was normalized. So much so – and I think this is the worst part – that I didn’t even know there were supposed to be Jewish heroes in the books I read.
To us it seemed, that was just how the world was. Even in my favorite book series, Percy Jackson, there were Christian and Muslim characters but no Jewish characters. And at that point, I was used to just being left out, and I accepted it. I began to resent my Jewish identity and wished for something different.
My Experience of Jewish Figures in Literature
Books have been a part of my life since before I can remember. So having literary figures who shared the same religion as I meant a lot. Especially if it is Spiderman! When I first found out that the 616 Spiderman is Jewish, I remember my smile hurt my cheeks. I was a huge comic book fan and knowing that such an important figure in literature had to learn the same prayers I did, was incredible.
Then when I ventured into the DC comic universe and found Felicity Smoak – someone I could really relate to – I was elated again. She was smart, awkward, and best of all, Jewish! But that’s it. Only two. I’m not saying there aren’t more Jewish figures in literature, but growing up those were the only two I came across.
Now, although there are more Jewish figures in literature they are often misrepresented.
That didn’t sit right with me back then, and it sure doesn’t now. The books we read, both as children and even later in life as adults, are what shape our thoughts and perspectives, and that makes it extremely crucial for having characters in books that readers can relate to. The only way to achieve that seemingly lofty goal is through diverse representation.
5 Works of Literature with the Jewish Representation We’ve Been Waiting For
While I only had the two figures to hold onto so dearly, in my childhood, I have more recently learned about many other Jewish characters that hold the spotlight in their respective books and comics. Here are five instances that I believe are good examples of the Jewish representation we need more of:
Let’s start off with the latest great example…
1. The Sword of David by Charles Lichtman
The new novel, The Sword of David, puts a Jewish spin on the lost artifact trope. The protagonist, Israeli archeologist David Chaim goes around the world, preventing a worldwide terrorist attack, while on the search for the Sword of David, an ancient sword lost to history when the Romans sacked Jerusalem. This book takes on the shaky relationship between Israel and the Middle East and promotes a theme of interfaith peace.
Focusing on a Jewish protagonist who is for once, neither painted a villain nor stereotyped and boxed into a comical figure, this novel is a great example of the Jewish representation we need more of in the world of literature. But that’s not all! In this endeavor, author Charles Lichtman went a step further and ensured in the process of Jewish representation, Christians and Muslims would not feel alienated.
“Since the Old Testament is followed by Christianity and Islam, I hope my story rings [true] to the followers of those religions as well. Then, maybe there would be a real dialogue about fixing the Middle East.”— Charles Lichtman in a recent interview with Jewish Journal
2. Scarlet Witch
Heading back into the world of comic book characters, the hero Wanda Maximoff (Scarlet Witch) is an interesting figure. She is Romani Jewish, and the daughter of the supervillain and Holocaust survivor Magneto. Wanda’s identity plays a big part in the comics, fueling her ideals and motivations as a mutant. It is quite unfortunate that in the big MCU movies Wanda’s Romani Jewish Identity is replaced with the fictional Sokovian nationality. And this is not the first time that originally Jewish characters have been whitewashed, but that’s a story for another time.
For now, I am grateful at least the comics had enough and more coverage of Maximoff’s family background and ethnic identity – she is Magento’s daughter who is raised by a Roma family in the fictional Eastern European country of Transia.
3. Gravity by Leanne Lieberman
Another great example is the book Gravity, which takes on identity. The Orthodox Jewish protagonist, Ellie Gold, has her world shaken by a girl she meets at her grandmother’s cottage.
The struggle of being gay, which doesn’t fit into the strict religious life she has been living, turns Ellie on her head. This book makes known to queer Jews something they have always needed to hear, “You are not alone”.
4. My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. Freedman
Taking on interfaith struggles, this book balances religion with regular life. The protagonist, Tara, is preparing for her Bat Mitzvah while juggling many other parts of her life. From best friends that might be boyfriends, to an important robotics project with an annoying partner.
My Basmati Bat Mitzvah is a great example of Jewish representation, while also delivering messages perfect for multi-faith children.
Lastly, my favorite book of all time…
5. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
This is one of the only books that have a Jew in WWII Germany and doesn’t have the Holocaust front and center. While the character Liesel is the protagonist, the Jewish character Max is very important to the story. Max is a fist fighter who seeks sanctuary in the basement of the Hubermanns. Before he leaves, Max gives Liesel a sketchbook of his life story, something that Liesel then holds very dear.
What is so special about this book, is that Max does not seem emotionally fragile or helpless, even as he is in hiding. Instead, Max is intelligent and wise, and an important figure in Liesel’s life.
Why Does it All Matter?
The feeling of being left out is not pleasant. Nobody should have to bear with such a spirit-breaking experience. It is unfortunate but just as true, the feeling of being alienated, like one is an outsider, is shared among many Jewish children, teenagers, and adults.
No one should feel left out because they aren’t represented in what they read.
If I had known how much was out there, I wouldn’t have felt like being Jewish was a bad thing. No matter where one comes from, for any community, having powerful and important role models that share your identity are more likely to stay with you and so will their lessons.