Writing Jewish Characters

This is a blog post I’ve been toying with in several different forms over the past few months but never published because… I’m kinda a coward, and I also have a complicated personal history with Judaism and in particular my parents. I say I’m a coward because I feel like whenever I see Judaism brought up on twitter or anywhere really, some jerk in the comments tries to make it about politics or tries to use the existence of antisemitism as an excuse for Islamophobia. So, I want to say at the beginning that existing as someone with Jewish heritage is not a political act or invitation to political debate, I have no tolerance for hatred, and I will put you in time-out if you bring that bs onto my page. Okay, done, thank you. On to the topic at hand.

Image is of Shabbat candles, challah bread, and a wine cup

The recent attack on a synagogue in which an antisemitic gunman took four people hostage (breathe a sigh of relief, all four are safe now) had me revisiting the decision to make my main character, Sarai, Jewish. Not in thinking about changing it, but about why I made her Jewish in the first place. From a standpoint of trying to sell more books, it’s more likely to alienate some potential readers than it is to draw them in. And since my book isn’t about religion or a religious experiences (other than some slightly funny moments where Sarai worries about the vampires around her and her own decision to try to keep kosher, as blood is definitely not kosher), there was no need for her to be Jewish. It’s not a “Jewish” story.

But there is a need. That need is for visibility, for representation. To provide a well-rounded counter to goblin bankers drawn from antisemitic tropes and greedy villains with large noses. Antisemitism, like any other form of bigotry, flourishes in the demonization of the “other”. When all you see is a harmful stereotype, it’s easier to forget that someone is human. So, this is a post about writing Jewish characters, by someone who had twelve years of Jewish education and came from a Jewish home, written in the hopes that more people will make more fully human Jewish characters. Or werewolves or fae, you do you.

Be Aware of Harmful Tropes

Be very aware of tropes. In my opinion, this is particularly important to those writing fantasy where there aren’t explicit religions, ethnicities, and groups from our world, but also applies to any genre of fiction.

Blood Libel

The most harmful trope of all is probably the myth of blood libel. This is from medieval times when it was wrongfully believed that Jews killed Christian babies to use their blood to make matzah. For the record, matzah is a type of very bland cracker made with literally just water and flour. It’s very boring and I have no idea how it got so twisted in this myth.

Image is a medieval depiction of the mythical ‘blood libel’

Now, you might be thinking, “I’d never write a story where Jewish people ate babies, that’s ridiculous!” But… you might write a European or Russian based fantasy world. You have to have a conflict, so you add in a secret cabal of large-nosed, hooded, scary villains who sacrifice children for their blood in use of magic, and your hero has to fight this evil group to save all those innocent kids. I can’t remember the exact title or author, but I remember an uproar about some fantasy author doing this recently.

Don’t do this. A Jewish character doesn’t have to be Jewish to be a Jewish character, if that makes sense. To draw a parallel, Alina in Netflix’s interpretation of Shadow and Bone isn’t half-Asian because Asia doesn’t exist in that world. She’s half-Shu. But, let’s be real here, she’s half-Asian.

You might not explicitly say that your evil group is Jewish, because of course Judaism and Christianity don’t exist in your fantasy world. And maybe you’re even “nice” enough not to give them big noses, but the background is there whether you want to acknowledge it or not. You are causing real harm to real people by playing off these tropes. Real people have been murdered for this trope and if you choose to use it or play into it in any way after knowing the harm it has done historically, then you are guilty of perpetuating antisemitism and of being an uncreative writer incapable of thinking up something new and better. Be a good writer.

Secret Society

Not only does the hypothetical story with the evil baby sacrificing cabal play into the blood libel myth, but also plays into another harmful trope that somehow Jews control the world through a secret society. I’m still waiting for my invitation/check, but I’ll let you know if I ever get one (spoiler alert, it doesn’t exist). That trope came about as a way to scapegoat a minority. If you thought the group of outsiders who dressed funny, had weird customs, and spoke a different language somehow were responsible for all the bad things in your life instead of the king, you’d be more likely to go murder that group than you would be to overthrow and murder the king. Which plays into the king’s favor and would be something those actually in power would promote. So, perhaps, in your fantasy world, maybe it’s actually the perfect, kind-faced monarch trying to pass the blame for the blood ritual murders onto an easy scapegoat while amassing more personal power and control? That has the bonus of being a more interesting storyline anyway.

Greedy Jews

Another less murder related trope is the greedy trope. This can show up as a literal greedy character exploiting underlings for money such as Fagin in Oliver Twist, or as a fantasy race of large nosed banker goblins. Looking at you, JKR…

Image is of a goblin as seen in Harry Potter next to a picture of a Jew as stereotyped in WWII German propaganda

Let’s talk about goblins first. On it’s face, you can see goblins as interesting fantasy creatures and draw on previous fantasy stories for a fun side note in your worldbuilding. Honestly, growing up, I didn’t notice it until someone pointed out to me, but they are heavily influenced in function and design by stereotypes of greedy Jews. They could honestly be switched out with some Nazi propaganda without any real difference being noticed.

The greedy Jew trope came from the fact that in the Middle Ages, Jews were forbidden from owning land and from most ‘good’ professions. Jews couldn’t be farmers, they couldn’t be blacksmiths, they couldn’t be masons, etc. But, because Christians were forbidden for religious reasons from being money lenders… there was an opening for Jews to have a profession. And everyone needs a profession because, hey, we need to eat. So, a lot of Jews got into a trade that Christians deemed immoral for themselves, leading to more vilification and the greedy stereotype, because obviously anyone who handles money must be doing it out of greed.

So, don’t make greedy Jewish characters whose whole deal is scheming about how to get more money, or use caricatures that look like 1940s German propaganda to populate your fantasy banks. It’s tired, unimaginative, and harmful.

Now, a note on this… there is a bit of truth in my experience to the frugal stereotype. But, you have to be very careful about how you write a frugal Jewish character and understand where that frugality comes from. Frugality is and always has been a survival mechanism.

Image is of an orange

During the Holocaust, frugality in rationing things like food and money were key to survival for a lot of people. You can compare this to the learned behaviors of those who experienced the Great Depression in America in the 1930s. Frugality is a trauma response. So, while people in my generation might have no problem spending a little extra because they feel like a new pair of shoes, my grandma – a Holocaust survivor who lost everything and everyone as a child – will only buy oranges at one specific location because they’re twelve cents cheaper there. From her perspective, if you need to flee suddenly or bribe someone into sparing your life, you don’t want to be short on cash because you wasted your money on oranges.

What Does Good Jewish Representation Look Like?

So I’ve told you what not to do, but what should you do? If you’ve read my other “how to write X” blog posts, then you probably know where this is going.

Just write a well-rounded character. That’s always the trick, whether you’re writing a specific gender, LGBT+ characters, POC characters, or whatever [insert minority here] character you’ve got in mind. Make them a full person. Give them hopes and dreams, flaws, hobbies, family, friends. Making a character a full person will usually help pull you away from relying on any harmful tropes.

There’s a lot of stories with great Jewish representation out there in fiction, but all the ones I can think of off the top of my head while I’m writing this are stories that revolve around Judaism, or grappling with religion in some way. I don’t want to focus this post on writing Jewish stories or religious stories. I want to see more stories that happen to have Jewish characters. It’s kind like how LGBT people and POC people are tired of stories that center on their trauma or their identity as the point of the whole story. Are Holocaust novels good and needed? Absolutely, yes. Would I like to read about a modern Jewish woman dealing with the emotional turmoil of deciding whether she should become a vampire to have eternity with her immortal lover if it means breaking the laws of kashrut because of the blood drinking involved while also having a lot of other stuff going on in her life? Also absolutely, yes. So just write good characters.

Jewish Values

A key part of writing a Jewish character is knowing a bit about what they personally value, as this will guide their motivations. In my experience, Jewish communities put a lot of value on education and family. To prepare my goy husband for meeting my extended family, I told him to watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding. It’s not a Jewish family… but really, they might as well be. These things aren’t required in your Jewish character crafting, but it’s been my experience in real life. I think valuing education and family are pretty universal things for a lot of cultures, not just Jews, so this shouldn’t be a stretch for anyone to figure out how to write. A character might be trying to throw off cultural pressures, which could lead to them having other primary values.

Depending on what religious background your Jewish character comes from, there may also be a lot of emphasis on preserving tradition. There’s a lot of different sects, but the main four that you’ll likely write about are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist. All have their own way of preserving and valuing culture and tradition. For example, at Orthodox Jewish services at a synagogue, men and women will be seated separately and there will be no use of anything electronic. At a Reconstructionist, the genders sit mixed and you might hear the Rabbi use a microphone or even a guitar. All are Jewish in their own valid ways, but there’s of course bickering and stuff, different levels of strictness with the rules, etc. If you don’t already know about this, I highly recommend googling it to figure out your character’s background.

If you’re writing a fantasy world, these values can shape what the Judaism stand-in might look like, as values are truly what shape a person and a culture.

A quick need-to-know note about naming your character: Jews almost never name a baby after a living relative, only deceased ones. It’s a kind of bad luck taboo. So you will never have Moshe Sr. and Moshe Jr, but little baby Moshe might be named after his late great-grandpa Moshe.

How to Describe A Jewish Character

Image is of an Israeli singer, Yuval Dayan, whose look influenced the creation of my main character, Sarai.

Part of crafting a character is what they look like. So first, I’ll address the most common stereotypical depiction: yes, some Jews have larger noses. There is a way to “look Jewish”, but it’s far from universal, as I’ll discuss further here. I would recommend that unless you’re writing from your own experience and can add that extra nuance, don’t linger on this physical trait too much. For example, I’m Ashkenazi and Mizrahi and I have a small nose. So, I don’t focus on noses. Instead, my description of my main character Sarai (who is Sephardic and Mizrahi) focuses on olive skin, a wild mane of very thick golden-brown curls, and stunning brown eyes. For your reference, I modeled her after a picture of a singer I found once while googling for reference material.

The terms I mentioned, Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, and Sephardic, are ethnic and religious groups within the Jewish community. While Judaism is a religion, there is an argument to be made that there are ethnic groups within the religion, though one could of course be part of these ethnic groups and not be a Jew, or not be part of these groups and be a Jew (usually due to conversion). What group your Jewish character comes from will influence what they look like.

Jewish Life of the Month: Barbra Streisand — Jewish Lives
Image is of actress and singer Barbra Streisand, a famous Ashkenazi Jew.

Ashkenazi Jews are the largest group, of which I’m a part of, and the most often represented in media. We’re the ones of European descent that are the usually white Jews, though being considered white is a more modern phenomenon. While I’m so pale I’m practically see-through, we were considered separate from the European white populations and do have old Middle Eastern roots. We come from Poland, Germany, France, Lithuania, and all over Europe, really. There is a typical “Jewish” look – for an example, see Barbra Streisand. But this is far from universal. Ashkenazi Jews can be blonde, red haired, brunette, black hair. Can have ice blue eyes, brown eyes, green eyes, or any color eyes. I have grey-blue eyes. If your character is Ashkenazi in modern times, their family likely endured, escaped, or was in some way affected by the Holocaust, which is something to consider if Grandma shows up.

Sephardic Jews are another large group, though not as well represented as Ashkenazim. They come from the Jews who were expelled from Spain during the Inquisition, then migrated all over. They can be Hispanic Jews, and I’ve known many who come from South America, but they also settled along the Mediterranean and have vibrant cultures all the way from Morocco to Iraq. Their looks vary accordingly, and the key word is vary. Some can have brown skin, straight black hair, and dark eyes. Some can have thick curly hair, lighter skin, and green eyes. Most of the Sephardic people I’ve known lean towards a more typical Middle Eastern look, but that’s just been my experience within a small community. If your Jewish character is Sephardic, you’ll want to figure out where they come from, as a Sephardic Iraqi Jew will have some interesting family history and can look very different from a Sephardic Brazilian Jew. Also, totally unrelated, but Sephardic Jews have the best food. Seriously, it’s amazing. I once got the privilege of having dinner at a Sephardic Moroccan Jewish home and I will remember that meal forever. Not going into food more as a cultural thing, but that might also be something you should look up for your character.

Mizrahi Jews are from a lot of the same places as Sephardic Jews, as they come from Middle Eastern regions. Historically, they have been the descendants of Jews from western Asian countries (think the ‘stans’ aka Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, etc. and close regions) and also North African countries spanning from Morocco to Egypt. They have a lot in common with Sephardic Jews, sometimes even being conflated together. While I’m technically also Mizrahi, my family is primarily Ashkenazi and follow Ashkenazi customs, so I can’t speak to Mizrahi customs and culture on a personal level. My understanding is that Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews have many of the same customs and traditions, with the only real difference being that Sephardic origins are those who were expelled from Spain hundreds of years ago. The two groups, being in the same regions since then, have mingled a lot.

Image is of a traditional Yemeni wedding couple

There are lots of other groups of Jewish minorities as well. There’s Yemeni Jews, who everyone associates with their elaborate traditional wedding garb, with a rich cultural history.

Ethiopian Jews aka the black Jews also with a lot of history, and sometimes unwarranted persecution in modern times, most notable for being cut off from other Jewish communities and therefore not having a focus on oral tradition known as Talmud that many other Jewish communities study and incorporate.

There’s Russian Jews, Bukharan Jews, Malabar Jews, Cochin Jews; unique cultures and even whole languages are different all over the place. There’s Yiddish from Ashkenazim, Ladino from Sephardics, and a variety of Judeo-Arabic languages, as well as lots of distinct dialects like Temani/Yemenite Hebrew. In modern times, modern Hebrew is the most commonly spoken “Jewish” language (though many non-Jews also speak Hebrew), with other languages like Yiddish and Ladino waning in popularity and speakers, becoming endangered languages. So, while a modern Ashkenazi character’s grandparents might be called Bubbe (Grandma) and Zayde (Grandpa) and bicker fluently in Yiddish, the main character might only know a handful of insults (it’s a very colorful language).

Clothing

Image is of three colorful Bukharan kippot (plural for kippa)

All these groups have beautiful traditional clothing traditions and cultures, which may influence how your character presents themselves. For example, you can’t just slap a kippa (also known as a yarmulke, which is a traditional type of head-covering) on a Jewish character. They’re traditionally worn by men only, so if a woman or non-binary character wears one, you can see that they’re bucking tradition and actively making a choice to be more progressive, while also displaying that their heritage is important to them. The type of kippa also is influenced by culture. For example, a black velvet kippa might mean someone is Hasidic or Haredi, which are specific groups of Ashkenazi Jews with more orthodox leanings. A Bukharan kippa might be worn by a Sephardic Jew, but also sometimes Reform Jews and others who think they look nice or are more liberal minded. A small kippa with a Pokémon design might be a souvenir from a themed Bar Mitzvah, or just a fun novelty expressing personality. More religious characters will wear a kippa at all times, while less religious characters might only wear them during religious services, prayers, or events.

Depending on how religious a character’s background is, they might be more modest. A woman might not want to show her shoulders or wear a skirt above the knee. Or they might be a modern teenager who wears a bikini to the beach. Some Orthodox women cover their hair, particularly after they’re married, with a wig or a wrap in the name of modesty.

There are specific religious articles of clothing, such as a tzitzit for men, that should be considered if your character is more religious. But your average Conservative (please note that this does not correlate with political conservative leanings, it has to do strictly with religious practice), Reform, and Reconstructionist Jew likely won’t wear a tzitzit, though sometimes a Conservative Jew might.

Kosher

The laws of Kashrut are more extensive than just “Jews don’t eat pork”, though that is a part of it. The rule is basically “Don’t eat mammals that don’t chew their cud and have split hooves”. There’s also rules about poultry and fish, as well as the rule regarding meat and dairy. The meat and dairy rule technically states “you shouldn’t eat a calf boiled in its mother’s milk” (or something to that effect), so someone who’s more Orthodox will have two full sets of kitchen dishes, appliances, even sinks sometimes to keep meat (and anything like chicken that uses meat utensils in preparation) separate from dairy. Actually, they’ll have 4 sets total: two sets for everyday meat and dairy, then two more for Passover that they switch out, because Passover has its own avalanche of kosher rules. They’ll wait 6 hours if they eat meat before eating dairy, but I believe the rule is 1 hour you can eat meat after eating dairy. Growing up Conservative, we waited an hour instead of 6, and half hour instead of 1 hour at my house. Reform might not wait at all, or mix. I used a loophole for my ‘guilty pleasure’ of chicken parm at Italian restaurants (the rule says nothing about chicken, technically!). More religious Jews will only eat at approved kosher restaurants and need to bring their own lunch with them when going to visit non-Jews, while others might keep kosher in the house, but eat KFC when they’re out and about, or eat non-kosher food on paper plates to avoid cross contamination of the kosher plates.

Image is of roasted chicken with veggies and couscous – a standard kosher Shabbat dinner. Seriously, it’s almost always chicken cooked in an oven for Shabbat.

Keeping kosher in the house growing up wasn’t a difficult thing for me because it was just normal, a part of how I lived. It was annoying sometimes (like, if I wanted ice cream after a chicken dinner and had to wait an hour), but I didn’t see it as an inconvenience. Just how life was. As an adult, I don’t keep kosher anymore and the biggest difference for me is being able to put meat and dairy dishes together in the dishwasher. My parents would make us hand-wash all the meat dishes, which was gross particularly after Shabbat dinners on Friday nights. Shabbat and how religiously it’s observed is another thing you should think about for your character, but this post is getting long enough as it is.

The degree to how much your character keeps or doesn’t keep kosher will influence your story anytime food is brought up. Those who are more religious will have to figure out if the food is kosher, or to what degree it might be acceptable if it’s not fully kosher. Aka, chicken that hasn’t been killed humanely and blessed by a rabbi isn’t kosher, but it’s still a kosher animal so a character might let that slide, while pork and shellfish are absolutely not kosher and they might not accept that, or have their one guilty pleasure non-kosher food. (My mom’s is lobster.)

There’s a lot more to the rules, all of which you can find online. My goal here was to present how it influenced me and some of my friends growing up and our daily lives, depending on how religious we were.

In Conclusion

Without going into even more elaborate details that you should google on your own time as part of your research, this should be a good base for writing yourself a Jewish character. Wikipedia can help with the rest. It might not seem like much to some people, or maybe it doesn’t seem like it’s important, but the media we consume is vital to the health of our society. If it’s full of harmful stereotypes, it harms our society as a whole. There have been a lot of harmful tropes and stereotypes out there that fuel hatred and bigotry, and now it’s time to fix these things.

In Judaism, there’s a concept called tikun olam which translates literally to fixing the world. It’s the idea that you should help others, help society, help mend, help grow. When you write stories, be sure to make them part of tikun olam.

Image is of me, Evelyn Silver, using too many filters. Red hair, grey eyes, glasses, black lipstick, and pale skin.

If you enjoyed this post, give a like and follow for more content. Be sure to check me out on Twitter at @EternalEvelyn or Facebook and stay tuned for information on my upcoming paranormal romance novel, The Bloodline ChroniclesSubscribe to my newsletter to keep up with new developments here.

3 thoughts on “Writing Jewish Characters

  1. Pingback: Jews in Modern Fantasy: Done Right and Done Wrong | Evelyn Silver

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