The son of Polish-Jewish immigrants, Miller grew up in Harlem and then later in Brooklyn. Until his death in 2005, Miller wrote essays and plays, many of which explored man’s struggle with personal or societal conflict.
“Focus” is no exception, and it does not dance around its subject. It is a smack-in-your-face diatribe against anti-Semitism.
In the waning days of World War II, the protagonist, Larry Newman, is a personnel manager at a large corporation in Manhattan, though he lives in Brooklyn with his wheelchair-bound mother. Never married, the middle-aged Newman hires the “wrong” secretary (i.e., she is Jewish). His boss gives him a warning and suggests he gets glasses.
When he puts his glasses on, he suddenly “looks” Jewish. From that point on, his life becomes complicated, to say the least, and it doesn’t help that he has a Jewish-sounding surname. He is refused service at hotels, people are now staring at him, and his garbage cans are kicked over, all because people think he is a “Sammy.” Newman is thus in the unique position of experiencing anti-Semitism firsthand, even though he is not Jewish and in fact, is somewhat anti-Semitic himself. When Newman becomes a target for this violence on the mistaken assumption that he is a Jew, his whole world spirals out of control.
This perspective, seeing anti-Semitism through one who is experiencing it, even though it is misdirected, is a brilliant tool used by Miller as social commentary.
In a twist of irony — one of many in the book — Newman marries Gertrude Hart, a woman he doesn’t hire because he thinks she is Jewish (though she is not). His opinion of her changes when he finds out her true identity:
“As a Jewess she had seemed dressed in cheap taste, too gaudily. But as a gentile, he found her merely colorful in the same dress, a woman who expressed her spirited nature in her clothes. As a Jewess she had seemed vitriolic and pushy and he had hated himself even as he was drawn fearfully to her, but now he no longer feared her for now his love could flow unstained by the guilt of loving what his dignity had always demanded he look down upon.”
Gertrude is everything he is not and through her, he loses his inhibitions, though paradoxically, that ultimately gives him the strength to be true to his character.
Newman’s neighbor Fred is part of the Christian Front, a KKK-like organization that uses threats and violence to intimidate Jews. Newman and Fred initially share a tentative friendship until Fred starts to believe that Newman is a Jew.
The only actual Jew in the neighborhood is Finkelstein, a shop owner. Though Finkelstein isn’t particularly religious, he functions not only as a target of the Christian Front, but also as a symbol for the attempted assimilation of Jews into America. Shocked to see that Finkelstein does not fit the stereotype (neither he nor his home or storefront are “dirty,” he is not cheap and has never cheated his customers), Newman begins to see the light toward book’s end:
“Newman looked around the kitchen as he stood with his hand holding down the compress. The room was astonishingly clean. It’s true, he thought, the Jews are a sanitary people. And then it occurred to him that they were supposed to be dirty.”
Eventually, hating a person because of his religion or race or any random categorization seems pretty ridiculous to Newman by book’s end:
“ … He longed deeply for a swift change of lightning that would with a fiery stroke break away the categories of people and change them so that it would not be important to them what tribe they sprang from.”
Miller refers to his main character as Mr. Newman, while others are referred to by their first names, perhaps as irony since Newman is the one who is being disrespected by society.
The glasses put Newman’s life into focus in more ways than one — he sees how others see him and he sees others with a wider, truer lens. He also learns that things are not always how they seem.
The characters in the book are more characterizations than real people, used as a vessel in this fulmination against anti-Semitism. As it long preceded the Civil Rights Movement, it was a bold book at the time that it was written, and today, it still works as both a riveting read and a history lesson for those who grew up in more modern times, thinking of New York as the quintessential melting pot and not a hotbed of racism against Jews.
(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)