How could they?

Elena Tucker
5 min readApr 27, 2022
Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

How do you reconcile Charles Dickens, one of the greatest writers ever, with the fact that he was a virulent anti-Semite? I struggle with this concept every day, because near my computer there are two books by Charles Dickens: David Copperfield and Bleak House. Therefore, this conflict of profound respect for him as a writer, and utter disappointment with him as a human being, are at the forefront of both my vision and my brain.

I first read Oliver Twist when I was 10 years old — reading a Russian translation of this classic. What I remember about it, most vividly, was young Oliver being envious of a piece of pudding. Once I emigrated to America — a couple of years later, I kept trying to find that pudding — that solid pudding that I could cut into and have a piece of pudding, but the United States doesn’t roll that way. Pudding, here, is, creamy, smooth, and “Jello-fied.” It is certainly delicious, but definitely not sliceable. It wasn’t until I visited New Zealand, in 2017, did I actually got try a piece of pudding. The paragraph above, by the way, has a word I invented myself … you’re welcome.

About 7 years ago, I tried re-reading Oliver Twist again, this time, reading it to my daughter, Riva. Reading the book aloud, I came to the part where young Oliver is recruited into the thieves’ den, by the Artful Dodger, and we meet Fagin, the ringleader of the gang. From the moment we meet Fagin, Dickens spits out Fagan’s name through gritted writer’s teeth, describing him as “a very old shriveled Jew, whose villainous looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair.” He is repeatedly called “the old man,” “the Jew,” “the Jew,” “the old man.” I can almost hear the vitriol and the bile in the contempt of the writer’s voice. He is described as cheap, uncaring, and money-hungry. This is constant. I couldn’t continue reading this to my young Jewish daughter. Nor do I have any recollection of this from the original reading.

What I remember, from my childhood reading of this book, are the adventures and the bravery of the little boy. I remember loaning the book to a friend, and never seeing it again — but that was par for the course in the Old country. “Loaning” a book is passing it on, with little hope of its return, and being OK with that. But what I feel now whenever I look at these books near me … what I feel now is a bitter…

Elena Tucker

Writer and storyteller, immigrant, wife, mom, knitter, collector of jokes, lover of cheap, sweet wine.