Writing Jewish Characters in Romance

Jewish Characters

Full disclosure: this was a difficult post to write. The topic is extremely dense. Seriously, the first draft of this was almost four thousand words because, honestly, there is a lot of really bad (intentionally or not) non-#ownvoices Jewish representation in romance.

This is a huge problem because Jewish characters are underrepresented so when they are done poorly, that representation becomes the rule and it puts the burden on #ownvoices Jewish writers to not only get representation right, but to have their characters be everything to everyone to combat the bad.

Also, Jews are often hesitant to call out bad representation due to both fear of backlash and fear that if books with Jewish characters don’t sell, even because they aren’t done well, publishers will not buy the #ownvoices ones.

3 Things to Avoid with Jewish Characters

Thus, with that in mind, I’m going to try to go through as briefly as possible, three ways Jewish representation can go horribly awry: stereotypes, religious misrepresentation, and what I’ve termed “gentile-saviors.” I’ll also talk about why sensitivity readers won’t necessarily save you.

  1. Stereotypes.
  2. Misrepresentation.
  3. Gentile-saviors.

This article is in no way exhaustive and all these topics are super complex and nuanced (and as always, I’m only one voice and certainly don’t represent all Jews). What I hope this does is give a sampling of common issues and why you want to think carefully when writing Jewish representation.

1. Stereotypes

Jewish Characters Stereotypes

Photo credit: Thomas Hawk on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC

There are a number of familiar stereotypes about Jewish characters in literature and they should all be avoided—not only are they untrue, but many of them have been used as justification to literally kill Jews. This is not an exhaustive list but it includes seven of the most damaging:

    1. Shady money-lenders/pawnbrokers. (Fagin in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, Shylock in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the money lender in Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy).
    2. Shadow groups controlling the world/media. (real-life conspiracy rumors that are used all the time, especially against older Jewish men; think real-life philanthropists Nathan Meyer Rothschild and George Soros.) This is an incredibly dangerous portrayal to add to anything and deeply anti-Semitic. It has been used to justify everything from Synagogue shootings to the Holocaust.
    3. Cult-like groups of people who poison wells and murder non-Jews (often children) for ritual purposes. See “blood libel” stories like Chaucer’s “The Nun’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales. Not only are all of these stories untrue, but they have caused millions of Jewish deaths over the centuries, in Europe and in every location colonized by Europeans, whether pre- or post-enlightenment.
    4. Orthodox Jews as basically either the Jewish version of Evangelical Christians or the Amish. They are neither. Further, Orthodox Jews, especially older Orthodox Jewish men, are often portrayed as closed-minded and/or villainous, which is extremely harmful. Due to dress, we are talking about some of the more visible Jews who often bear the brunt of “on-the-street” antisemitism, including daily slurs and violence. These are not people who need fiction to continue to help target them unfairly.
    5. Overly sexualized “exotic” Jewish women. This is super common in 18th and 19th century European literature. Thanks, Voltaire.
    6. “Pushy,” “whiney,” “bossy,” “dramatic,” “spoiled,” American Jewish mothers and “princesses.” These are often bolstered by cisgender heterosexual male Jewish writers (looking at you, Phillip Roth and Woody Allen) and are a pretty deep mix of misogyny and internalized antisemitism. It becomes even worse when Jewish women are compared to a white, non-Jewish female protagonist unfavorably by a male Jewish protagonist. This is not to say there is anything wrong with interfaith love stories, or intermarriage in general. The problem is when it includes putting down Jewish women and elevating a white, Christian cultural ideal.
    7. Jews as only being from European countries and/or white. There are historic Jewish communities all over the world, some of the largest in the Middle East and North Africa, but also in places like China, South America, and the Caribbean. Further, there are many Jewish people who are black, Asian, and Latinx. You cannot tell if someone is Jewish by looking at them or by their last name. We aren’t a monolith and we are all equally and validly Jewish.

2. Misrepresentation

I’m going to tread lightly on this topic because Judaism is a commentary culture with a lot of majority and minority opinions. It’s also living, breathing, constantly changing, and means different things to different people (two Jews, three answers and all that jazz). However, here are some highlights of places to be wary when writing.

The biggest thing to remember is Judaism is not “Christianity lite.” There is no such thing as “Judeo-Christian” beliefs.

There are texts that Jews use that bear a resemblance to Christian texts, but we interpret them completely differently.

Christian concepts of martyrdom, forgiveness, redemption, and faith are not really found in Judaism. There is nothing wrong with Christianity or any of these concepts, they just aren’t ours.

Judaism has traditionally been seen as both group-focused and lifestyle-focused, where often ritual is as important as any spiritual idea. Jewish law—our positive and negative commandments—which are only for Jews, is inherently hierarchical, i.e., certain laws are more important than others and context is always key.

There is no “punishment” for failing to do a commandment and we do not actively convert nor believe you can’t be a good person if you aren’t Jewish.

Further, if you are studying the religious traditions, remember, that just because a ritual is interesting to you, doesn’t mean it is important or super meaningful to other Jews.

One of the biggest things that takes readers out of a story is when a writer not of that culture throws in a culture term, food, or ritual, which while exists, is uncommon, but leaves out all the common, everyday ones. Because Judaism is often part of people’s daily lives, this is especially problematic. Often an author researches but cherry-picks rituals, objects, or stories that are cool to them, without context.

If you are writing a Jewish POV protagonist and aren’t Jewish, you should know:
  • about Judaism
  • about what tradition your character comes from (remember, Orthodox/Reform is not Protestant vs. Catholic—you don’t need to “convert” to change movements in Judaism—which didn’t even exist until the 19th century—and the conflicts between them are scholarly.)
  • about your own background, especially if you are Christian or secular from Christian roots. Many western beliefs and outlooks are Christian-based and not necessarily universal, so to understand where a character of a different background comes from, you need to understand where you and the dominant culture come from as well.

The very last thing you want to do is graft your own beliefs onto another culture.

3. Gentile-saviors

Much like the “white savior story,” a “gentile-savior story” is a story (most common in historical but can happen in all subgenres) where one of two things happens:

  1. Jewish characters primarily exist to make the non-Jewish characters seem “good,” i.e. so that they are enlightened and not prejudice like those “other” non-Jews; and/or
  2. The Jewish characters are helpless in the face of prejudice, but for the kindly non-Jewish protagonist and his/her friends.
Problems with gentile-savior stories:
  • Despite multiple attempts at genocide, Jews have primarily saved ourselves
  • It is rare for Jews connected with their Judaism—religious or secular—not to know and rely on other Jews. Jews have historically lived in communities both by edict and choice (You can’t walk to Synagogue if it’s miles away. Not everyone knows how to slaughter meat in a Kosher way. You can’t hold services, which occur three times a day without a certain number of people, etc.).
  • Jews, especially in the west, have historically been on the forefront of building charitable organizations such as hospitals, orphanages, food pantries, and assistance for immigrants. Part of this is philosophical and part is that we never want to be seen as a “burden” on places where we live so we won’t be expelled (something that has happened multiple times in our history).
  • It is rare for Jews to be “kicked out” of a Jewish community. There are squabbles and disagreements, but most Jews who leave a community do so by their own choice.
  • Intermarriage has occurred for eons and likewise, many Jews who married non-Jews still raised Jewish children and actively participated in various Jewish communities throughout history. Also, if someone converts to Judaism, they are just as Jewish as someone who was born Jewish.
  • Generally, no matter how poor, Jewish children are not abandoned by the community. This is a sensitive subject because throughout history, Jewish children have been stolen from their parents and forcibly converted to Christianity. Thus, having a Jewish orphan raised by non-Jews is not just uncommon, but also hearkens to a long, ugly history rooted in antisemitism.
  • Most modern Jewish readers have some sort of connection to the Holocaust and we often live with massive intergenerational trauma because of it. Bad representation in Holocaust stories is extremely damaging, so think long and hard before you write it.

The Pitfalls of Sensitivity Readers

Jewish Characters Graffiti

Photo credit: Kodak Views on Visual hunt / CC BY

Sensitivity readers can be helpful to getting representation right, but they aren’t panaceas.

  • There is no singular Jewish experience and all experiences—observant, secular, and everything in between—are valid, and many of us are very careful not to discount other Jews.
  • Judaism is a commentary culture with coexisting majority and minority views. In other words, we often say things are “possible,” but not common, which is not the same thing as saying representation is accurate or “good.”
  • Antisemitism makes it hard to call out problematic representation, especially when it seems well-intentioned:
    • We need allies and fear making enemies will lead to our literal deaths.
    • Antisemitism is often gaslit, especially for American Jews, because we appear to be “doing well.”
    • Jews in relatively safe places and times don’t want to “rock the boat.” Minor antisemitism is often seen as “not dangerous,” so we are afraid to be called “complainers” or “the boy-who-cried-wolf” because we might need bigger threats to be taken seriously later.
    • Because of the Holocaust, any antisemitism that is not genocide is often downplayed.
    • We don’t want to discourage well-intentioned people and, because we are in a culture that prizes “niceness,” we often feel obligated to not hurt others’ feelings to the detriment of our own.

This is not to say you can’t use sensitivity readers, but it is not an easy task for many Jews and does not guarantee good representation.

On that cheery note, I’m going to say, yes this all looks daunting. As I noted in the beginning, I’ve just scratched the surface of what you need to be careful of. This, however, is common in writing underrepresented minorities when you aren’t of that group.

There is a very steep learning curve. It doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but it requires more than just a little research and a few sensitivity readers.

Think before you write and really grapple with why you want to tell this story and if it is truly your story to tell. It is okay if it isn’t. I know everyone has a zillion fabulous stories to tell in them, no matter what they write.

Feature image by Angel-Dust 🙂 on Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND 

Felicia Grossman
Felicia Grossman is a historical romance writer, originally from Delaware, who now lives in the rust belt with her spouse, two children, poorly behaved puppy, and perpetually disappointed elder dog. She is an RWA member (NEORWA chapter), Broadway nerd, and lover of eclairs. Her high school superlative was “most salacious,” and she hopes her books live up to that title.
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