In Hebrew, gim­mel is a form of the word gamol, which means to nour­ish, ripen, or bring to matu­ri­ty. From this comes the expres­sion gemulit ches­sud, mean­ing an act of kind­ness. Gim­mel is com­prised of a vav and yud—rep­re­sent­ing a rich man run­ning after a poor man — and the let­ter dalet. The yud sym­bol­izes a foot, which con­notes the giv­ing of one­self to anoth­er. The yud is seen as the char­i­ty that is giv­en to the dalet by the gim­mel. It also echoes the word for camel, gamal. This metaphor­i­cal camel car­ries the bur­dens of life on its jour­ney through the desert, giv­ing sus­te­nance to those trav­el­ing with it.

In my nov­el, The Great Gim­mel­mans, these mean­ings are explored through the Gim­mel­man fam­i­ly, who lose all their mon­ey in the 1987 stock mar­ket crash and begin rob­bing banks with their kids in tow. They’re based out of the family’s RV — the only pos­ses­sion of theirs not repos­sessed. The fam­i­ly patri­arch, Bar­ry, sees him­self as this camel, giv­ing sus­te­nance to his brood through any means nec­es­sary, after their for­mer wealth was ripped away one fatal day. For Bar­ry, fam­i­ly comes first, even if it means turn­ing into a crim­i­nal to keep food on the table. How­ev­er, once he real­izes how good the Gim­mel­man clan is at rob­bing banks, Barry’s pur­suit shifts from mere sur­vival to infamy. 

The Gim­mel­mans are per­fect­ly poised to get away with the rob­beries, hid­ing behind a façade of being noth­ing more than a mild-man­nered Jew­ish fam­i­ly. Bar­ry was a stock­bro­ker from New Jer­sey, his wife Judith is obsessed with hats, their daugh­ter Steph loves pop music, the nar­ra­tor Aaron is too smart for his own good, and lit­tle Jen­ny won’t go any­where with­out her taxi­der­mied pos­sum. The fam­i­ly uti­lizes this false appear­ance to their own advan­tage as they make their way down South, deal­ing with anti­semitism and then using the way they’ve been treat­ed as grounds for retaliation. 

While writ­ing this nov­el, I want­ed to turn cer­tain Jew­ish stereo­types on their head. Rarely are Jews rep­re­sent­ed in books and films as action heroes. While Bar­ry is cer­tain­ly no hero, he is proac­tive in chang­ing his family’s string of bad luck. In his own mind, he does become an action-hero. And while the stereo­type of Jews as mon­ey-hun­gry has tak­en hold in the past, for Bar­ry and his brood, the act of rob­bing banks is not about gain­ing mon­ey, but rather about reclaim­ing their sense of con­trol and pow­er after the stock mar­ket crash. Addi­tion­al­ly, Bar­ry uses his par­ents, who are sur­vivors of con­cen­tra­tion camps, as jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for these crim­i­nal acts. He feels they deserve to wit­ness their son become some­one of impor­tance. He refus­es to roll over when life deals its blows and does what­ev­er is need­ed to save his fam­i­ly. He morphs into a rich man chas­ing away the poor ver­sion of himself.

Through­out the nov­el, the idea of gamol — nour­ish­ing and ripen­ing — affects each of the char­ac­ters. The nar­ra­tor, Aaron, must for­give his father after he sent the fam­i­ly down a dark path that will affect them for­ev­er. Judith must come to terms with being blind­ly loy­al to her hus­band. And the rest of the kids must final­ly stand up to Bar­ry once the FBI tails them, deter­mined to take the fam­i­ly down. Bar­ry, who gave his chil­dren life and believes he’s com­mit­ting gemulit ches­sud (acts of kind­ness), is tru­ly an emper­or with­out clothes. Soon, the kids reach a cer­tain lev­el of matu­ri­ty and come to find that they no longer see their par­ents as camels and nour­ish­ers of life, but rather as agents of chaos that have the poten­tial to destroy their futures. The biggest act of kind­ness the chil­dren can offer their fam­i­ly — and them­selves — is to turn their par­ents in when the wheels start to fall off the RV.

Lee Matthew Gold­berg is the author of four­teen nov­els. He was nom­i­nat­ed for an Antho­ny Award and the Prix du Polar. After grad­u­at­ing with an MFA from the New School, he’s been pub­lished in mul­ti­ple lan­guages and his writ­ing has also appeared as a con­trib­u­tor in CrimeReads, Pipeline Artists, LitHub, Chica­go Quar­ter­ly Review, Elec­tric Lit­er­a­ture, The Los Ange­les Review of Books, The Mil­lions, Vol. 1 Brook­lyn, LitRe­ac­tor, Mys­tery Tri­bune, and others.