The Fam­i­ly Morfawitz

  • Review
By – May 15, 2023

Those of us who have spent the past cou­ple years binge­ing the run­away HBO hit Suc­ces­sion know that, to para­phrase F. Scott Fitzger­ald, the rich are dif­fer­ent from you and me.” With their caprices, sud­den rages, epic con­fronta­tions, and even their unpre­dictable laps­es into pathos and sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty, Fitzgerald’s rich are as remote as plan­ets, cold­ly spin­ning in the depths of space. For mere mor­tals like us, they are like gods.

But what if they actu­al­ly were gods, or as close to gods as it is pos­si­ble to be in this world? That is the premise of Daniel H. Turtel’s Fam­i­ly Mor­fawitz, which tells the sto­ry of a fam­i­ly of striv­ing Jew­ish refugees in post­war New York by link­ing them direct­ly to their Olympian counterparts. 

It all begins in some name­less shtetl, where a few drunk­en pogrom­chiks force a small Jew­ish boy to cas­trate his own father. They are hor­ri­fied by the alacrity with which the boy does so. Uri, the muti­lat­ed father, dying of shock in his own burn­ing house, is Uranus; the boy, Chaim, is Cronus. He will go on to beget both Zev/​Zeus and Hadassah/​Hera. After sur­viv­ing the war as a con­cen­tra­tion camp kapo, Zev makes his way to New York where he mar­ries his sis­ter, who views mere mor­tals not as peo­ple but as dogs. 

This is no toga-clad idyll, with ethe­re­al deities strum­ming lyres in Arca­di­an gar­dens. These gods are the real deal, and this means that The Fam­i­ly Mor­fawitz is a tale of lust, betray­al, and unremit­ting phys­i­cal and emo­tion­al vio­lence. Zev/​Zeus, with no com­punc­tion about deceiv­ing his own,” makes his mark as a Brook­lyn slum­lord. The furi­ous­ly jeal­ous Hadas­sah finds nov­el ways of dis­patch­ing Zev’s lovers and bas­tard chil­dren, all while build­ing her own Olym­pus on Cen­tral Park South. Ulti­mate­ly, the inces­tu­ous rela­tion­ship between Zev and Hadas­sah, in which they spend almost as much time schem­ing against each oth­er as they do against their rivals, will be dis­as­trous for all who come into their orbit.

In his intro­duc­tion, Tur­tel says that one of his inspi­ra­tions for the nov­el was a serendip­i­tous encounter with Meta­mor­phoses, the Roman poet Ovid’s his­to­ry of the world as lived by both gods and humans. Indeed, it is from that Greek word for trans­form­ing,” rather than any Yid­dish antecedent, that the Mor­fawitz fam­i­ly name is derived. In Ovid, gods and humans may be trans­formed into ani­mals and plants and back again. Sim­i­lar­ly, the nov­el is full of trans­for­ma­tions: Holo­caust sur­vivors become gods; mor­tals and demigods become the gods’ cup-bear­ers and then are flung from grace; Zev’s prince­ly son Ash­er becomes Ares, the deity of bru­tal war and a Con­ra­di­an recluse in the jun­gles of South­east Asia. 

Per­haps the most fas­ci­nat­ing, and the most sub­ver­sive, of the novel’s many meta­mor­phoses is the one that sit­u­ates Jews in the Greek pan­theon. There is a fun­da­men­tal irony in this; Jew­ish monothe­ism was a direct response and chal­lenge to the pre­vail­ing poly­the­ism of the ancient world. Begin­ning with Avram break­ing the idols in his father’s house, Jews reject­ed — many times — the capri­cious Greek and Roman gods, for whom humans were mere play­things, just like Hadassah’s dogs. 

Enter­tain­ing­ly louche as this nov­el may be, it does seem to be ask­ing us, as Jews, an impor­tant ques­tion: in our own quest for the Olympian, what­ev­er that may be, do we risk sur­ren­der­ing some­thing essen­tial­ly Jew­ish? Or, to frame it more uni­ver­sal­ly, is it the out­side world we should be wary of, like the con­tem­po­rary gods of the Mor­fawitz clan, or is it the dark­ness with­in ourselves? 

Angus Smith is a retired Cana­di­an intel­li­gence offi­cial, writer and Jew­ish edu­ca­tor who lives in rur­al Nova Scotia.

Discussion Questions