liv: In English: My fandom is text obsessed / In Hebrew: These are the words (words)
[personal profile] liv
Some months ago, [personal profile] rachelmanija posted a request for escapist genre novels with major Jewish characters. And I babbled about it to people I talk about books with, notably [personal profile] jack, but I've been meaning to make my thoughts into a top level post.

We could posit [personal profile] rachelmanija's post as a kind of Jewish Bechdel test; she wants:
  • Major Jewish characters, not minor supporting characters
  • Clearly stated to be or intended to be Jewish, not maybe arguably coded Jewish
  • Not about the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, pogroms, or any other "it sucks to be Jewish" plotlines
  • Not serious problem novels or in any way about the difficulties of being Jewish
  • books which could be considered fun, escapist, not serious literature
. [personal profile] rachelmanija is also looking for genre, loosely defined, as opposed to mainstream lit or historical novels, and published within the last 30 years, but I think her criteria remain challenging even if you look at literature as a whole. In her follow-up post she noted
most comments either recced the same books over and over, or else recced works which did not meet the qualifications I originally set out. The number of fun books with Jewish protagonists is, in fact, extremely small

This is partly because people never really read the OP before jumping in with suggestions, which is not an issue specific to Jewish books. Still, I was a bit shocked to see recs for things like Kavalier and Clay as being not about the Holocaust or anti-Semitism. I wonder if that's because it doesn't quite fit people's genre expectations of Holocaust books, and that's kind of interesting in itself.

The thing is, I think part of why I don't look for "people like me" in the fiction I consume is because I learned pretty young that books about Jews are in fact never any fun. My parents had a huge tome of the complete fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, and I think it was soon after I started school that I pieced through the index and was very excited to find a story titled The Little Jewish Girl. I include the link for the morbidly curious, but seriously, it is the most terrible "fairy tale" you could ever imagine. Basically the little Jewish girl of the title ends up reading the Bible to a blind Christian lady, and is inspired to partially overcome the evils of her terrible upbringing and acquire some rudiments of moral concepts. And as a reward for being slightly less evil than we expect most Jews to be, she dies young and gets to be buried somewhere near the wall of the Christian cemetery (though definitely not in consecrated ground). I already knew that some people were anti-semitic, but I was upset to discover that someone as famous as Hans Christian Andersen, and therefore someone I childishly believed should be taken seriously, thought Jews were evil and should aspire to be influenced by Christianity but even if they did could never overcome the taint of their Jewishness.

I read probably more than the average child of the kinds of books where the protag is the only survivor after their family is murdered in the Holocaust. Judith Kerr's When Hitler stole Pink Rabbit (yes, that Judith Kerr, possibly more famous for her young children's books about Mog the cat) and Lois Lowry's Number the stars are the ones I remember most positively at this distance. I think the first time I encountered Anne Frank I didn't quite appreciate that she was a real historical person or that unlike most fictional protagonists she didn't in fact make it through. I never really liked the kinds of "happy" endings where the viewpoint character survives against the odds, because everybody else is dead and the entire culture of their childhood has been destroyed forever.

Beyond that, there are books with outsider Jews, Jews who are exotic (and quite often evil or at least unwholesome), and there's usually only one or two of them in an otherwise entirely Christian society. Sexy young women, especially in contexts where being sexy is a bit suspect, and old men in the banking or pawnbroking trade who are either noble or conniving. Sometimes even both, a father and daughter. These Jews often turn up in older books and / or books set in pre-modern times. Isaac and Rebecca in Ivanhoe are probably the type specimen of the sort of thing I'm talking about. I've never thought of those characters as meaningfully "like me", even the ones who are somewhat sympathetic rather than outright villains, because they never seem to live anything resembling an actual Jewish life. They only have religion and culture in as far as it makes them exotic or weird, and they don't have a Jewish community because they're always randomly the only Jews in a Christian setting. This also means I never really felt offended when "Jew" means "evil exploitative money-lender"; Fagin has nothing to do with me, and nor does that terrible scene in Heyer's The Grand Sophy which many people report being shocked by.

There's what I think of as Fiddler on the roof type Jews. That is, Jews who are completely not in any way integrated into normal society, they live apart in ghettoes or shtetls or enclaves, they are visibly different in their dress and often speak Yiddish rather than the official language where they live, they follow extremely elaborate religious customs to which they devote their whole lives. Very often these portrayals are sympathetic, as indeed in the musical. I do slightly, indirectly know a few Jewish people from that ultra-Orthodox world, but I don't know them very well because I'm as much part of the normal secular society they have withdrawn from as the broader non-Jewish community. Again, they're nothing like me, these people, the biggest effect they have on my life is that I sometimes have to explain to people that most Jews don't live like that. And no, they're not the good Jews or the real Jews or the religious Jews, they're a tiny minority within a tiny minority who happen to be very visible.

There's also two groups of Jewish characters who feature in mostly American media. There's Woody Allen's stock character, who shows up in comedy films or sitcoms and somewhat highbrow litfic, the neurotic, nerdy, almost always middle-aged male type. He tends to complain a lot about how everybody hates him because he's Jewish, but very often I get the feeling that everybody hates him because he's a whiny loser. He's sort of the symbol of failed masculinity, contrasted against the blond, muscled, emotionally repressed "all-American" hero. I find these people hard to relate to mostly on gender grounds, because although I'm normally fine with connecting to male viewpoint characters, these people are always really misogynist, they hate women and treat them badly because they want to have sex with women and most of the women they meet aren't keen, because they are un-masculine and ugly and losers.

The ones that come closest to meeting [personal profile] rachelmanija's criteria are the people who just happen to be Jewish, in a way that basically doesn't impinge on their lives at all. They might use the odd Yiddish expression, or talk about celebrating chanukah or even, if the writers are particularly enlightened, Passover. They get to have fun, they get to "escape", and if they have troubles they're mostly not caused by being Jewish or by antisemitism. The example usually put forward is the eponymous character in Judy Blume's YA novel Are you there, God, it's me, Margaret, but there's also some of the characters from Friends and some of the characters from The Rugrats. These are all relatable people, some of them are likeable, some of them are a bit stereotypical (particularly the older women "Jewish mother / Jewish mother-in-law" characters), but I don't particularly connect to them any more than any given non-Jewish character, precisely because there is nothing different about their lives resulting from their being Jewish.

There's also the slightly strange thing where American Jewish / Yiddish culture is rather different from the culture of the parts of my family that did originate from Yiddish-speaking areas, so lots of the Yiddish terms which have entered into general slang via American TV are foreign to me, and also tend to dominate over the kind of Yiddish that I heard from the older generations growing up, which is more or less gone altogether by now. Also most of my family isn't from a Yiddish-speaking culture at all, and even the ones that are we're talking three or four generations back. Fictional Jews are nearly always positioned as immigrants, as an ethnic minority. This is why people are always telling me I don't "look Jewish" or being surprised that my first language is in fact English and I have very limited knowledge of Hebrew and basically no knowledge of Yiddish.

I'm not going to talk about Israeli media, where clearly most characters are Jewish; being Jewish in an Israeli context is a completely different kettle of fish from being Jewish in the diaspora. I probably do watch more Israeli films and read more translated Israeli books than most of my non-Jewish friends, but I don't really look to them for people like me.

OK, so, on one level this says, there aren't many people like me in media. We know how this chorus goes, right? But actually, the issue I want to talk about is that there aren't many people like me in meta. Like, the internet SJ culture where people talk about (under)-representation of various minority groups, seems to work on the basis that Jews are ethnically Ashkenazi (except when they're not, in which case they're not "ethnically" Jewish but only religiously so) and simultaneously that Jews are white. If Jews are white, I'm not really allowed to write a post like this, because it's derailing, I'm talking about under-representation and stereotyping of my ethnicity when actually I have "white privilege", my ethnicity is supposed to be the same as that of all the heroes and protagonists and complex characters and default characters.

At the same time, I'm looking at all these portrayals of supposedly Jewish characters and complaining that none of them are like me, because they don't share my religion or my cultural background; the only thing that makes them like me is that we are supposedly ethnically similar. Only in some ways we're kind of not, I have light brown hair and fair skin and hazel eyes and a small nose, and if you saw a character looking like me on TV, or described like me in a book, you probably wouldn't think they were a Jewish character unless they, you know, dropped some Yiddish expressions into conversation. Which I personally don't do because I don't speak Yiddish and I don't really come from a Yiddish-speaking culture, certainly not the one that is typically portrayed in American media. I mean, I filled in a form about my ethnic origins at a GP practice recently, thinking that they wanted the information for medical reasons, but no, it turned out that it was standard equal ops monitoring, and "Jewish" isn't one of the categories they're interested in. And the nurse patronizingly explained to me that "Jewish" is my religion, it's not my ethnicity, presumably because I look and speak like a "normal" English person to her.

I have no problem with being told that I personally have white privilege, in that none of my ancestors were chattel slaves, and most of them weren't exactly living in countries invaded and degraded by colonialism, but rather in countries that profited out of taking resources from their empires. I have white privilege in that I can go about the world and most of the people I meet will not react to my appearance according to centuries of propaganda that people who look like me aren't really human, invented as a way to avoid guilt over this mass slavery and genocide. It really bothers me when people tell me that I have white privilege specifically because I am ethnically Ashkenazi Jewish, because really, fifteen centuries of most states and multi-national religious institutions trying to eliminate people like me, and in the twentieth century having the technological ability which meant they nearly succeeded, how exactly is that supposed to be "privilege"? And no, anti-semitism hasn't conveniently gone away now that we've learned from those helpful Nazis just how bad it can get.

Also, it seems to me like all the portrayals of Jews that I've listed here, and there's lots more I have forgotten to mention, are racialized portrayals. Some of them are positive portrayals, sure, but they nearly all assume you can tell someone is Jewish by looking at them, that Jews (at least partly) speak a different language and have different mannerisms from normal people, and that if Jews are religious it can only be in a way that completely rejects modernity, whereas if we're not religious we're still outside the shared culture, with a different calendar and different life-cycle events and so on.

For ages I decided it was probably best not to talk about any of this at all, and maybe I still shouldn't. Then there was an imbroglio on Tumblr at the end of last year, and Tumblr is always really awful for discussions like this, but [tumblr.com profile] pitchercries provided a couple of actually useful links. I think the origin is that someone asked [tumblr.com profile] medievalpoc about whether they would include portrayals of Jews in Medieaval European art among their really well curated collection of Mediaeval images of people of colour, notably "Moors" and African Black people. And [tumblr.com profile] medievalpoc gave the standard American SJ answer:
There are white Jewish people. and there are Jewish people of color. Race does not equal religion. People of color were not marginalized during the European Middle Ages, but Jewish people definitely were. In contrast, people of color are marginalized in the realm of representation in Art History now, including depictions of Jewish people of color, where white Jewish people are not.
[tumblr.com profile] medievalpoc (who is generally awesome) later apologised for this rather hasty and American-centric answer, though I'm too rubbish at Tumblr to actually find again all the distributed discussion that ensued.

Anyway, [tumblr.com profile] pitchercries responded to this really succinctly, and helped to clarify my muddled thinking on the issue:
Jews were and are absolutely a racial category in Eastern Europe (and other parts of Europe). This has been the case for centuries - I’m not an expert on the Middle Ages, but pogroms have been recorded since 1096. It’s true Jews were a separate religious group and were persecuted because of this, but Jews have always been ascribed other characteristics, that had nothing to do with their faith [...]

Jews in European origins, in Europe, are considered a separate racial group than the rest of the Christian population. Obviously, like I said, there are different countries and communities, but please do not assume that European Jews are White the way they are White in the US [...]

The correct answer to “are Jews white?” is not “Judaism is a religion”, it’s “it depends on where you are in the world.”
I also really appreciated [tumblr.com profile] pitchercries linking to a rigorously argued piece by [tumblr.com profile] owning-my-truth about Whiteness in Europe. There's still a lot to disentangle, but having read that I at least have the beginnings of some vocabulary for talking about coming from a white-skinned ethnic minority background in Europe. I strongly suspect the situation for white but not WASP people in America isn't as simple as the more immature bits of Tumblr want to make it, mind you, but at least I have a starting point for talking about some of this without getting into utterly fruitless arguments about whether or not Jews of European heritage have "white privilege".
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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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