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A case for Walter Mosley’s inclusion in the American Jewish literary canon

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Walter Mosley. (Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images)

Walter Mosley, who last month published Known To Evil, his latest crime novel, fits neatly into a number of categories. He is an African-American writer, a mystery writer, a literary novelist, an award-winner, a polemicist, and a best-selling author. But he has not yet been included in the American Jewish canon, either through serious scholarly consideration or by inclusion in relevant anthologies.

By any rabbinic standard, Mosley, the son of an African-American father and Jewish mother, is Jewish. “If you ask me what I am, I would say I’m a black man in America and I’m a Jew,” he told me in an interview last year. “My mother’s a Jew and that makes me a Jew. That means they would take me in Israel.”

I contributed to a critical companion to contemporary Jewish American novelists that was published in 1997. Mosley wasn’t included. “It doesn’t bother me because I understand,” he told me. “You have Jewish thinkers who wouldn’t include me, because they see Jews in America as white people in America”—that is, as part of the dominant culture—“forgetting all the golf courses, forgetting all the jokes, forgetting all the things that they must know people are saying and thinking all the time and allowing to happen, forgetting America’s history in World War II.”

I asked Joel Shatzky, a professor who served as co-editor of that critical companion, why Mosley had been omitted. The book “concerned itself with Jewish writers that wrote predominantly on Jewish themes,” he responded by email. “Mosley is a terrific writer but not, as far as I know, a Jewish one.”

So, what is a Jewish writer, and what is a Jewish theme? If a writer is unambiguously Jewish, doesn’t it follow that any story he or she commits to paper contains, by definition, Jewish themes, whether that story involves bubbe telling shtetl folktales over a steaming pot of chicken soup, or a black detective in Los Angeles living in the 1950s?

Mosley doesn’t write about bubbes. “I write about Black male heroes,” he said. “There’s really nobody in America writing about Black male heroes.”

Fair enough. But that doesn’t exclude the possibility of a profoundly Jewish dimension in his work. Jewish characters and culture are peppered throughout his oeuvre. His novel Fearless Jones revolves around Holocaust survivors and covert Israeli agents operating in the undercurrents of Los Angeles. Easy Rawlins, Mosley’s most famous hero, is assisted in several stories by the sympathetic Jewish detective Saul Lynx. Ben Dibbuk, the protagonist of Mosley’s novel Diablerie, is every inch a classic Dibbuk out of Yiddish folklore, a demonic figure inhabiting a human body. The elderly Jewish character of Chaim Zetel in Mosley’s The Right Mistake occupies a prominent place within the philosophic discussions of the novel’s protagonist, Socrates Fortlow, and Zetel’s work in “finding things that no one wants and making them into something useful” becomes a guiding metaphor for the broader agenda of the novel.

Jewish culture, together with black culture and the American collisions between different cultures, permeate every page of Mosley’s work. (In our interview, Mosley described his books as a “confluence” of cultures.) And while it might be difficult to argue that Mosley’s themes are exclusively Jewish, it would be equally difficult to argue that Jewish themes are not present in his work. Zetel’s work repairing broken objects is a clear reference to the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, or healing the world. Indeed, Mosley’s stories consistently and relentlessly arch toward redemption, toward healing a deeply broken world.

His polemics, as articulated in such nonfiction volumes as A Life Out of Context and What Next: A Memoir Toward World Peace, speak to the African American experience, but they adopt an anarchistic political posture that seems to have evolved directly out of the Jewish North American leftist experience of the 1930s. His novels, like those of Mordecai Richler, consistently contain characters who hearken back to the Jewish folkloric Golem, a supernatural protector, fashioned from clay using kabbalistic practice; these characters, like Raymond “Mouse” Alexander of the Easy Rawlins novels, Fearless Jones, and Hush (the hit man in Mosley’s new Leonid McGill series), are protectors who cross the line of morality in order to maintain balance in the world. Paris Minton, the narrator of the Fearless Jones novels, clearly evolved from of the tradition of the laughable schlemiel. And the best of Mosley’s protagonists, like those of Saul Bellow, Bruce Jay Friedman, and so many other Jewish writers, are wanderers, jarred by a feeling of displacement in America, whether they are Jewish or otherwise.

Stories of Jews living side-by-side with other American cultures, including black culture, and the ambiguities that arise from that proximity, might provide the ultimate American Jewish theme—that lines are blurred and blurring. “Jews at one point were the best boxers in America,” Mosley said to me. “Jews were the best mobsters in America. Jews lived in ghettos and were slaughtered because of their race. I dare anybody to separate that from the African American experience. It’s not possible.”

The question remains: Why would the Jewish literary establishment in America not want to claim Mosley as a member of the canon? Mosley says that his inclusion would challenge the myth that Jews belong to white America. But perhaps the truth is simpler; perhaps it’s just an oversight, and it’s now time to include him in all serious considerations of the American Jewish canon. Or perhaps the collision of Jewish themes with black themes in his work has complicated the question of what is Jewish writing, and no critic or anthologist has been prepared to accept the ambiguity.

Mosley suggested in our interview that “to say ‘what’s the Jewish part of this book, what’s the black part of this book’ is actually missing the point of the book in a way. For me, this is absolutely smooth sailing.” It’s time for Jewish anthologists and critics to discover that ambiguity itself is becoming the ultimate Jewish American theme.

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I had no idea that Walter Mosley is Jewish! That is so phenomenally awesome! He’s an immensely talented man, and he should for sure be included in the Jewish American literary canon.

Steve Forstenzer says:

I concur with Sruli, I had no idea he identifies himself as Jewish!Mosley is one of those great detective authors who combine important social commentary along with a great story

scott sperling says:

I will echo these comments. I am a huge fan of Mosley and have been for years. I had no idea that he was Jewish. I am very motivated now to go back and work my way through this list of his novels that have more pronounced Jewish themes and characters. Mosley and I grew up in the same neighborhood in Los Angeles and we’re the same age. I have often pondered about how the racial divide in the early ’60’s would have affected us had we met in grade school or beyond. This revelation adds a remarkable dimension to that internal dialogue.

Binke says:

I am a great fan of Mosley and am delighted to find out that he is also Jewish, ( as well as African American). If Morality, philosophical discourse, discrimination, rising above obstacles, courage in the face of violence and danger and not “Jewish” themes I dont what are.

Fascinating

Adele says:

Mosley has spoken twice at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, and the first time, his Jewish mother came to hear him!
He’s a great writer and a real mensch.

ed karesky says:

Is there any doubt Mosley has “Jewish soul?” Welcome, landsman!

Kenneth Silverman says:

Surely in both cultural and literary terms Mosley must be counted as an important black Jewish-American writer.

This is the best article I ever read on Tablet. We need everybody we can get. And Walter Mosley is great.

I maintain an extensive list of Jewish writers on behalf of my library and it includes Walter Mosley as well as quite a few others (e.g., Cervantes, Dorothy Parker) who are often left out of the canon. I have gotten flack from others in the field who question the inclusive nature of my list. However, I’ve made it clear that this wider scope reflects the stated purpose of my list, to document the full-range of the Jewish experience, in all its messy confusion. I’m glad to hear others are open to seeing that the Jewish experience goes beyond a few easy archetypes.

Yale Gancherov says:

Yay, Mosely family of Los Angeles! Some of you are mishpocha, some professional colleagues. My honor and privilege.

Now hold on a minute everybody. This argument is pretty thin. Heft asks the right questions (“what is a Jewish writer, and what is a Jewish theme?) but he doesn’t give satisfying answers. Mosley might be a Jewish writer, but if so it is not because there is evidence of tikkun olam in his work. Novels, at least good novels, aren’t built on such trendy ideas. They’re made of out of closely observed life. The tough guy characters that Heft thinks are golem-inspired might be better explained by sources in black life that Mosley knows far better than Heft. (Was Ras the Destroyer in Ellison’s Invisible Man also based on the golem, or the fiery black nationalists of Harlem?) And what’s this about Bellow’s characters being wanderers, “jarred by a feeling of displacement in America?” Are you talking about the author of Augie March, who said “I am an American, Chicago born?” Finally, ambiguity is the ultimate Jewish theme. I don’t know what that means and I don’t think Heft does, either. And he hasn’t identified any evidence to back it up. Jews once fielded many boxers and some gangsters. Now they don’t. But blacks do. Is that ambiguity? Is that a blurring of lines or a clear distinction? The best argument Heft offers is also the simplest and least theoretical: the inclusion of Jewish characters in his novels. But that is not enough. Fitzgerald and Hemingway also featured Jews in their novels. That doesn’t make them Jewish novelists.

Is this a classic case of “he doesn’t look Jewish,” so we don’t see him as Jewish?

What if someone who looked Jewish and had a Jewish name wrote these novels? Would we will still be having this debate?

I’ve read a few of Mosley’s books. His “black heroes” are first class mensches and Jewish values and ideology do seem to be among his themes.

I have no trouble adding his work to the canon of Jewish authors, however, that doesn’t mean his work would make the “cut” by the editors of the critical companion, unless it was meant to be an exhaustive list.

Phillip Cohen says:

I listened to interviews of Walter Mosely on NPR. I was moved by what he had to say about his novels and the take he had on Los Angeles. Reading that he was Jewish made sense of what I heard him say on the radio. A brillent black-Jewish detective writer he is.

I have a feeling, this month, books by Walter Mosely will sell very well to the Jewish community.

Robert Milch says:

I’ve certainly enjoyed and admired several novels by Mosley, and if he really sees himself as a Jew in some active way I don’t object to his being counted as a Jewish novelist regardless of the presence or absence of “Jewish themes” in his work, but the article by Heft and much of the discussion here strikes me as a very retro kind of parochial, even pathetic special pleading that I thought went out of fashion decades ago: anyone who has a discernible Jewish gene is counted as a Jew so long as it helps to increase the tally of Jewish achievers.I though we were past that point; I wish we were.

Jacob Zeder says:

I am sorry but I am a big fan of Mosely but he does not really consider himself Jewish. Years ago asked by a journalist who he was -he responded I am my father’s son. Sure he has sympathetic Jewish characters and has been influenced some by his mom otherwise he’d be like the majority of Black intellectuals these days and be a raving Anti-Zionist Jew hater. I’ll take him just as he is and not try to build him up.

Well, how in the world would anyone ever know that he is Jewish if he hasn’t even self-identified as such? I was surprised to read that he is the son of a Jewish mother. When has he ever made THAT public? I can think of all kinds of analogies that would take too long to type and I have other comments elsewhere to make.

Ruth Rachel says:

Walter Mosely is an incredibly talented man, an incredibly talented writer.

Until now, however, Walter Mosely has not publicly self-identified as Jewish. Now he has; now he is.

What does this mean?

He is embarking on a journey, deciding what his Jewish identity means to him…and, in my opinion, he is at the beginning…because he has just begun to publicly self-identify as Jewish, and will now just begin to experience all those things which come with that public self-identification.

For me, the debate here is no different that the ongoing debates surrounding secular and liberal Jewish identity.

What does it mean to “be Jewish” if one does not live a Torah life, as a committed, observant Jew?

Ruth Rachel says:

“For me, the debate here is no different than the ongoing debates surrounding secular and liberal Jewish identity.

What does it mean to “be Jewish” if one does not live a Torah life, as a committed, observant Jew?”

Judaism has no color…there is no color to the Jewish soul. Judaism is about how we live, the choice to submit to the will of Hashem, about living the principle of oushmo ehad. This is the beginning, and the end, of Jewish identity.

Ruth Rachel says:

The reason that having a Jewish mother has meaning, is because tradition is handed down from generation to generation, L’Dor V’Dor.

Ruth Rachel says:

It is not such an “easy call”, just as standing to the call of Torah, standing to the call to publicly and proudly living one’s Jewish identity, to live the will of Hashem, is not an “easy call”…

Ruth Rachel says:

Just as many other secular, non-observant Jews stood on the “fringe” of what was considered to be the Jewish literary canon of their day…so does the work of Walter Mosely…

In the end, it is really a question about what it means to be Jewish, and less a question of race (though the injustice of racism does exist, is present, within the Jewish community, just as within any other community)…

Ruth Rachel says:

(To the editors of Tablet: please excuse the numerous posts…thoughts that came after…please feel free to join them together in one post -)

Mixedjewgirl says:

I am highly disappointed in both the article and its responses. I have noticed a fairly unintelligent discourse in Jewish publications concerning biracial and Jews of color and why they make the choices as to whether or not it is prudent to identify or announce their Jewish identities. Racism and exclusion encourages many biracial Jewish children to leave Judaism before their bnai mitzvahs. These children don’t reject their Judaism, Judaism rejects them.

Ruth’s comment about secular Jews on the fringe and doesn’t apply to Mosely because the trajectory for Jews of color is far more characterized by exclusion and denial. Mosely isn’t a man who was raised in a religious or secular Jewish home who take on the identity of the other. If you read the links, he explains his Jewish identity and choices.

I’m attaching links where he discusses his Jewish family and mother in lectures. It was lazy reporting on behalf on Heft to not explore his comments on the subject. Mosley has never been ashamed of being Jewish nor has he denied it.

http://www.cs.caltech.edu/~shankar/p-l/050305.html
http://www.pbs.org/newshour/gergen/jan-june00/mosley_4-6.htmlhttp://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2003/sep/06/fiction.politics
http://www.times.com/books/98/11/15/specials/mosley-dinner.html

It has been common knowledge among the black chattering classes that Mosley had a Jewish mother and some of his “mother’s” beliefs permeate his knowledge. We’re amused that it took you so long to figure this out.

As an activist for Jews of color, this article and its responses explain why my work is never done.

Laurie Chana says:

Many valid points above. I’m not debating whether or not Mosely is a fine writer. What incessantly
bothers me is the cringing need for white mainstream jews to be politically correct and even consider
whether or not Mosley should be part of the Jewish “canon” so to speak. Time will tell. Why the urgency?
With all due respect to Mr. Mosely, I think the resolution of this debate will unfold. Incidentally,
there are plenty of jewish writers who are not part of the jewish canon.
Again, I ask, why the driving need to be so PC, hipster readers?

Malka Percal says:

I’ve known since Mosely’s first book was published that he had a Jewish mother. That was known from the very beginning of his career. Since he is indisputably a Jew and a writer, he is of course a Jewish writer. The fact that he includes Jewish characters and themes is icing on the cake. And I agree completely with MixedJewGirl’s comments about exclusion. One need only parse some of the comments here to see how Jews of color are judged by a different standard. (I particularly was amused by the comment: If Mosely is considered a Jewish writer, why not Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Duh…)

Carol says:

I’d like Walter Mosely to write about the “Black/Jewish” identity experience that formed and informs his life. We need more talented artists to write about the difficulties, joys and contradictions of that multi-cultural experience, rather than get it from others who analyze and interpret using hints from bits of information. Some of my question would be: Who were the role models when he was growing up, what kind of Jewish education was provided (or not)? When and how did he make the choices he’s made so far, and how does he look at them now? I could ask more questions, but they are his, not mine to reflect upon. We can learn from the lessons of others lives.

Carol says:

My profuse apologies for misspelling Mosley, and for everyone else who did, as well.

Slow Reader says:

This is one of the very best essays I have read on Tablet.
I hope you will profile some of the other Black-Jewish writers out there, like Julius Lester and Rebecca Walker (Alice Walker’s daughter) and James McBride and Carolivia Herron.

Be honest. Plenty of Jewish writers don’t write about Jewish themes or issues. Hell, plenty of Jews have no Jewish culture (Russian Jews who immigrated to Israel come to mind). Mosley isn’t considered Jewish (despite his Jewish mother) because his father’s ancestry is considered socially (if not biologically) inferior to his Jewish lineage. If his father were Swedish or otherwise “Aryan,” Mosley would be a prize catch and there would be no problem. Since he was reared as “black,” Mosley would no doubt agree that he is indeed too “inferior” to claim his Jewish heritage because (like most “black” elites) he believes devoutly in the doctrine of forced hypodescent. David Matthews, author of the autobiography, “Ace of Spades” is another Jew who believes he’s not a Jew because of his father’s “inferior” black ancestry. It’s no accident that Philip Roth’s racist novel, “The Human Stain” is dedicated to denigrating a mixed-white of Christian heritage as some kind of [inferior] “black man” who “passes” as a [superior] “white” Jew. It’s a racial game of upward mobility.

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A case for Walter Mosley’s inclusion in the American Jewish literary canon

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