But for Lieutenant Gov. Mark Robinson, the statement marked something of a change in tone. After the Republican was elected to the state’s second-highest office in 2020, revelations emerged that he was the prolific author of Facebook posts downplaying the threat of Nazism, invoking antisemitic stereotypes and targeting other minority groups.
At the time, Robinson’s track record earned him criticism from local Jewish leaders and national commentators; the Republican Jewish Coalition called his comments “clearly antisemitic.” In response, Robinson did not publicly apologize for the posts but he said he would no longer make them. He met with a group of local Jewish leaders in 2021 and says he privately apologized to them.
Now, as Robinson runs for governor — and increasingly appears on track to become the Republican nominee next year — North Carolinians must decide whether Robinson has earned their trust. For some local Jews, that means taking him more seriously.
“Most of us find it hard to believe that he will be the candidate,” said Randall Kaplan, a board member of the Jewish Democratic Council of America who is also married to Rep. Kathy Manning, a Jewish Democrat who represents North Carolina in Congress. “I think most of us are in denial.”
Here’s what you need to know about Robinson, his contentious social media presence and his campaign to lead North Carolina.
He’s a political newcomer whose star is rising.
Robinson has risen rapidly in state politics in recent years after a life spent out of the spotlight. A native of Greensboro, his campaign website says he was the ninth of 10 children and that his alcoholic father abused his mother. He studied at the University of North Carolina Greensboro with hopes of becoming a history professor, has worked in furniture factories and also opened a daycare center with his wife. He filed for bankruptcy in 1998, 1999 and 2003.
Robinson’s improbable rise in the GOP began in early April 2018, when he spoke before the Greensboro City Council about preserving gun owners’ rights following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, two months earlier in which 17 students and teachers were killed.
“I’m a law-abiding citizen who’s never shot anybody,” he said in the four-minute speech. “Every time we have one of these shootings, nobody wants to put the blame where it goes, which is at the shooter’s feet. You want to put it at my feet.”
The appearance went viral. Robinson went on in 2020 to win the lieutenant governor’s job with 51.6% of the vote against his Democratic opponent. He is also a National Rifle Association board member and speaker at events calling for gun rights, including the NRA’s annual meeting this past April.
Now, Robinson is the Republican frontrunner in the high-profile contest for governor. At a June rally in Greensboro, former President Donald Trump pledged to endorse Robinson, calling him “one of the great stars of the party.”
Other candidates on the Republican side include State Treasurer Dale Folwell, former Rep. Mark Walker, former State Senator Andy Wells and former healthcare executive Jesse Thomas.
Whoever wins the March 2024 primary will likely face the state’s Jewish attorney general, Josh Stein, who is so far running unopposed for the Democratic nomination.
Robinson would be North Carolina’s first Black governor, Stein its first Jewish one. Polls show them running a close race, though the election is more than a year away. Stein is winning the campaign funds battle to date: His campaign raised about $6 million this year through June, while Robinson’s campaign raised $2.2 million during the same period.
Stein has also seized upon some of Robinson’s comments. Robinson’s “brand of extremism is off the charts,” Stein told Charlotte radio station WFAE.
Robinson has a history of inflammatory comments referencing Jews and other groups.
Before his first political campaign in 2020, Robinson was an active and controversial Facebook user whose posts downplayed the need to discuss the Nazis’ evil.
“I am so sick of seeing and hearing people STILL talk about Nazis and Hitler and how evil and manipulative they were. NEWS FLASH PEOPLE, THE NAZIS (National Socialist) ARE GONE! We did away with them,” he declared in a 2017 post first uncovered by Jewish Insider, which has tracked Robinson’s comments since he took office.
“Marxist Socialist(s)” and communism pose the bigger threat and control the media, he maintained. “After all, who do you think has been pushing this Nazi boogeyman narrative all these years?”
Later that year, in another post, Robinson wrote, “Please STOP wasting my time, your time, and the time of your fellow conservatives talking about, and making mention of, the NAZIS who have been DEAD since 1945.”
He has also targeted other groups, including LGBTQ people, Muslims and others. “Note to liberals; I’ll accept ‘Gay Pride’ when you accept ‘White Pride,’” he wrote in 2014, according to screenshots posted by the liberal news site Talking Points Memo. Another post read, “I believe that homosexuality is a sin and that those people who are ‘proudly coming out of the closet’ are standing in open rebellion against God.”
In 2018, he railed on Facebook that the hit superhero movie “Black Panther” was “created by an agnostic Jew and put to film by satanic marxist.” Invoking an antisemitic trope about Jewish pursuit of money and using a Yiddish slur for Black people, Robinson, who is Black, wrote that the film was “only created to pull the shekels out of your Schvartze pockets.” The following year, the News and Observer in Raleigh reported that he responded affirmatively to a far-right religious leader who invoked an antisemitic conspiracy theory.
After national news organizations called attention to Robinson’s posts after his election, he said they would not continue.
“When I made those posts as a private citizen, I was speaking directly to issues that I’m passionate about,” he said upon taking office. “As a public servant, I have to put those opinions behind me and do what’s right for everyone in North Carolina.”
The CEO of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Matt Brooks, said at the time he was not satisfied with Robinson’s response. “His refusal to apologize is troubling and unacceptable to us,” Brooks said.
As lieutenant governor, Robinson has tried to play it straighter.
While Robinson has not issued a public apology, he met with Jewish leaders from Greensboro shortly after taking office to discuss their concerns about his posts. Marilyn Chandler, CEO of the Greensboro Jewish Federation, helped to organize and participated in the virtual meeting, which included Jewish participants as well as Robinson and members of his staff.
During the meeting, Chandler and other Jewish leaders expressed their deep concerns about antisemitic remarks Robinson had made on social media prior to becoming lieutenant governor. He shared a press statement addressing these issues, though it is unclear if the statement has been released publicly.
Mike Lonergan, communications director for Robinson’s campaign for governor, told JTA that Robinson “met with dozens of rabbis and Jewish leaders from across NC” after taking office, and that he “expressed remorse, and communicated a desire to learn more about the Jewish community in an effort to understand how he can better serve them as an elected official.”
After speaking with several rabbis across the state, JTA was unable to independently confirm additional meetings Robinson had with Jewish leaders beyond the one in Greensboro.
Robinson also addressed his contentious Facebook posts and said he apologized for them in his memoir. The book, titled “We Are The Majority: The Life and Passions of a Patriot,” was published in September 2022.
“It came off the wrong way,” he wrote, according to a photo of the book’s text shared by Lonergan. “When people called me and asked about it, that’s what I told them. And I apologized to them. It’s the only time I’ve ever apologized for anything I put on Facebook. It did come out wrong. I knew the truth of what I was trying to say, but I should have chosen different words.”
His social media presence of late has taken on a different character. Recently, on his official page as lieutenant governor, Robinson has appeared to make a point of condemning antisemitism publicly — including the flyers in Raleigh. Adopting a pro-Israel outlook that is de rigueur among Republicans, he has also called out recent criticism of Israel by Democrats.
“Democrat Congresswoman Jayapal labeling Israel a ‘racist state’ is unjust and plain wrong,” he wrote on Facebook in response to comments made in July by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, an influential Democrat from Washington who later walked the statement back. “These harmful antisemitic comments are not representative of our nation’s values. We stand firmly with Israel, our steadfast ally.”
But Robinson has not entirely avoided hot-button issues or the controversy that can accompany them. His tenure as second-in-command has included a campaign against what he sees as left-wing political indoctrination in schools. In March 2021, he formed the Fairness and Accountability in the Classroom for Teachers and Students, or FACTS, task force, and in an August press conference, he said he was combating teachers who put “undue pressure on young minds to accept their way of thinking.”
Earlier this summer, he went viral after speaking at a conference held by Moms for Liberty, the conservative group that is fueling book bans in school districts across the United States.
“Whether you’re talking about Adolf Hitler, whether you’re talking about Chairman Mao, whether you’re talking about Stalin, whether you’re talking about Pol Pot, whether you’re talking about [Fidel] Castro in Cuba, or whether you’re talking about a dozen other despots all around the globe, it is time for us to get back and start reading some of those quotes. It’s time for us to start teaching our children some of those quotes,” he said. “It’s time for us to start teaching our children about the dirty, despicable, awful things that those communist and socialist despots did in our history.”
People who viewed a clip of the speech without the condemnatory final sentence blasted Robinson for endorsing the views of history’s worst dictators. Stein’s campaign said in a press release that Robinson “promotes reading of quotes from global dictators.” The full video of the speech, however, showed that Robinson was not endorsing the dictators’ views.
Jewish groups are voicing concern — though Robinson has Jewish supporters, too.
In July, the North Carolina Jewish Clergy Association, the Democratic Majority for Israel and six North Carolina Democratic members of Congress sent a letter to state Republican leaders asking them to strongly condemn Robinson’s remarks.
“His inflammatory statements invoke harmful stereotypes and conspiracy theories, downplay the Holocaust, and denigrate entire groups of human beings,” the letter said. “They are not just deeply troubling, but downright dangerous.”
To date, none of the people who received the letter have publicly responded to it. Manning, a signatory on the letter, said she remained concerned about Robinson.
“The fact that we have a gubernatorial candidate in the state of North Carolina who makes antisemitic comments, who veers on Holocaust denial, is very frightening,” Manning, co-chair of the House Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Antisemitism, told JTA.
For Rabbi Barbara Thiede, assistant professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, the danger of Robinson’s rise comes from his potential to inspire extremists to take action. She said she thought some of her fellow Jews may not be adequately concerned by the possibility that he could become governor.
“They may not appreciate the danger that Robinson and others like him pose to their safety,” Thiede said. “Speech is not unrelated to action, even if one person is doing the speaking and the next is taking up the weapon — whatever that may be.”
Not all North Carolina Jews oppose Robinson’s candidacy. Jeremy Stephenson, a Charlotte attorney who previously ran as a Republican for local school board and served for two years as general counsel of the Mecklenburg County Republican Party, said he plans to vote for Robinson in the primary.
Stephenson dismisses the “hyperventilation from the left” about the candidate and told JTA that he isn’t worried about “isolated Facebook posts which are then blasted in paid social media from the Dems.”
“The Jewish Republicans I know are strongly in favor of Robinson, particularly in contrast with Stein,” Stephenson said. “I think Josh Stein has far more antisemitic friends on the left who he has been unwilling to distance himself from, and will accept donations from, in running for governor.”
Stephenson said he believes Robinson’s embrace of religion in the public sphere would have benefits for Jews in the state. “I think that Robinson in many ways will embolden more people to be more comfortable expressing their religious beliefs,” he said. “And that includes Jews.”
While it’s clear that Robinson’s past comments will draw more attention in the coming months, as the primary season heats up, it’s unclear how much North Carolina Jews will hear that chatter in their synagogues.
At Temple of Israel in Wilmington, the oldest Jewish congregation in the state, Rabbi Emily Losben-Ostrov said she’s keenly aware of the diverse viewpoints in her congregation, which she characterizes as “purple.”
Losben-Ostrov serves on the steering committee of the Jewish Clergy Association, which authorized the letter about Robinson. At the same time, she said she talks about Jewish values but not about any single politician or political party from the bimah.
“I want the synagogue to be a place for unity and for escaping some of the difficulties of the things that divide us,” she said, adding, “It’s a dual job I need to do. One is to stand up to hate and two is to also keep our community connected.”
Antisemitism summit in NY expected to draw thousands, from boldfaced names to students
When actor and director David Schwimmer stood up last November to talk about his experience with hate and the importance of building alliances to combat racism and antisemitism, the “Friends” star emphasized the importance of speaking up.
“One of the biggest problems is silence. As I’ve said, silence is complicity, and so I try to urge people to speak out,” Schwimmer said at the annual ADL summit on antisemitism and hate, called Never Is Now. “I think it’s my responsibility. I don’t do enough but I do what I can and what I feel is appropriate at the time. I think we could always do more.”
Now ADL (the Anti-Defamation League) is gearing up for its next big event on the subject: the 2024 Never Is Now summit, which is already open for registration and for a limited time is offering early-bird pricing at a 25% discount.
The annual summit, which has been moved to March from its usual time in the fall, may be the organization’s most significant ever.
Antisemitism in the United States is at its highest level in decades, according to ADL, which closely tracks antisemitic incidents through reporting and antisemitic sentiment through polling. The most recent ADL poll of US antisemitism, conducted last fall, found that 85% of Americans believe at least one anti-Jewish trope, up from 61% in 2019. About 20% of Americans believe six or more tropes — a worrisome marker and nearly double the 11% reported in 2019.
“Faced with this state of emergency,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, ADL’s CEO and National Director, at the last Never Is Now summit, “ADL will rise to the challenge and deliver on its core purpose: protecting the Jewish people.”
The Never Is Now summit is meant to be a place where activists can come together, learn about the problem of antisemitism and share tools to fight hate of all kinds, and take those ideas back to their home communities to implement them in meaningful ways.
Over 7,000 participants attended the 2022 summit in person and virtually, representing 40 countries and nearly all 50 states. Participants challenged each other, engaged in conversations, asked questions and found inspiration. The remarks by Schwimmer, the actor famous for his role on the 1990s NBC sitcom “Friends,” marked one of several poignant moments in the event devoted to tackling the growing problem of hatred and antisemitism in the United States and worldwide.
The 2024 summit will take place March 4-7 at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York and will feature an all-star lineup of figures from government, entertainment, media, business, sports, academia and the greater Jewish world.
To accommodate them, the summit is being expanded to four days from one. The itinerary will consist of invitation-only programming at ADL’s National Leadership Summit on March 4-5 followed by programming for the general public on March 6-7.
Longtime summit participant Tracey Labgold of Boca Raton, Florida, said one of the reasons she comes back year after year isn’t just for the sessions but also for the opportunity to network and reconnect with old friends. She has been involved with ADL leadership programs for more than 16 years and credits the Never Is Now summit with enabling her to build a network of friends and colleagues from around the country.
“Fighting hate is important to me, and people who fight hate are really nice,” Labgold said. “Being in the room during Never Is Now with others who care about these issues is very empowering.”
Sessions will focus on such topics as reporting hate on social media platforms, preparing your community for antisemitic threats, and leveraging the law to counter antisemitism and bias.
“Never Is Now is the place where bold ideas are born and change begins,” said Leah Tucker, ADL’s director of marketing and engagement. “Every attendee has a role in bringing the fight against antisemitism and hate home to their own communities.”
Last year’s summit speakers included then-Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, Rep. Liz Cheney, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, ABC News’ “Nightline” co-anchor Juju Chang, author Abigail Pogrebin, FBI Director Christopher Wray, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, and Adidas North America President Rupert Campbell, among others. The summit also included Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, the rabbi who orchestrated a successful escape from an assailant who had taken him and several congregants hostage at his synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, in January 2022. Additional past speakers include Vice President Kamala Harris, actor Sacha Baron Cohen, Apple CEO Tim Cook, and Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism.
Jared Lindauer said that the sessions he attended at the last Never Is Now summit were not only inspiring but were a personal call to action.
“It’s not only about how to build a better world but how to take on the work of the ADL with the tools and skills to do it,” said Lindauer, an attorney in Austin. “I believe in their approach to fighting antisemitism as well as all forms of bigotry and bias.”
College students will have unique opportunities to participate in Never Is Now thanks to partnerships with Hillel International, the historically Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi and other campus organizations. Among the planned sessions on the college track: opportunities to share their experiences with antisemitism on campus and discussion of effective strategies for fighting hate on campus.
The summit will also include facilitated workshops for high school students and educators. Over 300 high school students attended the last summit. Greenblatt joined them for lunch, sharing his experiences and answering their questions.
When asked what they could do to combat antisemitism, Greenblatt said, “Don’t lose hope. We can cultivate hope in so many ways. It starts with self-awareness and self-love,” Greenblatt said. “So now let’s get to work.”
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A California county calls off ‘American Christian Heritage Month’ after fierce backlash
(J. Jewish News of Northern California via JTA) — Two months after proclaiming that July would henceforth be known locally as “American Christian Heritage Month,” the board of supervisors in El Dorado County, California has reversed course.
The county’s elected governing body unanimously rescinded the proclamation Tuesday following backlash from local Jews, the American Civil Liberties Union and others who said it inappropriately advanced the idea that the United States is a Christian nation.
“I commend the board for reflecting on and revisiting the proclamation, and I applaud them for rescinding it,” Rabbi Evon Yakar of Temple Bat Yam in South Lake Tahoe said after the vote. Yakar was one of several local residents who spoke out against the proclamation at the board meeting where the proclamation was rescinded. “I believe they did a good thing in reflecting on the divisiveness this caused.”
Marla Saunders, a massage therapist in South Lake Tahoe, said she was “verklempt” after the decision, using the Yiddish term meaning “overcome by emotion.” Saunders, who is Jewish, had started an online petition calling on the board to rescind the proclamation. The petition had more than 1,000 signatures as of Sept. 19.
“I am definitely teary with joy,” she said.
The five supervisors in El Dorado County, a rural area with 200,000 residents south of Lake Tahoe, voted on July 18 to mark every July as American Christian Heritage Month. The vote passed 4-1, though one supervisor maintains that she actually abstained but was recorded as an “aye.”
The language of the proclamation is taken from the platform of the Constitution Party, a conservative political party formed in the 1990s that advocates for hands-off governance and Christian values. Coming at a time of rising Christian nationalist sentiment across the United States, the proclamation stated that there have been “attempts to change and distort our history.”
The purpose of the proclamation is “to recognize the impact of religious beliefs on America’s history,” according to the text approved at the July meeting. The proclamation cites several prominent references to God inscribed in the country’s national institutions, monuments and founding documents, and states “that the rich spiritual and diverse religious history of our nation, from its founding to the current day be affirmed.”
“Be it further proclaimed, that any effort to remove, obscure, or purposely omit such history from our nation’s public buildings and
educational resources be rejected in the strongest manner,” the document says.
The proclamation was introduced by Supervisor John Hidahl, who said before the vote, “This great nation was founded not by religionists but by Christians. Not on religions but on a foundation of Christian principles and values,” according to the Sacramento Bee. The proclamation, he continued, is “clearly stating: don’t forget our history.”
The proclamation’s critics said it violated the principle of the separation of church and state and promoted one religion over others. In an Aug. 25 letter to the board of supervisors, the ACLU of Northern California said the proclamation “conveys that the County supports, promotes and endorses specific religious beliefs and, as such, violates the California Constitution.”
The state constitution contains even more stringent requirements regarding the separation of church and state than the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits federal laws “respecting an establishment of religion.” The California Constitution states that “Free exercise and enjoyment of religion without discrimination or preference are guaranteed.”
After Tuesday’s vote rescinding the proclamation, Angelica Salceda, the ACLU of Northern California’s director of democracy and civic engagement, said her organization is “happy” about the new vote.
“The resolution suffered from constitutional infirmities,” she said in a statement. “The county has no business supporting, promoting, or endorsing specific religious beliefs. We think this decision is good for all residents of El Dorado County.”
El Dorado Supervisor Brooke Laine, who said that her abstention in the July vote was incorrectly recorded as an “aye” and that she also “regretted” her indecision, put the matter on the board’s agenda for Tuesday’s meeting. After 45 minutes of public discussion, the board rescinded it, 5-0.
“I very much regretted the initial vote and my participation in it,” Laine said again on Tuesday, noting that community members used their public comment time to both oppose and support the resolution.
“At the end of the day, it was agreed by the board that there was a reason the Founding Fathers created a separation between church and state, and that we had blurred that line, although it was not our intention,” she said. “It felt like we got it right this second time. I commend my colleagues for recognizing and correcting” the mistake.
Public pressure and media coverage contributed to the board’s eventual decision, Laine said, as did the “threat of litigation” from the ACLU. “We couldn’t afford that,” she said.
In a caveat to his praise of the board’s new decision, Yakar added that the supervisors didn’t correct their fundamental error, which was promoting the idea of America as a Christian nation.
“This was not about celebrating one group’s heritage” in the vein of Pride Month or American Jewish Heritage Month, he said. “This is about the clear use of language in the proclamation that our country was founded as a Christian country, and that is what we are celebrating.”
That important nuance should have been explicitly discussed by the board on Tuesday, Yakar said, adding, “I don’t feel the supervisors went far enough to address that.”
Saunders added a cautionary note too, saying that some opponents of the proclamation wouldn’t have come to Tuesday’s board meeting if law enforcement hadn’t been there. “They wouldn’t feel safe,” she said.
But still, she said, she’s pleased with the result of Tuesday’s vote.
“We beat back hate and division,” she said. “The way the community came together made me more optimistic about our country and the county I live in.”
A version of this story originally appeared in J. Jewish News of Northern California and is reprinted with permission.
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The buzzy novel ‘Whalefall’ offers a modern spin on the ancient Book of Jonah
(JTA) — If one were to imagine what the prophet Jonah saw on his way down into the gullet of the whale, it might be something like this:
He slides feet first into its mouth on two inches of warm slime, the effluvia of a thousand squids past. Tooth sockets above him now, rancid black pits. Teeth passing on either side, yellowed cones, one missing, one fractured, one putrid with rot…The quaking cave of the mouth…His bare foot plants into a cold mash.
The scene, however, is actually a passage from one of the year’s buzziest novels: “Whalefall,” by Daniel Kraus, tells of a 17-year-old diver named Jay Gardiner who is swallowed by a massive sperm whale, in whose innards he is forced to reconcile with responsibility for his late father’s last wishes while desperately trying to escape. The book has already been optioned for a movie by Ron Howard and Brian Glazer’s Imagine Entertainment.
Though billed by its publisher as “The Martian” meets “127 Hours,” “Whalefall” is actually a modern midrash on a very ancient biblical book — one Jews will read on Yom Kippur afternoon.
The novel is divided into two sections, “Truth” and “Mercy,” the tension between which the Book of Jonah sits. The ancient prophet, after all, is given a commandment by God to warn residents of the Assyrian city of Nineveh to repent, lest they be punished. Identified as “son of Amitai” — that is, “son of Truth” — Jonah objects to the possibility of repentance and God’s forgiveness, taking it to be a compromise of divine justice.
Refusing the order, Jonah flees by boat to Tarshish, a distant city. God sends a storm to toss the boat, yet an unrepentantly defiant Jonah heads to his cabin, content to sleep his way through a watery death. “Arise, call to your God,” comes the desperate cry of the sailors on the ship. “Why are you asleep? Perhaps mercy will be granted upon us by God and we will be spared.”
Jonah, under pressure, admits that he is the cause of the heavenly wrath, and the sailors, hesitatingly, haul him overboard. There, swallowed by a large fish, he cries out to God from Sheol, a netherworldly dark place of despair. Jonah yearns, in the fifth verse of the book’s second chapter, to merit reconciling with God by visiting his holy Temple.
“Whalefall” is also told with a dual structure, jumping between flashbacks to Jay’s childhood and frequent fights with his belligerent, zealous and neglectful father, and Jay’s race-against-the-oxygen-tank attempt to emerge from the whale. At one point, Jay falls out with his father and flees to the home of a girl named Chloe Tarshish, where he sleeps on a futon and watches foreign films.
In “Whalefall,” Sheol Landfill is on the outskirts of Salinas, California, where — a year before the suicide of Jay’s terminally ill father, Mitt — Mr. Sheol would let a 10-year-old Jay and his eco-warrior dad sift through the junkyard for castoff diving gear. Reassuring an anxious Jay that his father will emerge safely from the trash heap, Sheol comforts him: “This here’s my temple. Nothing happens without my say-so.”
The novel’s title comes from the scientific term for how a dead whale sinks to the bottom of the ocean. There its body is stripped by crustaceans and other sea creatures, sustaining an underwater ecosystem for years to come.
Jay’s own father chose a similar fate, as the novel reveals. A once vibrant and fit man — who would awaken Jay and his sisters with a daily call of “Sleepers, arise!” — he slowly descended into depression. A combination of cancer and melancholy over humanity’s destructive attitude towards nature led him to weigh down his body with diving weights and jump off of the side of a friend’s ship. When the friend, a kindly Jewish dentist named Hewey, informs Jay what happened, Jay can’t even bring himself to cry, so raw are his psychological wounds from his and his father’s quarrels.
Hewey, whose name is perhaps a punning allusion to the four-letter name for God traditionally unpronounced by Jews, embodies God’s moral argument for mercy in the Book of Jonah. And while at no point in the novel is Jonah actually named, it’s Hewey who brings him up: “Let me tell you the lesson of this prophet,” he says. “Truth never outweighs mercy.”
Jay is trapped in the whale during an ill-advised solo dive looking to recover his father’s body. Off the coast of Monterey Beach after dark, he encounters an Architeuthis, a deep ocean-dwelling squid. While sperm whales don’t normally eat humans, they do eat squid, and Jay is taken into the whale’s mouth in a whirl of water. A sequence of dangers compounds his rapidly depleting air supply, including floating sharp objects, the whale’s crushing internal organs and a carabiner that he can’t dislodge from his diving gear while attempting to swim to safety.
As the New York Times put it in its review, “At a certain point he begins to seem less like Jonah and more like Job — the hapless vessel for every bit of bad luck you can think of, and a lot more besides.”
As Jay processes what he still owes his father while desperately fighting to return to shore, subtle allusions to Jonah surface. For every memory of his father’s abuse, there is a recollection of the lives he saved — just as the sailors on Jonah’s boat were spared. The sympathy Jay feels towards the swallowed squid could be an allusion to God’s argument, in the closing verse of Jonah, about the grace he will grant not only to the thousands of Ninevites “who cannot distinguish between their right and their left” but also to the similarly deserving “many animals.”
More explicit is Jay’s internal wrestling with whether we can change our very nature — a central preoccupation of the Book of Jonah and, of course, Yom Kippur. After all, it is Jonah, the son of Truth, who is “displeased” when God spares the Ninevites. Jonah cannot accept that God has changed God’s mind, or that the Ninevites might be persuaded to change their ways. He cannot accept forgiveness of wrongs.
Kraus is a horror writer who worked with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro on the hit film “The Shape of Water” and created the books that inspired the Netflix series “Trollhunters.” Early in his career, he made documentaries about American workers including Rabbi Jay Holstein, Kraus’ former professor at the University of Iowa whose class “The Judeo-Christian Tradition” he said was among the most formative he took.
Alongside conscious allusions to Pinnochio, Moby Dick, John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row” and Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’,” Kraus seems to offer a Christian understanding of Jonah. At one point Jay recalls his father’s noting that “a life of poor choices could be washed from you every time you dipped under,” a clear allusion to baptism. (It’s not a spoiler to say that Mitt’s body, like that of Jesus, is never found.)
Yet Jonah’s message in the Jewish tradition differs from Kraus’ reading. Forgiveness is not to be sought in superseding earthly existence and seeking rebirth through death. The pre-High Holiday custom to dip in the mikvah is a this-worldly charge to repair what has been sundered, in our relationships and in our environment, through our own imperfect individual efforts. We struggle, like Jay and like Jonah, with the obligations foisted on us by our ancestors. At the same time, we hope to find in ourselves the capacity to change and the mercy of God, that ability to forgive even when it feels untrue to our principles, as God did the Ninevites.
At one point, amidst the dark deep, Jay realizes he’s “got time to arrange his final thought. What would he like it to be?” When faced with the same choice, what will be our answer?
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