Why I only create (various levels of) observant Jewish characters

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Paradesi Synagogue, Cochin, India (Copyright Jean-Pierre Dalbéra)

It’s so, so important to me to create religious Jewish characters, no matter which denomination they’re from. I have Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Traditional, Reconstructionist, New Age, Renewal, and a few other movements represented among my many characters. In short, I’m writing what I know, what I can relate to. While I know many good people who are more into the thrice a year Judaism common in North America, that’s just not something I personally can understand. I’ve been living a Jewish life for half of my life now, and I’ve always gone to shul every week, kept kosher, dressed modestly, kept the Sabbath, studied Torah, and been actively involved in my various communities.

It’s important to me to counteract the ridiculous images in so many movies and TV shows, with a 99% intermarriage and interdating rate, Ashkenazocentrism (i.e., acting like only people of Central and Eastern European descent exist or count), no kosher, unfunny “jokes,” and basically no iota of actual Judaism. My characters all have observant homes with weekly shul attendance, and the bar or bat mitzvah is a religious occasion, not all about some vulgar, overblown party afterwards.

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Towers of the Great Synagogue of Dohány Utca (Street), Budapest, Copyright Maciej Podstolski

My ex grew up in a home without any Judaism, with parents and grandparents who are still mentally in the USSR. He tried to get them to do Shabbos and holidays a few times when he was younger, but they screamed at him and told him they don’t do Judaism. Their mezuzah is hung on the wrong side of the door, inside the house, and at the wrong place and angle. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s no scroll in there! They eat treyf all the time, and never go to shul or observe holidays. The few times I was able to drag my ex to one of the three shuls within 5 minutes of his parents’ house, he refused to go there at the normal starting time, always left early, and couldn’t wait to get out of there the entire time, even on Simchat Torah of all holidays.

Seriously, the relationship my ex has with his overbearing, Harpy mommy makes the mother-son relationship in White Heat look normal. That family has issues way beyond their abandonment of their so-called religion.

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Tempio Maggiore Israelitico of Firenze (Florence), Copyright Deror avi

My characters have a religious, not a secular or cultural, connection to Judaism. It’s not about matzah ball soup, the Catskills, gossiping with friends in shul, or grandparents with names like Rosie and Hymie. It’s kind of hard for Jewish continuity to be nurtured when one grows up in a household without Shabbos, only sporadic shul attendance, no kosher, and some feel-good cultural connection. Odd how so many of these parents, after doing jack to create a proper Jewish home, get really upset when their kids want to marry a non-Jew. Look at the example you set!

I do have a couple of intermarriages among my characters, but they’re in a very small minority, and most of them culminated in a sincere conversion, either before or after marriage. Many of these couples also began dating in secret, and even married in secret, since they knew it’s kind of a really big deal. I don’t want anything to do with perpetuating the media’s depiction of an off the charts intermarriage rate. A huge reason the world Jewish community still hasn’t demographically recovered from the Shoah is because of a very low birthrate and high intermarriage rate.

There’s also no half and half crap, which studies show tends to confuse and alienate kids once they’re past the “Twice the presents!” phase. My intermarried characters’ children are raised Jewish only, and my characters Livia and Liam will raise their kids Jewitch.

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New Harbin Synagogue, China (opened 1909, recently restored and reopened)

Re: Ashkenazocentrism, I like to give my characters all sorts of backgrounds. Yes, most of them are of various types of European descent, but they’re from all over Europe, not just Poland and the former Russian Empire. My Ashkenazic characters aren’t ruled by superstitions either, like only and always naming kids after dead relatives, or claiming a single initial counts as a namesake. As a name nerd, I’d feel so unhappy and limited if I were compelled to only name my potential kids after dead relatives instead of using original names I loved.

Most of all, I want readers to know Judaism is a year-round, daily affair, not just something one does thrice a year. I love writing holiday scenes (both for food and celebrations), describing synagogue architecture, discussing laws and customs, depicting women going to the mikvah (ritual bath), having characters walking to shul on Shabbos and holidays, writing Jewish weddings, you name it.

I’ve reached an age where I have to be realistic about my chances of ever having children (either in a marriage or as a single mom by choice), but if I’m fated to be forever childfree, I know I’ve been fruitful and multiplied in other ways. A big part of that is creating characters who serve as positive ambassadors of observant Judaism.

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6 thoughts on “Why I only create (various levels of) observant Jewish characters

  1. I think Judaism is fascinating to those of us outside it. Or at least to me it is. My Jewish community is strictly orthodox, (and my neighbour really is called Jaime), and it seems like a secret society. I’n not sure we have any Jewitches here though. Interesting post, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  2. I just read a children’s story called Anya’s War about a young Jewish girl during Hitler times. It was fascinating learning about the Jewish customs, especially for Shabbat.

    I’ve never heard of Jewitch. I think that’s neat.

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    • I particularly like Jewitchery because it changes the languages of prayers and blessings to refer to a female instead of male deity. I’ve never sat right with the longstanding tradition of referring to the Divine with exclusively male pronouns.

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  3. Pingback: Writing about vintage Judaica | Welcome to My Magick Theatre

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