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.