Thursday, February 25, 2010

Fantasy and the Jewish Question

Farah Mendlesohn pours out her wrath on Michael Weingrad's article "Why There is No Jewish Narnia" in the inaugural issue of Jewish Review of Books, and its assertion that Weingard "cannot think of a single major fantasy writer who is Jewish, and there are only a handful of minor ones of any note. To no other field of modern literature have Jews contributed so little."  Allegedly a review of Lev Grossman's The Magicians and Hagar Yanai's HaMaim SheBeyn HaOlamot (The Water Between the Worlds), the second volume in an Israeli YA fantasy trilogy, Weingard treats only briefly with his two subjects and mostly uses them as a backdrop to his theory of Judaism being a far less hospitable environment than Christianity for the development of a fantastic tradition, of "all the elements necessary for classic fantasy—magic, myth, dualism, demonic forces, strange worlds, and so forth."  Farah responds by listing a dozen Jewish fantasy authors off the top of her head, and commenters to her post contribute quite a few more, but though it seems likely, reading between the lines of Weingard's article, that these authors are either wholly unfamiliar to him or that he would be surprised to learn of their Jewishness, I'm not sure that this listing accurately addresses the point Weingard is trying to make.

It seems clear to me that the essay's title is meant in earnest, and that Weingard is specifically hunting for Jewish authors of the same caliber, fame, and influence over the genre as Tolkien and Lewis, of which there are indeed none.  More importantly, when Weingard calls for a Jewish Narnia, he is calling for "works of modern fantasy that are profoundly Jewish in the way that, say, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is Christian".  As Jo Walton says in the comments to Farah's post, "I think it's more useful to ask what Jewish fantasy stories there are than what Jewish fantasy writers," and again the answer would be that there are precious few.  The most well-regarded, famous and influential Jewish fantasy writer working today is probably Neil Gaiman, but Jewish elements in his fiction are few and far between, and the folklore and myths he draws on in his work are mostly Christian or pagan, with some forays into various Eastern traditions.  Which is understandable when one considers that Weingard's argument about the relative paucity of the Jewish fantastic tradition is undeniable.  It's a religion and a culture that is not only less rooted in and concerned with the numinous than Christianity is--the afterlife, for example, is treated in Judaism almost as an afterthought, and receives very little attention in the halacha or in Jewish scholarship--but whose folk tales and traditions seem to have almost no fantastic component.  There's a reason that the golem and the dybbuk get so much play whenever the Jewish fantastic is mentioned--because there's not much else out there, and very little that is common currency even among Jews.

None of this is to say that I don't sympathize with Farah's exasperation with "Why There is No Jewish Narnia."  Weingard's essay is riddled with so many staggering assumptions, sweeping generalizations, and plain untruths that even its most self-evident arguments come to seem suspect.  Chief among these is the fact that though he deftly analyzes the philosophical differences between Christianity and Judaism which render the former so suitable to the Tolkienian mode of fantasy by noting that Christianity is rooted in a dualism between good and evil, whereas Judaism balks at placing any power on an equal standing, or even in opposition, to God, Weingard touches only lightly on the real-world factors that discouraged Jews from exploring the fictional avenues that Tolkien and Lewis did.  To put it bluntly, there is no way that a Jewish writer working in the early decades of the twentieth century could have produced The Lord of the Rings, a work steeped in a yearning for a lost pastoral world that Jews, who have for various reasons tended to congregate in urban and commercial centers, would have had little or no experience of.  Similarly, the naked didacticism and unabashed proselytizing of the Narnia books is entirely antithetical to Judaism, an anti-missionary religion.  One might as well ask why there is no Jewish Divine Comedy.

Neither do issues of geography or national identity play any part in Weingard's analysis.  He tries to argue that Jews are more likely to be drawn to science fiction than fantasy, that Judaism is in fact "a science fiction religion ... collective, technical, and this-worldly" (a point on which he might contend with Adam Roberts, Paul Kincaid and John Kessel, who have just today been arguing, in Martin Lewis's post on Arthur C. Clarke's "The Star," that science fiction is rooted in a Christian theological problem from the 17th century).  To which end he trots out a list of Jewish science fiction greats to which fantasy can offer no riposte, though given that there is no single figure that bestrides science fiction the way Tolkien does fantasy, their importance may easily be drowned out by an even larger contingent of non-Jewish writers.  Weingard completely fails to acknowledge, however, the famous geographical divide between the two genres, the fact that science fiction emerged in the US and fantasy in the UK.  It's easy to imagine young Jewish writers in America gravitating to science fiction in its golden age, because its core ethos of rationalism, progress, and can-do attitude was rooted in exactly the same social changes that allowed them to live entirely different, less proscribed and less ghettoized, lives than their European parents and grandparents.  But it's America that plays the crucial role here, not Judaism.

If any proof is needed of this, just take a look at the Israeli genre scene.  Weingard notes that Yanai's trilogy is the first of its kind in the history of Israeli publishing, and laments that it sits "on a very short shelf of recent Israeli fantasy books."  Is he unaware of, or simply failing to note, the fact that the Israeli science fiction shelf is equally bare?  Speculative fiction of any variety has little room in the Hebrew literary scene, and in fact I can call to mind more works of modern Israeli fantasy (albeit, most of them, of the literary variety rather than the more overtly generic, Tolkien-derived kind that Weingard, who blithely dismisses writers like Kafka and Isaac Bashevis Singer as irrelevant to his argument, is interested in) than I can Israeli science fiction. 

Ultimately, what's most frustrating about "Why There is No Jewish Narnia" is that Weingard is so unclear on what he's looking for, what his definitions of 'Jewish,' 'fantasy,' and 'Jewish fantasy' are.  Tolkien and Lewis (and many other, less frequently mentioned writers like Hope Mirrlees and Lord Dunsany) were trailblazers, creating a new mode which was deeply informed by their religious preoccupations but which very quickly became dissociated from them in all but its deepest levels, leaving room for unobservant Christian, atheist, and even Jewish (or Muslim or Buddhist or what have you) writers to play around in and sometimes bring their own cultural heritage into.  But the core shape remains Christian, and one can almost sense Weingard recognizing this when he expresses his disappointment with The Water Between the Worlds, which despite utilizing Jewish and Middle Eastern elements "draws only superficially" on Jewish folklore.  There's nothing wrong, of course, with introducing Jewish window dressing to traditionally non-Jewish genres--Michael Chabon has done so twice, to great effect, in recent years with The Yiddish Policemen's Union and Gentlemen of the Road, and I'd like to see more Jewish elements appearing in and out of fantastic literature (in particular I'd like to see more depictions of Jewish worship--I'm tired of devout characters always being Christian)--but that's not Jewish fantasy, and Weingard, who ends his essay with the hopeful conclusion that "We will probably see more Jewish writers producing fantasy, as younger Israeli writers seek to follow global trends," does not seem to acknowledge this, or the fact that, as Farah demonstrates, there are already plenty of Jewish writers producing the kind of fantasy he's talking about.  A Jewish Narnia, meanwhile, will be nothing like Narnia, and the real question raised by "Why There is No Jewish Narnia" isn't whether such a work will ever exist--it's whether Michael Weingard will be able to recognize it.

42 comments:

anna genoese said...

For around six years, I was an acquiring editor at a major publishing company. I spent quite a lot of time at conferences and in my blog (and the blogs of other people) and on mailing lists requesting people write/submit Jewish-themed paranormal romance, science fiction, or fantasy novels -- or even any genre novel at all with Jewish characters and culture.

I did not get one single submission. In six years. It was extremely disheartening.

Rachel Barenblat said...

A friend just pointed me to this essay, and I'm so glad she did; this is excellent. Thank you for writing it.

Farah Mendlesohn said...

Well done! Up to my eyes in marking and too tired to write at this length, so very grateful that you have done so, so cogently.

Andrew Stevens said...

Some people mentioned in the thread Shuster and Siegel's Superman. Technically, superhero comics are science fiction, but they're about as close to fantasy as one can get and still be science fiction. And not some, not many, but virtually all major comic superheros were created by Jewish writers and artists: Superman by Jerry Siegel, Batman by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Captain America by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, the major Marvel heroes were all created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, among many others. (There are occasional exceptions like Wonder Woman.)

However, the characters themselves were never Jewish and, while there was certainly religious symbolism on occasion, that symbolism was almost always Christian. Why? I suspect the same reason that they wrote under the names Bob Kane, Stan Lee, and Jack Kirby instead of Robert Kahn, Stan Lieber, and Jacob Kurtzberg.

mondyboy said...

This is a fantastic post. I wrote one Doctor Who story (well technically a spin-off of Doctor Who) that was published by Big Finish and revolved around Asmodeus (and briefly King Solomon).

While I am (mostly) a believer, I've always seen the Talmud as the first ever major piece of Jewish fantasy. Obviously the stuff that deals with Halacha is of a practical nature. But there are a number of 'stories' or 'true events' in between, often to elaborate on an argument, that are definitely fantastical in nature.

And then there's the Midrash, which is filled to the brim with fantasty-like stories.

(Of course, the same could be argued for the Torah in general, but with Midrash it's allot more overt).

Anywho, this is a brilliant post. And yes, there should be more stories where the devout person is Jewish. But then again, I'm waiting for US media to stop treating Jewish ritual as if it's the same as Christian ritual but with a Rabbi.

Raz Greenberg said...

Andrew:

"However, the characters themselves were never Jewish and, while there was certainly religious symbolism on occasion, that symbolism was almost always Christian. Why? I suspect the same reason that they wrote under the names Bob Kane, Stan Lee, and Jack Kirby instead of Robert Kahn, Stan Lieber, and Jacob Kurtzberg."

I suspect the reason is much simpler: they wanted a large audience for their works, and assumed (correctly) that the majority of Christian readers would not be interested in stories about Jewish protagonists. Still, there is PLENTY of Jewish heritage in many of these superheroes - themes of social and racial persecution (The X-Men), teenage alienation (Spider-Man), and the plain existential paranoia (Hulk) fit very well into Jewish history and culture. Different media adaptations of these characters have toned down significantly the more Jewish aspects in favor of a more Christian (or perhaps more accurately - all American) approach, though interestingly, many of them were also handled by Jews - from the Fleischer brothers to Richard Donner to Brian Singer.
A particularly interesting case of "Jewish Superheroes" (and, for that matter, fantasy) took place outside the US: Rene Goscinny, the creator of Asterix (arguably France's biggest comics hero) was Jewish, and though he denied any influence of his Jewish heritage (or so I heard), it's really all over: the story may be about French against Romans, but beneath the surface it's a classic "the smart Jew makes fun of the stupid gentile" story, with the small village the protagonists live in is the classic Jewish town.

With regards to the post itself - I heard several times that Terry Pratchett is Jewish, but several quick searches through Google couldn't confirm this. Maybe it's not true.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Anna:

That is depressing, especially given that in recent years there has been a surge of genre novels steeped in other non-Christian cultures and traditions. Despite my comments above about Judaism being less fantastic than Christianity, I do think that interesting works could and have been written that incorporate Jewish cultural terms. I mentioned the two Chabon novels, but I'm also fond of Benjamin Rosenbaum's short story "The Book of Jashar."

Rachel, Farah:

Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Andrew:

I think it's in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay that Michael Chabon has one of his characters sum up the name 'Clark Kent' as too WASP to be real, a classic assimilation tactic. And of course, later in that book the Jewish characters, one of whom escaped the Nazis by the skin of his teeth and left his family behind, use their superhero character to battle on page the villains they can't defeat in real life.

mondyboy:

Something I wanted to fit into this post but didn't find room for is that whereas there's very little Jewish folklore that most Jews are aware of, the Biblical stories are common currency in the same way that fairy tales and myths are in Christian-dominated cultures. There's certainly much that's fantastic in Ezekiel's vision of the dry bones, or Saul's visit to the wise woman.

Raz:

Whether or not he is Jewish, Pratchett has written one of the more interesting twists on the legend of the golem in the Discworld novel Feet of Clay, and his later treatment of dwarfs - a society bound by ancient, ironclad rule which the savvy practitioner can nevertheless adapt to a changing reality - certainly recalls Judaism.

Kit said...

With regards to the post itself - I heard several times that Terry Pratchett is Jewish, but several quick searches through Google couldn't confirm this. Maybe it's not true.

IIRC his family was Anglican.

Tolkienesque High Fantasy is characterized by faux-medieval sensibilities and conservative values. Honestly, I'd be more surprised if Jews were producing paeans to European feudalism and absolute monarchy. Our cultural experience with pre-modern societies has been pretty bad on net, and escapism is less appealing when it lands you in the middle of a pogrom instead of the Arthurian cycle. We don't have a lost era of glorious medieval warriors to revisit, and no one is interested in commerce and banking. There is the David and Solomon era available, but for some reason everyone wants castles and plate armor- you don't see much Bronze Age fantasy, period. And the uncritical acceptance of authoritarianism required to make the "lost prince battles evil, becomes ruler of all he surveys" narrative appealing is something that would hopefully come less easily to marginalized groups than to privileged one.

It makes sense that Stan Lee and the other Jewish fantasists set their stories in present day America, where their sort-of-Jewish protagonists might need to conceal their true identities but at least don't have to worry about having their houses torched, and are expected to aid the government rather than become it.

(And if Singer is not a Jewish fantasist, I cannot imagine what one would look like. His characters are every bit as much "Ashkenazim + magic" as Tolkien's hobbits are "English country gentry + magic.")

anna genoese said...

Abigail: I'm going to check out "The Book of Jashar." Thanks for the recommendation.

I actually think there is quite a lot in various Judaic traditions that lend to magic/fantasy -- maybe not a lot in the Torah proper, but certainly in Jewish folklore and, as someone else pointed out, Midrash.

For example: when I (teamed with a good friend who is also an editor) wrote a paranormal romance/urban fantasy that was published last year (Salt and Silver by Anna Katherine, Tor), we included the Seal of Solomon as one of the strongest magical symbols the main characters could use. No one's mentioned it to me yet -- except my (Jewish) family, who all thought it was cool to see something Jewish in a mainstream pr/uf book.

Adam Roberts said...

This post seems to me spot-on.

A quibble: I'm not sure Paul Kincaid and John Kessel would necessarily thank you for lumping them in with me on the 'SF begins with the Reformation, and remains today in core ways shaped by the peculiar discursive contours of Protestant/Catholic theological and doctrinal dispute that attended its birth' argument. I make that case in my Palgrave History of SF, but I have to accept that the general critical consensus has broadly, er, remained unconvinced. I know Paul doesn't really buy it, for instance.

heron61 said...

It's trivially easy to come up with a long list of well-regarded fantasy authors who are Jewish and there are also a fair number of fantasy stories with obviously Jewish elements. However, Weingard is correct that there aren't any novels or series with specifically Jewish elements that have become exceedingly famous.

To me, that doesn't indicate a late of Jewish authors or stories with Jewish elements, but the fact that the English-speaking public (since almost all of the discussions I've read about this article have solely been about English language fantasy & SF) doesn't respond to fantasy with Jewish elements & themes like it sometimes does to fantasy with Christian elements & themes.

Andrew Stevens said...

Raz: I didn't explain myself too well. I don't believe that Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Bob Kane adopted pen names in order to avoid death threats or persecution or anything. I believe they adopted pen names in order to avoid being ghettoized as "Jewish writers" with the consequent loss of popularity. So we are completely in agreement as to why they didn't use Jewish characters or symbolism - audience, audience, audience. I certainly agree that there is a lot of Jewish cultural experience in superhero characters, but because it wasn't particularized, the beauty of it was that this appealed to anybody who considered themselves outsiders, whether they were Jewish or not.

Abigail: love the point about Clark Kent. I'd never thought about it before, but it is of course too WASP to be a real name. On the other hand, the inspiration for the name Clark Kent was Doc Savage (real name: Clark Savage Jr.) and the Shadow (real name: Kent Allard, changed to Lamont Cranston for radio) and both of those were not created by Jewish writers. Also, love your point about SF being American and fantasy being English and America playing the crucial role in explaining why Jewish writers gravitated to SF. I've often claimed that SF is the U.S.'s national literature in many ways (arguably, its only literature) and this is because technology has been very, very good for the U.S. so American writers tend to be naturally optimistic about technology and think about it a lot.

pigeonhed said...

'given that there is no single figure that bestrides science fiction the way Tolkien does fantasy'

Tolkien certainly dominates a certain strand of fantasy, but many of the names already mentioned have very little , if any, connection to that strand. I don't think of Tolkien overshadowing any Gothic-style work, Urban fantasy, historical fantasy etc.
Considering Tolkien this way would suggest that the dominant SF figure is Robert Heinlein (or maybe Arthur C Clarke) which I think some would find a valid argument.
-- Kev McVeigh

pigeonhed said...

'Christianity is rooted in a dualism between good and evil, whereas Judaism balks at placing any power on an equal standing, or even in opposition, to God'

I can't comment on Judaism generally, but I'm not sure a battle between good and evil necessarily has to place any power in an equivalence to God. Lisa Goldstein's The Red Magician is, IIRC, explicitly Jewish in content and very much about a battle between good and evil, as the eponymous magician strives to save people from the Holocaust.
--Kev McVeigh

David Moles said...

How quickly we've all forgotten Asimov.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Adam:

Well, Paul writes "Where would science fiction be without those 17th century theological conundrums?," and John Kessel concurs...

heron61:

I think the fact that this article has spread so quickly on the net, and that reactions to it have been so intense, speaks even more than Farah's list to the intensity of interest in fantasy, and Jewish-themed fantasy in particular, among Jews and non-Jews alike. Add that to the fact that non-Christian themed fantasy novels have been cropping up here and there, and that the Jewish-themed The Yiddish Policemen's Union won both the Hugo and the Nebula, and I'm not sure the audience is as inhospitable as you think.

Andrew:

I'm hardly the first person to observe the Atlantic divide between SF and fantasy. As with all such proclamations, I'm sure it's too generalized, but on the whole accurate, and you're probably right that is is at least in part due to a more positive attitude towards technology and the future in general in the US than you'd find in Britian in the years before and after WWII.

Kev:

I don't think of Tolkien overshadowing any Gothic-style work, Urban fantasy, historical fantasy etc.

No, but those are later additions to the genre. Would they have emerged if Tolkien's popularity hadn't skyrocketed in the 60s?

I'm not sure a battle between good and evil necessarily has to place any power in an equivalence to God

Of course not. Most religions acknowledge a struggle between good and evil, whether between different people or within an individual. But Christianity also posits the existence of a supernatural force for evil, which is, if not quite on the same footing as God, then at least in opposition to him. Judaism doesn't. The devil is mentioned once in the Bible, as a sort of prosecutor working with God's blessing and in his name, and angels and demons play very little part in Jewish tradition.

David:

How do you mean? Asimov is one of the authors Weingard mentions in his article as an example for the dominance of Jews in science fiction.

pigeonhed said...

Abigail:
Gothic and historical fantasy surely pre-dates Tolkien (by about 150 years in the case of the former.) Urban fantasy seems to have changed definition without my being aware of it. Last Eastercon I attended a panel about it, and sat by John Clute realising that both of us, and panellist Tim Powers all failed to recognise what the rest of the room was talking about as urban Fantasy. (For us it was what Tim writes, etc for everyone else it was sexy vampires etc.) So, bearing that in mind, I think Urban fantasy either goes back to Stoker, or to whom? I'm not sure, but I don't see how it can be related to Tolkien in any way. The best of it owes more to Borges and Marquez than anyone else.
-- Kev

Kate Nepveu said...

So I was expressing bogglement at the ending of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, which is explicitly doing something with what I identified as a Christian story, and someone asked me if it changed anything to know that the author was Jewish and the story was one that also appeared in the Torah.

Being sadly ignorant, I said I didn't know, but if anyone here has read the books, they might be interesting to consider in light of this discussion.

(The post is here and has series-destroying spoilers in comments, including an explanation of what story is being reworked.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Kev:

Gothic and historical fantasy surely pre-dates Tolkien

The gothic mode certainly does, but its folding into modern genre (which anyway surely happened first with horror, not fantasy) is, I think, a relatively recent phenomenon. Even the kind of urban fantasy Tim Powers writes, if that's the correct term, didn't appear until the 70s and 80s.

Kate:

It's been a while since I read The End. I remember liking it, once the shock wore off, because it seemed to carry forward the series's theme of the past being inescapable rather than something the characters could unravel and then put aside. A big part of their becoming adults involved accepting that they weren't the protagonists of a YA novel, who could completely reorder a damaged world, but simply one more link in the chain. I wrote a bit more about it here, in a post about the last Harry Potter novel.

As far as religious connotations are concerned, it is certainly true that the fall of Adam and Eve has a very different significance in Judaism, which doesn't acknowledge original sin. Certainly in modern, atheist readings of Genesis, eating from the tree of knowledge is associated with leaving childhood and entering adulthood.

Yan said...

This is an intriguing post, but I would suggest that much of it is an elaborate exercise in point-missing (and perhaps skim-reading).

First, in your citing the worst (presumably) of the many errors riddling Weingrad, you pick one that is demonstrably not present. Weingrad comments extensively that the Jewish experience of rural pre-modern Europe is not one that would cause them to glorify it. I think Andrew gets the point here where you miss it. There is a Jewish fantasy tradition, but it's wholly American, urban, and secular.

On your discussion of Jewish science fiction, pointing out that non-Jewish writers outnumber Jews is simply pointing out that non-Jewish people outnumber Jews. Your main point, however, is the "geographic divide" between US science fiction and UK fantasy -- and this is factually incorrect. I am not here referring to the urban American fantasists that Andrew correctly draws out attention to. I am instead referring to such writers as ER Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, Clack Ashton Smith, HP Lovecraft, L. Sprague deCamp, Lin Carter, August Derleth. Entire magazines were devoted to this genre; the output between 1890 and 1970 is staggering. If you haven't heard of it, it's because this tradition has always been considered intellectually disreputable, and has been drowned out by the massive popularity of the UK style since the 1970s. But it's there.

Ultimately, what's so frustrating about your post is its final paragraph. You don't have to "almost sense" Weingrad's disappointment that Jewish fantasists ignore Jewish myth; I think he's pretty clear about it. Indeed, I see this as his main point -- the point that you miss. The fantasy tradition draws deeply from the hidden aquifers of Myth, and Jewish writers remain hesitant to draw from wells that tap this hidden stream.

Foxessa said...

Isn't there a fair amount of contemporary Fantasy written out of the more mystical approaches of Judaism and its theology? Such as the Kabbala and others with which I'm less familiar?

What about Sharon Shinn's Archangel series and her Twelve Houses series? She's not the only one either.

The critic does seem focused on male writers.

Love, C.

Omer said...

A really great post, as usual.

Just to note in passing that the most "Jewish" story of Isaac Asimov, "Unto the Fourth Generation", is a fantasy, not SF.

And to make explicit something you wrote implicitly, SF is forward looking and therefore Liberal, and Fantasy is backwards looking and therefore onservative. The Jews who are likely to write speculative fiction are secular and liberal rather than conservative, and so are more likely to write SF rather than Fantasy, in both the UK and the US.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Yan:

There is a Jewish fantasy tradition, but it's wholly American, urban, and secular.

Unless you're talking about Bashevis Singer and those like him, whom Weingard specifically dismisses as not the kind of fantasy he's looking for, I'm not sure who you mean. And how would such a tradition address Weingard's desire for "works of modern fantasy that are profoundly Jewish in the way that, say, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is Christian"?

I take your point that there was an American pulp fantasy tradition in the US before Tolkien's emergence as the genre's standard-bearer, however my focus in that paragraph was on the emergence of science fiction in the US as a counterpoint to Weingard's argument that science fiction is inherently appealing to Jews. More importantly, given that Weingard himself is either unaware of or, as with Bashevis Singer and Kafka, uninterested in this tradition, I'm not sure how significant it is to this argument.

The fantasy tradition draws deeply from the hidden aquifers of Myth, and Jewish writers remain hesitant to draw from wells that tap this hidden stream.

That is a modest claim that I happen to agree with - in fact I agree with it above when I quote from Jo Walton's comment to Farah's post. The article's point, however, strikes me as being broader, more bombastic, and less tenable.

Foxessa:

Isn't there a fair amount of contemporary Fantasy written out of the more mystical approaches of Judaism and its theology?

Not that I'm aware of, but that doesn't mean there isn't.

The critic does seem focused on male writers.

I think he's focused on Lewis and writers of his generation - apart from the two writers whose books he reviews he doesn't mention a single modern fantasy writer. And to be fair, one of those writers is a woman.

Benjamin Rosenbaum said...

angels and demons play very little part in Jewish tradition

A small quibble: I don't think this is actually accurate. Angels abound in both the Tanakh and rabbinic literature, and there are plenty of demons in folk tradition: indeed Jewish folktales often have demons where Christian ones would have elves, dwarves, trolls and fairies. But angels and demons have a very different feel in Jewish folk traditions than in Cristian ones. Rather than avatars of supernatural good and supernatural evil -- two armies composed of entities of the same nature, divided by the political choice between obedience and rebellion -- as they are in the Christian and anti-Christian tradition from Milton's Paradise Lost to Ennis's Preacher -- in Jewish tradition angels are often eerie, frightening, ambiguous messengers, and demons are a kind of separate kingdom of folks, dangerous and officially disapproved of but not aligned with any broad supernatural evil -- closer to djinn or fairies than Christian devils. At least, that's my reading...

The way I read the Weingrad article -- not necessarily the most rigorous reading, but the most useful to me -- was that he was saying -- or would be saying if he had a more sophisticated grasp of the breadth of the genre and its analytical tools -- was that, in Clute/Mendelssohn terms, "portal/quest fantasy" is fundamentally a Christian and anti-Christian (Pullman, Mieville) project, and Jewish attempts in it tend to either be specifically, programmatically intended to solve the "Jewish Narnia problem" (eg Kushner) or to be mostly dressed up in Christian/Pagan drag (eg Gaiman). I think this point is well taken, and I am intrigued by his prescriptive point -- the thing he seems to be calling for, the LotR of the Jews.

Thanks for the shout-out to The Book of Jashar, by the way! :-)

In reference to Adam's thesis and "The Star", I'm not sure SF being a child of the Protestant Reformation precludes its also being a Jewish project, especially since one of the hallmarks of the Judaism of the 19th and 20th centuries was adopting Protestant projects with a vengeance and reframing them in Jewish terms. What's interesting in the context of Weingrad's article, is that no Jew did with epic/high fantasy what Roth and Bellow etc. did with the literary novel, Siegel, Lee, and Kirby did with the pulp hero action tale, Asimov et al did with science fiction, vaudeville through Gerschwin with musical theater, or Chagall with surrealism (okay, maybe surrealism is a Catholic project)...

Yandoodan said...

I was referring to the comic book tradition in the US, which Andrew Stevens so ably describes. While I've had no interest in the genre, I am not willing to dismiss it as illegitimate either. In my youth, all fantasy was illegitimate (even Tolkien), as was all science fiction. The legitimacy distinction is not helpful.

The American pulp fantasy tradition is another example of "illegitimate, hence non-existent". Again, I have little acquaintance with it apart from deCamp's delightfully urbane and materialist adventures. I understand some of this genre is quite vile.

I guess that I am so interested in Weingrad's article and your excellent critique because I really want to read the as-yet nonexistent novel he describes, steeped in Jewish Myth.

Gili Bar-Hillel said...

Anna - would you consider translating Israeli novels? There is a bit of a surge in local genre writing. Weingard mentions Hagar Yanay and Shimon Adaf, both worthwhile, but there are others such as Asaf Ashery who has written an urban-fantasy supernatural detective mystery set in Tel Aviv with plenty of Jewish elements, and several others I've heard recommended but have not read yet myself.

Daniel M. Jaffe said...

As compiler and editor of "With Signs and
Wonders: An International Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction", I'm sort of puzzled by the claims that there are no significant Jewish writers of fantasy, and that there's little tradition of it in Jewish culture. What about the Zohar and the rich Hasidic tradition?

I. B. Singer, Cynthia Ozick, Bernard Malamud, Moacyr Scliar of Brazil, Teresa Porzecanski of Uruguay, Angelina Muniz-Huberman of Mexico are all major world-class writers of Jewish fantasy. Steve Stern of the US creates a fantasy Jewish landscape in Memphis! Woody Allen is a Jewish fantasy writer of the highest caliber--the fact that many of his fantasy worlds are created through film doesn't make him less of a "writer".

The objection seems to be that Jewish writers might not have chosen to express their fantasy writing in terms of fictitious Middle Earth kingdoms. So? Why must our fantasy tradition express itself the same as any others? "Different" doesn't mean "lesser."

Perhaps the measure of "great" is commercial success? If so, then we're talking less about the nature of the literature that's been produced than about the audience that chooses to receive it (or not). Is it really a surprise that in the predominantly Christian Western world, Jewish fantasy literature has not been as widely embraced as such Christian literature? Especially when many Jewish readers themselves, apparently, choose not to seek it out.

Anonymous said...

What about Star Trek?

Ronnie Schreiber said...

The reason why there is no substantial genre of Jewish fantasy is that Jewish reality is itself so fantastical, Jewish survival so improbable, facing truly monstrous villains, that there is no need for fictional fantasies.

There were, btw, a series of children's Hebrew books published in the early 1960s, that were based on the legends of the Talmud. I recently came across one while cleaning my mom's place. It was called "Ashmedai, King of the Demons".

Jason said...

Fritz Leiber was Jewish and I cannot verify if Harry Otto Fischer was, but the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series is considered by some to be an important part of the early modern fantasy tradition, at least by those who have read them.

bingold said...

Interesting perspective from an Orthodox rabbi and child psychologist: http://tinyurl.com/ybzdv6j

Anonymous said...

Here is why there is no Jewish Narnia.
(a b c)
Nobody believes in fantasy in Judaism about changelings very much lately or anything to do with the satire of 20th century ideology- one can leave that to the Christians, there was either something not funny or something cold-successful about the ethos of power which emanates from the humor of an 20c: escape from reality 'rich'.

Second, I have to mention Ben Katchor as an example of why 20th century Jewish writers were interested in no religious fantasy. Quite frankly from a poor-bow perspective he considered it the Orthodox miracle the Jews were exempt from being asked to make their stories compromise on empire for a mass audience while translating religion into secular terms.

And third, as for today: Most people can recognize a secular Zionist fantasy when they see it. It grandly has to do with outer space and rote Careth Race. It apologizes for one's inner guilt at sympathizing with tormentors 'on principle'. It often includes a substitute for manna. It passes as Christian fundamentalist preachers but in reality is the notion that, in addition to 1. defense and 2. lo-separation, there is 3. an attitude of the futility of convincing the Christian or " (ever) Muslim world to understand Jewish principles.

Katchor's comics, if they can be found in print, are recommended reading but like most of his genre not expected 'roled' to accomplish much before some future apocalypse, which precludes mention of outer space as a heaven.

ctate said...

Interesting line of inquiry here. I think The Lions of Al-Rassan is the only fantasy novel I've read that has an prominent elements of (what is understood to be) Judaism.

Anonymous said...

Here's an ignorant question: how many significant Haredi (or even Modern Orthodox) fiction writers are there, fantastic or not? Not a lot, right? If you want fiction that's deeply informed by theology, like Lewis and Tolkien's was, it probably needs to be written by people who are deeply religious themselves, not just people like Chabon who are Jewish by heritage and/or interested in Jewish history and identity.

Anonymous said...

from Abigail's Mom

Getting back to one of the main issues of this post:

As a non-Christian I'm always surprised anew when Christians express their belief in an actual, physical devil.

"Vatican City (CNN) -- "The devil tempts everyone -- people in politics, in economics, in sport. And naturally, he tempts, above all, the religious leaders, so you shouldn't be surprised if the devil tempts those in the Vatican. That's his job."
The Rev. Gabriele Amorth isn't speaking metaphorically when he says that. The 85-year-old priest means people can be tempted and literally possessed by Satan.
"It's not my opinion: I'm saying that if you believe in the Gospels, you believe in the existence of the devil, in the devil's power to possess people," he said in an interview with CNN."

John Cowan said...

There is one classic superhero who is openly Jewish, though he wasn't outed until 2002: The Thing, born Benjamin Jacob Grimm, who was an explicit alter ego for his creator, Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg). BeliefNet wrote an excellent article about it.

Joseph Zitt said...

I have been writing a series of pieces based on the Tanach, most of which have fantasy elements, at The Book of Voices. I invite those interested in Jewish fantasy to give it a look. (I have compiled these into a book, with a framing story, and am seeking representation for it.)

Todd said...

If Weingrad weren't full of hot air it might be an interesting question. But the simple fact is fantasy is absolutely full of Jewish authors from Roger Zelazny and Robert Bloch to Lisa Goldstein and Ellen Kushner. My wife and I came up with about fifty without even trying.

Charles Stross recounts an incident where he was on a panel with Robert Silverberg who asked for a show of hands for Jewish fantasy authors - trying to show how few there were. After Stross and Doctorow raised theirs Silverberg apologized to the one Gentile on the panel.

Middle Earth owed infinitely more to pagan Scandinavia and Finland than to Jesus. And Lewis' poorly written stuff wouldn't have survived if it HADN'T BEEN for its overt Christianity. Evangelicals have been its chief customers for decades.

Anonymous said...

For a Jewish writer to produce a work of fantasy or science fiction deeply informed by Jewish texts they would, themselves, have to be well versed in those texts. While there are a great many Jewish authors of science fiction and fantasy literature, very few of them are immersed in the culture that would allow them to produce a uniquely "Jewish" work of fiction. There may be some self-conscious window dressing, or misapplied themes, but overall they are incapable of such a creation as a result of ignorance.

To create such a work you would need a learned Jew. One who is well versed in Talmud, Midrash, and commentaries on esoteric sections of Tanakh. How many seminary trained Jews, or serious orthodox Jews of a modern or hareidi bent write fiction? Let alone fantasy or science fiction? And therein lies the rub. For the attitudes of such communities tend to be less than conducive to such endeavors. Rav Soloveitchik wrote (not about fiction, but in general) that from a Jewish perspective: "there is nothing more destructive than turning one's eyes from this world."

To write a Jewish work of fantasy fiction you not only turn your eyes from this world, but create another one. It would be a unique (and blessed) soul who was able to write fantasy fiction as a part of their divine service. I'm not saying it can't be done, but that such an endeavor would be highly a-normative. There is an amazing breadth of talmudic and midrashic literature, as well as passages from tanakh, that could be used in such an endeavor. But it would have to be carefully done.

And it would have to leave the original intent in tact. If not such a writer could find themselves on the receiving end of a good deal of communal ire for having treated sacred material lightly, or even in the manner of heresy. Very few truly religious Jews living in religious communities want to cross those lines, even if they have a writer's bent. As such, fantasy fiction with an intelligent dose of Jewish Tradition would require a miracle.

Which is not to say it won't one day appear. After all. Judaism has a certain love of them.

Anonymous said...

yeah totally agreed.

Anonymous said...

interesting topic.

Eli Z. Gottlieb said...

Ironically, one of the most thematically Jewish fantasy series I've ever read, and as a result my absolute favorite, was written by a Gentile writer with Gentile characters... who nevertheless seemed, in my youth, to act quite Jewish. When I originally read the books, it simply didn't occur to me that magic formed by speaking in the language of Creation, derived from sacred books, and anyone using it, especially in New York, could be something other than Jewish.

I was thrilled but unsurprised when, as a grown man, I found out that "So You Want to be a Wizard" had been based on a bit of Midrash. The book's core quest, after all, is the recovery of the thinly-disguised Book of Life.

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