Arthur Miller's Jewish Themes

Judaism and Jewish identity in the work of Arthur Miller.

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Anti-Semitism and Jewish Identity

Miller hammered home this view in Focus, his story of Lawrence Newman, a gentile man who, after donning glasses, is mistaken regularly for a Jew and subject to discrimination and physical assaults. While the novel serves as an unambiguous polemic against anti-Semitism--marking one of many times that Miller would speak out against the irrational hatred of the Jews--the book was as much about Jews as it was about Jew-haters, with the victims coming out nearly as flawed as their oppressors.

Miller places his critique of Jewish life in the mouth of Mr. Finkelstein, a Jewish shopkeeper who moved into Newman's previously all-Christian neighborhood. During an argument with Newman, Finkelstein attempts to challenge the very existence of Jewishness, insisting: "All I'm good for is so [anti-Semites] can point to me and everybody else will give them their brains and their money, and then they will have the country."

Nearly two decades after writing Focus, Miller expressed a similar view in Incident at Vichy, a short 1964 play about a gentile who gives up his life to save a Jew during World War II. "Jew is only the name we give to that stranger, that agony we cannot feel, that death we look at like a cold abstraction," declares Leduc, the Jewish character who is saved. "Each man has his Jew; it is the other. And the Jews have their Jews."

Finally, in Miller's 1994 play, Broken Glass, the most competent and intelligent character, a Jewish doctor named Hyman, is adamant that in reality, Jews are no different from their gentile neighbors. "And supposing it turns out that we're not different, who are you going to blame then?" Hyman asks Gellburg, a self-hating Jewish patient. The doctor quickly adds: "I'll tell you a secret--I have all kinds coming into my office, and there's not one of them who one way or another is not persecuted. Yes. Everybody's persecuted."

In each of these three works, Jewishness is portrayed merely as an imposed identity, devoid of any spiritual or ethical characteristics. Miller's solution for shedding this mantle of otherness is for Jews to abandon their ghettos and, presumably, their traditions: Finkelstein fights to move his family into an all-Christian neighborhood; Leduc discovers that his distrust of all gentiles is unfounded; Hyman marries a non-Jew.

Even in Death of a Salesman, in which issues of Jewishness and anti-Semitism are muted, Miller manages to suggest that the key to the Loman family's salvation is an escape from their ethnic ghetto. Though Willy dies a failure, still a prisoner of his salesman's mentality and values, Biff concludes that he must abandon the city for a simpler life. This resolve to go West is often understood primarily as a swipe at the American economic system, but such an analysis ignores a key piece of Miller's biography. Without question, Miller's own voyage West--his enrollment at the University of Michigan--served as a vehicle for escaping the economic turmoil unleashed by the Depression. Yet, just as important, by relocating to Ann Arbor, Miller was able to break free of what he viewed as the stifling dynamics and values of his Jewish family life.

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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.