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Favorite Jewish fictional characters in honor of Rosh Hashana

September 9, 2010

Duddy Kravitz: Richard Dreyfus in the 1974 movie version of Mordechai Richler's novel.

Desperately seeking respite from the Franzen fracas, I’m in a state of outrage today–outrage!– over HuffPo’s piece on “8 Favorite Fictional Jewish Characters in Books.” Only eight? You gotta be kidding.

I guess I have to give HuffPo props for good intentions, which in this case is helping to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and maybe get a literary discussion going. But, still, don’t you wish the HuffPo folks would give these things a little more thought? Consider this line from the intro:

“From Philip Roth to Michael Chabon, some of the most critically acclaimed authors of this century have written novels with memorable Jewish characters.” Duh — ya think?

Setting aside great international Jewish writers like Shalom Aleichem, Sholem Asch, Isaac Bashevis Singer or Franz Kafka, for a couple of decades in the middle of the 20th century, Jewish fiction was also synonymous with American fiction: Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Nathanael West, Bernard Malamud, Tillie Olsen, Nelson Algren, Joseph Heller, Jerzy Kosinksi, Henry Roth, Chaim Potok, S.J. Perelman, J.D. Salinger, Budd Schulberg.

And those are just the literary authors. Jews also figured prominently in popular fiction, children’s writing, sci-fi and crime fiction: Irving Wallace, Judy Blume, Shel Silverstein, Robert Silverberg, Erich Segal, Maurice Sendak, Leon Uris, Harold Robbins, Ira Levin, Erica Jong, Howard Fast, Herman Wouk, Robert Bloch, Isaac Asimov. To name but a few.

Those lists leave out the Jewish-American writers who came after that great mid-century flowering, and, of course in thinking of great fictional characters we need not restrict ourselves to Americans. First, the Huffpo list:

Alexander Portnoy, from Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint; Asher Lev, from Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev; Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay, from The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon;  Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire, from the series of children’s books by Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler); Nathan Landau, from William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice; Myrna Minkoff, from A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole; Ari Ben Canaan, from Leon Uris’ Exodus; and Joseph, from Simms Tayback’s children’s book, Joseph Had an Overcoat.

Hmmm. Not bad. But not great, either. For one thing, you only have eight choices and two of them are by non-Jewish writers, Styron and Toole. Not to say, of course, that gentile scribes can’t create credible Jewish characters, but how’s their inclusion help celebrate Rosh Hashana? And with all the great, great Jewish novels, why waste a slot on Uris’ commercial bestseller Exodus?

Here are a few suggestions from a friendly gentile:

1. Philip Roth certainly must be on this list, but for Nathan Zuckerman, protagonist (and alter-ego) in several of the novels, rather than that shlub Portnoy. And if I had to pick one of the novels, it would be The Counterlife.

2. Gergor Samsa, from “The Metamorphosis,” by Franz Kafka. Only one of the most important stories written on this planet.

3. Von Humboldt Fleisher, from  Humboldt’s Gift, by Saul Bellow. So many great characters to choose from in Bellow’s work, but I don’t think you can surpass Humboldt, based on the mad poet Delmore Schwartz. For an extra charge, read it in tandem with James Atlas’ fine biography, Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet.

4. Duddy Kravitz, from The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, by Mordechai Richler. A Canadian version of the young-man-on-the-make story.

5. Yakov Bok, from The Fixer, by Bernard Malamud. Based on a true story of an unjustly imprisoned Jew in Czarist Russia, this is one of the finest novels I’ve ever read.

6. Erwin Siegelbaum, from The Iron Tracks, by Aharon Appelfeld. A Holocaust survivor, obsessed with avenging the murder of his parents. Beautifully rendered, deeply disturbing.

7. Ruth Puttermesser, from The Puttermesser Papers, by Cynthia Ozick. A comic Kafkaesque novel about an overeducated woman unhappy in New York.

8. Herman Broder, from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Enemies, A Love Story. Another survivor, haunted by the Holocaust, like Nathan Landau, only much more nuanced.

9. Ayzik Klass, from Curt Leviant’s A Novel of Klass. A hilarious, tragic depiction of aging Jews jostling for attention among the declining New York Yiddish intelligentsia in the 1970s. Leviant, I never miss a chance to say, is the most underrated great novelist in America.

10. Lenny Abramov, from Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. A lovable schlemiel at the center of Shteyngar’s brilliant near-future dystopia.

Please share some of your favorite Jewish fictional characters. From books, please. No movies or plays (and yes, I sadly acknowledge that leaves out Rosencrantz and Guildenstern).

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    September 9, 2010 1:18 pm

    Other than the name, how would you know that Gregor Samsa is a Jewish character?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 9, 2010 3:11 pm

      Because Franz Kafka and almost everyone he knew was Jewish? If I’m reading a story by a Jewish writer, then I assume the characters are Jewish unless there is textual evidence otherwise, not the other way around.

  2. Candice Simmons permalink
    September 9, 2010 5:08 pm

    Really? I don’t much think about race and nationality and such unless it is relevant to the story. In “The Metamorphosis” I don’t think it is.

    Happy Rosh Hashana anyway.

    • Anon permalink
      February 11, 2011 11:09 am

      Since they could not understand him, no one, not even his sister, thought that he might be able to understand others, and thus, when his sister was in his room, he had to be content with listening now and then to her sighs and invocations to the saints.

  3. September 9, 2010 9:34 pm

    It would be not only a different literary world but a poorer one – not by yards but by miles and miles without Jewish writers in it. I agree totally with the list, Chauncey and the observation that Portnoy is a putz double-double toil and trouble and BS by the square of 100 minus E=MC compared to Zuckerman. Only adding the little known Isaac Rosenberg, Jewish poet of WW I. Few seem to have heard of the poor boy blown up in war, but one little stanza he wrote predicted his own fate:
    I mingle with your bones;
    You steal in subtle noose
    This lighted dust Jehovah loans
    And now I lose.

    Would it be fair to add Karl Marx? Atheist to the core, but by blood a full-blown Jew who has had as much influence on politics as Plato (who was as literary as he was philosophical). Wasn’t Leonard Woolf a Jew? Without him where would Virginia be? A question not to be asked? Oh, this could go on and on. Have you opened another can of worms, Chauncey?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 9, 2010 10:07 pm

      Thanks, Duff. I’ve never heard of Isaac Rosenberg. Appreciate the tip. If we’re going to talk Jewish writers and not just Jewish characters, then I’d like to add: Natalia Ginzberg, Lester Goran, Isaac Babel, Clarice Lispector — oh, and Will Eisner, who invented the modern graphic novel and whose best works, like A Contract with God, rival Singer or anybody. And do you know Goran? I didn’t include him in the original post, because the superb short story collections he’s produced in a late flowering are all set among the Pittsburgh Irish community in the ’30s and ’40s. Tales from the Irish Club, highly recommended.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        September 10, 2010 10:41 am

        If we were discussing Jewish characters created by gentile writers, which we’re not, at or near the top of my list would be Harry Bech, the author-protagonist of John Updike’s Bech: A Book; Bech is Back, and Bech at Bay. If you only read one, opt for the first.

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