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The Secret Jewish History Of ‘Shaft’

Hold on. Before you get all “cultural appropriation” on me, hear me out. The character “Shaft” is not now, nor has he ever been, Jewish. Nor has he been portrayed by Jews in film or TV, nor was he conjured by a Jewish artist. Early on in his fictional life, however, Shaft was among Jews, as Shaft creator and author Ernest Tidyman chronicled in “Shaft Among the Jews” (Dial Press, 1972), the second of seven detective novels in the “Shaft” series.

“Shaft Among the Jews” was never adapted for the screen and is largely forgotten (unlike Shaft himself, who is once again played by Richard Roundtree, now “Gramps,” in the fourth sequel, boasting the canny title, “Shaft,” and also featuring Samuel L. Jackson as John Shaft, Jr., and Jessie Usher as J.J. Shaft) in spite of a consensus among reviewers that it was the best-written volume in Tidyman’s “Shaft” series. A journalist who became a writer of pulp-fiction and an Oscar-winning co-writer of the adapted screenplay for “The French Connection” — he also wrote “High Plains Drifter” for Clint Eastwood — the Cleveland-born Tidyman was not Jewish, but that didn’t stop him from plunging his best-known character, the cool, smooth, African-American private eye, into a world populated by Hasidic diamond dealers in Midtown Manhattan; Israeli intelligence officers; Holocaust survivors; Jewish New York City cops; and even a Jewish femme fatale.

“Shaft Among the Jews” is an out-of-print relic of its time. Tidyman — whose creation would be turned into a TV series, a handful of films, a hit record, and even a comic book — made liberal use of a Yiddish epithet for a black male, as well as the “n” word. Even the publisher’s jacket flap copy described Shaft as “the best paid shvartze ever to set foot into the inner sanctums of New York’s famed diamond district.” And, perhaps as a way of forestalling charges of anti-Semitism that might stem from his portrayal of some Jews as greedy and nefarious, Tidyman dedicated his book to “some of my best friends.” (Or maybe that was intended to demonstrate his anti-Semitism; I haven’t yet made my mind up on that.)

“Shaft Among the Jews” was based on a 1968 New York Times story about the murder of three traveling diamond salesmen over a three-month period. Tidyman’s police noir is full of the gumshoe lingo, sex scenes, and gun-worshipping violence one would expect from any such pulp fiction. The first time a group of Hasidim come to visit Shaft in his office, the narrator — who closely mirrors Shaft’s own thoughts — describes the scene thusly: “Cowboys and Indians. The disembodied head that peered around the door from the third-floor hallway was wearing a heavy black beard and a big black sombrero.”

The narrator goes on: “There were seven of them. All cowboys. Except they weren’t cowboys. But they were something. In assorted shapes, sizes, and ages, the seven men who filed into his office were identical in dress—each one wearing a wide-brimmed black hat, long and dark outer coast, dark suits with vests, white shirts, and black, old-fashioned-looking shoes. They all had beards and curls hanging down around, in front of, or over their ears.”

In writing the book, Tidyman — who died in 1984 — reportedly relied on Leo Rosten’s “Joys of Yiddish” for his Jewish characters’ vernacular. When it was first published, the Jewish Chronicle called it “Certainly a book to recommend to the sophisticated Jewish thriller addict.” (Is there such a genre as “Jewish thrillers”? If so, sign me up.) The text is replete with references to the Stern Gang, Dachau, the Negev, Sephardim versus Ashkenazim, Shea Stadium, and “Fiddler on the Roof,” proving Tidyman certainly did his homework in researching the book’s milieu. (Or maybe he just asked some of his aforementioned “friends”). Shaft starts out not trusting Jews – especially in financial matters – but quickly disposes of that prejudice when the group of seven “cowboys” who hire him to find out why “something unusual is happening” in the diamond business informs him that if he succeeds, he could earn about a half-million dollars. Suddenly, Shaft’s outlook toward the black hats takes on an entirely new aspect.

And here is where Tidyman — whose book might have been dated even before it was printed – maybe deserves some credit. In some ways, the author was far ahead of his time. Tidyman clearly saw — or was at least able to imagine — modern-day Hasidim as a band of outliers as American as any other group. Even cowboys. A band of brothers with their own secret passwords and mysterious rituals. Even their headgear belied the important question asked about any cowboy or sheriff: are they the good guys or bad guys?

Then again, maybe “Shaft Among the Jews” was one of the most revolting examples of multiple cultural appropriations as has ever appeared in the pages of a book.

Seth Rogovoy is a contributing editor at the Forward. He highly recommends you listen to “Theme from ‘Shaft’” by Isaac Hayes, perhaps the best cultural artifact that stemmed from Tidyman’s creation.

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