New book ‘Jewish Noir’ serves up tales of crime and other dark deeds

Jews and the noir genre have a lot in common, says Kenneth Wishnia, editor of the new book “Jewish Noir: Contemporary Tales of Crime and Other Dark Deeds.”

The dark themes of the noir genre — alienation, outsider status, fighting against an unjust or hostile society — resonate throughout Jewish history, says the Long Island-based editor. “We have this history of angry prophets telling the leaders, ‘You’re not doing your job,’ ” Wishnia says.

jnoir3Look at Moses, the quintessential Jewish leader who did God’s bidding all his life and then was barred from entering Canaan for what might be considered a minor offense — striking a rock instead of just speaking to it.

“He sees the Promised Land and God says, ‘By the way, you’re not going.’ … Talk about noir,” says Wishnia. “In Judaism,” as in noir, “you can follow the right path and still get screwed.”

“Jewish Noir,” published this month by PM Press, is an anthology of 32 stories on Jewish themes including ethnic identity and the challenges of assimilation, the Jewish presence in the civil rights movement, and echoes of pogroms and the Holocaust. The characters are tough Jewish cops and gangsters, stereotypically predatory Jewish businessmen, the corrupt, the obsessed, the downtrodden, the tarnished heroines and the anti-heroes.

“Many Jews were drawn to film noir because of the theme of being hunted to death,” says Wishnia, a novelist and writing instructor at a New York community college.

Many of the stories were solicited by Wishnia specifically for this anthology. Others are reprints of sparkling noir tales from the past, including a Yiddish-influenced story from World War I New York and a tale by famed sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison. Four of the writers are based in Northern California.

By the 20th century, Wishnia says, both Jews and the noir genre had developed an identity centered in “not being at home anywhere in the world, feeling persecuted irrationally, having this sense of not being sane and settled, but that any day they could turn on you, like in [the 1903 pogroms of] Kishinev.”

Or, as a Yiddish proverb says, “A Jew’s joy is not without fright.”

Berkeley resident and contributor Summer Brenner knows about persecution, and her fury propels her writing. “I knew the world was divided into black and white,” she says of her childhood in the well-to-do Buckhead district of Atlanta. Her family attended the city’s famed Temple (Hebrew Benevolent Congregation), which was bombed in 1958 by white supremacists. “I grew up really aware at a young age of the apartheid world I grew up in,” she says.

“I want to cut open the belly of the beast and cut out the organs and throw them in your face,” Brenner says in the elegant, soft-spoken tones of her Southern upbringing. Writing is “almost like a surgical procedure.

Brenner’s just-completed novel, “Devil for a Witch,” is the basis for her story of the same name in this collection. Set in the 1960s civil rights era, it concerns a corrupt Atlanta Jewish business owner who fakes his suicide in an FBI pact and assumes a new identity as a bigot to infiltrate a violent hate group. The “devil for a witch,” says Brenner, is “when circumstances present themselves where you can make a change.”

Wishnia picked Brenner to lead off “Jewish Noir” for a reason. “She’s really able to create guys you want to strangle.”

Now a grandmother, Brenner channels her passion for social justice into young adult novels about the African American and Latino communities of Richmond and Oakland. Those books are on Common Core reading lists in local schools. Her 2009 novel “I-5,” for adults, came from her reading of heartrending news stories about sex trafficking.

“A good crime book is a great social critique,” says Brenner. Noir adds “an element of discomfort. It can hit you in the head, it can sock you in the mouth, it can kick your ass down the street. There’s something about noir that has some kind of assault.”

Berkeley writer Michael Cooper, whose work also appears in the new anthology, sees noir as paradox — hope hidden in darkness.

“Jewish noir obviously speaks very loudly and clearly to us as a people, given our trauma,” he says. Noir is “what we’re experiencing looking at the world.”

Cooper’s story, “Good Morning, Jerusalem 1948,” posits 20-something Palmach commander Yitzhak Rabin as a noir hero trying to keep a book of archaeological diagrams from falling into the hands of a postwar Nazi conspiracy. The story reworks part of Cooper’s recent novel “Foxes in the Vineyard.”

In many ways, says Cooper, Rabin was a noir hero. The former Israeli prime minister, assassinated by a right-wing Israeli Jew at a peace rally in 1995, “appeared in the ’90s to really be coming back into his own, not just in war, but also in peace … His ultimate end was poetically sad.”

A Berkeley native, Cooper — born in 1948, the same year as Israel — grew up Zionist and moved to Israel in 1966, attending Hebrew University and earning his medical degree at Tel Aviv University. He returned to Berkeley in 1977 and worked as a pediatric cardiologist at Kaiser Permanente and UCSF for decades, and still works part-time with UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital. Cooper volunteers for medical missions in Israel and the West Bank, where he does diagnostic triage for Palestinian children.

Rabin’s assassination, and the peace process leading up to it, propelled Cooper’s writing and his worldview. “There hasn’t arisen a figure with the bravery and the credentials that Rabin possessed to bring us back to that tactic in an ultimately successful way,” he says. Out of that sense of despair, Cooper says, “the writing came almost naturally.”

Wishnia’s own story in “Jewish Noir” is based on the experience of his politically progressive parents when they were part of the Jewish minority at Ivy League colleges in 1948. His father, victimized by hazing for refusing to wear his college’s freshman beanie, still finds it hard to discuss the incident, which is fictionalized in Wishnia’s story.

Wishnia, 55, sees two branches of noir. “Classic noir is often very much just the ‘Double Indemnity’ sort of thing … A couple get on this subway car going straight to hell and ignore all the screaming red signs saying, ‘Turn back!’ They keep on going straight to the end.”

The other kind of noir involves “the ordinary guy who just by some complete accident of fate ends up in trouble. Destroyed by, perhaps, a femme fatale or the system.” In the 1950s, Wishnia says, that scenario was “a metaphor for McCarthyism,” the anti-communist witch hunt that targeted a fair number of Jewish Americans.

“It’s no coincidence that a lot of the blacklisted filmmakers and directors were making film noir,” says Eddie Muller, a San Francisco native behind the city’s Noir City Film Festival and founder of the Film Noir Foundation.

“When these films were originally made, they caused a big uproar because they were saying things about society that were previously off limits,” says Muller, who contributed the short story “Doc’s Oscar” to the new anthology. “They were saying there was corruption at the core of the culture.”

The model for his story’s hero is Frank King, one of three larger-than-life brothers, movie producers all, whom Muller wrote about in his nonfiction book “Gun Crazy.” Even as much of Hollywood shied away from hiring blacklisted artists and writers, King gave work to screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (nicknamed “Doc”) after Trumbo refused to “name names” in a McCarthy-era hearing.

Noir, Muller says, involves “the keeping of secrets, the stepping over the line into the dark … The most un-noir thing a person can do in a story is call the police.”

Like several of the writers in the anthology, Muller isn’t Jewish; his two Irish grandmothers made sure the kids were raised Catholic. Muller’s “sliver” of Jewishness comes from his maternal grandfather. His father was a legendary sports writer at the San Francisco Examiner who changed his name from Vojkovich when he was told no one would run stories under such a byline — an immigrant experience shared by many Jews.

To Muller, film noir “looked like my dad’s home movies.” Growing up, Muller was fascinated by his father’s cronies, “guys from another time. I don’t want to say they were gangsters, but tough guys in a tough racket.”

Only 23 when his father died, Muller says that as a young writer he felt “I [had] to keep the past alive for people.” His novels “The Distance” and “The Shadow Boxer” put boxing center-ring.

The immigrant experience features largely in “The Legacy,” a short story by historian and Edgar Allen Poe Award-winning author Wendy Hornsby, who relocated to the Sierra foothills two years ago after teaching at Long Beach City College and Cal State Long Beach.

Hornsby’s tale features a young Jewish American woman fighting her way out of the Soviet Union in 1952 with a secret cache of czarist treasure.

“Think of the great events of the 20th century,” Hornsby says. “Huge upheavals, horrible disruption of two world wars and the profound Depression, this diaspora of people in the late 1800s and continuing into the 20th century.”

Hornsby found the germ of her story in her own garden. “People are still around here panning for gold, and some are finding gold. We moved into a house where a family with children used to live, and they left things behind: plastic beads and Hot Wheels cars, toy soldiers with one arm. I was thinking about treasure hunting — when you have something of great value, where do you put that when no institutions are secure?”

The author, who grew up Methodist in the San Gabriel Valley, says that in noir, “there is an assumption that there is an outsider class and that the officials, the insiders, are corrupt, not to be depended upon. So the way that one finds a way in the world, justice in the world, protects themselves and their family, is by finding a way around that corrupt officialdom.”

To Hornsby, 68, “Noir is a dark time. I saw a photo not long ago of the refugees from Europe into North Africa, into Israel, just after World War II. … The parallels [to our own time] are stark — the resistance, the fighting, the xenophobia.
“I like the tone of the noir genre,” she says, “the structure, the assumption that you don’t know anything about anybody, and you can’t really trust anybody.”

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