Jews in Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Jews in Literature


Jews in Literature

Jews have been a presence in continental literature since the Middle Ages and in American literature since the nineteenth century. Christian writers, as scholars point out, have been fairly consistent in representing Jews in terms of the ethnic stereotype, but that trend has been shifting in the second half of the twentieth century toward a more complex and realistic characterization. In literature as well as in western culture, Jews have been traditionally portrayed as foreign, mysterious aliens associated with money (especially money-lending) and power in society. Shylock, one of the central characters of William Shakespeare's drama The Merchant of Venice (1600), perhaps best exemplifies this kind of characterization.

Modern critics have actively investigated the attitude of many major writers toward Jews as evidenced in their personal writings as well as in their works. For example, Maud Ellmann has explored the image of Jews projected in the works of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, finding implied anti-Semitism in the case of Eliot, and very overt anti-Semitism in Pound's poetry and radio speeches delivered during World War II. Leopold Bloom, the hero of James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), has been the subject of numerous studies, notably by Harry Girling. Ronald Granofsky has connected elements of anti-Semitism in the writings of D. H. Lawrence with his ideas regarding race and masculinity. Pointing out both conscious and subconscious strains of anti-Semitism in the writings of Virginia Woolf and Stevie Smith, Phyllis Lassner has discussed the two writers' responses to the coming of World War II. In a similar vein, Susan Rubin Suleiman has examined Jean-Paul Sartre's Refléxions sur la question juive (1946), discovering buried anti-Semitic elements in this essay criticizing the treatment of Jews in France.

In the latter part of the twentieth century, the image of Jews in literature has been transformed by the Holocaust, a watershed event for Jews and many gentiles who have struggled to find a way to express their thoughts and feelings about the horrific events of World War II. When critics discuss Jews in literature in this century, they usually refer both to Jewish characters in literature and to Jewish authors. In the case of either group, the Holocaust has proven a defining moment in history. After the events of World War II, gentile writers have written more sympathetically about Jews in European and American society. Some critics have noted that Jews have become a symbol of persecution, endurance, and moral courage in late-twentieth-century literature. Many Jewish writers, on the other hand, have undergone a painful personal journey to re-examine their identity and heritage. They have also written about the paradoxical process of trying to find a language and a literary framework for writing about events that seem to be, by their very nature, unimaginable and unutterable. Scholars have praised such writers as Elie Wiesel, Nelly Sachs, Ernst Weichart, and Hermann Kasack for their courage in articulating the Holocaust experience. Much critical attention has been focused on the portrayal of the Holocaust in literature—whether personal accounts by survivors, in documentary and historical writings, or in prose fiction and poetry. Such scholars as Lawrence L. Langer, Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, Edward R. Isser, and Michael André Bernstein have explored various aspects of the literature of the Holocaust, from implications for Jewish writers' religious faith to the enacting of Holocaust experiences on stage.

Representative Works

Yehuda Amichai
Lo me-‘akshav, Lo mikan [Not of This Time, Not of This Place] (novel) 1963

Aharon Appelfield
Badenheim (novel) 1939

Saul Bellow
Dangling Man (novel) 1944
Mr. Sammler's Planet (novel) 1969

Wolfgang Borchert
Draussen vorder Tür [The Man Outside] (novel) 1947

Theodore Dreiser
The Titan (novel) 1914
The Hand of the Potter (novel) 1918

T. S. Eliot
The Wasteland (poetry) 1922
After Strange Gods (essays) 1934
Notes toward a Definition of Culture (criticism) 1949

Peter Finkelgruen
Haus Deutschland: oder Die Geschichte eines ungesühnten Mordes (novel) 1992

E. M. Forster
The Longest Journey (novel) 1907

John Galsworthy
Loyalties (novel) 1922

Graham Greene
A Gun for Sale (novel) 1936
Brighton Rock (novel) 1938

Lillian Hellman
Watch on the Rhine (drama) 1941

Ernest Hemingway
The Sun also Rises (novel) 1926

John Hersey
The Wall (novel) 1950

Laura Z. Hobson
Gentleman's Agreement (drama) 1946

William Hoffman
The Trumpet Unblown (novel) 1955

James Joyce
Ulysses (novel) 1922

Hermann Kasack
Die Stadt hinter dem Strom [The City beyond the Ruins] (novel) 1947

D. H. Lawrence
Aaron's Rod (novel) 1922
England, My England (novel) 1922
The Captain's Doll (novella) 1923

Sinclair Lewis
Arrowsmith (novel) 1925

Arthur Miller
Focus (drama) 1945
Incident at Vichy (drama) 1964

Clifford Odets
Till the Day I Die (drama) 1935

Ezra Pound
The Cantos (poetry) 1948
Radio Speeches (speeches) 1978

Nelly Sachs
The Chimneys (poetry) 1967

Jean-Paul Sartre
Refléxions sur la question juive (essay) 1946

Bernard Shaw
Man and Superman (drama) 1905

Robert Sherwood
There Shall Be No Night (novel) 1940

Isaac Bashevis Singer
The Séance and Other Stories (short stories) 1968
Enemies, A Love Story (novel) 1972

Stevie Smith
Novel on Yellow Paper (novel) 1936
Over the Frontier (novel) 1938

C. P. Snow
The Conscience of the Rich (novel) 1958
Corridors of Power (novel) 1964

Ernst Weichert
Der Totenwold [The Forest of the Dead] (novel) 1947

Peter Weiss
Die Ermittlung [The Investigation] (novel) 1965

Patrick White
Riders in the Chariot (novel) 1961

Elie Wiesel
La Nuit [Night] (autobiography) 1958
Les Chants des Morts [Legends of Our Time] (novel) 1964

Virginia Woolf
Three Guineas (novella) 1938
Between the Acts (novel) 1941

Richard Wright
Native Son (novel) 1940

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Esther L. Panitz (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Panitz, Esther. “Alienation and the Cult of the Individual.” In The Alien in Their Midst: Images of Jews in English Literature, pp. 162-70. Rutherford, NJ: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1981.

[In the following excerpt, Panitz presents a summary of the changing image of the Jew in English literature from the time of Geoffrey Chaucer to the twentieth century, and concludes that stereotypical thinking about Jews still remains.]

The certitude that had been part of Browning's life reinforced his cheerful eagerness. Yet in the midst of all that pleasant ambience, the earlier frustrations and conflicts of the Victorian Age grew into the nativisms and doubts...

(The entire section is 14411 words.)

Stephen R. Haynes (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Haynes, Stephen R. “Introduction.” In Jews and the Christian Imagination: Reluctant Witnesses, pp. 1-11. Hampshire, England: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Haynes examines the conception of Jews in the imagination of Christian writers, focusing on what he suggests are largely unconscious attitudes toward them.]

[The Jews] are our supporters in their books, our enemies in their hearts, our witnesses in their scrolls.

Augustine, On Faith in Things Unseen

The history of the nation of Israel is indeed unlike...

(The entire section is 4084 words.)

Linda Nochlin (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Nochlin, Linda. “Starting with the Self: Jewish Identity and Its Representation.” In The Jew in the Text: Modernity and the Construction of Identity, edited by Linda Nochlin and Tamar Garb, pp. 7-19. London: Thames and Hudson, 1995.

[In the following essay, Nochlin explores the representation of Jews in the visual arts and the underlying assumptions, cultural and literary, that they reflect. She concludes, however, that there are no sweeping generalizations that can be made about how Jews are depicted in art.]

“Why do they hate us so much?” This is not merely an anguished cry torn from the heart—although, of course, it is that, too—but rather a...

(The entire section is 6111 words.)

Harley Erdman (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Erdman, Harley. “Introduction.” In Staging the Jew: The Performance of an American Ethnicity 1860-1920, pp. 1-13. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997.

[In the following excerpt, Erdman explores the influence of Jewish stage stereotypes on artists and audiences in the period between 1860 and 1920, showing how various artists both fulfilled and reshaped expectations of their performances.]

The actor David Warfield used to tell a story about his professional debut as part of a second-rate West Coast company in the late 1880s. The play was Tom Taylor's Victorian melodrama The Ticket-of-Leave Man, a quarter-of-a-century-old English play that...

(The entire section is 6263 words.)

Robert Schechter (essay date summer 1999)

SOURCE: Schechter, Robert. “Rationalizing the Enlightenment: Postmodernism and Theories of Anti-Semitism.” Historical Reflections 25, no. 2 (summer 1999): 279-306.

[In the following essay, Schechter examines the roots of anti-Semitic thought, beginning with François-Marie Voltaire in the Enlightenment and continuing into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.]

The Jews of France did not wait for postmodernism before criticizing the Enlightenment. In response to an anti-Jewish libelist who in 1786 accused the Jews of being “superstitious,” Isaiah Berr Bing of Metz defended himself and his coreligionists in a published letter:


(The entire section is 10768 words.)

Criticism: Representing The Jew In Literature

Harold Fisch (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: Fisch, Harold. “The Twentieth Century.” In The Dual Image: The Figure of the Jew in English and American Literature, pp. 80-97. New York: Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 1971.

[In the following excerpt, Fisch explores the treatment of Jewish characters in various twentieth-century literary works and suggests that in these works the Jew emerges as “a symbol of the moral victory of the human spirit.”]


When we turn to the twentieth century we note that in spite of the generally soberer presentation of Jews the mythological outline remains. In E. M. Forster's early novel, The Longest Journey (1907),...

(The entire section is 5917 words.)

Harry Girling (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Girling, Harry. “The Jew in James Joyce's Ulysses.” In Jewish Presences in English Literature, edited by Derek Cohen and Deborah Heller, pp. 96-112. Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Girling presents a detailed examination of the character of Leopold Bloom in James Joyce's novel Ulysses, focusing on Joyce's conception of Bloom's typical and atypical Jewish traits.]

Unlike the Jews discussed in the previous chapters, the Jew in James Joyce's Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, is usually thought of as an Everyman figure. Not that he is going about looking for his soul, like the central character of the...

(The entire section is 6979 words.)

Susan Rubin Suleiman (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Suleiman, Susan Rubin. “The Jew in Sartre's Réflexions sur la question juive: An Exercise in Historical Reading.” In The Jew in the Text: Modernity and the Construction of Identity, edited by Linda Nochlin and Tamar Garb, pp. 201-18. London: Thames and Hudson, 1995.

[In the following essay, Suleiman discusses Jean-Paul Sartre's Réflexions sur la question juive in the context of French attitudes toward Jews in the 1940s. Suleiman points out anti-Semitic elements in Sartre's language even as he is criticizing anti-Semitism.]

… that book is a declaration of war against anti-Semites.


(The entire section is 11066 words.)

Maud Ellmann (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Ellmann, Maud. “The Imaginary Jew: T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.” In Between “Race” and Culture, edited by Bryan Cheyette, pp. 84-101. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Ellmann identifies elements of their stance toward Jews in the works of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, concluding that the two poets “projected their own darkness” upon them.]

These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.

—T. S. Eliot, “Gerontion”

T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, like Coleridge and Wordsworth, tend to be coupled in literary history and hence to be regarded as accomplices. There are many...

(The entire section is 9203 words.)

Phyllis Lassner (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Lassner, Phyllis. “‘The Milk of Our Mothers' Kindness Has Ceased to Flow’”: Virginia Woolf, Stevie Smith, and the Representation of the Jew.” In Between “Race” and Culture, edited by Bryan Cheyette, pp. 129-44. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Lassner points out ambivalent images of Jews in several works by Virginia Woolf and Stevie Smith, respectively, noting that the coming of World War II was a milestone event in both writers' thinking about Jews.]

Among the constantly shifting boundaries of canon formation, perhaps no other text so represents the intersection of gender, modernism, and anti-militarism as...

(The entire section is 9200 words.)

Ronald Granofsky (essay date winter 1999)

SOURCE: Granofsky, Ronald. “‘Jews of the Wrong Sort’: D. H. Lawrence and Race.” Journal of Modern Literature 23, no. 2 (winter 1999): 209-23.

[In the following essay, Granofsky traces Lawrence's anti-Semitic attitudes to his ideas about race, culture, and masculinity.]

In The Captain's Doll, a novella from the early 1920s, D. H. Lawrence takes his protagonist, Captain Alexander Hepburn, from post-war occupied Germany to Tyrolean Austria in amorous pursuit of the much younger Countess Johanna zu Rassentlow, familiarly known as Hannele, after the captain's wife has died under suspicious circumstances. The two travel together to a mountain glacier and stay...

(The entire section is 8917 words.)

Criticism: The Holocaust In Literature

Lawrence L. Langer (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Langer, Lawrence L. “Acquainted with the Night.” In The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination, pp. 31-73. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975.

[In the following excerpt, Langer explores some ways in which various writers transformed their experience of the Holocaust into art.]

Who will write us new laws of harmony?
We have no further use for well-
tempered clavichords. We ourselves
are too much dissonance.

Wolfgang Borchert

In the beginning there was the Holocaust.
We must therefore start all over again. …
What it was we may never know; but
we must proclaim, at least, that it was,
that it is.


(The entire section is 16652 words.)

Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Ezrahi, Sidra DeKoven. “The Holocaust as a Jewish Tragedy 2: The Covenental Context.” In By Words Alone: The Holocaust in Literature, pp. 116-48. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980.

[In the following excerpt, Ezrahi examines the way several Hebraic writers treat the Holocaust in their works, emphasizing the trauma and great personal and religious cost of turning such an experience into art.]


The major tensions which the Holocaust activated in Jewish beliefs and ethics as well as the engagement of traditional elements in the search for appropriate forms of...

(The entire section is 15109 words.)

Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Ezrahi, Sidra DeKoven. “History Imagined: The Holocaust in American Literature.” In By Words Alone: The Holocaust in Literature, pp. 176-216. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980.

[In the following excerpt, Ezrahi explores the responses of postwar American writers to the Holocaust, emphasizing a conflict many of them experienced between their creative imagination and obligation to historical truth.]

When six millions are slaughtered, in effect twice or thrice that number are [killed]. For the Jews [on all the other continents] die with them. All those that have not yet [perished] are not dead simply because they do not know what...

(The entire section is 20188 words.)

Michael André Bernstein (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Bernstein, Michael André. “Unrepresentable Identities: The Jew in Postwar European Literature.” In Thinking about the Holocaust after Half a Century, edited by Alvin H. Rosenfeld, pp. 18-37. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Bernstein suggests that the Jew has not been treated in all his complexity in postwar European fiction, but rather as a representative of a “cemetery culture.”]

Ignorance about those who have disappeared undermines the reality of the world.

—Zbigniew Herbert, “Mr. Cogito on the Need for Precision”



(The entire section is 7002 words.)

Edward R. Isser (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Isser, Edward R. “The Antecedents of American Holocaust Drama.” In Stages of Annihilation: Theatrical Representations of the Holocaust, pp. 32-43. Madison, WI: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1997.

[In the following excerpt, Isser discusses American drama written about the Holocaust, noting that themes and imagery were often softened and diluted to make them more acceptable to theatergoers.]

The Holocaust is an ineffable occurrence that defies the capabilities of the human imagination. Dramatic representations of the historical catastrophe must transform, or as Adorno has said, transfigure, the terror so that it can be endured by an audience. In the...

(The entire section is 5189 words.)

Further Reading


Antler, Joyce. Talking Back: Images of Jewish Women in American Popular Culture. Hanover, N.H. Brandeis University Press, 1998, 301 p.

Collection of essays that explores the image of Jewish women in film, television, literature, and the culture at large.

Ben-Joseph, Eli. Aesthetic Persuasion: Henry James, the Jews, and Race. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, Inc., 252 p.

Explores Henry James's attitude toward Jews and the question of race in the contexts of his work, society, and history.

Clendinnen, Inga. Reading the Holocaust. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University...

(The entire section is 332 words.)