When I was in sixth grade, my Sun­day school teacher had our class draw tal­ly marks, fill­ing sheets of paper. We cov­ered the walls of our class­room with these pages. This was an exer­cise in empa­thy and designed to illus­trate just how many Jews were mur­dered dur­ing the Holo­caust. At twelve, I did not under­stand the con­cept of six mil­lion. But what I did under­stand was my con­nec­tion to each tal­ly mark.

How­ev­er, I knew lit­tle about my Sephardic roots, grow­ing up in a reform Ashke­naz­ic com­mu­ni­ty in New Orleans. We drove on the Sab­bath and ate food that was not kosher. But when I was six­teen, my fam­i­ly moved back to our ortho­dox Syr­i­an Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in Brook­lyn and, overnight, every­thing I had known changed. 

In Chi­ma­man­da Adichie’s Ted Talk, The Dan­ger of a Sin­gle Sto­ry,” she warns that the way to cre­ate a sin­gle sto­ry is to show a group of peo­ple as only one thing over and over again. That sin­gle sto­ry, what­ev­er it may be, is what that group becomes. This leads to stereo­typ­ing and sim­pli­fi­ca­tions, which at best are incom­plete and at worst, not true.

Jews are a diverse peo­ple, with a nuanced and mul­ti­fac­eted his­to­ry, yet we have been stereo­typed for cen­turies. Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties around the globe do not nec­es­sar­i­ly dress the same way, share val­ues, lifestyle choic­es, or eat­ing habits. The breadth and diver­si­ty of Jew­ish life has been depict­ed in numer­ous TV shows like Sein­feld, Schitt’s Creek, Friends, The Mar­velous Mrs. Maisel, Shtisel, and Unortho­dox but these sto­ries some­times rely on tropes and gen­er­al­iza­tions as well. 

In my short sto­ry col­lec­tion, Life and Oth­er Short­com­ings, there is a sto­ry about an ortho­dox Jew­ish woman strug­gling in a dif­fi­cult mar­riage. A scene shows my pro­tag­o­nist prepar­ing for the mikveh, a rit­u­al bath, and she removes her nail pol­ish. Before the sto­ry was pub­lished, an edi­tor at a lit­er­ary jour­nal respond­ed to my sub­mis­sion say­ing that my sto­ry was inac­cu­rate because ortho­dox Jew­ish women don’t wear nail pol­ish. This may be true for some Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties, but it is not true for the Syr­i­an Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. The editor’s mis­take is prob­lem­at­ic in that it is based on a sin­gle sto­ry about ortho­dox Jews. He did not have the vision to pub­lish my sto­ry and dis­play a more expan­sive and inclu­sive view.

Jews are stereo­typed to be wealthy. And while some are, it is also true that in the last two decades, accord­ing to the UJA-Fed­er­a­tion of New York report, the num­ber of impov­er­ished Jew­ish house­holds has near­ly dou­bled. These sto­ries are not being told. 

Jews are a diverse peo­ple, with a nuanced and mul­ti­fac­eted his­to­ry, yet we have been stereo­typed for centuries.

The solu­tion is for more Jew­ish char­ac­ters to be depict­ed and known. We have a long way to go in broad­en­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Jew­ish life in books and film. 

In my nov­el The Mar­riage Box, I attempt to shine a light on the ortho­dox Syr­i­an Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in Brook­lyn, a com­mu­ni­ty that has not been por­trayed and rep­re­sent­ed. The Mar­riage Box shows how obser­vant Syr­i­an Jews eat rice on Passover, some­thing obser­vant Ashke­naz­ic Jews would not do. Syr­i­ans speak Ara­bic, not Yid­dish. And we eat kibbe and keftes, not gefilte fish. Sim­i­lar­ly, while Jews are known to val­ue edu­ca­tion, his­tor­i­cal­ly, in the Syr­i­an Jew­ish world, hard work was val­ued over edu­ca­tion for young men and mar­riage and fam­i­ly for young women.

My book illus­trates the Syr­i­an Jew­ish world in 1980s Brook­lyn. It does not show what the com­mu­ni­ty looked like upon arrival in Amer­i­ca, what it looked like in the 1950s, or what it looks like today. Even though there are lim­its to what a sin­gle nov­el can do, there is val­ue in each and every sto­ry told as what is shown and revealed expands the over­all pic­ture and leads to a larg­er and more com­plete understanding.

There are dif­fer­ences between Sephardic and Ashke­naz­ic Jews, between ortho­dox and reformed Jews, and between Israeli and Amer­i­can Jews. It’s impre­cise to lump all Jews into one category. 

Show­ing a group of peo­ple as one thing over and over again leads to dehu­man­iza­tion and desen­si­ti­za­tion. Depriv­ing a per­son, or whole groups of peo­ple, of indi­vid­u­al­i­ty caus­es oth­er­ing, and it’s not a stretch to say this leads to a rise in hate crimes. Stud­ies con­firm that know­ing a Jew­ish per­son, and under­stand­ing who they are, as opposed to see­ing them as oth­er” is strong­ly linked to Jew­ish accep­tance and a decrease in antisemitism.

And so, we need more sto­ries. About all kinds of Jews.

Sto­ries mat­ter, and that’s why I write. The char­ac­ters we meet and the worlds we vis­it extin­guish igno­rance and build empa­thy and under­stand­ing, touch­stones of peace. The pro­tag­o­nist in The Mar­riage Box is Jew­ish. She is also flawed, and at times, sad, lone­ly, and con­fused. It’s hard not to feel com­pas­sion for some­one who is strug­gling, and so read­ers relate, no longer expe­ri­enc­ing that per­son or char­ac­ter as oth­er. That is the beau­ty of sto­ry­telling, it fos­ters under­stand­ing and cre­ates con­nec­tions — one sto­ry at a time.

Corie Adj­mi is the author of the short sto­ry col­lec­tion Life and Oth­er Short­com­ings, which won an Inter­na­tion­al Book Award, an IBPA Ben­jamin Franklin award, and an Amer­i­can Fic­tion Award. Her essays and short sto­ries have appeared in dozens of jour­nals and mag­a­zines, includ­ing Huff­Post, North Amer­i­can Review, Indi­ana Review, Medi­um, Moth­er­well, Kveller, and oth­ers. The Mar­riage Box is Corie’s first nov­el. She is a moth­er and grand­moth­er and lives and works in New York City.