One article can only say so much. As a Reform Ashkenazi Jew living in America, my experience is a tiny slice of what Jewish identity can be! Not everything I have to say will feel right for every Jewish person. It definitely won’t apply to every Jewish character!
Whether you’re a Jewish writer double-checking stereotypes or a non-Jewish writer who still hasn’t figured out how to spell Chanukah (it’s חֲנוּכָּה), I hope this guide can be a useful starting place.
What To Avoid
Jewish people have faced discrimination for thousands of years. One place that prejudice shows its ugly face is in literature, where Judaism has been used as shorthand for nasty traits. These stereotypes have justified violence and genocide. Here’s a hot tip: don’t repeat them in your writing! It can be hard to avoid stereotypes when you don’t know what they are, so here’s an incomplete list of the worst offenders.
Money: This might be the most common Jewish stereotype. Avoid writing Jewish characters as cheap, stingy, or greedy. There’s a difference between being lower-class and being miserly, so don’t be afraid to let Jewish characters confront financial issues! Just avoid tropes related to greed and controlling money.
Physical features: There are some common features in Jewish caricatures, which have been a part of violent propaganda, and it’s important to avoid them. Some are easy: just don’t give Jewish characters horns or tails. Other traits to be careful around are hooked noses, droopy eyelids, and red hair. This isn’t to say that Jewish characters (and people) can’t have those traits! My younger brother is Jewish with curly hair and a big nose. Just avoid relying on these traits to mark Jewish identity. If you only have a couple of Jewish characters, be conscious of what features you focus on.
Antisemisogyny: Jewish women get a one-two punch of misogyny on top of antisemitic tropes. This ranges from physical stereotypes (lots of body hair and large noses), to stock characters (nagging mothers doting on sons, spoiled Jewish American Princesses), to older romance narratives portraying Jewish women as “exotic” and desirable because of their otherness. It’s all sexist, and you should avoid it.
Gentile savior narratives: Like any marginalized group, too many stories feature Jewish people being saved by non-Jewish rescuers. Just don’t do it! Your Jewish characters can totally be in community with non-Jewish people, but they shouldn’t be dependent on them. If your story describes Jewish struggles but focuses on how non-Jews resolve them, you need to rethink that story.
Christian paradigms: Judaism and Christianity are both Abrahamic religions, but Judaism isn’t just Christianity minus Christ. Western culture is saturated with Christian tropes, from names (Trinity, Christopher) to ideas about what religion is (focus on sin and the afterlife). Be sure your Jewish characters don’t see the world in ways that are founded on Christian practice.
Conspiracy theories: Conspiracies have been used to justify antisemitic violence, both historically and in the modern day. One of the most famous is blood libel: the rumor that Jewish people kill Christians, often children, and use their blood in religious rituals. Conspiracies run the gamut from well poisoning to world-dominating Jewish cabals, Holocaust denial, and recently, Jewish space lasers. None of these conspiracy theories are true! They’ve still been leveraged to intimidate, oppress, and actively harm Jewish communities. Representing your Jewish characters as lizards and space-laser-operators is out, no matter how cool a fantasy narrative you might develop.
You may read Jewish writers who are taking on stereotypical subjects in their work. Coming from the community in question, we can recognize and engage with these stereotypes, and things that don’t apply to all Jewish people can still apply to some! If you’re not Jewish, this isn’t your space to play in.
Remember that the easiest way to avoid stereotypes is to avoid tokenism. If your narrative needs a Jewish character that embodies a harmful trope, make sure that you have other Jewish characters who don’t represent that trope!
How To Do It Right
The best way to write respectfully is to do your research. Read books, blogs, and articles like this one. Read writing by Jewish people about Jewish people. Consider your character’s relationship to Judaism, the tradition they’re a part of, and how other parts of their character impact their religion. Above all, get feedback from actual Jewish people: friends, religious leaders, and writers. Make sure they’re up for these conversations (don’t interrogate people) and do what you can to educate yourself. You’ll get the best feedback from people who can engage with your writing and beliefs!
While you’re in conversation with them, recognize the diversity of Jewish people. There are historical Jewish communities in the Middle East, North Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, and elsewhere. People also convert to Judaism. Not all Jewish people are white European Ashkenazim, and Jewish people can come from any ethnic and racial group. Religious identity is only one facet of a character, and it’s realistic to show Jews from different backgrounds.
It’s also important to recognize the diversity of Judaism itself. Practicing Jews can be Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform. They may be part of a subgroup like the Hasidic community. There’s so much diversity of belief! Your character might even be Culturally Jewish, celebrating holidays with family and eating matzo ball soup without practicing religiously. It’s important to have a sense of how your character relates to their ethno-religious Jewish identity and traditions.
Identity Markers For Jewish Characters
So how do you show that a character is Jewish without playing into harmful tropes? You can always just say it—you’re the writer, and you have the freedom to be clear. Still, you’ll want to show how Judaism is a part of their life, even if it isn’t central to your narrative. Here are some suggestions to get you started!
Religious dress: Your character might dress modestly, like covering their collarbone. They may also cover their hair with a hat like a kippah or yarmulke, a mitpachat (headscarf), or a sheitel (wig). This is likely if they’re Orthodox. If not, they might still wear a necklace with a Magen David (Star of David). Different traditions have different clothing.
Religious observance: Your character might attend services at a Synagogue, talk with their Rabbi, or attend a Bat/Bar/B’nai Mitzva. They might practice Judaism with their family at home: celebrating holidays like Passover, hanging a mezuzah by their door, or observing Shabbat.
Cultural practices: Regardless of religious observance, a character can have rich cultural traditions. They might have the best family challah recipe around (like me) or speak some Yiddish. Even if it’s something as tropey as eating Chinese food on Christmas (my family does it!), it’s a part of their identity.
Representation is important. If you’re a writer looking to incorporate ethnic and religious diversity or have a story you know Jewish characters belong in, don’t let a lack of experience hold you back.
If you avoid Jewish stereotypes, research Jewish practices, and get feedback from Jewish people, you can write great Jewish characters!
About the Author: Kahlo Smith is a Jewish woman and fantasy writer living in Santa Cruz, California. When she isn’t brainstorming horror concepts or editing manuscripts, you can find her hunting Bigfoot through the woods, tailoring clothes for frog plushies, and fueling a rampant sugar addiction.