Ethnicity: He was the son of poor Jewish immigrants from Russia, Lena and Isaac Donald Heller.
Joseph Heller was born in Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York. He was the son of poor Jewish immigrants from Russia, Lena and Isaac Donald Heller. His father, a bakery-truck driver, died in 1927 from a botched ulcer operation. His whole family - Heller's mother, his half-sister Sylvia, and his half-brother, Lee - lived in a small four-room apartment in Coney Island. Lena Heller, who worked as a seamstress, could barely speak English. She liked to read, so Heller brought home Yiddish translations of novels from the Coney Island public library. Her favorite book was Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, which she read over and over.
After his father’s death, Heller’s half-brother Lee, 14 years elder than he, became like a surrogate father to him. Meanwhile, Lena Heller continued to support the family as best she could, by taking in boarders. When he was ten years old, Heller was given a child’s version of Homer’s Iliad by a cousin; after reading it he announced that if he ever grew up, he wanted to be a writer.