As someone who started playing video games around the time on-screen heroes were represented by indecipherable smears of pixels, it's a privilege to watch game characters grow and diversify.
Being a Jewish woman, I'm always keen to see my ethnoreligion represented in video games. Unfortunately, when I say, "I wish for more Jewish representation in games," a picture of a monkey's paw pops into my head and slowly folds one gnarled finger into its palm. There isn't a lot of Jewish representation in video games (though at least Wolfenstein hero B.J. Blazkowicz is a recently-confirmed Member of the Tribe), and what representation we do receive is usually attached to depressing reminders of the Holocaust. Moreover, representation of Jews who aren't white-passing is practically nil.
Interestingly, references to the Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism and symbolism are commonplace in Japanese RPGs. Discussions over "appropriation versus tribute" tend to become heated and are subject to personal interpretations, but I admittedly love the twists series like Shin Megami Tensei and Persona add to Jewish lore, and legends like dybbuks and Lilith. Lilith, a demoness who features in many Jewish superstitions, is correctly portrayed as an alluring femme who stays in close contact with her consort, Samael (an Angel of Death who takes the form of the serpent in the Jewish interpretation of the story of Eden). But Shin Megami Tensei's Lilith also looks like David Bowie with webbed fingers and an anklet, because Japanese RPGs are freakin' awesome.
When Jewish characters appear in Western-made video games, however infrequently, they typically forego full-body snake tattoos in favor of more human-if controversial-portrayals. That's why when I creaked into Horseshoe Overlook alongside Red Dead Redemption 2's notorious Van der Linde gang, my ears and eyes perked up when I took notice of one particular character: the wiry moneylender Herr Leopold Strauss.
Moneylending and Other Sins
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game about the industrialization of the Wild West, but there's no shortage of ways to make filthy money. The game's protagonist, Arthur Morgan, can rob trains, break into houses, hold up stage coaches, and loot the bodies of innocent people who died in unfortunate accidents. But one of the most uncomfortable methods of making cash is collecting on the money Herr Strauss loans to destitute farmers and townsfolk.
Some collection jobs don't exactly tug on your conscience. If a spendthrift farm owner forces me to chase him down and nab him with a lasso, I don't feel bad about interrogating him a little roughly. Unfortunately, calls to collect on debts also tend to dissolve into scenarios where Arthur brutally beats a poor Polish farmer who can't speak English, or violently shakes down a tubercular farmer in front of his wife and son. Arthur is clearly disgusted by the job, and he notes his distaste for collecting debts—and by extension, his hatred for Strauss—in his journal. He even writes robbing folks seems "more honest" than signing them up for debts they can't easily pay back. Strauss argues moneylending is a valid way to make money for the group, and says he's doing his part to keep the women and children in the Van der Linde gang clothed and fed.
At a glance, Herr Strauss, his unapologetic distribution of high-interest loans, and Arthur's disgust and mistrust of the man can be interpreted as thoughtless, antisemitic writing by Rockstar Games—a lazy attempt to build a character by stapling some stereotypes to a wireframe and then saying, "Hey, this guy is a member of a persecuted minority, and his people's troubled past causes him to think in shades of grey! It's deep!"
Admittedly, when I first saw Strauss and learned he's a moneylender, I said "Uh oh" out loud. And when Strauss instructed me to beat a farmer half to death to collect on a $30 loan, I was very uncomfortable. But as I continue to work through Red Dead Redemption 2 and interact more with Strauss (no, I'm not finished, so I suppose anything I write is subject to change), it becomes clearer Rockstar means to use the thin Austrian man as a means of exploring Arthur's own prejudices, his inner struggles, and the racist, antisemitic attitudes that generally prevailed at the tail end of the 19th century (and persist into today). Thankfully, Rockstar largely succeeds.
The Ostrich of the Wild West
"Hold up. Herr Strauss is Jewish?"
Almost certainly. This understandably might take people by surprise, because to my knowledge Strauss never outright states his heritage. Again, I haven't finished Red Dead Redemption 2, but since there are message board posts and Reddit threads arguing the point, I assume the game's not forthcoming with concrete confirmation.
Jewish identity, or "Who counts as a Jew?" is an extremely tricky and complicated topic that's still hotly debated amongst Jews themselves. That said, some surnames are very common amongst Jews and people of Jewish descent. "Strauss," a Germanic title, is one such name. It's not exclusive to Germanic Jews, of course, but considering Strauss' line of work and the general make up of the Van der Linde gang, identifying Strauss as Jewish doesn't require a wild leap.
A relevant aside: European Jews resisted surnames until they were forced to take them in the 18th century. Strauss' family name, which means "Ostrich," might be quite new to his line. Many Jews adopted names related to animals referenced in the Bible; "Adler," which means "Eagle," is also a common surname amongst Jews. That means another Van der Linde member, Sadie Adler, might be Jewish as well, or of Jewish descent. In fact, "Sadie" is a Hebrew name.
Jews have been associated with moneylending since at least the Middle Ages. The profession was regarded as a necessary evil, as Jews were forced to pay high taxes while living under Medieval European Christian rule. Though stereotypes portray Jewish moneylenders as predatory schemers who charge exorbitant interest—hello Herr Strauss—Jews who actually charged notably ridiculous rates seem to be isolated to a few scattered examples. The stereotype likely took hold with a steely grip thanks to the continued study of Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice," a play starring a notorious Jewish moneylender named Shylock. Though the play is sympathetic to Shylock in some regards, the moneylender's infamous interest charge of "a pound of flesh' made for handy antisemitic propaganda for years to come, including in Nazi Germany.
Herr Strauss is a moneylender with a surname common amongst European Jews. Seems there's no way he's not Jewish, especially when you think about the company he runs with. Arthur's father figure, Dutch van der Linde, is flawed beyond belief, but his door is open to outcasts. Lemoyne's cannons are still warm from the Civil War, but the Van der Linde's gang contains black men and women, including a man who's half black, half Native American. There are also Irishmen and women, prostitutes, drunkards, and thieves. Simply put, few members of the Van der Linde gang could expect to put down permanent roots anywhere. They'd be tolerated for a time, perhaps, but never trusted. An Austrian Jew likewise couldn't expect to find fellowship anywhere in Red Dead Redemption 2's partially-industrialized America, except in a camp sheltered by trees—or in a covered wagon ambling down the road and away from the lives of "proper folks."
"Dear Diary: I suck, but not as much as this other guy."
Though the bonds between the members of the Van der Linde gang can be described as "complicated" at best, Herr Strauss and his ledger seem to exist in their own little pocket, even when the gang lets loose and makes merry. As pointed out earlier, Strauss and his fixation on finances and debts causes Arthur Morgan to regard him with suspicion and great distaste. While it's easy to assume Rockstar is telling us "Arthur doesn't like Strauss and his strange ways, therefore the player is supposed to hate Strauss too," I believe Rockstar wants us to use Strauss as an aid for studying Arthur's many (many) flaws.
Yes, Strauss' loans are predatory. Yes, Strauss' insistence that Arthur beat sick farmers to collect on the debts he's physically incapable of collecting by himself is abhorrent. But when you read Arthur's journal entries about Strauss and his usury, you catch a strong whiff of projection and denial.
Arthur's claim that robbing people is more honest than collecting on loans is ridiculous, but I think it's purposefully so. Hitting train passengers who hesitate to cough up money or holding up a wagon delivering payroll to people doing honest work isn't any more morally acceptable than shaking people down for the money they owe. Strauss' talent for numbers, his stoic attitude towards collecting, and his foreign accent just make it easy for Arthur to hate Strauss instead of himself for a change.
Though you can play through Red Dead Redemption 2 "honorably," Arthur is not a good person. He's not necessarily malicious; he does what's necessary to survive, and in quieter moments, he admits to other trusted members of the gang that he's angry, confused, and worryingly bloodthirsty. What Arthur doesn't write down in his journal, his other father figure Hosea says out loud: The Van der Lindes, once simple outlaws, became common murderers after everything went wrong in Blackwater.
Arthur doesn't like himself, and though he shows a mischievous side when victimizing someone who deserves it, he doesn't much like his work, either. While Arthur might sometimes admit out loud he doesn't like what he's become, other times he probably finds it easier to open his journal and write about the reprehensible breed of work Herr Strauss expects him to do. It's the gritty, Wild West equivalent of a confused, hormone-addled teenager writing "can u believe the nerve of that guy???" in their Lisa Frank diary.
Also note that Arthur's attempt to convince himself he's bad, but not as low-down as Herr Strauss, echoes the manner in which some white poor people try to elevate themselves above likewise-destitute black colleagues. "Yeah, I have problems," they say, "but at least I'm not one of them." Tale as old as time.
Stereotypes and Other Sins
While it's true Strauss is an effective tool (so to speak) for exploring Arthur's damaged psyche, it's worth asking if Rockstar constructed a harmful antisemitic stereotype for the purpose of building up their white, all-American protagonist. Strauss has a Jewish surname. His role as a moneylender is straight out of medieval and Shakespearean prejudice. He's cold, calculating, and not well-liked by the gang. Arthur outright despises him at times. Does this all add up to a problem?
I'm one Jewish person; I can't speak for all of us. In the spirit of "Two Jews, Three Opinions," it'd probably be offensive for me to do so. Personally, though, I believe Herr Strauss is more than a mere stereotype, even if some of his traits are indeed stereotypical. While ancient and modern antisemitic literature tends to portray Jews as hunched, large-nosed schemers who cringe and flee at the first sign of trouble, Herr Strauss is steady, sarcastic, and confident. He's useless in a gunfight, yes, but he doesn't hesitate to look Arthur in the eye when he's called out to defend his moneylending trade.
In fact, I wish Rockstar had gone all-out and removed any doubt, however faint, of Herr Strauss' Jewish heritage. I understand why the studio probably wanted to avoid being called out on the character, but Strauss is more than his Ashkenazi title and little black book full of names. Besides, even "good" characters—and we'll refer to Arthur Morgan as "good" for the sake of simplicity here—can act in ways that are prejudiced, racist, or antisemitic. I've said it before, but Sega's Valkyria Chronicles seems to be one of the only series that teaches us that heroes can harbor harmful attitudes towards people who are different. If a strategy game about World War Anime isn't afraid to say that, Red Dead Redemption shouldn't be afraid to say it, either.