The Problem With Jewish Characters in Fiction (And My Solution)

(I was really tempted to work Jewish Question into the title of this article for extra edgy points, but I held myself back lol.)

Now, to get the basics out of the way first. I’m a religious Jew myself, so obviously I don’t have a problem with Jewish characters existing in fiction. Similarly, I don’t care about “representation” in fiction. I don’t need a character to be Jewish for me to identify with and like them, and I’m on record many times saying that creators can and should include in their work whatever they want.

However there is something to be said about getting things right when you do include something. And, seeing as many, if not most of the people I’ll be taking issue with here are themselves Jewish, I’m not inherently offended by poorly rendered Jewish characters in fiction. Though there are times when it’s just done so poorly it needs to be mocked.

The main issue I have with Jewish characters in fiction is the very limited types of characters we see. It’s just so tiresome and lazy, and I’d rather those characters just not be Jewish at all a lot of the time–and it wouldn’t change the stories either.

Frankly, I’m beyond tired of it.

This article does a pretty good job getting into it, and it’s worth a read (some of my thoughts from discussing the issue in a group ended up in the article as well).

Without summarizing the entire article here, as it’s worth reading on its own, I’ll briefly touch on a main issue it covers, that I wish to address.

The main problem is that you almost exclusively just see 1 of 2 types of Jewish characters in fiction:

The “cultural Jew”, or Jew in name only. These are characters who are technically Jewish, but may as well not be. Sure, they’ll throw in little Jewish cultural references, such as a Yiddish word here or there, or talk about Chanukkah, but it’s clear that these characters are primarily Jewish just to tick off a checklist (They’re also usually wimpy and neurotic to boot.) There is no respect for Jewish culture or tradition (not something done maliciously, but more out of laziness.) Worse, its extremely common to portray intermarriage as a perfectly acceptable, if not celebrated, phenomenon. The Judaism of true, G-d fearing Jews is not window dressing, or something easily ignored. It’s the core of our identity.

The few times you do see religious Jews, they’re almost always chassidic or hareidi Jews. You know, with the black hats, black coats, and long peyot (sidelocks). These characters, when they appear, are obviously Jewish in every respect, especially when it comes to belief in G-d. But much of the time, the communities these characters are in is portrayed as cold, repressive, and almost backward, and it’s common to see characters trying to “flee”. Again, I’m not going to get more into detail on this, apart from to say that it’s not surprising, as the people who run the mainstream entertainment industry tend to be very anti-religious, so it’s no surprise. (It’s why religious Christians often receive very poor portrayals as well.)

This isn’t limited to Jewish characters in media made by non-Jews or American Jews who don’t associate with the wider Jewish community. It’s similar in Israel too. The two most widely known recent Israeli shows (in my experience) are Fauda and Shtissel. I watched all of Fauda, and it had its moments, but overall I hated it (mostly for reasons beyond the scope of this article). However, it was noticeable to me that not one of the main Jewish characters was religious (while many of the Arab characters were portrayed as such.) Would it have killed the writers to have one religious Jew in the cast? Apparently so. And as for Shtissel, I haven’t watched it, but I know that it’s about hareidim in Israel.

Something the above linked article didn’t really touch on was also the strength of Jewish characters in fiction. Set aside most of the other stereotypes, but try & think of Jewish characters in mainstream fiction who can fight, who can defend themselves & protect others. Apart from the soldiers in Fauda, I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

And I’ve never seen a Jewish character who is both a fighter and has true faith in G-d. Which is strange, as we have a long, long historical tradition of such figures in Jewish history; King David, the Maccabees, and Bar Kochba (the leader of the last revolt against the Romans) to name just a few. Over the centuries in exile, due to a number of factors, that strength was lost, leading to (mostly) weak Jews, though our religious traditions endured. Since the re-establishment of a Jewish state in our homeland, that strength has returned, and, more importantly, we’re seeing more and more fighters who also believe in G-d. The percentage of dati leumi (national religious) Jews–who are Torah observant, and generally right win politically–who serve in the army as officers is higher than their percentage of the population. The warrior Jew, the authentic Jew, is back. I want to see them in my stories.

Again, I’m not trying to push for more “representation” of Jews in fiction. There are no small number already (albeit the toneknized, lazy sort), and creators have the right to write what they want. However, if something is going to be done, it should be done right.

Which is part of what led to my conceiving my latest book series.

No one else was creating a G-d fearing Jewish character who was also a warrior, so I had to do it myself. That’s what you do instead of complaining; you create. While my first priority is to write a fun adventure everyone can enjoy, the series is a celebration of the Jewish values that we hold near and dear–some of which are still forgotten by too many of us.

It’s a shame that more G-d fearing Jews don’t partake in the creation of culture, as we cannot expect others to provide positive examples of Jews to our own–and the world at large. Hopefully, Light Unto Another World paves the way for more like it.

I hope that everyone enjoys the series, and gets to experience a very different–I’d say better–sort of Jewish character than you’ve seen before. Celebrating strength, faith, respect for tradition, and loyalty.

Coming soon.

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