Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Joseph Heller (1923-1999) is best remembered for his World War II satirical masterpiece Catch-22 (1961), a classic which became one of the most important novels of the 20th century. Shown here is a typescript of the first few paragraphs of the book, signed by Heller.

The novel is set in late 1944 when Yossarian, Heller’s protagonist, is trying to extend, for as long as possible, his stay on an island away from the war zone as part of his ongoing scheme to avoid having to fly more dangerous combat missions and to escape death. He is surrounded by a group of bizarre screwball American officers who are concerned only with their own promotions and glory, none of whom give any thought to their duty to protect the men under their command, let alone to American interests in the war. As such, Yossarian decides that his only true mission is his own survival; in his acerbic words, his goal is “to live forever or die in the attempt.”

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The term “catch-22” has entered the American lexicon as a no-win situation, a bureaucratic paradox having the effect of entrapping the subject. The intriguing context in the novel involves the insanity exemption: to get out of combat duty on mental incapacity grounds, an American soldier must make such a request, but anyone making such a request isn’t really mentally incompetent. Heller brilliantly poses the challenging existential question: What does a sane man do in an insane society?

As a member of the Beat Generation and the post-World War II era, Heller developed a highly satirical approach to institutions, particularly the national government and the military; he had a deep cynicism of war, perhaps best exemplified by the black humor of Catch-22. His fiction continues to be examined for its use of absurdist techniques and, more recently, for its critique of Cold War America.

The son of poor Jewish Russian immigrant parents, Heller had a secular upbringing; his family rarely attended services and he never even had a bar mitzvah. His Russian immigrant father was an agnostic Jew dedicated to socialist politics, and his mother was more concerned with social forms than with religious observance. Perhaps following in his father’s path, Heller kept far away from any Jewish religious beliefs – his daughter characterized him as “profoundly unreligious.” In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, he commented:

The only wisdom I think I’ve attained is the wisdom to be skeptical of other people’s ideology and other people’s arguments. I tend to be a skeptic, I don’t like dogmatic approaches by anybody. I don’t like intolerance and a dogmatic person is intolerant of other people… We have some ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects here in New York and I fear them as much as I would fear a Nazi organization.

Nonetheless, he strongly identified as an ethnic Jew: “What defines a Jew is the ethnic identification, and that is the only thing that defines a Jew to a gentile or an anti-Semite… It was always easy to accept who I was. As I enter my senior years it’s something I’m very proud of and most comfortable with. I believe I’d rather be Jewish than anything else. And I’ve always felt that way.”

Heller was also a supporter of the Jewish state although he was not usually vocal on the subject. When asked, however, in a published interview if he had any specific feelings about Israel’s survival, he responded, “[E]motionally, I have a strong attachment to Israel, even though I’ve never been there and have no desire to go… Israel is the only reliable ally America would have in that part of the world.”

The Jewish-American experience in the postwar era was a common theme in Heller’s work, and he often turned to Jewish characters and Jewish issues in his later novels. In Good as Gold (1979), for example, which combines Jewish family farce with a satire on academic life and contemporary politics, the protagonist tries to regain the Jewishness he has lost. In God Knows (1984), a modern version of the King David story, Heller creates an allegory of Jewish survival in a hostile and antagonistic world. In his autobiographical work and final novel, Now and Then (1998), he lovingly evokes his boyhood home, the heavily Jewish community of Brooklyn’s Coney Island in the 1920s and 1930s.

Heller said that, in Something Happened, his first novel after Catch-22 which was published 13 years later, his protagonist, Bob Slocum, was intended to be Jewish, but he was careful not to mention that fact:

The book is a first-person, obsessive, confessional narrative about a man filled with self-pity. He worries about his children, has trouble with his family, worries about his job, feels out of place in a large corporation. Even though he’s successful, he feels very much insecure… I felt that if he were Jewish it would be consistent with his character. The reader would dwell on that, attribute a great many of his fears and anxieties to that.

Catch-22, on the other hand, does not seem to be a Jewish novel. Yossarian is not explicitly Jewish – the novel describes him as an Assyrian (and in the 1994 sequel, Heller makes him an Armenian) – and, in a 1972 letter to Northeastern University professor James Nagel, Heller wrote that “Yossarian isn’t Jewish and was not intended to be. On the other hand, no effort was expended to make him anything else.” However, in a later response to a question about Yossarian’s Jewishness, Heller publicly stated:

“Well, he’s the one I’m most sympathetic to. He’s from a city that’s unnamed, probably New York. He thinks a lot the way I do, worries the way I do. I guess the answer is yes. Yes, I would say Yossarian probably is Jewish.”

Even the title of Catch-22 has a conspicuously Jewish angle: it was originally written as Catch-18 because the number 18 (“chai,” or “life”), which has special meaning in Judaism, was relevant to early drafts of the novel, which had a greater and clearer Jewish emphasis. In fact, a magazine excerpt from the novel was originally published as Catch-18, but Heller’s publisher requested that he change the title so that it wouldn’t be confused with another recently-published World War II novel, Leon Uris’s Mila 18. Heller’s unfortunate next choice, Catch 17, was also rejected because it sounded too close to the popular war movie, Stalag 17. He finally settled on Catch-22 because “it sounded funny.”

There is evidence that Heller – who repeatedly explained that he based the character upon himself and Yossarian’s war experiences on his own – specifically intended the character to be Jewish. Yossarian manifests a sense of exile. He maintains instinctual personal rituals and displays “Jewish characteristics,” which include being an intellectual wordsmith who is familiar with great literature and texts, and frequently uses Jewish cultural references.

He also wields a wicked Jewish sense of humor, which one writer characterized as “shticky iconoclastic humor of midcentury Jewish comics.” Early in the novel, he befriends “the Texan” who says: “I don’t have any best friends, because I love everybody, but if I did have any best friends some of those best friends would be Jewish.”

Perhaps most tellingly, Yossarian, in an exercise of classic Jewish morality – or, perhaps, as a manifestation of Jewish guilt – ultimately decides to continue to fly his missions because he understands that were he to feign illness, desert and go AWOL, or otherwise duck his responsibilities, another American soldier would have to go in his place.

Some commentators even go so far as to contend that Catch-22 is a story about a Jewish airman confronting the Holocaust. The novel which, at its essence, involves a nationalist military bureaucracy which forces people into a death trap, explores questions of evil and obedience, which remains a central Holocaust theme. Moreover, survival, an essential aspect of Heller as a post-Holocaust Jewish-American author, translates directly to Yossarian, who is fiercely dedicated to his own survival. In one telling scene, when American officers bring baseless charges against a serviceman named Clevinger (who wasn’t Jewish), Yossarian tells him, “[Y]ou haven’t got a chance, kid, they hate Jews.”

However, consistent with the approach by Jewish authors after World War II – most of whom, in any case, sought to distance themselves from their Jewish ethnicity – Heller believed that making Yossarian overtly Jewish would diminish his credibility. He therefore sought to distance Yossarian from blatant ethnic stereotypes; he did not want the book to be received as the specific rant of a cynical, disgruntled, and alienated Jew, and he did not want to create a Jewish protagonist in post-WWII America who was overly critical of the war, the military, and American patriotism.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at saul.singer@verizon.net.