I don't want to erase Jewish people from my medieval Europe-based fantasy story and I don't want them all (or possibly any of them) to be moneylenders. Are there any other professions/occupations/pastimes I should avoid (I already know not to make them bad witches or do anything involving blood magic)? Would it be ok to have some be moneylenders as long as I avoided any suggestion of greed/cheating, or should I just stay well clear?
Professions for Jewish characters in pseudomedieval European fantasy
Is your story actually set in real historical Europe or is it just a European-inspired made up place? Because if it’s not real Europe, I can see that as a great reason to completely omit the whole “you’re Jewish so we’re gonna forbid you from doing anything but moneylending since Christians can’t touch it” thing. There’s no reason you HAVE to reproduce the sucky parts of the real world in your made-up world and in fact I know I as a Jewish reader would have a much happier reading experience if my people, in general, were happier in the story than in real medieval Europe. (For example, did you know we were persecuted by Edward I and eventually he kicked us out of England? That’s fun. Yes, that’s the same king who threw his son’s boyfriend out the window in Braveheart.)
Going back to your specific question: it would be possible to write a sympathetic moneylender character if you needed one for plot reasons, but to be perfectly honest the whole idea has such a high potential for resentment on the part of their customers that I’d just stay away to play it safe. You’d have to go out of your way to make the character three-dimensional and humanize them, and unless they’re a major character, there may not be room for that within the scope of your story. Plus, while it’s completely possible to be a moneylender who’s nice and kind and patient, sometimes when people owe money they get angry at the fact they have to pay it back and like I said before, resentment is natural even if it’s not terribly rational. In other words, “avoiding the suggestion of greed/cheating” is gonna be difficult because some people see having to pay back lent money as inherently cheating, which isn’t fair, but it’s normal and you’d be working against human nature.
As far as what to stay away from unless you have significant representation in the heroic/kindly/generous direction: anything that makes us sound like we feed off the misfortune of others (especially of gentiles), either metaphorically or literally. That’s the specific bad trope. Some positive professions include rabbis, kosher butchers, and various kinds of craftsmen (like making clothing or candles.) You might want to check out Libi Astaire’s Jewish Regency mysteries (I just finished and loved The Vanisher Variations) to start seeing all the jobs there are in the community–wrong era for your story, but it might get your wheels turning.
One thing I would caution against is to keep the professions “Jewish.” By that I mean: people of marginalized identities are not and should not be limited exclusively to marginalized-coded occupations or end products.
Yes, many people of marginalized identities produce things that are for their own communities. But just because, say, a lot of Native artists do traditional cultural crafts, doesn’t mean there aren’t Native oil painters who do urban landscapes. Sure, paintings might have a twist that only a Native person can give, but they might not. That 100% depends on the character, and it’s not “losing culture” to have them enjoy things from the “outside” world. Culture is a big nuanced thing that is constantly being interacted with and debated by each individual who practices it.
Marginalized identities produce things for themselves (usually because nobody else does), but they also produce things outsiders traditionally consume— not just to survive, but because they like doing it. We don’t live in bubbles. By segregating activities based off of “this group does X predominantly”, you unintentionally other marginalized people by giving them no points to relate to others. Because you end up creating a system where there are Crafts and Jewish Crafts, which are obviously All Different because they’re Jewish. That isn’t the case.
It’s a highly limiting worldview to approach “what can this character do?” by asking “what is a thing their identity does?”. Identity is not a thing that actively limits individuals from doing stuff, at least, not to the extent most people think. It might modify the way they go about it, but it won’t stop them. So ask yourself what characters can do, then figure out how their identity would change their practice… while also accepting that culture is fluid and you can end up with Jewish writers who write extremely culturally steeped works that are unmistakably Jewish (like Shira’s Mangoverse) to Jewish writers who just have subtle nods to their identities (like Daniel Handler’s A Series of Unfortunate Events). Both works are just as Jewish as the other, even if one is overt vs subtle.
So work from characters. Ask what an individual person would like to do, consider how their identity would modify it, consider how their identity wouldn’t modify it, and go from there.
~ Mod Lesya