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.