When God was making me out of clay and toothpicks (thanks for the fibromyalgia and chronic constipation, God, they’re just amazing), he decided at some point that I’d be born of a Jewish dude and an Irish-Catholic woman who converted to Orthodox Judaism. He also decided that I’d be the granddaughter of a Nazi death camp survivor so I could get a hardcore head start with nightmares.
Five years old and I was already dreaming about gas showers. Yesss. Fuck you, Boogeyman. Your “Boogedy-Boo!” shit can’t touch me. Take that weaksauce elsewhere.
Though I consider my agnostic Jewish-ness an important part of my identity, I won’t deny that being Jewish can be weird. People don’t know squat about your culture, though they claim to know everything. We control the banks, after all. And the media.
For instance, the Christian right scribbles “AND THEN JESUS HAPPENED” on the end of the Bible stories you grew up with and says “Here, we fixed it.” Then it claps you on the back and bellows about how it “supports Israel.” Sure, Jews are slimy, money-grubbing hellbound heathens who won’t bask in the redeeming light of Jesus for some baffling reason, but at least we’re all good at killing Moo-slims.
Left-wing college students, meanwhile, helpfully point out that Ashkenazi Jews (who are of European descent and therefore primarily white) shouldn’t use the term “anti-Semitism” because the Ashkenazi aren’t actually real Semitic Jews. We’re just corrupt converts and squatters, something something Rothschilds conspiracy.
I guess it doesn’t matter that Hitler considered us Jewish enough to gas and burn to near-extinction? I don’t know how this shit works anymore. All I know is that we’re all supposedly complacent and connected to the Israeli government’s violence against the Palestinians, which is totally a black-and-white issue and not a multi-tiered fuck-up that’ll take generations to sort out.
And then there’s the issue of representation in media. I suppose we’re doing better than most minorities as far as TV and movies go, though for every Schindler’s List there are fifty Woody Allen stereotypes. There are also few dignified depictions of Jews wearing religious dress, and fewer black or brown Jews. This is small latkes, but I’m irritated that Disney’s Phineas and Ferb has a Mexican-Jewish character, Isabella, who is a mash-up of Mexican and Ashkenazi stereotypes instead of, you know, an actual Sephardic Jew.
Nevertheless, I can appreciate that us Jews have some visibility on television. It ain’t perfect, but it’s a sight better than the slop that gets dished out to other minorities. Video games, though? You won’t see many of us in the Western-made stuff*, and we’re nothing but wind and ghosts in Japanese-made games.
So I was a bit bemused when I played Sega’s Valkyria Chronicles for the first time and was introduced to the Darcsen race, an obvious fictional stand-in for Jews, with a sprinkling of Irish** and Native American. I don’t know what I expected, really: Valkyria Chronicles is a tactical strategy game that takes place during an alternate universe Second World War, and Jews were, uh, kind of a big deal in the Second World War. But given how Japanese games rarely acknowledge us (excepting Metal Gear Solid and Suikoden, both from Konami, interestingly), I figured Valkyria Chronicles would gloss over the “Whoops, genocide” sub-plot of the War.
It, er, doesn’t. In fact, Valkyria Chronicles frames the Darcsens in a way that touches the raw, scabbed-over wound where I store my thoughts and feelings about the Holocaust and Jewish history in general.
And that surprised the hell out of me. Not just because I’m used to Jewish representation being a no-show in Japanese games, but because the depiction of the Darcsens is simultaneously proud, world-weary, mournful, and, frankly, bad-ass. They’re victims, but they fight. They’ve always been there, and they’ve always been fighting. If you’re a Jew, it all comes across as very familiar.
The real hell of it is, the Japanese-made Darcsens and their struggle have imprinted on my mind in a way that no other Holocaust metaphor has. Western media loves using the Crystal Night and subsequent genocide as a fill-in-the-blanks template to writing about fascist characters and worlds (cough cough JK Rowling), and I’ve sadly grown numb to it.
Did you know the legendarily bad Foodfight! animated movie literally recounts the events of the Holocaust using black-clad “Brand X” mascot-soldiers as Nazis and “undesirable” products as Jews? Once I feasted my eyes on that Oscar-winning idea, I promptly lost faith in writers’ ability to utilize the Holocaust as a metaphor in a solemn, respectful manner. I wonder why.
What is it about the Darcsen struggle, then, that keeps me focused instead of prompting me to roll my eyes, look out the window, and daydream about Elijah the Prophet delivering the perfect bowl of matzo ball soup on demand?
I think it’s three things. First, the Darcsens aren’t martyrs. They’re people. While we do see a glimpse of some confined in concentration camps, and while those camps are subsequently liquefied to hide evidence of the atrocities going on within, the Darcsens are more than sallow faces peering over spartan wooden bunkers. They’re miners, soldiers, scientists, and engineers. You meet them. You interact with them. One of the game’s main characters, the soft-spoken Isara, is a Darcsen. She makes your tank go. She is, therefore, amazing.
Second — and this is important — Darcsens aren’t a tool that’s tossed around to make it clear that the bad guys are bad, and the good guys are good. The Darcsens are universally reviled, even by your own god damn soldiers. There is actually a status detriment, “Darcsen hater,” that causes afflicted soldiers to fuck up on the battlefield if any comrades in their vicinity are Darcsens. They’re so put-off, so disgusted, they can’t aim straight. These are the good guys.
And yet, this super-anime game about schoolkids wearing silly uniforms and driving fancy tanks has the right of things, 100%. There was rampant anti-Semitism amongst the Allies. There was rampant racism, too. Both problems still exist in armies across the Western world.
At the same time, Valkyria Chronicles doesn’t use the Darscens and their haters to regurgitate some hackneyed lesson about how “both sides are bad.” Many of your soldiers don’t know a Darcsen from a hole in the ground, but they grew up with stories and superstitions about the race. They’re human beings who need to learn better — and to the game’s credit, some of them do learn.
Third, the Darcsens are a very close-knit group. The opposite of the “Darcsen hater” detriment is the “Darcsen bond” buff, which causes Darcsens in close proximity to each other to fight harder. If you’re a Jew, this is relatable on a holy-shit level. Though Jews still have big internal issues with racism (again, not all Jews are white), there’s a bond between Tribe members that’s indescribable.
When you meet another Jew, it opens up a cache of topics and terms you can’t comfortably break out in non-Jewish company. It doesn’t matter how religious you are, or aren’t: That connection is there. It’s why I, an agnostic Jew with some Orthodox upbringing, could tell my former Humanistic Jew boss about how my parents used to “daven Lubavitch,” and she immediately understood what I was talking about.
I think all Jews put up a guard, even on a subconscious level. The world hasn’t been friendly to us in the past, and it still isn’t. But when we converse with one of our own, some of that sheeting peels away. One Darcsen, Nadine, says it best when she’s in the company of her fellows: “Our ties go beyond human flesh.”
By the way, notice how Nadine is a Darcsen, but she’s Asian. Darcsens in Valkyria Chronicles obviously belong to an assortment of races, like actual Jews.
I’ve been playing video games for over 30 years, and I had to wait this long for a Japanese-made game to pinpoint Jewish culture, its history, and its struggles in a way that’s respectful, emotional, and non-cloying. Valkyria Chronicles was worth the wait — especially since once of its noteworthy Darcsens is voiced by Steve Blum. Yes, I’ll take it all. Thank you, Sega.
*This is where I bring up The Shivah, a point-and-click adventure game wherein two Rabbis dual by quoting Talmud, an obvious and brilliant reference to Monkey Island’s insult-driven sword fight.
**With their dark hair and preference for Celtic-style designs, the Darcsens can actually be considered Irish-Jew mongrels. Not a stretch, as the two groups intermarry often and make offspring. See: Daniel Radcliffe, Matthew Broderick, and my own Guinness-battered Kosher self.