Is ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ a Jewish story?

Aaron Sorkin added some Jewish stuff to a classic story. It works.

It is time to play movie trivia.

According to the American Film Institute, who is the greatest hero to ever appear in a movie?

Indiana Jones? Rocky Balboa?

Um, Gandhi?

The answer: Atticus Finch, in “To Kill a Mockingbird” — played by Gregory Peck in the 1962 classic film adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel.

The film won three Academy Awards that year, including a Best Actor award for Gregory Peck. Lee won the Pulitzer Prize for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and she also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contribution to literature (2007).

Atticus Finch was the moral conscience of that book, and of that film. He was kind, wise, honorable, the epitome of integrity who used his gifts as a lawyer to defend Tom Robinson, a Black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, in Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s.

Atticus Finch has been said to be responsible for inspiring more people to enter the legal profession than anyone in history.

A law professor at the University of Notre Dame stated that of all the textbooks that he used, the most influential, by far, was “To Kill a Mockingbird.” An article in the Michigan Law Review asserts: “No real-life lawyer has done more for the self-image or public perception of the legal profession.”

If we were looking for the Yiddish word to describe the character of Atticus Finch, you know what it would be.


I recently had the privilege of seeing the dramatic adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale, starring Richard Thomas as Atticus. I had previously seen the New York City production with Jeff Daniels. Both productions were powerful and moving.

Aaron Sorkin adapted the film for the stage, and in so doing, he added certain elements to the story.

Most notably: He turns the evil Bob Ewell into a Jew hater. He taunts Atticus: “I detect something a little Hebraic in you.” In that sense, he was turning Atticus into a suspected ethnic stranger.

So, let’s talk about “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the Jews.

In fact, there had been a Jewish element in Harper Lee’s original novel. The book included the character of Sam Levy, a Jewish dry goods dealer, who was a respected citizen of Maycomb. In one scene, the Ku Klux Klan confronts Levy, but he chases them away. Levy had sold the Klansmen “the very sheets on their backs.”

In another scene, the children in Scout’s class are discussing the rise of Hitler. The teacher says:

Hitler is the government. That’s the difference between America and Germany. We are a democracy and Germany is a dictatorship. Over here we don’t believe in persecuting anybody. Persecution comes from people who are prejudiced. Pre-ju-dice [pronouncing precisely]. There are no better people in the world than the Jews, and why Hitler doesn’t think so is a mystery to me…. They contribute to every society they live in and, most of all, they are a deeply religious people…. You’ll learn that the Jews have been persecuted since the beginning of history, even driven out of their own country. It’s one of the most terrible stories in history.…

Sorkin not only adds a (suspected) Jewish element to the character of Atticus. He also makes Atticus into a flawed character.

For all of his heroism, Atticus demonstrates a little bit of the white savior complex. He is disappointed that his Black housekeeper, Calpurnia, did not express more gratitude to him for his defense of Tom.

But, the history of Atticus’ flaws goes all the way back — to the pen of Harper Lee herself.

Consider the sequel to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Go Set a Watchman,” which saw the light of day in 2015. (A sequel? Perhaps not. It might have actually been a first draft of “To Kill a Mockingbird”).

In “Go Set a Watchman,” Atticus’ daughter, Scout (in the Broward production, her character was a ball of irrepressible energy) has grown up. She now lives in New York City. She returns to her hometown to visit her now-aging father, and to reconnect with Henry, the man that she loves.

When she comes home, she realizes something devastating both about her father, and about Henry.

They are now leaders of the White Citizens’ Council in Maycomb.

She goes to a meeting of the White Citizens’ Council.

Below her, on rough benches, sat not only most of the trash in Maycomb County, but the county’s most respectable men. She looked toward the far end of the room, and behind the railing that separated court from spectators, at a long table, sat her father, Henry Clinton, several men she knew only too well, and a man she did not know. They were sitting all over the courtroom. Men of substance and character, responsible men, good men. Men of all varieties and reputations.

Imagine the feelings of betrayal and horror that Scout feels.

The most potent moral force in her life, was the love of her father. She never questioned it, never thought about it, never even realized that before she made any decision of importance the reflex, “What would Atticus do?” passed through her unconscious…

The one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her; the only man she had ever known to whom she could point and say with expert knowledge, “He is a gentleman, in his heart he is a gentleman,” had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly.

Let’s return to Tom Ewell’s antisemitic outburst in the play.

Was Ewell suspecting Atticus of being Jewish, in an ethnic sense?

Or (or, perhaps: and/or) was he suspecting that Atticus’ moral sensibilities, his thirst for justice, were in and of themselves “Hebraic”?

That justice speaks with a Jewish accent?

I write these words on Yom Ha Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is worthwhile noting that the Nazis (and the world) did not only hate the Jews as a people and as a purported race. They also, and perhaps preeminently, hated the ideas and ideals that Judaism brought into the world. Hitler, in particular, hated the Ten Commandments.

I would argue that there is something profoundly Jewish, as well, in “Go Set a Watchman” — though it is not the kind of Jewish content that you might expect.

In one scene, Scout visits her uncle. She is tormented about these revelations about the man whom she had once worshipped — her father, Atticus Finch.

This is what her uncle says to her.

You confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings… We wondered, sometimes, when your conscience and his would part company, and over what. Well, we know now.…Your father was letting you break your icons one by one. He was letting you reduce him to the status of a human being.

Yes, this is Jewish (though certainly not exclusively Jewish).

Breaking icons, one by one.

If that sounds familiar, it should.

Because it just so happens to be my favorite Jewish legend — the legend that says that Abraham broke his father’s idols, which is why God chose him to be the first Jew.

Because at that moment, he showed that he could break with the past, and that he could be his own person.

Which means that we have ourselves a lovely little paradox on our hands: A faith that is built on continuity, from one generation to the other, must begin in a radical act of dis-continuity.

There is one simple lesson that we learn from “Go Set a Watchman.”

Our parents are flawed, as we ourselves will be flawed for our own children.

Our parents cannot help but dissatisfy us, and yet we have no choice but to accept them for all that they are, and all that they cannot be.

The same goes for us, as well.

You might want to watch the film “To Kill a Mockingbird” again, if only to witness one of the greatest performances of Gregory Peck’s career.

And yes, justice does speak in a Jewish accent.

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