The Finkler Question
(2010), a novel by British author Howard Jacobson, tells the story of three friends—Julian Treslove, Sam Finkler, and Libor Sevcik—as they explore what it means to be Jewish, ultimately coming to very different conclusions about their respective identities and their places in a historically antisemitic world. The Finkler Question
won the Man Book Prize in 2010 and was shortlisted for the JQ Wingate Prize.
The novel opens with a discussion of Julian's abysmal luck in life and love. He works as a radio producer, formerly with the BBC, and one of his few successful relationships is with his best friend, Sam. Where Julian is easily forgettable and largely unremarkable, Sam is electric and accomplished, a popular writer, philosopher, and prominent television commentator. Their bond is an often-uneasy one, but an enduring friendship is a rarity in Julian's life, so he holds fast to it. The two men also keep in contact with their former teacher Libor, who, at almost ninety years old, is a retired tutor and Hollywood gossip columnist. Libor's wife, Malkie, has just died, and he is still in mourning. Sam is also a recent widower but has not yet fully grasped, or grieved, the death of his wife, Tyler, with whom Julian once had an affair. Because of Julian's hapless way with women, he pretty much considers himself a widower, too.
One night, after Julian leaves a dinner date with his two friends, a woman mugs him on the street. Though he isn't absolutely certain, he thinks she may have called him Jewish as she robbed him. This grates on Julian, becoming a source of some fixation.
When he later tells Sam what happened, Sam says that Julian is imagining things, that he only heard the woman "accuse" him of being Jewish because he secretly wants to be Jewish. Determined to get to the bottom of the situation, Julian sets out to find his mugger. On the way, he runs into Libor. Libor, who is Jewish and en route to a Seder dinner, invites Julian to join him. Julian agrees and meets Libor's great-grandniece, Hephzibah, also in attendance at the dinner.
In the meantime, Sam breaks his association with an academic organization called ASHamed Jews, a group of Jewish intellectuals fighting for Palestinian rights. Tyler had never wanted him to join the group in the first place.
Soon, an old friend of Libor's, Emmy, reaches out to him for help. Her grandson has been blinded in an antisemitic attack, and she wants to alert the media but doesn't know how to. Ultimately, Libor discourages her from doing so. He thinks that perhaps this is how it will always be for the Jews, as it always has been. Persecution is, in his own experience as a Jew, part of the quintessentially Jewish struggle.
Julian and Hephzibah vacation in Italy and move in together shortly afterward. As he converts to Judaism and settles into life with a Jewish woman, he finds that he likes his newfound Jewishness. He even helps Hephzibah establish an Anglo-Jewish museum.
Despite his embrace of Judaism, however, Julian soon realizes that there are some things about the religion and culture he will never be able to understand. At a dinner with Sam and Libor, he envies the easy way Sam and Libor communicate, their shared language, rituals, and history—the result of being born Jewish. Julian devotes himself to his Jewish studies, but he doesn't think he'll ever fully understand it, at least not to the level that Sam and Libor do.
Shortly thereafter, vandals attack Hephzibah's museum, prompting a response from her that lies somewhere between anger and humor. Again, Julian feels a gulf of misunderstanding, this time between him and Hephzibah. How can she not be outraged about the vandalism? For her part, Hephzibah accepts this as one of the risks of being Jewish; she fears that Julian is sapping Judaism of its meaning for her.
Julian, meanwhile, thinks she is sleeping with Sam. He voices his concerns to Libor and confesses to him that he once had an affair with Tyler. Libor responds by calling Julian an anti-Semite.
On Julian's birthday, he, Sam, and Hephzibah attend a play and go out for drinks afterward. As Julian observes his friends, he considers giving up on them. They frustrate him. He feels that he cares more about them as Jews than they care about themselves. Moreover, he thinks that none of them—not his friends, nor any Jews, nor Julian himself—stands a chance.
Then, Libor jumps off a cliff to his death, having lost his faith and his beloved, Malkie; Julian, Sam, and Hephzibah grieve this monumental loss.
As Julian walks through the park one day, he stops a group of bullies from bothering a young Sephardic Jew. This makes Julian late for the opening of Hephzibah's museum. He then gets into a brawl with the security guards, who won't let him into the opening because he forgot his invitation. Hephzibah later visits him in the hospital and tells him that she is afraid she disgusts him, as so much seems to disgust him in his life these days.
Hephzibah goes to Sam, and they say the Kaddish for Libor. This unlocks something in Sam, and, for the first time, he grieves for Tyler, then for all Jews and the sacrifices they have made throughout history. He even grieves for his old friend Julian, who is still very much alive, but their friendship has noticeably changed. Sam wonders if he ever really knew Julian—or if anyone ever truly could.