From Fleish­man Is in Trou­ble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

In a recent essay in the New States­man, British writer Howard Jacob­son recalls how his father once had to pawn his mother’s engage­ment ring to make ends meet. The idea that Jews were mon­ey-sym­pa­thet­ic as though by necro­man­cy — mon­ey-adept, or just mon­ey-aware — struck us as laughable.”

Jacobson’s arti­cle coun­ters not only a per­sis­tent stereo­type, but also a long lit­er­ary tra­di­tion reduc­ing Jews’ rela­tion­ship with mon­ey to con­nivance and greed. In the New Tes­ta­ment, Judas, the man whose name became syn­ony­mous with betray­al, sold out Jesus for thir­ty pieces of sil­ver. The reli­gion of the most noto­ri­ous Jew in Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture, Shakespeare’s Shy­lock, is insep­a­ra­ble from his trade as a money­len­der. Through the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, Jew­ish char­ac­ters were sim­i­lar­ly demo­nized, most famous­ly in the form of Charles Dickens’s Fagin, who teach­es his band of urchins the art of pick­pock­et­ing in Oliv­er Twist. In Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture, anti­se­mit­ic car­i­ca­tures were embod­ied in the over-eager financier Simon Rosedale in Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth and Mey­er Wolf­sheim, a gam­bler who fixed the 1919 World Series, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gats­by, among oth­er instances. As late as the 1930s, The Oxford Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary includ­ed a def­i­n­i­tion for Jew” as a grasp­ing or extor­tion­ate person.”

Jew­ish stereo­types have changed some­what in the last cen­tu­ry, as Jew­ish writ­ers entered the main­stream. Saul Bellow’s strug­gling Chica­go immi­grants are hard­ly finan­cial over­lords, nor are the work­ing-class Newark char­ac­ters of Philip Roth’s nov­els. But while such writ­ers helped to intro­duce new stereo­types — the Jew­ish moth­er seems to be a rel­a­tive­ly recent inven­tion, and Shakespeare’s Jes­si­ca cer­tain­ly isn’t a JAP — the ten­den­cy to asso­ciate Jews with avarice has yet to fade.

But while such writ­ers helped to intro­duce new stereo­types — the Jew­ish moth­er seems to be a rel­a­tive­ly recent inven­tion, and Shakespeare’s Jes­si­ca cer­tain­ly isn’t a JAP — the ten­den­cy to asso­ciate Jews with avarice has yet to fade.

Until the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture por­trayed the Jew as a monied, cru­el, lech­er­ous, avari­cious out­sider tol­er­at­ed only because of his gold­en hoard.’” A Jew Bro­ker, The Elisha Whit­telsey Col­lec­tion, The Elisha Whit­telsey Fund, 1959.

But now many con­tem­po­rary nov­el­ists are exam­in­ing the rela­tion­ship between Jews and mon­ey with­out the prej­u­dices of the past. In Jacobson’s 2016 nov­el, Shy­lock Is My Name, the Shake­speare­an char­ac­ter mag­i­cal­ly reap­pears in the present day, only to become enmeshed in a social dra­ma sim­i­lar to the one from which he emerged in six­teenth-cen­tu­ry Venice. When he vis­its a wealthy art col­lec­tor, the two dis­cuss ques­tions of iden­ti­ty, pat­ri­mo­ny, and the real mean­ing of a pound of flesh.”

David Liss’s 2000 nov­el, A Con­spir­a­cy of Paper, takes as its pro­tag­o­nist the scion of a Por­tuguese Jew­ish trad­ing fam­i­ly liv­ing in eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry Lon­don. Although Ben­jamin Weaver has changed his last name from Lien­zo and worked as a prize­fight­er before becom­ing a thief-tak­er (a kind of pro­to pri­vate detec­tive), he is dogged by the stereo­types that fol­low his fam­i­ly, and Jews in gen­er­al, as Eng­land suf­fers from finan­cial upheavals dur­ing the ear­ly days of the stock mar­ket. In one scene, Weaver vis­its an aris­to­crat­ic client at his pri­vate club, where he is intro­duced as a cred­it to his peo­ple, help­ing folks rather than trick­ing them with stocks and annu­ities.” As Liss illus­trates, many Jews did become involved in the country’s nascent finan­cial indus­try, but the asso­ci­a­tion between Jews and mon­ey is in no way inher­ent. As Weaver protests, I can­not claim to be an expert on either Jews or mon­ey. But I can assure you the two terms are not synonymous.”

Weaver’s asser­tion may fall on deaf ears, but in recent years, sev­er­al writ­ers have expand­ed on this sen­ti­ment, pre­sent­ing the rela­tion­ship between Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and mon­ey as entire­ly inci­den­tal. In two 2019 debut nov­els, mon­ey is depict­ed as a kind of emo­tion­al cur­ren­cy, which, rather than reduc­ing Jew­ish char­ac­ters to stereo­types, reveals their essen­tial humanity.

The eigh­­teenth-cen­­tu­ry British Jew­ish prize­fight­er Daniel Men­doza was an inspi­ra­tion for the char­ac­ter of Ben­jamin Weaver in David Lis­s’s A Con­spir­a­cy of PaperMen­doza, The Elisha Whit­telsey Col­lec­tion, The Elisha Whit­telsey Fund, 1959.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleish­man Is in Trou­ble is a book about mar­riage, divorce, par­ent­ing, and midlife crises. While mon­ey isn’t a pri­ma­ry focus, it does make every sit­u­a­tion more com­pli­cat­ed, less pre­dictable, and usu­al­ly worse. The novel’s pro­tag­o­nist, Toby Fleish­man, at first seems to dis­dain mon­ey alto­geth­er, and wor­ries about the effects of the priv­i­leged upbring­ing he’s giv­ing his two chil­dren. In his social milieu of busi­ness mag­nates, financiers, and wealthy heiress­es, Toby’s pro­fes­sion as a hepa­tol­o­gist at a pres­ti­gious hos­pi­tal is con­sid­ered déclassé because he works with his hands and makes only” $285,000 a year. His children’s pri­vate school and sum­mer camp tuitions eas­i­ly engulf his salary, and for his friends, a place in the Hamp­tons is more of a neces­si­ty than a lux­u­ry. Most of all, Toby’s mid­dle-class mores clash with the social and finan­cial aspi­ra­tions of his soon-to-be ex-wife, Rachel, an ambi­tious tal­ent agent whose sud­den dis­ap­pear­ance sets the events of the nov­el in motion. Com­fort­able with his socioe­co­nom­ic back­ground, Toby believes that there are more impor­tant things in life than wealth and sta­tus, and that their fam­i­ly could be just as hap­py — hap­pi­er, prob­a­bly — with a lit­tle less.

And yet, as Toby real­izes, he isn’t being quite hon­est with him­self. Despite his high-mind­ed prin­ci­ples, he is will­ing to enjoy the lux­u­ries his wife’s income pro­vides. And by refus­ing to chase pro­mo­tions, he makes Rachel feel oblig­at­ed to con­stant­ly pri­or­i­tize her career. Rachel isn’t moti­vat­ed by sim­ple mate­ri­al­ism, either. Hav­ing been bul­lied by her pri­vate-school class­mates for her off-brand clothes and inabil­i­ty to afford ten­nis lessons, she has vowed that her chil­dren will nev­er have to suf­fer like she did. Her goal isn’t to earn mon­ey for money’s sake, but to give her chil­dren the abil­i­ty to fit in as she nev­er did.

While social class is a major focus for the Fleish­mans, the mild Jew­ish back­ground of their lives is both omnipresent and unques­tioned. Their chil­dren attend day camp at the Y, and their daugh­ter, Han­nah, is busy prepar­ing for her bat mitz­vah. Toby’s clos­est friends — Seth, a finance guy, and Lib­by, a for­mer jour­nal­ist and New Jer­sey house­wife who nar­rates the nov­el — met dur­ing their junior year in Israel. But reli­gious iden­ti­ty is almost entire­ly inci­den­tal to the plot. As Josh Lam­bert points out in Jew­ish Cur­rents, none of the char­ac­ters’ prob­lems are mit­i­gat­ed or exac­er­bat­ed by their Jewishness.”

While social class is a major focus for the Fleish­mans, the mild Jew­ish back­ground of their lives is both omnipresent and unquestioned.

Reli­gion and mon­ey are sim­i­lar­ly dis­con­nect­ed in Andrew Ridker’s The Altru­ists. Mag­gie and Ethan Alter, sib­lings from a St. Louis sub­urb now liv­ing in New York, strug­gle with the recent death of their moth­er, Francine, and the unex­pect­ed inher­i­tance she left them. Mag­gie, the younger of the two, refus­es to touch her share and instead works odd jobs in Queens, liais­ing for immi­grants with gov­ern­ment agen­cies, babysit­ting, and tutor­ing. While she couch­es her fru­gal­i­ty and lack of pro­fes­sion­al ambi­tion in moral terms — bet­ter to help the peo­ple around her, she thinks, than to become anoth­er lawyer like her friend Emma — her abstemious­ness has tak­en a patho­log­i­cal turn. Giv­ing up mon­ey leads to giv­ing up phys­i­cal nour­ish­ment; in her mind, deny­ing one­self a full bel­ly kind of felt a lit­tle bit saintly.”

Ethan has fol­lowed the oppo­site path — quit­ting his con­sult­ing job, spend­ing his inher­i­tance, and then going into debt while liv­ing a soli­tary and semi-alco­holic life in his new­ly pur­chased Brook­lyn apart­ment. In col­lege, Ethan was at pains to con­ceal his family’s sub­ur­ban lifestyle from a work­ing-class crush, but he is now con­tent to sur­round him­self with Bernar­daud chi­na, a La Creuset he nev­er used, Water­ford Lis­more can­dle­sticks, a white mar­ble bread box, an elec­tric corkscrew.” Both sib­lings respond to grief through their spend­ing habits, albeit in oppo­site ways.

Mean­while, the sib­lings’ father, Arthur, suf­fers his own men­tal and fis­cal insol­ven­cy. An ambi­tious but under­achiev­ing engi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor who, at retire­ment age, is still teach­ing for adjunct wages, he real­izes that with­out his wife’s income, he can no longer afford the mort­gage on their home in a gat­ed com­mu­ni­ty. After his wife dis­cov­ered on her deathbed that he was hav­ing an affair, she cut him out of her will, leav­ing her secret invest­ments to Mag­gie and Ethan. Although his abra­sive per­son­al­i­ty has estranged him from his chil­dren, Arthur hatch­es a plan to have them vis­it him in St. Louis, manip­u­late them into giv­ing him their inher­i­tance, and use the mon­ey to deliv­er him from fore­clo­sure. Ridker’s char­ac­ters demon­strate how Jews’ rela­tion­ship to mon­ey — just like every­one else’s — is a reflec­tion of per­son­al­i­ty, and can change with their cir­cum­stances and emo­tion­al states.

Just as Jews and oth­ers can be hurt with the same weapons, sub­ject to the same dis­eases, heal’d by the same means,” so too they expe­ri­ence bank­rupt­cies and wind­falls, anx­i­eties and com­forts, estrange­ment and belonging.

The char­ac­ters’ atti­tudes toward Jew­ish iden­ti­ty are just as var­ied and nuanced as their atti­tudes toward finances. Mag­gie reluc­tant­ly attends Shab­bat din­ner at the New Jer­sey home of her aunt Bex, but feels alien­at­ed by her cousins’ osten­ta­tious brand of sub­ur­ban Ortho­doxy. She recalls how her uncle Levi once made her father plunge a steak knife into the frozen earth because he’d sliced cheese with it” — a prac­tice of kashrut that seems weird­ly arcane to her. For Arthur, Judaism is no more than a mat­ter of birth. At his wed­ding he strug­gled to get through the sin­gle Hebrew sen­tence required of him. Despite the fact that his late wife grew up Con­ser­v­a­tive and hat­ed the smell of pork, his favorite restau­rant is a bar­be­cue joint named Piggy’s. Ethan is even more indif­fer­ent than his father — for him, Judaism isn’t even some­thing to rebel against.

Between Fleish­man Is in Trou­ble and The Altru­ists, a whole range of eco­nom­ic posi­tions are rep­re­sent­ed; that most of the char­ac­ters in these nov­els are Jew­ish is irrel­e­vant to those posi­tions. This, of course, is the mes­sage of Shy­lock him­self, when, in his famous speech, he pro­claims that the fun­da­men­tal human­i­ty of Jews tran­scends dif­fer­ences of faith, eth­nic­i­ty, and pro­fes­sion. Just as Jews and oth­ers can be hurt with the same weapons, sub­ject to the same dis­eases, heal’d by the same means,” so too they expe­ri­ence bank­rupt­cies and wind­falls, anx­i­eties and com­forts, estrange­ment and belong­ing. As these recent nov­els show, mon­ey can make both enor­mous and sub­tle dif­fer­ences in life, for Jews as much as — but also no more than — any­one else. This real­iza­tion may seem obvi­ous, but in lit­er­a­ture it’s been a long time coming.

Ezra Glin­ter is the senior staff writer and edi­tor at the Yid­dish Book Cen­ter. He is the edi­tor of Have I Got a Sto­ry for You, a final­ist for the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award. He lives in Brook­lyn, NY.