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Help Me Write a Jewish Character as Realistically As I Can
October 29, 2010 2:31 PM   Subscribe

I'm writing a fiction book where the main character is a Jewish male aged in his late 30s living in London during WW2. I want to make this character sound as real as possible. My problem; I'm not Jewish and I don't really know anybody who is. Help me write this character as realistically as I can!

I'm doing a lot of research around what life was like for Jewish people in London both before and during WW2, so that's not really a problem for me. My biggest difficulty is getting dialogue and culture right.

For instance, how should he speak? This character grew up in Germany before moving to London (Whitechapel, specifically) shortly after the Nazis came to power. So realistically he would probably speak Yiddish (right?) and when speaking English he would speak with something of a German accent? I don't want to get that realistic however. What I do want to know is should I just write his dialogue as though he were a natural English speaker or should I add some 'flavor' to his speech? If the latter, what sort of stuff could/should I add without descending into stereotypes or causing offense to actual Jewish people?

The other thing is culture. When my novel starts, it is December 24th, 1940, which I've researched to find was the first day of Hanukkah in that year. So beyond lighting the first candle of a Menorah, what else might he and his family (wife and two small kids, a boy and a girl) be doing during this time? Remember, there's a war on, so with rationing and so on it's likely not to be a very fancy celebration for his family. But despite that, what's important enough that he would strive not to give up during that time of year? What should he and his family be doing that night and during that time of year?

Still on culture, the novel will cover a period of time that goes well past the eight days of Hanukkah. So what other things would he be doing as he tries to live his life as best and as normally as he can in a bombed out London?
posted by Effigy2000 to Grab Bag (38 answers total)
 
Language only here:

he would probably speak Yiddish

There's your first stereotype. It really depends on what you mean by "Jewish". Expelled from a middle-class German existence because the pedigree didn't fit, or straight from the poorest streets in Frankfurt, or whatever else? Young, middle-aged, old?

German accent? Well, yes, quite likely.
posted by Namlit at 2:58 PM on October 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


So realistically he would probably speak Yiddish (right?) and when speaking English he would speak with something of a German accent?

Yiddish was not the primary language of all German Jews; by the time you're writing about, it was generally less common among Jews in Germany than it was in Eastern Europe (Poland, Russia, etc.). It really depends on a lot of factors regarding who your character is. How religious or secular is he? Is he educated? What does he do for a living (i.e., is he poor, working-class, middle-class, merchant-class, etc.)? Did he grow up in a village or in the city? Were his parents educated or not? What are his politics? You get the idea. A German Jew growing up in a secular, left-leaning community in Berlin in a middle-class family almost certainly did not speak Yiddish, as opposed to a German Jew growing up in a traditional community in a village on the Polish border with conservative parents who completed only a few years of school.

What I do want to know is should I just write his dialogue as though he were a natural English speaker or should I add some 'flavor' to his speech?

The thing is, though, it does matter if his primary language is German or Yiddish in this case. If it's German and he learned English at school, his English will sound somewhat different (in terms of construction, phrases, etc.) than if his first language is Yiddish and he presumably learned English more informally. So I don't know that there's a clear answer to this question until you know more about the character's back story.
posted by scody at 3:05 PM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hanukkah didn't become more than a small holiday until fairly recently. Unless your character is a fairly observant Jew, it's pretty reasonable that the family wouldn't even have a menorah. If your family is observant, you've got a whole lot of research to do, which AskMe might be able to get you started on, but is pretty broad and far reaching.

So, to help us answer your question better, what's your family's level of observance?
posted by stoneweaver at 3:09 PM on October 29, 2010


I'm not sure the class matters. He would most likely be a Yiddish speaker.

Hanukkah was not likely a huge deal. It's a relatively minor Jewish holiday, especially when compared to Passover or the High Holy Days. In terms of culture, the character's position on Zionism would likely be a significant deal. You could dip into memoirs of the period, like the Gershom Scholem memoir of his friendship with Walter Benjamin. It's a bit earlier, but for assimilated Jews in Germany, Zionism was a huge issue and a dividing line.

Finally, you might consider that your character would not be a practicing Jew at all. Many of the Jews of Germany were both very assimilated and very secular.
posted by OmieWise at 3:12 PM on October 29, 2010


Jewish holidays start the night before the first day. If December 24 was the first day, then that evening they will light 2 candles (plus the shamash); if December 24 they light 1 candle (plus the shamash), then the first day would have been December 25.

My grandparents came from Germany and Austria to the UK, and both had heavy German -- not Yiddish, though they spoke both -- accents for the rest of their lives.

Chanukah is a fairly minor holiday, and it's about lighting the outdoors, so what I might not miss is rather different from what people might not miss during the Blitz.
posted by jeather at 3:19 PM on October 29, 2010


Jewish communities of prewar Germany.
posted by Wordwoman at 3:19 PM on October 29, 2010


And of course she wasn't German, but if you read the Diary of Anne Frank you will hear all about the family's Christmas celebration. If your protagonist was a secular middle-to-upper class Jew, he might well have been enjoying Christmas eve.
posted by Wordwoman at 3:26 PM on October 29, 2010


This character grew up in Germany before moving to London (Whitechapel, specifically) shortly after the Nazis came to power. So realistically he would probably speak Yiddish (right?) and when speaking English he would speak with something of a German accent?

I'm pretty sure the character would have been interned as an enemy alien, like, for example, David Baddiel's grandfather was.
posted by I_pity_the_fool at 3:28 PM on October 29, 2010


I would suggest contacting a local synagogue and finding out if any elder congregants would be willing to talk about their experience during that actual time period.
posted by gnutron at 3:28 PM on October 29, 2010


Regarding his class and education; He had just become a doctor in Germany when he realised he had to leave because of Hitler and his policies. So he's quite well educated.
posted by Effigy2000 at 3:31 PM on October 29, 2010


I really think you'd be well-served to invest in a course on modern Jewish history in Europe ( from at least the nineteenth century throug the post-war era), a class on Judaism itself, and possibly additional coursework on the history of the Holocaust. There are books out there, but theseare topics that are best understood through reading, analyzing and discussion. You can read all you like, and although I'm totally speaking for myself here, it's when you synthesize and put your thougts out there for discussion that you start to notice the blind spots.You might try adult education centers, or a local community college, or contact your local synagogue to see about community events and educational opportunities.

As Namlit points out, a German Jewish man may or may not have spoken Yiddish. Germany is the home of Reform Judaism, and that's without considering secular Jews (who might be phoning in celebration of religious holidays....though a less-observant Jew would probably not be making much fuss about Hanukkah. There's another point, actually: why Hanukkah? Are you looking at some sort of tie-in with the Maccabees? I am not trying to be smart. Traditionally, Hanukkah is not that big a deal, although it's delicious and has fire, which keeps me entertained. So....it would be....odd to read a story that used Hanukkah as the major representation of Jewish practice.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 3:31 PM on October 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


the book Emancipation: How Liberating Europe's Jews from the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance is a great history of European Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There's a significant amount of information about German Jews.
posted by ljshapiro at 3:38 PM on October 29, 2010


Uniformitarianism Now!: It's not a major focus of the story. The timeline of my story made it important to start in December 1940, which in my initial thoughts about the character and his family made me think that I should probably tie in Hanukkah in some way. I also figured it would be a good way to introduce his family, altogether to celebrate that holiday. But it's really actually so minor a point that it could probably be dropped from the story altogether. Given what I've read in this thread so far, which has been very enlightening, I may very well do that.
posted by Effigy2000 at 3:39 PM on October 29, 2010


I'm not sure the class matters. He would most likely be a Yiddish speaker.

I'm not sure about that; according to The History and Development of Yiddish:
The decline of Yiddish in western Europe [including Germany] was largely a result of contemporary historical trends as well. The Haskalah [Jewish Enlightenment], which began in the late eighteenth century and gathered steam throughout the nineteenth, promoted secular education and acculturation to the outside society. As a result, German Jews began to enter secular schools where the language of instruction was German; to work in professions that required a knowledge of secular language in order to communicate with non-Jews; and to look down on Yiddish as a product of the insular, unworldly Jewish Shtetl, a product to be disdained and discarded as soon as possible. One maskil [scholar] put it this way: "Yiddish grates on our ears and distorts. This jargon is incapable in fact of expressing sublime thoughts. It is our obligation to cast off these old rags, a heritage of the dark Middle Ages."
By contrast, in eastern Europe,
Beginning in the nineteenth century, Yiddish became more than merely a language of utility, used in everyday speech and writing. Jews' creative energy, which had no outlet in the surrounding society, began to be expressed through literature, poetry, drama, music, and religious and cultural scholarship. For the first time, the language became a means of expressing and describing the vibrant internal life that had developed in the ghettos and Shtetls of eastern Europe. Yiddish, and to a lesser extent, Hebrew, were the media of choice for this fledgling culture.
On preview: if he's a doctor, it seems virtually certain his primary language would be German. All of his education would have been conducted in German, and most (if not all) of his patients would speak German, rather than Yiddish, even if his clientele were exclusively Jews. It's not unlikely that he'd have some familiarity with Yiddish, of course, but I strongly doubt he'd speak it as his primary language.
posted by scody at 3:41 PM on October 29, 2010


Data point: my not-super-observant Jewish grandparent's family left Germany in the 30s. Spoke no Yiddish. Always had a strong German accent.
posted by brainmouse at 3:56 PM on October 29, 2010


From George Orwell's Antisemitism in Britain:
... in the strange accident that occurred in London in 1942, when a crowd, frightened by a bomb-burst nearby, fled into the mouth of an Underground station, with the result that something over a hundred people were crushed to death. The very same day it was repeated all over London that “the Jews were responsible." ...

Even though he is a doctor, and perhaps a secular Jew, he and his family won't be exempt from anti-Semitism.
posted by Carol Anne at 4:14 PM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


You probably should read The Finkler Question, which just won the Man Booker Prize. Excellent observations on English society and Jews, and a good read overall. Will really help you find your vocie, I think.
posted by j1950 at 4:16 PM on October 29, 2010


Indeed, Carol Anne. Infact, that's already planned to be a part of my story.
posted by Effigy2000 at 4:30 PM on October 29, 2010


I'm not sure about that

I definitely stand corrected.
posted by OmieWise at 4:30 PM on October 29, 2010


My grandparents and their daughter, my mother, were German Jews. My grandmother was a neurologist; my grandfather owned some department stores. Much of the family lived in Berlin and most left Germany in 1932-1933. Some went to London, some to British Palestine.

The family certainly did not speak Yiddish although they may have understood it. My grandparents considered it lower class. The thought of calling my grandfather "zeyda" instead of "opapa" is absurd.

They did not keep kosher. Indeed, some Israelis I've spoken to have said that upper class German Jews were the most assimilated in Europe. I do know that my grandfather never really enjoyed living in Israel -- he missed Europe terribly -- although my grandmother was a Zionist. They went back to Germany in 1957 when my grandmother got a university appointment in Frankfurt. My grandfather's special treat for a snack was schweinschmaltz (pork fat or lard) on rye bread with onions.

I don't know if this is true, but I've been told that a young child of the family that settled in London died during WW II when the family (not my grandparents, who were in Palestine, but cousins of theirs) couldn't get a physician to make a house call because of anti-Semitism. I don't doubt the anti-Semitism but I do doubt that the family was unable to find a Jewish doctor who made housecalls in wartime London. Still, that is part of my family's mythology.
posted by angiep at 4:41 PM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


An educated German Jewish doctor of that time would likely have only spoken Yiddish as an extra language; his upbringing and education would have been very German in most cases. There were German Jews who spoke Yiddish, but they were generally less likely to have become doctors. The fact that this fellow managed to have the cash and connections and desire to get out of Germany would indicate a kind of privileged life in relatively high German society.

In theory, you could pull off the Yiddish-speaking version of this character, but you'd really have to convince someone like me, and since you don't seem to be very comfortable with your knowledge, it's probably better to make him German-speaking.

Keep in mind that many educated and upper-class Jews who were smart enough to leave Germany early on were considered paranoid loonies by many . . . and many probably were, too. (Lucky for them.) It's not really all that likely that this person and his family would have been observant at all, and Hanukkah celebration seems like a big stretch to me. He would undoubtedly have been viewed by the English as a highly suspect person due to his German citizenship and upbringing, and being Jewish even in light of the policies of the Nazis would have mattered little to most Brits.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 4:42 PM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Another point--and let me be clear, I am not saying that you shouldn't write this novel, not in the least--that you might want to ask yourself is 'why am I telling this story? What about this needs telling?' I say this because you're writing about a man whose culture and religion you don't seem familiar with, and you've selected a time period that itself--at this point in literature and film, anyway--almost seems stereotypic when it comes to Gentiles telling stories featuring Jewish lives. Why this story out of all the stories in all the eras that could feature a Jewish protagonist?

I swear, I believe that you could have a great story. I honestly do. I believe it will be even better if you are able to articulate (not necessarily here) why you've chosen to focus on the lives of German Jews--even as emigrants who fled Germany--during WWII, and their experiences with antisemitism.

As my friend once said, 'Wait, is this gonna be another heart-rending movie about plucky Jews during the war? Jesus Christ, this one better be good.'
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 5:06 PM on October 29, 2010 [5 favorites]


My grandfather's parents moved to New York as young people in 1900-ish from a rural village in Lithuania, and spoke Russian, Hebrew, Yiddish, some Polish, a good bit of Lithuanian, and, eventually, in great-grandpa's case, some English, which was unintelligible to many people who knew them for years (my grandmother's sister-in-law saw them every week for a decade without being able to talk with them, according to her, 50 years later.) They hung out entirely with other Jewish people from Lithuania and Poland, though great-grandma apparently had a mysterious friendly relationship with an Italian lady in the neighborhood (I have no idea how they could have possibly communicated with one another.) The thing you'd want to talk about in that family, as far as lighting candles, is Friday supper, which was a Huge Deal (your date, the 24th, is apparently a Tuesday.) The immigrant generation was Very Observant. Grandpa, well, married a Catholic; I'm not too clear on what his brothers were up to but I don't have any second cousins who are rabbis or anything.

Conversely, some of the young men my grandfather fought with during the Spanish Civil War were English and American Jews a half step from Germany or urban Poland, and, well, I didn't ever meet them, but they came across as vaguely interesting British/American people in the books that mention them. Everyone I've read about seems to be known as, e.g., "Ollie, that stand-up guy from the Bronx," and it's not till you look them up in the list of SCW soldiers that you realize they moved from Krakow as teenagers with their parents in the post-WWI era. Bearing in mind these were the ultra-Socialist-activists, mostly well-educated, very enthusiastic. Poet types, but willing to haul off to fight fascism because it was the right thing to do.

I would expect that, if your character's children have been in London since birth or 1932, they will sound like people from London. There is no trace of Lithuania in the second generation out from immigration in my family, and it wasn't until he said something in another language that you could tell Grandpa spoke something other than English at home growing up (he by the way picked up several more languages during the war; makes me feel like a complete slacker.)

Incidentally: Contraception, hard to come by in this era. They moved 7-8 years ago, together, and have two "small" children, together, now? The total fertility rate, globally, twenty years later, after the decriminalization of information about contraception, was still closer to 5 than 4 children. Something to think about, anyway, especially if they are observant and maybe depending on what you mean by "doctor" (and, perhaps most of all, depending on how old she is.) And if they married in, say, 1936, and he is fairly secular in outlook and social circle, are you sure he married another German Jew?
posted by SMPA at 5:10 PM on October 29, 2010


Keep in mind that many educated and upper-class Jews who were smart enough to leave Germany early on were considered paranoid loonies by many . . . and many probably were, too.
They could have been paranoid loonies, but they also might have had some reason in addition to being Jewish that they thought they might be targeted. If they'd been involved in leftist politics, for instance, they might have seen the writing on their personal wall earlier than other Jewish people did.

I agree that you need to do a little more research about internment of enemy aliens. I don't know when they started letting low-risk enemy aliens out of internment camps, but it seems very likely that this guy would have initially been interned. The only reason I can think that he wouldn't have been is if he'd already got British citizenship when the war started.

Actually, I think you just need to do a lot more research in general. This is not exactly an under-examined period in Jewish history. If you have questions about German Jews in the 1930s, I'm pretty sure you can find books that will answer them.
posted by craichead at 5:16 PM on October 29, 2010


Uniformitarianism Now!: "Another point--and let me be clear, I am not saying that you shouldn't write this novel, not in the least--that you might want to ask yourself is 'why am I telling this story? What about this needs telling?' I say this because you're writing about a man whose culture and religion you don't seem familiar with, and you've selected a time period that itself--at this point in literature and film, anyway--almost seems stereotypic when it comes to Gentiles telling stories featuring Jewish lives. Why this story out of all the stories in all the eras that could feature a Jewish protagonist?

Partly because I like a challenge when I write. Partly because I like learning about things I don't know a lot or enough about. But mostly because I think the mix of everything that happened in London during the time of The Blitz could make for an interesting fictional tale that, as far as I know, has not yet been told, and it would work better if the main character is Jewish.

Uniformitarianism Now!: "As my friend once said, 'Wait, is this gonna be another heart-rending movie about plucky Jews during the war? Jesus Christ, this one better be good."

It will definitely not be about this. Almost the polar opposite, in fact. Your friend can rest easy.
posted by Effigy2000 at 5:16 PM on October 29, 2010


Not sure if it's of any use to you, but there was a sizable German community in London's east end before the first war. Many were deported after the outbreak of hostilities, but I believe many were able to stay.

You might want to rootle around for audio / video from the period. I have a vague memory of audio recordings of German POWs but damned if I can remember where.

Good luck, please report any success in finishing or publishing.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:25 PM on October 29, 2010


Out of curiosity, have you written a novel before with a character about whom you didn't really know anything and had to do a bunch of research?
posted by luke1249 at 6:48 PM on October 29, 2010


I don't think any native-born German Jew would have spoke Yiddish unless their parents were immigrants from further East. If they did, they would be working class and not med-school material. (You want examples of dodgy Yiddish speakers as seen through German eyes, dig up a copy of Berlin Alexanderplatz).

Anyone observant is going to be facing the challenges of keeping a kosher household (not that hard in 40s UK in big cities, my grandparents managed ok, but not easy outside the Jewish areas of town) and making a living while observing the Sabbath.

You might find it easier to simulate an assimilated Jew. In fact that would be an interesting issue, in that many German Jews by the 20s had more or less adopted German habits and mores, even converted to Christianity, and were bitter and bewildered at no longer being German and at being lumped in with a culture and religion they no longer really identified with (I'm thinking here of Klemperer's diary published as I shall bear witness). That's true isolation: being stigmatised in London as a German and as a Jew when potentially neither of those identities fits you any more.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 7:06 PM on October 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


This doesn't exactly answer your question, but Sarah Waters' novel The Night Watch takes place in London during the War. It begins in 1947 and works its way back to 1941. On the page I've linked to, scroll down to the review from the Washington Post, which I think will give you the best sense of whether or not reading it (if you haven't already) will be helpful.
posted by rtha at 7:17 PM on October 29, 2010


A German Jew growing up in a secular, left-leaning community in Berlin in a middle-class family almost certainly did not speak Yiddish

This describes my grandmother to a T (who was actually a contemporary of your character) and I am 99% sure she did not speak Yiddish. Or if she did, it was secondary to German. She was also extremely secular, to the point where, despite being pretty close to her as a child, I didn't even know she was Jewish until I was 11. Not like she hid it or anything, but, like many German Jews, she saw herself as "more German than Jewish," even after the Holocaust (which she survived).
posted by lunasol at 9:44 PM on October 29, 2010


You might check out The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon for inspiration here. The book is set in an alternate future version of Sitka, Alaska, in the 1990's, but all of the characters are Holocaust survivors and their descendents. Chabon uses dialect extremely well to add layers of realism to characters who exist outside time in a fictional universe of his own creation.
posted by Sara C. at 9:59 PM on October 29, 2010


The Yiddish Policemen's Union though depicts an imaginary modern Jewishness that stems from a sort of generic Eastern European Yiddishkeit and has absolutely nothing in common with the Enlightenment-influenced Germanicised secular Jewishness one might plausibly expect from a young Jewish doctor in the 30s. Such a person would almost certainly have looked down on Yiddish culture and language. I know Sara C is recommending this book because the language used is extraordinarily well handled -- I loved that book on that count alone -- but the culture represented there is entirely apart from what the poster seems to want to know about and I fear it's likely to wrong-foot him.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:46 AM on October 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hanukkah 1940 - quite likely he's not with his family because he's in an internment camp. Firsthand account of a German Jewish guy's internment in 1940.
posted by Coobeastie at 2:26 AM on October 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


You might want to read Vikram Seth's Two Lives, which is a story about his uncle, a German-trained Indian dentist, and aunt, a secular German Jewish woman who left the country before the war. They settled in suburban London.

The book contains lots of detail about what life was like for middle-class Jews in Germany before the ascent of the Nazis.
posted by mneekadon at 5:39 AM on October 30, 2010


Lots of German Jews that had escaped to Britain were actually deported as enemy aliens. So historical realism may require you to give some reason why your character wouldn't have been among the deportees.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:03 AM on October 30, 2010


Good point, i_am_joe's_spleen. Not so useful for the specific lexicon and manner of speech of the OP's specific character. But perfect for understanding dialect in writing in general.

I'd also recommend any of Flannery O'Connor's short stories, if you wanted to think about how dialect is used to create character in a subtle and naturalistic way, without getting confused about your Jewish characters and how they would specifically need to be portrayed.
posted by Sara C. at 9:28 AM on October 30, 2010


I actually think the emphasis on dialogue is a case of the OP getting way ahead of himself. The problem is not how to write dialogue or how to write Jewish dialogue (which is, in itself, a pretty weird idea, actually.) The problem is that he knows pretty much nothing about this person whom he claims is a "main character" in his book. He doesn't know anything about the guy's background, including what language the guy speaks, which is a pretty fundamental fact about a person. I'm a little confused about how you could write a character who was that much of a cipher to you, about whom you only know the bare facts that would be found on a census form. How do you get at worldview and motivation when you don't know the slightest thing about a person?

Maybe all this stuff is irrelevant for some reason, either because the OP isn't interested in characterization or because this "main character" is utterly defined by the fact of his Jewishness, to the point where everything else about him is just window dressing to add authenticity. Either of those things, though, I think would make for a pretty terrible novel. And if that's not the case, then I think the OP needs to do a ton more research, because he's going to need to know a lot more about German Jews and their experiences in pre-war and wartime Britain before he can write a credible character. And my hunch is that doing that research will help him find the character's voice, if only because it will force him to encounter the voices of a lot of people who actually lived through this experience.
posted by craichead at 9:55 AM on October 30, 2010 [5 favorites]


David Baddiel researched his grandparents' experiences of the war, including his grandfather's internerment on the Isle of Man, on the BBC's Who do you think you are?
posted by Helga-woo at 11:52 AM on October 31, 2010


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