Jew Eat Yet? No; Jew?

Jeffrey Cohen

It is an interesting thing to be a mystery author. People you meet will automatically assume you have a macabre streak, that you are an expert in exotic ways to dispose of corpses, and that you are using your imagination to get back at all those people who have in some way wronged you. (And even while that last one is true, it’s funny how they know it in advance.)

It’s even more interesting to be a Jewish mystery author in America. By "Jewish mystery author," I do not mean an author who writes mysteries that are about Judaism or includes characters who are Orthodox Jews, as someone like Rochelle Krich does so well. I mean an author of mysteries who happens, by happenstance and genetics, to be of Jewish descent.

For the past four years (and counting), I have been a Jewish mystery author. This is especially ironic, as I am not particularly observant–okay, I’m not even a little observant. But people I meet through the books generally expect me to have some authoritative knowledge of the Talmud, what Tu Bishvat might be, and where one can get especially good whitefish on a Sunday morning.

I don’t have a clue, I can assure you. But I’ve known all my life that people will look at my last name (and let’s face it, my face) and think, "Jew." This can be a positive thing or a negative thing (or a completely neutral thing), depending on whether you are reasonable person, or Mel Gibson.

What, you may be thinking, does this have to do with writing and marketing? A good deal, in fact.

One of the first things the publisher suggested to me when my first novel, For Whom the Minivan Rolls, was about to be printed was that I look into "the Jewish market." He said that I could find Jewish book fairs and Jewish book groups that might be interested in the book, and I could go there and talk about the book, and they would buy the book.

"But it’s really not a Jewish book," I told him. Yes, the main character is a secular Jew, much like myself, but it’s not much of an issue in that book. In fact, it barely gets a mention.

"That doesn’t matter," he said.

"But, if they expect it to be about Jewish issues, or for the character to be really Jewish, they’re going to be disappointed," I argued. I’m really good at arguing with people who are trying to help me sell my books to more people. It’s a gift.

"They don’t care if the character’s Jewish," he said. "You’re Jewish. That’s good enough."

Well, try as I might to hide my light under a bagel, there was no arguing. So I attended a few Jewish book fairs, and a few more book groups and book clubs whose members were predominantly Jewish.

They were lovely. And they couldn’t care less that my books weren’t about the "American Jewish experience." Which is a good thing, because while I could go on for days about my experience as a Jewish man in America, I don’t by any stretch represent more than… myself, and I’m no spokesman for Americans, Jews, men, or authors. I’m one example, and not an especially good one, at that.

But the groups simply wanted to hear about the books. They laughed when I hoped they would laugh, and they did, indeed, buy a good number of books. I felt a little odd about it, as if I were taking their money under false pretenses, as I’d never considered myself a Jewish Author (I was, in fact, just getting used to the idea that I was an author at all). Nobody seemed to mind.

Since then, I’ve gotten many very generous emails from some members of these groups, and people to whom they’ve recommended my books. They’ve become fans, proving once again that I have no idea what I’m talking about most of the time.

In the second Aaron Tucker novel, A Farewell to Legs, I included a scene in which Aaron runs into a woman whose opinion of us Semites was, let’s say, not especially tolerant (there’s nothing a member of ANY minority group in this country loves more than being tolerated). I did not include the scene in the book to appeal to Jewish book clubs or groups; I did it because it helped the scene, it gave Aaron a little more depth and maybe it exposed the tiniest fraction of anti-Semitism, something that even those of us who live in especially tolerant areas confront once in a while.

By the time the third book, As Dog Is My Witness, came out, I felt comfortable enough to let Aaron talk about what it’s like to be Jewish in America during what has euphemistically become known as the "Holiday Season." Once again, it was not an attempt to pander to one audience–I hope my books will appeal to everyone. But it was a subject ripe for jokes, and that’s what Aaron is about: making people laugh.

So maybe I am a Jewish Author after all.

When my new series begins next year, with Some Like It Hot Buttered: A Comedy Tonight Mystery, it will once again feature a main character who is, at least by birth, Jewish. The first book in the series has almost no reference to his ethnicity at all, as it’s not something that comes up every day. But there are always possibilities.

I have to go now and decide on a murder victim for my next book. I’m considering a movie star, but that could change…

8 thoughts on “Jew Eat Yet? No; Jew?

  1. JT Ellison

    Jeff, thanks for sharing this. I’m fascinated by anything that I don’t know, and Judaism is one subject that I love learning about — from comedic or serious books.

  2. Julia Buckley

    I enjoyed reading about the Christmas holidays from a Jewish perspective, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy that perspective in your other books. This is part of the essence of your character, and therefore it is a mandatory part of your book. Would anyone think twice if your character had a different heredity?

  3. Beatrice Brooks

    LOL murder victim = “movie star.”

    It’s especially funy because the next victim in my witch series IS (just like Mel Gibson) an ageing-but-trying-not-to movie star. Only, dang it, she’s a woman (think: Gloria Swanson and Linda Blair).

    Hugs,Deni, who caught the Annie Hall reference because Woody Allen is one of my favorite “philosophers.”

  4. JT Ellison

    Is it bad that I didn’t know that was from Annie Hall? I’ve never been a huge Woody Allen fan, don’t know why his stuff hasn’t ever appealed to me. I’m going to see Match Point, see if his more modern work intrigues me.

  5. Jeff Cohen

    Match Point didn’t do much for me, JT, but then, I’m one of the Phillistines who prefer his earlier, funnier movies. In fact, I think Annie Hall was the last one I really liked a lot.

  6. Deborah P

    [slightly red-faced] I didn’t get the Annie Hall reference since I’m not a big movie buff. I just thought you knew how a lot of folks talk where I’m from (can’t say home town since it’s not big enough to be a “town”) and changed the spelling as a play on words (‘ju eat yet?’ or if you are not particularly verbose-‘j’eet yet?’).


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