Favorite Jewish fictional characters in honor of Rosh Hashana
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).