When Michael Franks won the annual Wingate Prize yesterday for his memoir the Mighty Franks, a dazzling portrait of an eccentric Los Angeles family, it set the seal on what looks to be an annus mirabilis for a new kind of heroine. From Rachel Brosnahan’s Marvellous Mrs Maisel to Gal Gadot’s Wonderwoman, she is a million miles away from the kind once depicted by actresses like Barbra Streisland or Maureen Lipman. Glamorous, confident, beautiful and brilliant, the new Jewish heroine has arrived.
As one of the judges of the Wingate Prize, given for the best depiction of Jewish life in literature, I found myself wishing that somebody like Frank’s Aunt “Hankie” had existed in my own life. “I considered her quite simply to be the most magical human being I knew,” Frank writes, and her combination of intellectual confidence, sophistication, beauty and style is something that could have come from the pages of Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch or, indeed, Proust.
It comes as a surprise to many of my closest friends to learn that, despite my Scottish surname and Celtic colouring, I am, according to Jewish law, 100% Jewish. My mother’s mother “married out” to a Gentile artist, and when she did so, her respectable South African family of bankers, doctors, scientists, musicians and academics mourned her as one who was dead. (How elated they would have been to learn that, two generations later, their grand-daughter would marry back in, to a Dr Cohen.) Given that Jewishness travels down the female line, however, both I and my daughter still count as part of the tribe. I am proud of this heritage, and unlike Muriel Spark (who repudiated hers as a Catholic convert, and as recently revealed in the TLS, even threatened to sue the academic Bryan Cheyette for libel on revealing it) have always believed in embracing it with enthusiasm.
Yet growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, it was challenging work to find Jewish heroines to identify with. Not, of course, in terms of courage (Anne Frank), intelligence (Marie Curie), talent (Meryl Streep) or wit (Nora Ephron). All those qualities are part and parcel of belonging to a famously gifted race. But what you long for as a young woman is also glamour, style and beauty; and although I was dimly aware that Lauren Bacall and Elizabeth Taylor were both Jewish (the latter a convert), it was, crucially, never a feature of the roles they played. They were simply “exotic” or mysterious. Generally, and despite all the Biblical heroines like Delilah and Bathsheba, Jewish women have been travestied in popular culture by parodies of femininity that verge on (and in many cases are) anti-Semitic. Anyone who has ever heard the lyrics of Frank Zappa’s song about Jewish Princesses will know what I mean.
Hollywood has, of course, always been brimming with Jewish talent, and so have the British artistic and intellectual worlds. Yet Jewishness itself has not been celebrated as something interesting or valuable in the same way that, say, being Italian or Greek or Hispanic has. (Typically, a Jewish actress would find herself being cast as any one of these, instead.) Stories have tended to be doomily focussed on suffering, injustice, neurosis and anger: hardly surprising in view of the age-old persecution of the race, and its attempted annihilation via the Holocaust.
Yet where were the ones that celebrated its warmth, vitality, humour, discursiveness and resilience? I could think of only one, Fiddler on the Roof, which was dated even in the 1980s; and no matter how hard I looked I could hardly ever find female characters who reflected the wonderful real-life women I eventually encountered.
All this has, however, changed, especially in the past year. With the very Nordic-looking and sounding Scarlett Johansson making it clear in a TV documentary last November that she is Jewish, and the Israeli actress Gal Gadot taking the lead as Wonderwoman, there is now a bevy of cool, beautiful, elegant women standing up as icons. Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Kate Hudson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jennifer Connelly and Rachel Weisz are some of those who have changed and challenged the old image.
Last month, Amazon’s hit comedy series, Marvellous Mrs Maisel, about a 1950s New York wife and mother who, dumped by her adulterous husband becomes a stand-up comedienne, won two Golden Globes. It is, quite simply, bliss. Played by the enchanting Rachel Brosnahan, its twenty-five-year old heroine is, despite anxieties over entertaining the rabbi to dinner and maintaining a chic Upper West Side address, a creation anyone can enjoy. What young woman, madly in love for the first time, has not frantically re-applied make-up while her partner is sleeping? What woman, disappointed in love, does not yearn to get the best revenge in the form of professional success?
Dauntless and good-natured, Marvellous Mrs Maisel with its exquisite 1950s clothes, its spirited heroine and its charming period music, has cheered audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. For once, every major character except Midge’s rival (her husband’s secretary, naturally) is Jewish. Yet while the jokes are laced with the self-deprecating irony familiar in comedies from the Marx Brothers to Woody Allen, Midge’s family and friends are universal archetypes. We know these people, with their loving anxiety, their pride, fallibility and hopes: they are Every Family. Given the resort to stereotypes in even the most sympathetic portrayals of Jewish culture (including, oddly, many written or directed by Jews) this series’ avoidance of any trace of parody, lazy tropes or condescension is a significant accomplishment. It’s very, very funny, and its heroine is stunning. A second series is now commissioned.
Interestingly, Midge Maisel’s perfectionism also manages to be comically celebratory of the femininity that Orthodox Jewish women, however intelligent, educated and opinionated, are expected to conceal. It’s a custom that is also challenged in Disobedience, the hotly-anticipated film of Naomi Alderman’s best-selling first novel, released in April. Starring Rachel Weisz as a woman returning to an Orthodox Jewish community in North London for the funeral of her father, from whom she has been estranged. Liberated by New York, she re-encounters the love of her life – another woman, played by Rachel McAdams, whose wig and dowdy “frumm” dress are the outward manifestations of a religious convention as strict and strange to most British Jews as those of the Amish are to Anglicans. Essentially, it’s a story about a woman acknowledging her true self. The Oscar-winning Weisz is internationally acclaimed, yet this is only the second time she has played a specifically Jewish role (the first, a year ago, being in the film Denial).
There is, I suspect, a sombre reason for this, in that the Muslim community is now the one demonised as alien and dangerous. Beside the woman in the niquab, the one in a wig looks unthreatening. Yet I also think that in any year, a book like the Wingate winner would have melted all hearts because of its captivating real-life heroine. You fall in love with her, much as the author does, and even when the comedy darkens her magnetism remains.
A former Hollywood scriptwriter, “Hankie” was a remarkable character at odds with what is normal. When she takes the young Michael under her wing, she teaches him courage in the face of bullying.
“You don’t want to be ordinary, do you, Lovey? To fit in? Fitting in is a form of living death. You want to stand apart from your peers, always”, she tells the young Michael.
Her words could stand for all those who are now stepping forwards into the limelight.