Friday, April 22, 2016

Jewish Characters by Citadel Miniatures: good, bad and ugly

To celebrate Passover 2016, I want to examine an obscure corner of the hobby: the way Citadel miniatures portrayed Jewish characters during its Golden Age in the 1980's. Although this topic may be a little arcane, it opens the door to a larger and more interesting question: how Judaism, Jewish folklore and Jewish magic fit into fantasy worlds like Warhammer, D&D or Call of Cthulhu.

As far as I know, there are only 3 Citadel miniatures from the 1980's that clearly portray Jews... they are pictured above. One is a pretty good portrait, one is a little troubling (although it's hard to blame that on Citadel) and one is downright ugly. 

Let's look at each...

The "good" portrayal is The Kabbalist, a 1986 sculpt for Citadel's Gothic Horror Range, which provided characters and NPCs for the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game. I like this miniature because it mixes elements that are directly evoke an Orthodox Jew (a yarmulke, a prayer shawl, and a long beard) with some generic fantasy accouterments (a potion and a scroll). As a result of this mix, the miniature is recognizably Jewish without being a mere caricature.

Rabbi Cohen from White Dwarf #69
It's nifty that Citadel attempted to portray a Kabbalist at all. A Kabbalist is a practitioner of Jewish mysticism -- traditionally, the study of the Kabbalah was limited to Orthodox Rabbis, who believed that it could be dangerous to minds untrained in all the complexities of the Jewish law. In this sense, a Kabbalist fits in nicely into the world of Call of Cthulhu, since Kabbalah also involves arcane tomes, ancient knowledge, and the risk of insanity. 

Indeed, I believe this miniature is based on Rabbi Joshua Cohen, a non-player character from "The Surrey Enigma", a Call of Cthulhu adventure written by Marcus Rowland and published in White Dwarf #69 (Sept. 1985). 

This adventure requires the characters to seek the assistance of a group of Orthodox Jews who are hunting a Cthuloid menace lurking in an ancient barrow. Part of the drama in the adventure arises from the fact that the characters might mistake the mysterious Rabbi Cohen and his associates for cultists. Thus the success of the adventures hinges upon the characters learning a little about Kabbalah so that they can trust and be trusted by Cohen (who, as it happens, is a total badass).

Well, as my Passover present to the world, here's a link to the complete text of the Surrey Enigma.

The second miniature I want to look at is Phaygin (1984) from the preslotta C04 Thieves range. Originally, this miniature was called a "Cut Purse" in Citadel's October 1984 Flyer. However, in the Third Citadel Compendium (1985) he was renamed Phaygin. This is a clear reference to Faygin, the Jewish villain from Dickens' Oliver Twist (1839). And indeed, the miniature closely resembles Ron Moody's iconic portrayal of Fagin in the film version of Oliver! (1968).

Ron Moody as Fagin
Dickens described Fagin as a "a very old shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair." Dickens hammered home the association between Fagin's depravity and his Jewishness by referring to him constantly as "the Jew" or "the old Jew" throughout the original version of the novel. Indeed, by my count, he called Fagin "the Jew" 319 times. Ugg. 

On the upside, when it was pointed out to Dickens that he had strayed into anti-Semitic waters, he did his best to make amends -- for example by re-editing Oliver Twist and later by creating the steadfast Jewish character of Mr. Riah in Our Mutual Friend (1865).

Although Fagin is an ugly character, he's one of the great thieves of literature, so I'm glad that Citadel created this portrait of him.

And that brings us to the last miniature: the Money Lender FS64 (1980). This preslotta miniature is from the earliest days of Citadel and was part of their "Fantasy Specials" Villagers range. This is one stone-cold racist miniature.

With his grotesque nose, slouch, heavy eyes and bag of gold, the Money Lender bears an uncanny resemblance to Nazi propaganda. Even his pose evokes one of the most famous of the Nazi's anti-Semitic posters, "The Eternal Jew". In both this poster and the miniature, the hunched figure holds coins in his outstretched right hand.


The image on the left is from an anti-semitic colouring book (if you look closely enough at the image, you can see that the colour was applied with a child's crayon.) The image on the right is the poster for the "Eternal Jew" art exhibition that we discussed above.

How did such a hideous miniature ever get released? I don't know. I very much doubt that anyone at Citadel in the early 1980's was intentionally hateful. However, it is evident that when they went to sculpt a "money lender" for their range of fantasy villagers, some depressing stereotypes dominated the work. And no one up the line of management caught this boner. No Matzah Ball Soup for you!

Ultimately, what surprises me about these three miniatures is that they exist at all -- and this gets to my larger point about the role of Jews in fantasy worlds. Jewish ideas of magic were extremely influential on Medieval and especially Renaissance occultists. Such ideas include: letters being intrinsically magical shapes/sounds (gemmatria) -- or that the living can be possessed by the spirit of the dead (a dybbuk) -- or that a sage can use true names to gain control over demons and angels -- or that a clay man can be animated by magic spells and come to life (the golem). From Western occultism, these tropes entered fantasy novels, role-playing games and even science fiction.

And yet Jewish people themselves are usually absent from these works. This can be usefully contrasted with some other groups, such as Arabs or Roma/Gypsies, both of whom are so common in fantasy worlds that they are almost stock characters. (And certainly Citadel produced lots of Arabs and Roma miniatures during the 1980's, like the Gypsy and the Saracen for the game Talisman.) Why are Jewish characters so rare? Is it a fear of falling into stereotypes?

What do you think?


  1. The moneylender is pretty average. The others are OK though. One of the C series citadel wizards is based on the Sanhedrin - Rancor Guildmaster. CCM wiki has a pic of him:

    Oh and lovely paint jobs.

    1. Good call on Rancor Guildmaster.

      This is maybe a stretch but there is also "Antonio" from the Terror of the Lichemaster range (which I'm starting to paint now). Originally, that miniature was called "Epstein" (Which is also the name that appears on the miniature's slotta tab). Epstein is a very old Ashkenazi Jewish name. Like I said, it's a stretch...

    2. Antonio Epstein may have been based on Tony 'Ep' Epworth, who worked at either GW or Citadel in the early days. Perhaps Rick Priestley could provide more information.

    3. Thanks for that insight. It would be fun to cobble together a list of all the classic Citadel minis that were inspired by real people. I'm not sure how to go about such an endeavor, but I'll give it some thought.

  2. In regards to your question, I think if you did a simple word association game with the general population, the word "Jewish" (rightly or wrongly) would a elicit a response of "genocide" & "WW2". These negative connotations have been ingrained into our collective psyche. People don't want to be reminded of that terrible past, especially in a game setting.

  3. Miniatures to play the Jew RPG class with special skills and abilities like Jew-Jitsu and summon a dreidel.

  4. Good post. I would like to say we've made progress since the '80's but that is clearly not the case.

  5. It's an interesting topic. I'd honestly never really thought about it before.

  6. Lovely figures! Never seen these before! My favorite is Fagin!


  7. I have spent some time considering some of this issue with reference to Warhammer, although not these miniatures.

    Nonetheless... there was some reasonable conversation about certain stereotypes and racism on the Oldhammer Forum here - where I mention that Tolkien based his Dwarves on his ideas of medieval conception of the Jews (he explicitly states such in an interview, and there are many clues and correspondences most of which other Tolkien Scholars have highlighted - links in the forum thread), and I'd argue Tolkien's Dwarves are an attempt to rehabilitate, or 'correct' the anti-semitic attitudes of Old English authors in a fairy-tale framework. Visual parallels between anti-semitic imagery and the later "big hat" chaos dwarves were also drawn. We could also consider dwarf rune magic as a form of gematria (though Nazi occultists like Guido von List have already done that, claiming the Kaballah was actually germanic in origin).

    "This is one stone-cold racist miniature"... perhaps. Alternatively we could see it as a model intended to represent a historical caricature - not a here and now racism, but a Medieval stereotype - in the same way a Paladin could be depicted as a Crusading knight - without admitting to the atrocities committed by the Christian Crusaders. A Jew could be depicted as a crooked money-lender without admitting to their betrayal by the European Aristocracy and the propaganda war waged against them that led to their real economic status and their unwarranted persecution for imagined crimes. Although that leads us to "why are people reproducing artefacts that resemble Medieval European prejudices in the 1980s?". The Nazis didn't invent anti-semitism, but drew on long-standing history and imagery.

    Gypsies - I'm not sure they are all that present. I can't think of a semi-nomadic people wandering the Old World, at least in WFB. Arabs, are of course imports from the Crusades, but why the Jewish defenders of Jerusalem are not popular figures in historical gaming may cross-over with why Jews lack representation in other fantasy worlds.

    Great painting, and thanks for sharing!

    1. You raise a lot of great points -- there's so much to say, it makes me want to write a follow-up post.

  8. Huh, those are interesting. I have to say the Kaballist looks pretty bad ass, he might even survive until the end of a CoC game. The money lender though, whoof. Ouch. He's like an Iranian newspaper cartoon :(

    Thanks for posting this, it's a nice deeper look at our hobby in the context of wider issues.

  9. The moneylender is so stereotyped it's almost funny - considering how much all early Warhammer is based on stereotypes and literary references. I agree it mustn't have been a deliberately racist choice by GW - it probably just seemed right to play on traditional themes.

    I think that most manufacturers steer clear of Jewish references because lots of people and especially the media are very sensitive on this, and it's easy to write things that will be misunderstood. On the other hand, this doesn't happen with other ethnicities. Think of the Pygmies and the awful representation by GW - I don't believe many people protested on that.

    Finally, I always thought that Imperial Dwarvs *are" Warhammer's Jews. They live in the Empire as a small and wealthy minority of traders and business owners and, sometimes, specialists. Some (e.g. Bugman's) even change their Khazalid names into Imperial ones. In a way, I always treated them like Medieval Jews - an important asset for the Empire, usually protected by the government, sometimes subject to the hostility of Humans who work for them, always ready to help each other and generally very wary of outsiders.

    For what concerns Gypsies, back in my WFRP gaming days I introduced them as a playable set of careers and I remember they were excellent PCs and NPCs. I even created a Gypsy magick based on fortune telling and powerful curses. Unfortunately I didn't get to use them much, but the feeling is that they fit the setting very well.

    1. There are so many good points that you make here. Just to pick up on one of them... I think you're approach to dwarves as stand-ins for Jews in the Warhammer world is quite perceptive. As you probably know, Tolkien seems to have viewed his own dwarves in the same way, and even formed their language accordingly.

  10. I find that moneylender extremely offensive. It's hard to imagine that it wasn't deliberate anti-Semitism. You wouldn't make a caricature African figure in such a racist style.

    1. Well, in the 80's GW had a whole range of Pygmies including bones through their noses.

  11. Could it perhaps be simpler? I believe fantasy tends to avoid monotheistic religion, and Judaism would, because of its links to christianity , be too much a tie to the 'real world'. I think traveller/roma-types are easier to fit in, and arab-types can be associated with more fantasy-type polytheistic beliefs.