In an age of rising anti-Semitism, it's more critical than ever to have Jewish American action type heroes. But finding Jewish American action heroes isn't easy, and portraits of Jews, for the most part, remain depressingly familiar. As a Jewish American writer of thrillers, I found it disturbing on both a personal and a professional level.
Jewish action heroes in books or film generally fall into two categories - Jewish resistance heroes in World War II or Israeli tough guys - like Daniel Silva's Gabriel Allon. Ever since Leon Uris penned Exodus and created Ari Ben Canaan, ( who was played in the movie by the gorgeous Paul Newman) Israelis, love them or hate them, have been portrayed as tough and smart protagonists in novels and on television. If there are Jewish secret agents or action figures in non-World War II fiction of any kind, they will be Israelis. Not American Jews. For non-Israeli Jewish heroes, look to World War II. While books and media about the Holocaust, often portray Jews as victims or as being rescued by brave non-Jews, occasionally Jews do inhabit more heroic roles. Inglourious Bastords shows a Jewish American military unit killing Nazis. Defiance depicted the acts of Jewish partisans. In novels, John Hersey's The Wall and Leon Uris' Mila 18 portray the heroism of the Jews who mounted the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
It's much rarer to see American Jews portrayed as heroic in film or television in a contemporary setting - risking their lives to stop evil. There is the Amazon Prime television show Hunters - in which Al Pacino leads a group to fight against a Nazi threat in the United States. But these kinds of shows are rare. On television, Jewish American characters are more likely to be depicted in leading roles in comedies rather than in leading roles in suspense or thrillers: Seinfeld, the Amazing Mrs. Maisel, the Goldbergs, the Nanny, the New Girl. Unfortunately, comedies all too often get their jokes from playing up Jewish stereotypes - the loud and obnoxious Jewish mother in the Goldbergs, the Jewish American Princess, as personified by the shoe and hat conscious Midge. Beyond those explicit caricatures, Jewish American characters tend to be shown as intelligent but neurotic, maladjusted, and of course, cheap.
I was recently struck by the lack of fully rounded Jewish characters in television while watching the last season of a popular television detective show, placed in Los Angeles. In the city of Los Angeles, Jews make up seventeen percent of the population, the largest Jewish community outside New York and Israel. But in this show, which has depicted the Latino and the Black community and characters with depth and sympathy, I can remember no characters explicitly identified as Jewish - until the final season when a rich man arrested for a Ponzi scheme identifies himself as Jewish (and there was no reason for him to claim a Jewish identity) in a conversation with his attorney. Not only had the Jewish culture of Los Angeles been ignored in the series, the only character who is openly named as Jewish in the series is someone whose depiction as a rich, greedy, dishonest coward would have won approval from Goebbels.
So what about the world of literature?
There is of course a wider range of Jewish American portraits in novels than on television. Literary fiction is filled with sympathetic Jewish American characters, but not necessarily action heroes. There are some mysteries with Jewish American protagonists. Faye Kellerman writes a detective series with a Jewish police detective; Henry Kemelman wrote novels with a mystery solving rabbi; Michael Chabon wrote The Yiddish Policemen's Union.
But I mainly read suspense and thrillers, especially in the espionage realm. And I remain unaware of Jewish American protagonists or heroes in the thriller genre, and especially in the world of espionage. Harlan Coben comes pretty close with his Myron Bolitar series, but Myron , the Jewish character, is a sports agent, not a secret agent, who leaves much of the heavy violence to his deadly buddy, Win.
Why does it matter?
I've been thinking about this lately in part because I write an espionage thriller series with a American Jewish immigrant to the United States from Russia as the hero. (Check out Trojan Horse and Nerve Attack on my other pages.) And yes, there is some self-interest in promoting my own work. But, I'm also thinking about it because of the rise in anti-Semitism.
In recent years, the old stereotypes about Jews that had been driven underground have remerged, and this is not helped by media and books that show Jews as victims, or worse, as intelligent neurotics, as money hungry, bossy, loud, or, as in the case of the seventh season of the detective show mentioned above, financial criminals.
And while American Jews do work in the CIA and American Jews are members of the military in real life, they still face discrimination. According to a discrimination lawsuit filed by a Jewish attorney fired by the CIA, not only was he accused of dual loyalties, but he was described as being "rich" and having a "wealthy" father. Separately, Darrell Blocker, a 28-year veteran of the CIA and a Jewish Black American, in a 2020 interview described the suspicion with which his Jewish colleagues were regarded, suspicion which he ironically avoided because colleagues perceived him as a Black American rather than as a Jewish American.
To combat prejudice, it's necessary to break stereotypes. American Jews work in the intelligence field and the military in real life, and we should see them in those kind of roles in novels and television, not just as doctors, lawyers, bankers, comedians, writers. Fictional characters have the power to engage our sympathy and admiration. It's important to see members of non-mainstream groups, and this includes Jews, in different kinds of roles, especially, in the role of heroes, in the vital fight against prejudice.
Books, movies, or television won't defeat those who will persist in their hatred. Having more Jewish American heroes won't muzzle neo-Nazis, and it will take a lot more than simply changing the roles inhabited by Jewish characters to counter the rise in anti-Semitism. But it's a start. Fiction, television, and movies play critical roles in our society in enlarging empathy, in allowing us to understand and identify with people other than those in our own circles, and by portraying minorities in non-stereotypical roles, start to change perception.
It's time for more Jewish American action heroes.