Star of David on a scroll

Writers Explore: Writing a Jewish character

Thanet, and particularly Ramsgate, owes some of its heritage to the local Jewish community. Most prominent of these influences is Sir Moses Montefiore who is the namesake of parts of Ramsgate. Sir Moses Montefiore has his links to literature too, being mentioned in Charles Dickens’ diaries, in the personal papers of George Eliot, and in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses.

At a time when the average life expectancy was 50 Sir Moses Montefiore living to see his 100th birthday which was highly celebrated locally. According to the Wikipedia article, every local charity (and church) benefited from his philanthropy. After his death, Montefiore’s estate was sold to the Borough of Ramsgate with the lions share becoming King George VI Memorial Park.

With all that in mind, we will explore including Jewish characters within your fiction.

A word of warning before we start

It is impossible to write about Jewish characters without having at least some awareness of modern (and perhaps historical, depending on setting) Jewish culture and beliefs. If you want your writing to have the least bit of quality, simple caricatures will not help you here. If your work would serve as further examples for Stereotypes of Jews then you will have failed in your writing attempt. One of the best ways to avoid this fate for your writing is to ignore what you have learned from films and TV and learn (first hand if you can) about your local Jewish community, their culture, and experiences. In other words, you still need to do your homework.

If you grew up in a predominantly Christian environment then there is a good chance that you may need to unlearn a few things before you get started. This is not through any specific ill will; simply a side effect of the (unsurprising) focus on the Biblical era which can tend to blot out (or ignore) the fact that Jewish culture carried right on developing right up to today. Most of what you learned in Sunday School will not apply.

On that same point, I would avoid having your antagonist as the sole Jewish character. The chances are that, with the exception of a few truly gifted writers, the attempt will always appear racist and crude. The chances are that, despite any better intentions, such an attempt would land you squarely back in the world of stereotypes. That’s not to say this would be an impossible situation only that I am confident that you can do better.

If you want to read more about how stereotypes damage our writing check out How to write interesting and compelling female characters. If you are interested in playing with, subverting, or just avoiding all the possible Jewish troped, TV Tropes has an index.

How to create a Jewish character

When creating a Jewish character (or a character of any ethnic or cultural group) it is important to remember everything you know about creating good characters. Choosing an ethnic or cultural background is never any sort of shortcut for character development. The Jewish community, like any other, is made up of individual people each with their own interests and desires. Thus any character for whom membership of this community is their only defining characteristic will, at best be flat and uninteresting and at worst slightly offensive.

When designing your Jewish character you need only remember that this is a character from a specific cultural background who will, therefore, have been shaped by that background. It is these influences that you will seek to show in your story. To avoid perpetuating stereotypes or creating new ones, I am not going to just hand you a bunch of rules of thumb, instead, I plan to guide you to the sources of information that you can begin to apply yourself.

Therefore, before we look at some specific topics of consideration here is a short list of further reading that you might use to get started in your doing your homework prior to character creation.

Remember, learning about the history of a people is not the same as understanding their culture. History gives context to your learning. Historical context can be important but it is not a replacement for some first-hand learning.

The best advice to writers is read things. When it comes to crafting realistic Jewish characters, read things by Jewish people. Just as you or I tend to write protagonists that are like us, other writers do that too.

Considerations when writing a Jewish character

I do not intend to cover the basics of character creation. This exploration will assume that you have already covered those. I am going to assume that you intend to write well-rounded characters that are distinct outside of their Jewish identity such that no matter how many Jewish characters your write, the readers can easily tell them apart. In other words, you are going to give them fully fleshed out personalities.


I hope by this stage that you have picked up on the fact that not all Jews are religious. Very early on in the character creation process, you are going to have to decide if you are writing a character that is or is not religious. This choice will have by far the most consequences for how you shape your character.

Jews who are not religious, for example, are unlikely to wear anything that outwardly identifies them as Jewish. They will probably attend religious services on the more important holidays. Although, the exact details of this will be a reflection of your character’s relationship with their own heritage.

As for the more important holidays, I assume you know how to use Google. Keep reading, there are some links to help you out towards the end.

One important thing to note here is that Judaism is distinct from and in no way related to Christianity. There is a shared heritage if you go back a few thousand years but in the time since many Jewish communities have been badly abused by “Christian” majorities. For this reason, and to avoid any sign of idolatry, religious Jews generally avoid attending Christian places of worship. It is safe to say that the relationship between the two groups is somewhat fraught.


How you handle antisemitism both narratively and with sensitivity to the people that actually suffer its effects will be the acid test of your skills as a writer. My suggestion is to not dwell too much on this topic unless you are writing in a historical setting that demands you to deal with it. In that case, I would take the time to make friends with as many Jewish people as humanly possible in the hope of ending up with a few quality Jewish beta readers. You are going to need some inside help to get the specifics right.

With a Jewish protagonist, you may feel that you have baked in a source of antagonists. This is a choice you are going to have to make for yourself. But unless you have experienced racial or religious abuse first hand, I can assure you that you have no idea.

My one experience of antisemitism happened a few years ago. A friend and I were on a bus (going past Westwood Cross). Both of us had hats – I’m well known for wearing hats – and a loud drunk and angry man proceeded to shout at us. In his opinion, we were Jews and should “go back to where we came from”.

I cannot even begin to describe how surreal the whole experience was. I was glad that none of my Jewish friends were on the bus but I felt angry, embarrassed, and deeply powerless. Although the bus was full, not one person said or did anything. Every person sat there and did their best not to notice what was happening right in front of them. He only got disapproving looks and a few very British tuts when he tossed his rubbish out of the window.

The whole encounter was humiliating and scary. It was hard to tell if he was willing to turn things violent. There was no way to escape from his abuse. Eventually, he ran out of steam, muttered about us to himself while looking for confirmation from the other passengers. No one would meet his eye or reply but he clearly expected the support and agreement of the other passengers.

Once it was over, that was the end of it. Nothing like that ever happened again. Which is why, outside of a short story in which I can recycle that moment, I remain unqualified to describe the experience of being on the receiving end of antisemitism.


From my own observations of Jewish culture, the family is culturally important. What I have read seems to back this up. Jewish culture, I read, values family, family get-togethers, and eating together.

While crafting your Jewish character you should give consideration to their family and to friends of the family. No character exists in a vacuum and even if you do not end up writing about the character’s family directly, considering their family and family relationships will help you form ideas about the character themselves.

My personal experience of Jewish mums has been their tendency to be caring and, well, motherly. This seems to extend to looking out for other people’s youngsters of the same age as their own children. My experience was of women with a caring nature that they simply extended to those around them. It could be that I was just lucky to know some lovely mums. Maybe this was because the mums in question were friends with my own mum. I don’t know for sure. I only know that they were lovely people and I miss them.

I would almost certainly model my own character’s mother on the Jewish mothers I knew growing up.


I get the impression that food and good eating at celebrations is a common part of Jewish culture. I can attest to the culinary skills of the Jewish gentleman that ran a wonderful cafe that is no longer open. Honestly, his omelettes were incredible.

From what I have read and understood, there are some foods strongly associated with certain Jewish holidays. There are other traditional Jewish dishes that are eaten all year round. If your story is to include eating – especially in a family setting – you would do well to research this area.


This is a complicated question. It is best understood by exploring the history behind it. Unfortunately, I am not qualified to do that for you. Fortunately, I know how to use Google.

I found an article on Jewish characters on Wattpad which gives a brief overview. The simple answer is Jewish people tend to look just everyone else given the context of where-ever the setting is.

However, the question of race is tied up with racism and antisemitism because just being nice to everyone and getting along seems to be something the human race struggles to do. It has been suggested that it is a mistake to even ask if Jews are white. With what is going on in America right now, I can see why.

In short, if you are going to reference race, you will need to make sure that you know what you are talking about.

We shared an explanation of Jewish religion and race by a Jewish person on our Tumblr blog. We also shared a guide to writing about race and skin tones.


As a non-Jewish person, it may be around this time that you start asking yourself if a Jewish character is right for you. It is a good question and one only you can answer.

If I were to write a South-African Character right now, no matter what trappings I gave him, he would still – in character at least – be a white middle-aged British man on a thinly painted backdrop. In other words, I could not write such a character with any authenticity. That’s not to say that with enough research, the right new friends to model the character on, and time, I couldn’t write an authentic character, only that it would require hard work.

The same issue applies to writing authentic Jewish characters. What is it, aside from the food, songs, family, customs, and faith that makes a person truly Jewish? What is Jewishness? That’s what you need to answer to write a fully realised Jewish character. Just read the reflections of a Jewish writer wondering if their own characters are Jewish or not.


I’ve added links in context throughout this article. Which means some of these links will be repeats of ones you have already seen.

Have I missed anything out? Got anything wrong? Can you add to this guide? Use the comments below to let me know your thoughts.

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