Van Wallach
A Jew from Texas, who knew?

Francie, Sonny and Shaft: Talking about the Jews

How do Jews appear through the eyes of others in fiction? Classic negative images like Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Fagin in Oliver Twist and Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby come to mind. There must be many others. I started thinking about more recent examples a few years ago when I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. The plentiful Jewish references led to a blog post, here.

The line of inquiry returned a few weeks ago when I read Manchild in the Promised Land, published in 1965 by Claude Brown. I found it on the discard pile at the local library, a constant source of literary gems. The Harlem native wrote the thinly disguised memoir of his chaotic but ultimately hopeful life from the early 1940s to around 1960. The book brims with Jewish references, and they are often caustic, shading into respectful and affectionate.

One book led to another and suddenly I saw narrative connections. I added a third book to my scan of Jews in non-Jewish literature. Shaft Among the Jews, by Ernest Tidyman, made sense because it boasts one of the most slamming titles ever and, well, JOHN SHAFT, you know, he’s the one won’t cop out when there’s danger all about! Shaft! Jews! Can you dig it?

The three books cover a lot of New York history from 1910 to 1972, with Smith in the years bracketing World War I, Brown at midcentury and Tidyman setting Shaft in a few weeks in the early 1970s of a sinking New York wracked by crime, disorder and decay. Read end to end, they make a compelling trilogy of innocence, action, awakenings and keen social observations about the many strata of New York civilization.

(This could turn into a long-term blog project. No doubt more books will come my way with Jewish characters who go in completely different directions from those in these books. In fact, while writing this piece, I found a new novel that shows one modern incarnation of Jews in literature: The Border by Don Winslow. it moves into territory unimaginable by the characters of Smith and Brownbut Tidyman’s Shaft could see that book happening. Read to the end of this post to discover what I mean.)

All the books delve into characters’ views on and interactions with Jews. They agree on one big point: Jews are very shifty in business, always ready to cheat their customers. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn includes this scene, where the main character, Francie Nolan, and her mother Katie go shopping for a hat, with the shop owner talking to them:

“I want you should listen.” The woman made her voice deep and sincere. “They say that by the Jews, money is everything. By me is different. When I get a pretty hat and it goes with a pretty customer, something happens to me here.” She put her hand on her heart. “I get so . . . profits is nothing. I give free.” She pushed the bag into Katie’s hand. “Take the hat for four dollars. That’s what it cost me wholesale.” She sighed. “Believe me, a business woman I shouldn’t be. Better I should be a picture painter.”

The price finally settles at $2.50, with a reluctantly offered dime for a box.

“I give it to you so cheap, you should come back next time you buy a hat. But don’t expect such bargains next time.” Katie laughed, as they left, the woman said, “Wear it in good health.”

“Thank you.”

As the door closed on them, the woman whispered bitterly, “Goyem!” and spat after them.

Jumping 40 or so years forward, Manchild in the Promised Land portrays how Muslim preachers stirred up Harlem residents with economic arguments. This is one of several passages that lash out at the reviled “Goldberg” as a generic term for Jews in business. Brown wrote,

This was a way in which they couldn’t lose, because when a guy up on 125th Street started talking about how Goldberg who’s got the haberdashery right there on the corner paid him something like forty dollars a week for two years, when he was a grown man, and how he started working for Brother So-and-So down at his rib joint on 116th Street, and is now making seventy-five dollars a week, everybody’s got to get up and say, “Yeah, yeah. That no-good Goldberg ought to go.”

The people would holler, “Yeah! Yeah! Them goddamn Jews killed my Jesus too!” It’s easy to build up this sort of feeling among the home folks when one of the people in the neighborhood, the boy used to work in the butcher store and became a Muslim, says, “Mr. Greenberg didn’t sell you any good meat. Some of that meat was years old. Some of that meat had been in there for days, and it was almost blue, because it had spoiled so long. But he’d shellac it or something to make it look like it was unspoiled, to make it look like it was almost fresh.”

The people could believe these speakers. They knew them. They knew that they had worked at these places and that they should know what they were talking about.

In another scene, Brown’s main character, Sonny, and his parents appear in court in a personal-injury lawsuit related to Sonny getting hit by a bus. His father knew just the kind of lawyer he wanted: “Dad said we were bound to get a lot of money if we had a good Jewish lawyer from way downtown. But I knew damn well we were going to need a lot more than a good Jewish lawyer that morning.”

Unlike Brown and Smith, Tidyman’s John Shaft is an adult, dealing with financial negotiations with Chasidic diamond merchants on New York’s West 47th Street, on a potential case involving murders and missing diamonds. The two sides dicker over fees and expenses. Shaft thinks they look like cowboys in their big black hats, and the Chasids speak in front of Shaft in Yiddish and use an insulting slang term that he doesn’t pick up on. The two sides finally agree on a fee approach that could net Shaft an enormous payday, but . . .

There was an interruption in Yiddish from the couch.

The leader acknowledged the reminder. “But no expenses,” he said.

Shaft’s quick resentment reminded him that he didn’t like Jews. He was tired, annoyed, and hardly rational about what he resented. The chiseling bastards.

“Yeah, well, you just collect yourselves and get the f-ck out of here,” he said. “I’m gonna count the ashtrays and go home.”

Moving up in a rough world

I’m quoting these examples to set out the reality of perspectives about Jews in these books. It’s a rough world; people think and act on stereotypes and extrapolate from their own experiences to a broader population. Such is human nature. That being said, I didn’t see these books themselves as anti-semitic or one-sided, even if some of the characters leaned that way. Instead, the characters grapple with new experiences, exceptions to what they think they know, and the realities of another culture. In halting steps, they learn about the wider world.

Together, the three books trace the tumult of Jewish life in New York and, in Tidyman’s book, in Israel; The Border stands apart from them. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn depicts the immigrant experience, struggling Yiddish-speaking tradesmen in an unforgiving metropolis. The book shows the rise of a professional class, represented by a doctor who plays a key role in the book’s conclusion. Francie’s perceptions of her Jewish neighbors also present a refreshing female view, often sympathetic with a knack for connecting the lives of others to her own.

In one section, Francie’s mother Katie explains that Jews are still waiting for the Messiah and each woman thinks she may be the Messiah’s mother. Hence, Francie sees behavior of the “Pregnant Jewess” as a marker of cultural distinctions:

“I guess that’s why the Jews have so many babies,” Francie thought. “And why they sit so quiet . . . waiting. And why they aren’t ashamed the way they are fat. Each one thinks that she might be making the real little Jesus. That’s why they walk so proud when they’re that way. Now the Irish women always look so ashamed. They know they can never make a Jesus. It will be just another Mick. When I grow up and know that I am going to have a baby. I will remember to walk proud and slow even though I am not a Jew.”

Manchild in the Promised Land builds on encounters with Jews, often in the social-services field: social workers, teachers, lawyers and students. The children of Smith’s shopkeepers grew up,  moved on and built their own neighborhoods. One character remarks, contrasting Jews to blacks in the thrall of Harlem preachers:

“You ever been out to them Jewish neighborhoods? In Long Island, in Brooklyn, in the Bronx, man, they don’t have a whole lot of bars and liquor stores. Hell no! They have their synagogues; they have their bakeries, their grocery stores, their delicatessens . . . but they don’t have a lot of bars and liquor stores. Man, those people aren’t that easily bullsh–ted. They knew where it’s at. You know why? They know how to get that money; they know the value of money. They’re not going to be just going out here talking about ‘glory be to God.’ They know they got to get that money.”

Sonny’s life and perceptions begin to change when he encounters caring Jews during his stays at reform schools for troubled boys. He winds up working at the house of Al Cohen, superintendent of the Warwick juvenile facility. Sonny becomes friends with Mrs. Cohen, “the nicest lady I ever met.” She encourages Sonny to think seriously about high school and even college. She sees great potential in Sonny, although he says, “Cats like me were smoking pot and having gang fights and running around with little funky girls. Those other cats were the kind who went to school. Cats like me, they didn’t do anything but go to jail.”

Yet Mrs. Cohen never gives up on Sonny. He reads the autobiography of Mary McLeod Bethune, the daughter of slaves who started a private school for African-American students in Florida. He knew who she was, and after reading the her book “I felt a little smart afterward.” In short order he reads biographies of Jackie Robinson, Sugar Ray Robinson, Albert Schweitzer and Albert Einstein. He keeps turning to Mrs. Cohen’s library. Sonny muses, “I really started wanting to know things. I wanted to know things, and I wanted to do things. It made me start thinking about what might happen if I got out of Warwick and didn’t go back to Harlem.” 

Confronting the Holocaust

Characters in Manchild and Shaft both encounter the aftermath of the Holocaust, which came after the time frame of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Awareness of the colossal impact of the Holocaust colors their relationships.

One of the most poignant sections of Manchild takes place at the Wiltwyck facility. Tough, streetwise Sonny finds himself grappling with emotions he can barely understand, connected to an older woman who treats him kindly and shares her story (I’m assuming she’s Jewish, although that’s not stated):

The lady who lived in Aggrey House was Mrs. Meitner. She was from Germany and sounded like it. Mrs. Meitner once had a big house in Germany, and her family used to grow a lot of grapes and make a lot of wine. I guess she was kind of rich. When Hitler took over the country, he took Mrs. Meitner’s house, put her in a concentration camp, killed her husband and most of her friends . . . . Every day I saw Mrs. Meitner, I liked her more and more. One day we were sitting on the wall near the shrine, just me and Mrs. Meitner, and I asked her how old she was. She wouldn’t tell me, not even when I said I was in love with her and wanted to know if she was too old for me. She just smiled and said she was too young for me. She told me she had a grown son who was an architect. After that she looked at me for a long time.

Several hours later they meet in her rooms, smoke cigarettes and look through a photo album of her pre-war life. Sonny writes, “I kept watching her eyes and her face and she looked like a little girl, a very pretty, happy little girl. I was sorry I didn’t know her when she was my age, because I knew she must have been real pretty . . . and happy.” . . . .

Lying in my bed thinking about it that night, I felt that I had done something crazy—I had fallen in love with the nicest lady I knew, and for no reason, I decided that I didn’t hate Mrs. Meitner’s husband, and I wished that the Germans hadn’t killed him. But I still wished that I had been married to her for all those years and that her architect son was our architect. I just knew her eyes used to have a brighter light and were even deeper then. . . . No, I didn’t hate her husband, I couldn’t, because he had been part of her happiness. I hated Hitler for not letting her stay happy. 

In Shaft Among the Jews, Tidyman creates a world where many of the characters are Jewish, a collision of Mossad agents prowling New York for an Israeli scientist who invented a way to create high-quality diamonds with lasers, his beautiful daughter, Chasidic diamond dealers and Jewish detectives. Shaft and his friends from the No Name Bar weave in and out of the scenes and drive the action (and body count). The raw ethnic observations of Manchild and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn are mostly absent; John Shaft has an investigation to run, mostly undercover on a cleaning crew at a building that houses a larcenous high-end jewelry merchant with a hidden Jewish past in Germany. Shaft has no time for philosophy beyond his comment that he considered Jews “chiseling bastards,” until he hears the terms of the deal they offer him.

In a sharp break from the other books, Shaft Among the Jews shows different segments of Jews, often in conflict with one other. The hard-hitting detective yarn depicts a world where Jews have advanced past the us vs. them scenario to one full of Jewish crooks, Jewish spies and Jewish cops. And beautiful Jewish women. Shaft is navigating his way among many different types of Jews, which gives the title an extra zing. 

The Holocaust obliquely colors the story. The Mossad leader, Ben Fischer, is a Stern Gang veteran of battles against every enemy of the Jews. Tidyman writes,

He was not a patient man. Even when circumstances forced him to act like one. He had spent his life waiting . . . waiting in the catacomb cellars of Jerusalem apartment houses while the Tommies searched the rooms above, their hobnailed boots clattering up the stairwells. And after his Stern Gang days, the waiting in Montevideo . . . Buenos Aires . . . Caracas for a man to show his face, a man who had left his past in the horrors of Ravensbruck or Dachau—left his past, but not his guilt.

Fischer brings a team to New York with heavy weaponry and a cold dedication to his mission, whatever the body count. The book ably depicts the tensions among Jews. Here, Fischer sizes up Aaron Feldman, NYPD:

Fischer paused a moment. Feldman was a Jew, but he was also a police officer, a New York City police officer, whose mother probably wanted to visit Israel but who would be more concerned himself about getting his four-year-old Ford to Jones Beach next summer. He would not, on the basis of an assumed kinship, ignore the fact that Israeli security agents were operating in his territory. Did Italian cops protect the Mafia? Did black cops shrug at militant lawlessness? God may have chosen the Jew, but the New York Police Department didn’t. Feldman would be watching.

Fischer forced a tight smile. “Shalom.”

“Shalom,” Feldman repeated, not looking up. Bastards, he thought.

The Holocaust comes into play in a similar setting, a discussion between a jewelry dealer, Morris Blackburn, angling to get the process of creating diamonds with lasers from the inventor, a friend of his family in pre-war Germany. The Holocaust is a cynical bargaining tool, worlds away from the source of the pain that Sonny felt when talking with Mrs. Meitner:

Morris Blackburn groaned inwardly. He detested the elderly and their damned moralizing. Old Jews were the worst. Every one was a philosopher. The only thing that made this one at all bearable was eh fact that he was also an alchemist, a wizard, a bringer of riches.

“I feel very strongly about the past,” Blackburn said. “Every Jew is keenly aware of the millions who died . . . the people, my parents included, who were sacrificed. Now all of that is behind us, Avrim. The world goes on . . . but I believe we owe them a debt . . .  a debt that must be paid.” He mouthed what he knew the old fool wanted to hear.

Herzel smiled. “Yes, Moshe, we owe them a debt. It took the holocaust to stir the conscience of the Gentiles. Now we have Israel. A sacred trust.” He sipped a little water and rose from the table. “I am very tired, Moishe . . . terribly tired.” 

Encounters with Jewish women

Besides sharing awareness of the Holocaust, Manchild in the Promised Land and Shaft Among the Jews both go beyond business or social work connections into the realm of romance. Shaft is protecting Cara Herzel, the daughter of the inventor Avrim. She stays hidden in his apartment, away from the Mossad, while he does the messy things that Shaft does when there’s danger all about. Beyond his hard exterior, Shaft has a soft spot in his heart for Cara. He doesn’t make a big deal out of her Jewishness, reflected mostly in her Israeli accent and “the black richness of her hair.” Shaft finds the “overtness of her sexuality” surprising, when she shares such thoughts as

“Yes,” she said, her voice low, husky. She shared his smile. “I won’t shatter. You don’t have to be so . . . gentle with me, Mr. Sha-aft.”

Nature takes its course. In one scene soon afterward, one of the diamond merchants who had hired Shaft comes by to discuss the case. For all Cara’s raven-haired allure, Mr. Solomon still sees the old-fashioned balabusta in Cara’s behavior:

Simon Solomon sat on the couch, balancing a cup of coffee on one knee and a plate of dry toast on the other. If there was one sure way of telling a Jewish woman from a shiksa, it was her insistence on serving a “little something” with every beverage. She had thrust the coffee and toast on him even though he felt far too agitated for either.

The relationship with Cara looks good until, alas, Cara needs to leave. You know where she’s going.

“Don’t go back, Cara. It’s too cold to go anywhere.”

“It’s warm in Tel Aviv,” she said.

“It’s warm in Acapulco too. It’s warm in Tahiti. Have you ever been to Tahiti?”

He reached over and held onto her hand. Hell, she’s never been anywhere or done anything. He had thought of a million things to do with her and now they wouldn’t do any of them.

“Why are you leaving now? My first day out of that place.” [Referring to jail]

She gave his hand a quick, hard squeeze. “If I didn’t leave no, I would never leave. No, Mr. Sha-aft, I must go back to Israel. I have a job to do there . . . a duty.”

“Israel!” Shaft said bitterly. “Ben Fischer territory.”

“Every country has its Ben Fischers.” . . . .

“Okay, you’ve got to do your duty. Don’t be too surprised if you see me there one day. What the hell, I got a right to go there. I got like six pints of Jewish blood in my veins.” [Referring to a transfusion after being shot.]

“The best,” she said. “The Hassidim are noted for the purity of their blood.”

(That last line, about “purity of blood,” knocked me for a loop. That does not sound at all like a Jewish concept.)

As he did on street preachers, social service agencies, the police, the drug pushers and Harlem politicians, Claude Brown always spoke his mind on Jewish-black relations. His youthful, unrequited feelings about Mrs. Meitner hint at Sonny’s emotional openness and needs. The book reaches the far shore of feelings on the matter when Sonny meets Judy, a fellow student at Washington Irving High School. They bond over jazz discussions and pie at the Automat and make plans to get together. Judy suggests she come pick her up at her home on the Upper West Side, but Claude (in this part of the book he’s not calling himself Sonny) demurs based on his perception of how parents really feel about interracial relationships:

“Oh, my folks are rather broad-minded. We’re Jewish, you know.”

“I didn’t know, but I sort of suspected it.”

“My parents are not prejudiced, and they would treat you nicely. They would show you the same hospitality they would show any other fellow.”

His emotional wariness around women lessens as they stroll through Greenwich Village for jazz and folk music and dining, then sharing their first impetuous kiss, followed by the second kiss. Their frank conversations circle back to the issue that Claude first identified about going to Judy’s home:

I said, I don’t know what it is, Judy, but there seems to be a strong attraction between Jewish people and Negroes. Most of the white girls who you see around here going with colored fellows will be Jewish. And most of the white guys you see going with colored girls will be Jewish guys.”

“Oh, I didn’t know that. I don’t know of anybody who has done anything like that. I thought it was a very unusual thing.”

“It is, but when it does happen, it’s with Jewish people.”

The relationship blossoms for six months. Claude plays jazz ballads like “I’m in the Mood for Love” and “These Foolish Things Remind Me of You” for Judy on his piano. Claude muses, “I had seen chicks with much finer bodies, but they never seemed to have the mind and womanly sweetness to go with it.” Judy broaches the topics of marriage and children. Claude responds to her romantic notions with a grim view directly tied to their identities:

“And if a Jewish person marries a colored person, this is murder. Life is going to be twice as hard for both of them. Then, just think about the kids you’d have. Damn. Can you imagine a kid being born a Jew and a Negro? You’ve struck out before you even start. It seems like a cruel thing to do to a child, bring a child into the world of Jewish and Negro parents.”

She looked at me silently for a while. Then she said, “Do you really believe this?”

“Sometimes I feel that way.

Judy fades from the scene, “ghosting” him in the modern terminology, with no explanation. Claude has a Jewish friend call her house, and her supposedly broad-minded mother refuses to say where Judy is, other than she’d been sent to Connecticut for the summer. Claude’s pain and desperation for connection with Jewish Judy bleeds off the page:

For a long time, I was sorry I’d ever stopped that time when Judy called to me in the hall with that “Hey, there.” I remembered it for a long time. For a long time, I expected the phone to ring or thought I’d get a letter. Nothing came. 

Looking at others looking at the New Jewish Man

Smith, Brown and Tidyman wrote books that made me stop and think. I was looking at others as they looked at Jewish individuals and communities. I found the language and scenes jolting, refreshing and revealing. What did their characters see, and how does that compare to Jewish authors looking at their communities? 

The next question is: what are non-Jewish authors seeing these days? Immigrant peddlers are gone. What are the emerging trends? John Shaft saw the future almost a half-century ago with his interactions with Mossad agents and Jewish tough guys. A 2019 vision emerged in the new novel The Border by Don Winslow, the last book in a trilogy. Winslow knows where to go for the authentic color in this tale of Mexican cartel violence and vengeance with the DEA and American politics mixed in.

In this scene, John Callan is a retired cartel assassin living in Costa Rica, where his instinct to help a friend draws the wrong kind of attention to him:

Another guy, maybe in his forties, Callan thinks, starts in as the van pulls south onto the road, toward El Sauzal. “What do you want? What are you doing here?”

He’s not a Mexican, and from his accent Callan makes him to be Israeli. It doesn’t surprise himthe Barreras used to use a lot of former Israeli military as security.

“I want to speak with Señora Sanchez.”

“Why? What for?” the Israeli asks.

“There’s a problem.

The problem earns Callan a severe beating and a pistol shot right past his ear, but things work  out so that he survives. Still . . .

The adrenaline is wearing off and his body is starting to hurt. Lev’s guys are professionalsno bones are brokenbut the bruises are deep.

Lev and his professionals show up several hundred pages later, when John Callan leads one cartel’s climactic raid on the hideout of another cartel. Lev and three other Israelis“They’re very good”are part of an 18-man attack team. Their skills shine through, such as this description of a pilot: “Lev has one of his own guys, an Israeli Air Force veteran used to dropping in and out of Syria and Lebanon.”

Winslow also shows a high appreciation for advanced firepower:

Two of the Israelis will carry MATADOR (Man-Portable, Anti-Tank, Anti-Door) shoulder-fired rocket launchers to rip a gap into the fence, punchy through any walls, or take out an armored SUV.

I won’t give away how the raid goes down, but it does include the memorable phrase, “Shalom, motherf–ker.” You can fill in the details. Still, Winslow gives a vivid take on the New Jewish Man to emerge from Israel after the Holocaust, moving on from the IDF with skills that make them eminently employable in specialized areas of professional services. Granted, “Lev’s guys” lack personality or back story, but they sound like a type that could be as common in current fiction as the Yiddish-speaking peddlers and earnest social workers who populated fiction from the last 100 years.

As the academic journals like to say, the topic calls for further research.

About the Author
Van "Ze'ev" Wallach is a writer in Westchester County, NY. A native of Mission, Texas, he holds an economics degree from Princeton University. His work as a journalist appeared in Advertising Age, the New York Post, Venture, The Journal of Commerce, Newsday, Video Store, the Hollywood Reporter, and the Jewish Daily Forward. A language buff, Van has studied Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew, although he can’t speak any of them. He is the author of "A Kosher Dating Odyssey." He is a budding performer at open-mic events.
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