Forward Magazine Posts Iffy Claims That “A Christmas Carol” Is Anti-Semitic

A clickbait article in Forward online recently tried to argue the case that Dickens’s classic novel is filled with Jew hatred.  That argument was full of of holes.

While the money lender may be an anti-Semitic stereotype and Scrooge does lend money, that’s just one of his many business dealings. The sign “Scrooge and Marley” hangs over a “warehouse door,” so money lending doesn’t seem to be his main profession. A warehouse suggests a wholesale business of some kind, though Dickens never specifies what that is. It’s not likely that the warehouse was packed with boxes of gold sovereigns and pound notes.

The second line of the novel tells readers that Scrooge would be trusted in any endeavor he turned to on the London Stock Exchange. Later in the book, it’s stock brokers on the Exchange whom he hears gossiping about his death. So we can assume Dickens was suggesting that Scrooge was somehow involved in stocks and bonds.

But wait–is Scrooge actually Jewish? The Forward article suggested that Dickens’s choice of Scrooge’s first name Ebenezer is clearly anti-Semitic. That’s laughable.  Biblical names were widely given to Anglo-Saxon boys and girls in the 19th century.  And some of them of them were uncommon ones like his: Hezekiah, Obadiah, Tabitha, Jemima.

While Ebenezer may mean something in Hebrew (“stone of help”), so what? Many much more widely-used English names like John and Mary are derived from Hebrew. If Scrooge had somehow managed to have a wife named Elizabeth, would that be anti-Semitic, too?  After all, it comes from Elisheva (“God is abundance”).

The author of the article goes on to note that Scrooge’s late partner has “a fully Jewish moniker” in Jacob Marley. Jacob is obviously the name of a Biblical patriarch, but then the author makes the blockbuster revelation that Marley is Hebrew for “it is bitter to me.”

That’s the point at which I thought I might need a glass of heavily-spiked eggnog. And I don’t even like eggnog.

I’ve read a number of Dickens biographies and haven’t encountered reports of Dickens knowing anything besides some French in addition to his native English, so how did he become a scholar in Hebrew?

Even if a trove of letters was discovered that proved Dickens was a secret student of the language, why would he bother camouflaging his anti-Semitism? It was open enough in books like Oliver Twist, Sketches by Boz, and David Copperfield.

But wait!  Maybe there are more stunning secrets buried in Dickens’s novels! Perhaps Chuzzlewit is an anagram for something in Aramaic?  Maybe we should be reading Bleak House backwards! And what if we’re about to see the publication of The Dickens Code by some enterprising author?!  Is Tom Hanks already studying a script where he plays a Dickensologist?

Back on Planet Earth, it turns out that name Marley has a long history with no Jewish connections at all:

This long-established surname is of Anglo-Saxon origin, and is locational from any of the various places thus called, including Marley in Devonshire, Durham, Kent and the West Riding of Yorkshire, or Marley Farm in Brede (Sussex). The Yorkshire place, recorded as “Mardelai” in the Domesday Book of 1086, derives its first element from the Olde English pre-7th Century “mearth” meaning (pine) marten, plus “leah”, a wood or clearing.

It took me only a few minutes to track down that information.  No tortured etymology necessary.

The Forward article makes the final killing point–quoting another writer–that Scrooge hates Christmas and has a pointed nose.  There you have it, ladies and gentlemen.  To cap it all off, the author ends his article with “Bah, humbug,”  which must have taken a great deal of thought.

In the course of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge comes to see how the world is filled with poverty, some of it close to home.  And there’s that vision of Ignorance and Want which is absolutely harrowing.

Scrooge also realizes how his emotional life has been stunted, and shame makes him more compassionate. That’s not anti-Semitic or pro-Christian, and it has nothing to do with religion or identity: It’s just plain human.

An American pioneer in writing fiction about children of Holocaust survivors, Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery. His latest novel is State University of Murder.

“For Such a Time” Is Ersatz

Writers like Katherine Locke and Kelly Faircloth have blogged about the bizarre nature of the romance Kate Breslin concocted between a Nazi and his Jewish prisoner in her debut novel For Such a Time.  However much Breslin tries to make this relationship redemptive and wonderful, she can’t blur the cruel power dynamic at its core; the threat of rape and death; and the fact that genocide gets swept away at the book’s end.

What also troubles me about For Such a Time is the slipshod editing.  How nobody at Breslin’s publishing house corrected her clumsy attempts to root the book in the Holocaust or her skewed knowledge of Judaism and Jewish culture.

Examples abound.  Why does she use the word Hakenkreuz rather than Swastika?  The latter word is one most readers would be familiar with.  Hakenkreuz is a feeble attempt to make the book feel historically accurate.  So is using Sturmabteilung rather than SA or Brownshirts.  Both of those are much more more familiar to readers of historical novels or thrillers set in Nazi Germany–and more understandable.

Why field the obscure word Gänsebraten when roast goose would do just as well?  Surely anyone picking up this book will understand that it’s set in Germany after the first few pages.  Breslin doesn’t need to keep reminding us, as when she substitutes the word Kaffee for coffee over half a dozen times. But Kaffee isn’t italicized, which it should be since it’s in a foreign language.  Page after page, you feel she’s just overdoing it and the publisher is careless and clueless.

Which is unfortunate, given Breslin’s weak grasp of German and Germany’s history with Jews.  Breslin’s heroine is addressed as “Jude.”  That’s the masculine for Jew in German, not the feminine, which is Jüdin.  But more egregious than that, the Nazis had many terms of abuse for Jews, and simply calling her a Jew is not pejorative enough–given the period.

If Breslin was so desperate for authenticity, a little research would have yielded the insult Judensau among others. The Nazis were very fond of this slur which means “Jew pig,” and as a despicable term for Jews in Germany, it dates back to the Middle Ages.  It was so widely used, images were carved on churches.

Breslin’s understanding of Jewish culture and religion is also grossly off-base.  In a glossary at the book’s end, she defines a yarmulke as a “prayer cap.”  No it isn’t.  It’s a skullcap; it’s not just worn at prayers by observant Jews.  More incorrectly, she thinks a shtetl is a “small town or ghetto.”  That’s flat-out wrong.  It’s the Yiddish for a small Jewish or heavily Jewish village or town in Eastern Europe–not remotely the same thing as a ghetto.

If that inaccuracy isn’t enough, the glossary says that Jews in the Holocaust wore a “gold” star to identify “their Jewry.”

Breslin further makes a hash of history when she says that “Sarah” was “a term that Nazis used for Jewesses.”  That makes it sound like a synonym.  It wasn’t.  What she seems to be getting at is the legislation in 1938 which forced Jews with “non-Jewish” names to add “Sara” [sic] or “Israel” as middle names to their identity papers so that there could be no doubt they were Jewish.  She and her publisher also seem oblivious to the fact that the word “Jewess” isn’t just dated, it’s widely considered offensive.

One more indignity: Breslin crams the novel with more German than it needs, but gets a key German term related to the Holocaust wrong. The German word for Final Solution, Endlösung, is rendered as Endoslung in the book and in the glossary.

All these errors come from an author who claims to love the Jewish people. As the song goes, “Who Needs Love Like That?”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres including Rosedale in Love, set in New York during The Gilded Age.