Chai Noon

Can Sam Odessa Save the New Old West?

Not Red, Not Dead, Not Redeemed: Is Sam Odessa, here standing in front of the railroad company, our only hope?
Not Red, Not Dead, Not Redeemed: Is Sam Odessa, here standing in front of the railroad company, our only hope?

By Adam Rovner

Published June 09, 2010, issue of June 18, 2010.
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Sherriff’s badges weren’t the only Jewish stars in the Wild West. Consider gunslinger Jim Levy, Deadwood mayor Sol Star, Jewish Pueblo Indian chief Solomon Bibo, blue jeans inventor Levi Strauss and David May, the merchant who built his trading post into a chain of national department stores now controlled by Macy’s. Even O.K. Corral gunfighter Wyatt Earp is buried in a Jewish cemetery, but only because of his Jewish wife, Josephine Sophie Marcus. But there are no Yiddish cowboys in the newest blockbuster video game from Rockstar Games, the three-act horse opera “Red Dead Redemption.” Rockstar’s revisionist history of how the West was won turns Jews into America’s losers.

Rockstar, a video game developer and publisher founded in 1998 by British brothers Sam and Dan Houser, has a history of featuring Jewish characters in its notorious — and brilliantly entertaining — “Grand Theft Auto” (“GTA”) series of open world video games. In 2002, players met neurotic mob lawyer Ken Rosenberg in “GTA: Vice City,” a candy-colored version of Miami in the 1980s. Rosenberg reprised his role as comic schlemiel two years later in “GTA: San Andreas,” Rockstar’s West Coast gangster paradise.

The company’s most recent installment from 2008, the hard-nosed immigrant epic “GTA: IV,” also reveals a Jewish presence. “GTA: IV” is set in a dystopian version of New York called Liberty City, “where the American dream goes to die.” Stoop-shouldered Hasidim in their long black kapotes wander Liberty City’s streets, and a subplot requires players to gun down double-crossing Orthodox diamond dealer Isaac Roth.

Given these negative Jewish stereotypes, readers may be relieved to learn that there are no obvious Jewish characters in “Red Dead Redemption” (“RDR”). Yet despite Rockstar’s use of distasteful stereotypes, I confess to a sentimental cyber-tribalism when I play “GTA: IV.” Amidst the carnage and anarchy of Liberty City, the only innocent bystanders I don’t run over are the Hasidim. In return, I’ve never had any throw stones at me when I drive through their virtual neighborhoods on the Sabbath.

Rockstar’s track record of incorporating Jewish content made me curious to see how it would, in “RDR”, handle Jews wandering the promised land of New Austin, the game’s fictional frontier state based on Texas.

The game’s opening chapter, “Exodus in America,” takes place in 1911 and combines tropes familiar from both American immigrant literature and Western films. Rockstar’s obsession with the porous borders between crime and commerce in America makes it clear that “RDR” charts an alternate pre-history of a United States that will evolve into the madhouse of the “GTA” series.

So, I anticipated that along with the “RDR” cast of characters named “Dutch,” “Irish,” and “Welsh,” I might also ride into the sunset with a “Litvak,” a “Galicianer” or some more vaguely named “Landsman.” But the only mention of Jews I’ve found in more than 10 hours of game play are scattered warnings from computer-generated characters that “the Jews run the country.” Of course, such antisemitic rhetoric was common in that period of history.

An anonymous source involved with the development of “RDR” confirmed that “the social issues, mannerisms and bigotry” the game presents are the result of “a ton of research.” Still, I wish Rockstar’s posse of historians had seen fit to include some reference to the multitude of Jews in Lone Star State history. Israel Zangwill’s Jewish Territorial Organization worked to settle approximately 10,000 Russian Jews in Galveston between 1907 and 1914.

With this fact in mind, I started to think that maybe the Houser brothers had smuggled some Jewish Anglo-Texan history into the game after all. In one of the side missions of “RDR,” players meet Sam Odessa along a dusty trail. He explains that his grandfather arrived in New York from Odessa and that he’s headed for California in pursuit of a dream “in his blood.”

His goal, he says, is to make it from “the Black Sea to the Pacific in three generations.” It’s true that nothing about this character’s speech, dress or behavior indicates that he’s Jewish. Nonetheless, circumstantial evidence suggests that Sam Odessa is a crypto-Jew, perhaps even one of those tumbleweeds who ended up in Galveston. The Ukrainian city of Odessa had a large Jewish population in the late 19th century, and suffered numerous pogroms that sparked significant waves of emigration to the United States.

And Sam’s grandfather’s eager adoption of his hometown as a surname reminds me of my own forebear, who decided that being a Rovner from Rovno had an American ring to it and would speed the path to assimilation. When I spun out my theory of Sam’s Jewish origins to my source at Rockstar, the individual responded simply: “I cannot confirm that he is Jewish.” Then again, the source didn’t deny it either.

Why should we care about Jews being absent from a video game, especially one developed by a company with a penchant for crafting unsavory types? For one thing, characters from other minority groups appear in “RDR”: African American cowboys roam the countryside, a Chinese laborer runs into trouble, a Native American laments reservation life. These depictions are more sympathetic than not, and so the vanished Jews of Rockstar’s vanishing West feel like an oversight.

The Jewish role in taming the frontier deserves more than a paranoid throwaway line about a conspiracy. And since “RDR” will likely revive the Western genre for a new generation, we should hope that Jewish contributions — for better or for worse — will be acknowledged in the American saga being written and produced by the British brothers whose creative powers animate Rockstar.

Adam Rovner is assistant professor of English and Jewish literature at the University of Denver and translations editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture. His analysis of video games, “A Fable: Or, How to Recognize a Narrative When You Play One,” recently appeared in the Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds.

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