A young girl is found dead and in fear the Jewish community runs to the shul to pray to God for safety from a band of murderers. Then someone runs in and says, “Good news. The girl was Jewish.”
That kind of dark humor about the Jewish experience with pogroms, blood libels, and anti-Semitism in Europe’s ghettos and shtetls has colored Jewish literary works for centuries. That same history continues to influence the works of Jewish writers and film directors, said Kenneth Wishnia, editor of the new book, “Jewish Noir: Contemporary Tales of Crime and Other Dark Deeds.”
Wishnia spoke at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick about the book, which includes 32 stories by Jewish and non-Jewish writers who use Jewish history, symbolism, mysticism, and tropes in the noir genre.
Noir usually has a protagonist possessing self-destructive qualities, who is a victim, suspect, or a perpetrator.
“With black humor we do very well,” said Wishnia. “Blood libels were so common we did jokes about it.”
Wishnia is an award-winning author of several mystery novels and numerous short stories and an English professor at Suffolk Community College on Long Island, teaching writing, literature, and “other deviant forms of thought,” he said.
His latest novel, “The Fifth Servant,” is set in 1592 Prague, where a young Christian girl is found with her throat slashed inside a Jewish shop on the eve of Passover.
Modern noir is expressed by many Jewish writers and directors “by the little guy making one small mistake or bad decision and being ground up by the system for it.”
It isn’t surprising Jews embrace noir, said Wishnia. After all, the Torah is filled with harrowing and dark stories brimming with noir.
Take Moses, he said, who stood up to Pharaoh, led the Israelites across the Red Sea, and schlepped a “fractious” group through the desert for 40 years only to be told by God when he gets to Moab, “You can look but you can’t enter. Why? Because you doubted me for a split second.”
Moses being denied entry into the Promised Land was punishment for striking the rock too hard to give the thirsty wanderers water, a sign of his momentary doubt, said Wishnia, adding, “That is Jewish noir.”
It is no accident that in the McCarthy era of the 1950s, Jewish writers were disproportionately blacklisted for their subject matter, said Wishnia, who pointed out, “Yes, that’s noir.”
The oldest story mentioned in his Jewish noir book is, “A Simkhe,” or celebration, first published in Yiddish in the Forverts in 1912 by Yente Serdatsky, who Wishnia called “one of the great unsung writers of that era.”
Serdatsky, somewhat of a female revolutionary Lithuanian immigrant, penned a tale, never before published in English, of disillusionment that sets in among a group of Russian-Jewish immigrant radicals after several years in the United States.
Although many Jews who came to America in the great wave of immigration from the 1880s through the early 1900s — which also brought a number of Italian and Irish immigrants — felt a sense of disillusionment, their experience was tinged by a sense of noir.
“Very few people know half the Italians went back to Italy,” said Wishnia. “Jews were not going back to czarist Russia. No one’s Irish grandmother that I know of kept a packed suitcase in the closet.”
The rest of the book covers modern themes ranging from the Holocaust to anti-Semitism on the college campus, ethical issues, and crime fiction. Some are written by rabbis, others by famous writers, and some by authors who aren’t even Jewish, including a Chinese-Canadian female doctor who writes about the lingering effects of the Holocaust visible in her patients who are survivors.
That sense of noir, of being outsiders, was felt by the Jewish community again during the recent presidential campaign, said Wishnia, with its talk of “Christian values” and the emboldening of neo-Nazis and white supremacist groups, for whom Jews are still the primary targets.
Jewish filmmakers frequently used noir, from Billy Wilder in “Double Indemnity”; Otto Preminger, who helped establish film noir with his 1944 movie “Laura”; to Stanley Kubrick and his troubling “A Clockwork Orange.”
A trend that began in the early days of Hollywood of Jewish actors and actresses changing their Jewish last names to seem less like outsiders continues today. Wishnia noted that former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart Leibowitz dropped his last name altogether.
“Do you think Winona Ryder would have gotten all those delicate waif roles if she used her real last name, Horowitz?” asked Wishnia.