The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

Our member Adele Salle writes:

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson poses the question ”What is a Jew?” It doesn’t ask the question in order to focus on religiosity. Rather it focuses on the Jewish stereotype and Jewish identity as it relates to the secular, cultural, and communal Jew. In addition, anti-Semitism, attitudes toward Israel, and the personality of the self-hating Jew are part of the story.

The three main characters in this novel are well drawn and set the stage for the different perspectives on the Jewish experience. Julian Treslove is the gentile, who resembles Brad Pitt and Colin Firth. (Jacobson is having fun with the gentile stereotype). He is quite neurotic and when he is mugged and his wallet and phone are stolen by a woman, he is convinced that she shouted “You Jew” while attacking him. As a wannabe Jew, Treslove is interested and fascinated with anything Jewish; he wonders if there is Jewish blood in his family. When he moves in with a Jewish woman who he considers the archetypical Jewish mothering type, he describes what he finds so fascinating and challenging about Judaism.

Treslove frequently gets together with the other primary characters in the story, both Jewish: Libor Sevcik, Treslove’s former college instructor and retired show business journalist, is almost ninety years old and is a widower still grappling with his grief. Libor is accustomed to the world’s attitude toward Jews and basically feels “That is just the way it is.”

Sam Finkler, a philosopher and writer who frequently appears on television, is Treslove’s old college friend; Finkler is also a widower. He joins a group called ASHamed Jews to side with the Palestinians in the conflict with Israel.

Treslove uses the name “Finkler” as a synonym for Jewish. Hence “the Finkler question” is “the Jewish question”, and thereby follow the terms “Finklerisms”, “Finklerishness”, etc.

The Finkler Question was an enjoyable book, albeit at the end it grew a bit redundant and tiresome and one was ready to shout dayenu. On the other hand, it was thought provoking and caused the reader to examine one’s own beliefs and wonder “What do gentiles really think about Jews?” Would this book be as thought provoking to gentiles as to Jews? Would they agree with Treslove, Libor and Finkler, or not?

And while examining those beliefs, the reader was treated to a delightfully funny book. At each turn, Jacobson would surprise readers with his witty observations that would spring without warning and cause one frequently to laugh out loud. The comedy added significantly to the pleasure of reading this book.

All in all, it is a book well worth reading and thinking about. It is an excellent choice for a book discussion group, preferably a group consisting of Jews and gentiles. Perhaps the real Finkler question should be “Why haven’t you read it already?”