Fair Warning: This is going to be a long post.
Personally, I’m an Orthodox Ashkenazi, so most of my characters are Ashkenazis who are at least Modern Orthodox.
HOWEVER, not all Jews are Ashkenazi so….
**CRASH COURSE IN JUDAISM TIME**
I’m going to use Christianity as an example because I assume the majority of people who will read this are Christian. In Christianity there are different sects that believe different things (Catholic, Lutherans, Irish Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Mormons, etc).
In Judaism there are also different sects only most of them don’t believe in something different than the others unless they’re an offshoot of Ashkenz (which I will get into in a moment).
Each of these sects is mainly based on where you or your family are from geographically. If you’re from Spain you are most likely a Sephardi or Anusim Jew. If you are North African (Moroccan, Libyan, Tunisian) then its likely you are also Sephardi. (For anyone interested, Sephardi means in English “of Sephard” Sephard is Spain in Hebrew). If you are from Ethiopia, you are most likely an Ethiopian Jew. From Iran you are most likely a Persian Jew. Anywhere else in the Middle East you are most likely a Mizrachi Jew. If from Yemen then you are a Temani Jew. These are just usual rules to live by.
If you are from anywhere in Europe (Mainly France, Germany, or Russia) besides Spain then you are most likely an Ashkenazi Jew. The reason that Ashkenazi Jews are a little different than other sects though is a simple reason.
***CRASH COURSE IN JEWISH HISTORY TIME***
In the 1800s European Jews got Emancipated. This meant that Jews were allowed to leave their gated communities (shtettles, though there were plenty ghettos too) and join in with regular society. Since (and @ jumblr correct me if i’m wrong) this only happened in Europe during modern times (1400s) only the Ashkenazi Jews were really affected. So as Jews began to integrate into society many of them began to lose their religiosity. So the Ashkenazi community freaks out because they have Jews who are suddenly not being religious and they create two communities. Reform and Orthodox. The Reform believed that Emancipation was good and it slowly morphed into what everyone knows as Reform Judaism today. The Orthodox Movement thought that Emancipation was ruining Judaism and they later morphed into what is now called Ultra-Orthodox. Then you had two offshoots of those–Conservative and Neo-Orthodox. I know more about Neo-Orthodoxy so I’ll tell you about that, Neo-Orthodoxy believed that unlike Orthodoxy Emancipation was both good and that mitzvot were good. They ended up becoming the Modern Orthodox Movement (sorta like I am!!).
The difference between the geographical sects and the Ashkenazi offshoot sects are that the geographical sects don’t necessarily have belief differences (differences in tradition and halacha, sure, but not belief) and the other sects do. Since then there have been other offshoots of Ashkenaz (mainly) that have a slightly different belief system as well (Reconstructionist, Renewal, Hassidic, etc). But each of these are different in tradition and halacha because of their belief not because of their teachers.
Now, friendly reminder that geography doesn’t always work for identifying a Jew’s denomination. I have friends who are Sephardi and have no relation to Spain. There are Jews who do have Spanish decent and are Ashkenazi. It is a good base, but not a law.
When creating a character figuring out what denomination of Judaism they are is important, as figuring this out is an added character trait and usually very important to the character themselves.
After you figure out how religious you want them to be I suggest working on their character and seeing how the religion and the rules or miztvot that they follow merge. Remember, Jews are people too and if you are writing a Jew just write a person only with like… Kosher and Yom Kippur (or not if your character doesn’t keep that… whatever).
Traps Writers Fall Into:
There are two big ones:
- Christian Influence
- This one is a lot more prominent if the character is in a non-Jewish majority country–which I assume your characters will be, be it America or Britain.
- Why, you ask? Well because Secular countries are actually a lot less secular and a lot more Christian than most Christians think. It’s not necessarily a criticism but it is a thing.
- Do not, I repeat, do not write your Jewish character like a wannabe-Christian. We are not Wannabe-Christians. If we were then we wouldn’t be Jewish. Not every Jew grows up wanting a Christmas Tree or dressed up for Halloween. Not every kid secretly wants to eat a cheeseburger or go into a church.
- Jews complain when they don’t get representation, they may love the twinkle lights during the Holidays but they are annoyed that there are no Hannukah decorations in the stores or that every chocolate in Spring is a bunny. We are not Wannabes.
- Over using Yiddish
- NOT!!! EVERY!!! JEW!!! SPEAKS!! YIDDISH!!
- And certainly not every Jew speaks the amount of Yiddish that non-Jewish writers use. Most Ashkenazi Jews speak a mixture of Hebrew and Yiddish slang with a base of English. We’ll say “shelp,” “spritz,” and “gavult.” We’ll also say “stam,” “davka,” and “baruch hashem.” But our base language is usually English. We don’t all have Yiddish accents, we aren’t all New Yorkers.
- Also, Yiddish is not the only Jewish language!
- There is another one called Ladino which is a mix of Spanish and Hebrew, and while it is dying out there still are some speakers. If you have a Jew of Hispanic decent you might want to use that instead of Yiddish.
Now Let’s Talk Pet Peeves:
I have many Pet Peeves about Jews in Media so let’s start with the most obvious.
1. Jewish Holidays are ignored when they don’t fall out on Christian Ones
It sucks and it’s true. Most of our holidays when not Hannukah and Rosh Hashana are almost never mentioned. Jews have many more holidays than just those two. Like…
- Jews have like… six fast days. All of them are important but most Jews ignore some of the shorter ones because they fall out on regular work days and it isn’t good to fast while at work.
- fasting also means fasting. We do not eat unless necessary for health, we do not drink unless necessary for health. And for two of those fast days we have four other restrictions as well.
- We have Purim. Purim is a pretty cool holiday with a backstory like most Jewish holidays, someone tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.
- Which contrary to popular belief is not Halloween only Jews.
- A great holiday in which we eat outside and shake a bunch of leaves and a nice smelling fruit (which the TSA must be informed about every year so they don’t hold Jews in Airport Jail for carrying a bunch of palm leaves. I shit you not, this happens every year and it gets funnier every time). There’s other stuff to but that would take longer to explain.
2. Jews almost never marry Jews in Media
This actually happens a lot more than in real life. You have a Jewish character, doesn’t matter if they’re religious or not, they almost never marry Jews. I have only ever watched two shows where two Jewish characters married (or were close to it). These are Will & Grace (Grace and Leo), and a show called Saving Hope where the lesbian Jew gets with a lesbian Jew and moves to Tel Aviv (Doctor Katz).
3. Women and Jewish Marriage
These two topics are treated very badly in media. People tend not to understand what a K’Tuba (Jewish Marriage licence) is, and what it means to Jewish Women. It means we more or less have all power in the relationship. Where Saving Hope is good on the non-intermarriage issue, it sucks on a heterosexual marriage issue. Women are allowed to say no to sex, they are allowed to incite sex, if they do not want sex with their partner their partner cannot have sex with them.
Alternatively if either partner wants a get (a Jewish divorce) then the partner must give them one. Something usually ignored is that if the woman wants a get not only does her husband have to give her one the Jewish community is obligated to alienate him from them, personally and business-wise, and treat him as though he has a contagious disease. A Jew is allowed to do almost anything to the unwilling partner to get them to sign the get (the Torah even says that you can stone him. We don’t obviously because killing is wrong and etc. There is a lovely story that I heard about a man who wouldn’t give his wife a get and her angry brother and a matza factory but I won’t get into that). This is exemplified in an episode of a show called In Plain Sight (Episode Aguna Matatala), I really like this episode and the Rabbi character. Personally I believe this is one of the best ‘Jew Episodes’ out there.
4. Not knowing a character is Jewish until it must come up because of a holiday or a death in the family
If your character is Jewish they are Jewish all the time. Only bringing it up when it’s suddenly Christmas and you want diversity is stupid and quite frankly annoying. You cannot erase our Judaism because it does not benefit your plot.
FRIENDLY REMINDER: ALL JEWS ARE DIFFERENT.
An Israeli Jew acts differently than a Diaspora Jew, and a Hollywood Jew acts differently than a New York Jew. We aren’t just stereotypes we are people, and if you are making a character be realistic you must keep that in mind.
That’s it for now. I may add on more guidelines in the future, and if anyone reading this has a Pet Peeve about Jews in Media I urge you to add yours. But please keep this thread respectful. The ask was respectful and I actually really appreciate you asking.