In 2014, three Israeli friends released Angry Jew, a game about a furious—but cute—Jew who zips back through time to 1894 Russia to kick Cossack tuchus. Originally an Android app, the latest iteration is also available in the Apple store. The tiny hero, Mendel, is on a quest to regain stolen religious books—punching and spin-kicking sickle-wielding baddies while screaming “Goyim!” “Dreck!” “Gevald!” or “Sheigetz!” with a thick Yiddish accent, just like me in my dreams.
When Avishai De Vries pitched the game idea to his programming friends Gil Elnekave and Edo Frankel, they found it hilarious—and crazy. “It’s the perfect gimmick,” thought Elnekave, but “it has no grounds to make any money whatsoever.” Still, he believed in his buddies’ talent and was looking for a side project, so he jumped on board.
The most important aspect of the game is Mendel’s appearance. He rocks a shtreimel, the fuzzy round fur hat orthodox Jews wear, and has a beard that would make Drake jealous. His hair is inky black and his nose is ginormous. When I was younger, I was taught that those characteristics were hideous—that people who looked like me, who came from similar backgrounds, weren’t heroes, we were shysters.
Jewish people have used humor to process trauma in vaudeville, films, books, theater. But Angry Jew’s creators hadn’t seen it in video games. “It’s another representation of the same spiel,” De Vries said. The nebbish who fights back. He explained that non-Jews were the ones who created this stereotype, “so I will take power over it.”
In my case, the stereotype was drilled into me after my parents moved my family from Niskayuna, New York, where there were Jews aplenty, to Voorheesville, New York, where I was singled out as one of the only Semites in my fifth-grade-class. During the ’90s (and every other era), kids were (are) hella mean. I get super defensive about “locker room talk” being normalized (I see you Trump) because I know how racist, homophobic, sexist, Islamophobic, and anti-Semitic it is. In middle school, I had pennies pelted at me. Once, I watched a classmate place a quarter between his thumb and ring finger and flick. The coin spun down the hall, sawing into my eyebrow, leaving a scar.
My family is a typical Jewish immigrant story. My grandfather journeyed to America from Poland in the early 1900s to escape pogroms and rising anti-Semitism. In New York, he went from peddling scrap to owning his own wallpaper store, which my father took over. After my bar mitzvah, I became the stock boy, schlepping paint cans, slapping down price stickers, and dusting shelves.
Deitcher’s Wallpaper Outlet commercials aired sporadically on local TV stations. My peers trailed behind me in the high school hallways, mocking my father’s nasally voice from the ads: “Come ta Deitcha’s Wallpaper Outlet. We won’t be undersold.” I despised the kids who picked on me, but I detested my family too, questioning how we weaseled our way into white, Christian America. Even though my father worked 60-hour work weeks, I still felt as if we hadn’t earned our success.
I tried fighting back, but couldn’t figure out how to throw a punch that my opponent felt. By 11th grade, I devised a new way to survive: mocking myself before others could. I rushed for pennies in the hall. I called myself the Hebrew Hammer (years before the movie), the Killer Kike, and the Jewish Juggernaut, all funny because I was a scrawny string bean.
After graduating high school, I accepted I was tethered to my heritage. I even studied it in undergrad—while I binge drank nightly and went in and out of detox. There were many Mendels that protected me through those years, many Mendels who helped me heal after I got sober at 25. They fed me shabbat dinners. Studied Torah with me. Taught me to wrap tefillin.