Arthur Miller's Jewish Themes

Judaism and Jewish identity in the work of Arthur Miller.

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For Bloom, the key to understanding the Jewish underpinnings of Death of a Salesman comes near the end of the play. As Willy sits in a restaurant, contemplating a new step forward, his reality is invaded by the memory of being caught by his older son, Biff, in an act of marital infidelity during a sales trip to Boston. Suddenly Willy's past is alive, marching him to an ignoble end. "His tragedy makes sense only in the Freudian world of repression, which happens also to be the world of normative Jewish memory," Bloom argues in the introduction to the Bloom's BioCritiques installment on Arthur Miller (Chelsea House Publishers, 2003). "It is a world in which everything has already happened; in which there never can be anything new again, because there is total sense or meaningfulness in everything, which is to say, in which everything hurts."

It is also, Bloom could have added, the world of Arthur Miller.

Biographical Influences

Miller's world was infused with a certain type of Jewishness, but whatever form it took, he did not view himself as a member of an ancient religious community. As a youngster he was exposed periodically to the traditions of his people, yet these encounters generally left him bored or bewildered. Nor did he equate being a Jew with any intellectual ideal. Instead, Miller's early understanding of his Jewish world seems to have been most informed by his mother's increasingly harsh critique of his father.

Far more culturally refined and informed than her husband, Gussie [Miller] looked down on [her husband] Izzy and his associates, belittling their parsimonious approach to business. "I knew how she despised the mean-spirited, money-mad 'cloakies,' Jews who cared for nothing but business," Miller wrote in his autobiography. His mother, Miller added, found herself "endlessly and angrily disappointed" with her fellow Jews, a product of her insistence on holding them to a higher--Izzy would say naive--moral standard.

In the end, the stock-market crash did more than rob Miller of financial security and plant the seeds for his subsequent critique of American capitalism--it sparked an emotional rebellion against his family and past, gradually transforming him into a rootless playwright seeking to re-create himself, as well as society.

Starting with the first plays that he wrote as a college student, which eventually evolved into The Grass Still Grows, Miller displayed an obsession with dramatizing his father's perceived failure to break free from the seduction of capitalism and launch a preemptive strike against the morally bankrupt economic system that decimated the Miller family.

He sounded a similar theme in The Golden Years, with his thinly veiled attack against the United States and its European allies for failing to confront Hitler in the late 1930s. For Miller, the Depression and the rise of Nazism demonstrated the impotence of capitalist leaders--and of his father and the rest of the Jewish people--in the face of economic and military disaster. In response, Miller began to assert that the Jew is nothing more than a sociological construct created by anti-Semites whose grip on power depends on rallying and distracting the masses by ostracizing a vulnerable minority.

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Ami Eden

Ami Eden is the Editor-In-Chief of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. He was previously the National Editor of the Forward.