Our Favorite Jewish Characters in Literature

Our Favorite Jewish Characters in Literature


Happy 7th night of Hanukkah! To celebrate the Festival of Lights, Zola put together a list of eight of our favorite Jewish characters in literature.

A Series of Unfortunate Events book coverBaudelaire Orphans
A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket

The Baudelaire Orphans, the protagonists of A Series of Unfortunate Events, are not widely known as Jewish characters. But according to mysterious author Lemony Snicket the evidence is there. In an interview with Moment Magazine he stated, “I guess we would not know for sure but we would strongly suspect it, not only from their manner but from the occasional mention of a rabbi or bar mitzvah or synagogue. The careful reader will find quite a few rabbis.” Snicket chalks the Baudelaire’s heritage up to his own, “ I’m Jewish so, by default, the characters I create are Jewish.”

My Name is Asher Lev book coverAsher Lev
My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

Asher Lev is a young Hasidic Jew growing up in New York City. Lev struggles with finding a place for both his Jewish traditions and his artistic individualism, a battle that author Chaim Potok knew all too well. Growing up, Potok’s parents discouraged him from reading non-Jewish subjects and he retreated to the public library to read secular novels. He relates to Asher Lev more than any of his other characters and even painted a version of ‘Brooklyn Crucifixion,‘ a painting Lev creates that upsets his parents. Both Potok and Lev eventually found peace, Potok becoming both an author and a rabbi, while Lev is allowed by the Rebbe to study under a true artist.

The History Boys book coverDavid Posner
The History Boys by Alan Bennett

David Posner is one of the eight students of Cutlers’ Grammar School hoping to get into Oxford or Cambridge in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. Posner is musically talented and extremely intelligent but is a bit of a tortured soul. His unrequited love for fellow student Stuart Dakin causes him great turmoil. He gets into the school of his choice and becomes a teacher. He remembers everything he learned—all the songs, poems, and stories.

Bee SeasonEliza Naumann
Bee Season by Myla Goldberg

Many of the characters on this list are adults who struggle to find the place religion fits into their lives; Eliza Naumann holds this burden on her tiny, eleven-year-old shoulders. Her father studies Jewish texts, her mother seeks to heal the world, and her brother is unsure of his beliefs in Judaism. As her family struggles to reach God and unearth the true meaning of religion in their lives, Eliza finds herself making decisions that affect everyone.

The Ghost Writer book coverNathan Zuckerman
The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth

The Ghost Writer is the first of many Philip Roth novels to feature the protagonist Nathan Zuckerman. Roth is known for mixing reality and fiction in his works through autobiographical characters—though few are as well-known as Zuckerman. This alter-ego explores the challenges of juggling both a Jewish and American identity when it comes to family, lifestyle, and sexual temptation.

The Ritual Bath book coverRina Lazarus
The Ritual Bath by Faye Kellerman

Rina Lazarus, an orthodox jew, appears in 21 books by Faye Kellerman. Rina assists in solving crimes with her LAPD lieutenant husband, Peter Decker, who explores and adopts the Orthodox practices after meeting her. Though Rina is a religious woman, this doesn’t stop her from getting involved in solving some of the nastiest crimes.

Daniel Deronda book coverDaniel Deronda
Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

Heavily inspired by the Biblical story of Moses, George Eliot used Daniel Deronda as a way of correcting English misunderstandings of Jewish culture. After a chance meeting with Mirah Lapidoth, a beautiful singer, Daniel Deronda finds himself immersed in London’s Jewish community. Though he identifies strongly with their beliefs, Deronda feels conflicted when asked by visionary Mordecai to take up the mission of advocating for the Jewish people. It’s only when he discovers his own Jewish heritage that Deronda finds peace within himself.

Our Mutual Friend book coverMr. Riah
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

Mr. Riah, from Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, is a Jewish money-lender who greatly helps Lizzie Hexam and Jenny Wren, two of the main characters. Mr. Riah shows great sympathy and charity by caring for these two women when no one else would. They refer to him lovingly as their protector. Though Dickens is well known for portraying Jews in a negative and stereotypical light, Mr. Riah represents a positive shift and Dickens’ changing attitude toward the Jews. Mr. Riah is portrayed very sympathetically. He is not the money-hungry and evil character that Dickens may have once written, instead he is kind, charitable, and a true hero to the people who need him.

This article originally appeared on Zola Books.