Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Chanukah Day 7: Guest Post by Rachel Swirsky & Book Giveaway

Posted by Simcha 5:57 PM, under | 59 comments

Thoughts on Jewish Identity, Jewish Fantasy, and
People of the Book:
a Decade of Jewish Science Fiction & Fantasy

by Rachel Swirsky

When I was eleven, I remember a boy my age asking, "So which is it? Are you an atheist or a Jew?"
His tone was one of skeptical indignation. He was clearly intimating that he'd caught me in a lie because I'd described myself as both. The weird thing was that my perspective immediately flipped to his. Even as I explained that the situation was more complicated than either/or, that I was both Jewish and an atheist, I saw him as right. I saw myself as a liar.
I suppose that was a tiny fragment of what W. E. B. DuBois describes as double consciousness—a "sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others."
In my own head, I am a Jew and I'm not a Jew. I have the heritage. I've got some of the Ashkenazic cultural markers—the Chinese food on Christmas Eve and the movie on Christmas Day, the Jewish studies classes and the stint on the editorial staff of my college's Jewish newspaper, the Jewish nose which skipped me but adorns my eldest brother ("Sometimes I think it just keeps growing," my gentile sister-in-law confided to me once), the anti-Semitic comments cribbed from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion that end up in my blog comments, the inevitable smattering of Yiddish.

But I don't have the belief. I know the stories, but only because I was interested, and because I briefly joined a bible study run by my Christian day care in elementary school (the only two students who remembered the lessons from week to week were myself and the other Jewish atheist). The faith disappeared from my family in the space of two generations. My great-grandmother was wholly enclosed in a world of Judaism, so much so that during the last ten years of her life (which she spent in a nursing home bed because after breaking her hip at seventy-nine, she'd decided there was no point in learning to walk again because surely she'd die soon anyway) she regularly told my grandfather that she was jealous of the cards the other elderly ladies received on Easter, and wanted to know why she didn't get them, too.

No, I don't know why my grandfather (who told me this after she died) didn't make the obvious move and buy her some cards with bunnies on them once in a while. But the broader point is that, according to my grandfather, my great-grandmother was jealous because she didn't understand what Easter was. She was sufficiently insulated from the dominant Christian culture that it didn't even occur to her that maybe people were celebrating holidays from different traditions.

Granted, my great-grandmother was a singularly cloistered woman—apart from the twenty years in a bed, she was also reported to have spent so much of her life in proscribed city spaces that the sight of large patches of grass made her nervous. And yes, she was wandering a bit at this point; I was the only grand-child whose name she remembered, on account of the fact that I was accidentally named after her. (Yes, accidentally--a story for another time.)

For any and all of those reasons, my great-grandmother didn't see herself as Jew-in-relation-to-other. She saw the world as Jewish.

A number of people have questioned my Jewish identity over the years. A couple of them were religious Jews, but almost all of them have been gentiles. In general, the Christian concept of how religion fits into someone's identity is different than the Jewish concept (though there are certainly similarities between my identity as an atheist Jew and the identities of some lapsed or cultural Catholics I've met). In that moment when I was eleven and talking to the boy who thought I was a liar, I flipped from my Jewish-oriented framework—the one in which I was both a Jew and an atheist—into his Christian-oriented one where I had to be one or the other.

I mention all of this to work my way toward the context of how I understand the question with which Michael Weingrad, writing in the Jewish Review of Books, perturbed the internet (or at least my corner of it) several months ago—"Why Is There No Jewish Narnia?"
Weingrad wonders why "amidst all the initiatives to solve the crisis in Jewish continuity, no one has yet proposed commissioning a Jewish fantasy series that might plumb the theological depths like Lewis or at least thrill Jewish preteens with tales of Potterish derring-do."

In posing this question, Weingrad explicitly dismisses the work of " modern Jewish writers, from Kafka and Bruno Schulz to Isaac Bashevis Singer and Cynthia Ozick" who have "written about ghosts, demons, magic, and metamorphoses" because, apparently, "the supernatural does not itself define fantasy literature, which is a more specific genre."

Weingrad argues that fantasy is defined by "The experience of wonder, of joy and delight on the part of the reader, [which] has long been recognized as one of the defining characteristics of the genre. This wonder is connected with a world, with a place of magic, strangeness, danger, and charm; and whether it is called Perelandra, Earthsea, Amber, or Oz, this world must be a truly alien place. As Ursula K. Leguin says: “The point about Elfland is that you are not at home there. It’s not Poughkeepsie.”

Weingrad proposes some explanations for the phenomena he describes, including the Jewish propensity to the see the European middle ages as hostile rather than a flashpoint for nostalgia, and Jewish inability to suspend disbelief when it comes to extremely powerful, supposedly good magical actors, like Harry Potter's wizards, who for some reason did not find it necessary to intervene in historical atrocities like the Holocaust.

Others have challenged Weingrad's assertions in detail, but at this late point in the discussion, I have to admit that my central response to Weingrad is to wonder whether the entire problem is definitional. Weingrad appears to be defining the fantasy genre in such a way that it excludes most Jewish fantasy. Most secondary world fantasy by Jewish authors doesn't count because it's not theologically based in the way Lewis's Narnia is based in Christianity. And apparently for Weingrad, Jewish primary world fantasy doesn't evoke the same sense of wonder as Rowling's Harry Potter.

It seems to me that Weingrad defines fantasy by the terms of Christian writers, and then wonders why Jewish doesn't look exactly like Christian fantasy does.
Well, why should it?
Why is primacy and centrality given to Narnia but not Kafka?
Why is Christian fantasy taken on its own terms, but Jewish fantasy compared to a Christian default?
I'm not saying Weingrad doesn't make any interesting points, but I wonder whether his essay would have been more interesting (though perhaps less popular and controversial) if he had analyzed "some reasons Jewish and Christian fantasy are different" instead of why Jewish fantasy is presumably lacking because it doesn’t emulate a particular form of Christian fantasy.

As Sean Wallace and I were in the process of editing the recently published anthology People of the Book: A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction & Fantasy (Prime Books, 2010), I had the opportunity to read a lot of Jewish fantasy. Most of these stories were originally published as fantasy, so they're certainly part of what I'd define as the genre, whether or not they tickle Weingrad's sense of wonder.

Some of the stories were light, but it's true that most were dark. Many played on similar themes: how to maintain an identity after genocide, how to maintain ethical ground when your loved ones are threatened, and what defines humanity. Golems appeared in many stories, as did the Holocaust. Interestingly, many stories centered on how the minutiae of suburban American life contrasted with tragedies (sometimes the Holocaust, sometimes not), perhaps an echo of survivor guilt.

The obsessions and anxieties played out in Jewish diasporic fiction may not be the same obsessions and anxieties that C. S. Lewis and J. K. Rowling played out in their fiction, but that doesn't mean there's something lacking in Jewish fiction any more than it means that Rowling and Lewis are lacking for not writing identically to Michael Chabon, Neil Gaiman, and Lavie Tidhar.

After reading so many Jewish fantasy and science fiction stories, I've decided that they are what they are: Jewish fantasy and science fiction stories, not Christian ones. Some were sad. Some were beautiful. Some were heart-breaking. Some were heart-warming. And yes, some were wondrous.

BIO: Rachel Swirsky is the co-editor, along with Sean Wallace, of the recently published People of the Book: A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction & Fantasy (Prime Books, 2010). Her short fiction has been nominated for the Nebula and the Hugo, and collected in Through the Drowsy Dark (Aqueduct Press, 2010).

Enter to win a copy of People of the Book, a collection of scifi and fantasy stories by popular Jewish authors, both classic and modern. To enter just leave your name and email address in a comment below.
Giveaway is open worldwide


Ooooh, my best friend and I were just talking about this.

Jayne Rulis

Interesting. I want to read it!

I'd love to read this collection!

caligula at pussreboots dot pair dot com

I couldn't agree more.

Nichole Carlson

Interesting article!


As I was reading this I immediately thought of Summerland, Chabon's North American fantasy for young people.
It is hard to be in 'another's land' and realise, that you, to yourself are never the other. But powerful when it happens.
I really enjoyed this article, thanks, and thanks to Neil Gaiman for putting it on his twitter feed.

Fantastic essay, and now I am intrigued about the People of the Book! Thank you for putting in words the exact feeling of growing up as a Jewish athiest.

Deb K.

I've more than a passing interest in the fantasy/science fiction traditions of other cultures - seems the only ones I know well are the British and America. I'll have to look for this at the library. arrogantemu at

What an interesting perspective. I was raised as a Christian--sorta. I was the only really religious person in the family, so much so that eventually my belief foundered on the rocks of research. No, not an atheist: pagan! More holidays! Better and more diverse mythos! whee! *ahem* anyway.

I was raised around a lot of Jewish kids. Tons. My best friend was Jewish, my first date was Jewish, my mom fully expected me to marry a nice Jewish boy. Maybe that's why I never saw a conflict between "Jewish" and "atheist"; it was obvious to me that Jewish culture/identity and the Jewish religion weren't necessarily the same. I guess it's exposure, and I'd bet that people like me, raised in NYC or Los Angeles, don't see a dichotomy.

MeiLin at

This has been a wonderful post! (In fact, I've loved the whole series of guest posts you've had going, it has been so interesting and insightful).

ruthann AT cygnature DOT com

I got to read The Golemn by Levick for a Supernatural Drama course and was blown away. Anyone who can propose Jewish fantasy as lacking something might just be ignoring the corpus of Jewish fantasy. Also, ahem, Will Eisner. 'Nuff said.

I just had a similar moment in a writing group, because I wrote a story about a Jewish atheist. Many of the comments were, "I'm confused. Is she a Jew or an atheist? You should be more specific in how you write about her."

Wendy Withers
wendylbolm (at) gmail (dot) com

Funny. When I think of the best young adult fantasy, the first name that comes to mind is Jane Yolen. Her Pit Dragon Trilogy especially captivated me far more than Narnia ever did.

Frankly, what will actually call my attention is when I see Jewish fantasy from an observant perspective. Most Jewish fantasy/sci-fi writers I've read are of the non-practicing/non-observant kind, and I'm ready for someone who is more like me, actively and observantly Jewish.

Daniel Perez
daniel at dmperez dot com

There were interesting points brought up here, both about Jewish identity and the presence of Jewish writers in fantasy and science fiction. I'm another self-identified Jewish atheist, just for the record.

I'd love to read a copy of the book.


People often forget that there are different ways of being and frames of reference than what is considered "mainstream."

What a wonderful way to celebrate and raise awareness of Jewish Fantasy: by giving away a fine example of the art form!

I would love to be entered. My name is Dorraine and I can be reached via



Check out Michael Burstein. This is a link to his collection, I Remember the Future:

My friend Barry Deutsch has also recently published a fantasy graphic novel that takes place in an isolated orthodox Jewish community:

I dislike genre typing in books.

I read fiction for enjoyment and non-fiction for fascinating new knowledge.

I don't read non-fiction "religious" books,political treatises, poetry.

They are just not my thing.

No Jewish fantasy ? I agree with you that there is but does it really matter?

Is there Islamic famtasy, Hindu fantasy?

Talking about "Christian" fantasy seems to me to ignore the various flavours of Christianity.

Must we have Catholic, Presbetarian, Protestant, Amish, 7th Day Adventist, etc. fantasy ?

What about fantasy writen in a language other than English and never translated? I am sure there is a lot of that we will never read because we don't know the language.

Just my thoughts.


Carol T

buddytho {at} gmail DOT com

I'm sorry but a good read is a good read to me

I don't know if you read these comments, and I don't know if you'll care; but I really enjoyed this post, and I plan to get your book. As a not-very-interested agnostic, I'm interested in most religions and how they affect their adherents.

I found this article through a link from Neil Gaiman's twitter stream.

I'm not a big reader of Fantasy and I know purists like to keep it separate from the world of comic books, but in my mind they are all part of the same thing.

Superman, Batman and the X-Men are all implicitly or explicitly Jewish stories created by or written about the Jewish immigrant experience.

When I was a kid I read C.S. Lewis without ever understanding that it was all about Christ. As an adult I prefer seeing Magneto struggle with his self-identification as homo-superior and his sense of alienation from the world around him.

Oh and Gaiman is no slouch either. In Sandman #8 we meet Death for the first time as she goes on her rounds. She meets and old dying gypsy and tells him she knows what he really is. In his dying moments he says "Shema..." and "I always wondered if I would do that." Magical.

A very interesting article, makes me want to read this book no matter the results of the competition. Nevertheless...

Dániel Dolgos

I would *love* to read that book!

Please count me in!

Kat Cole
kathryncole at gmail dot com

This is very much the same reaction when one wonders why there are no women in the "Best of SF/LitStuff?HiFalutin Things". The answer: there's lots of it and it's good, but the judges and critics- all white males- don't notice women or POC. Just as Jews are invisible to Christians and the themes that inform Jewish works, whether overt or innate, are disregarded except as how reflected against Christian background(and I'm not certain the type matters- let's call it self-satisfied white majority culture Christianity, not persecuted in Iran Christianity, though). There was a lot of discussion recently around teh Orange and the Best of SF that had no women writers.
big apple to big bear (at) google mail (dot) com


I emailed The Jewish Chronicle at the time, asked them if they'd ever read any Lee/Kirby comics. No answer was the stern reply.

I've been very much enjoying this entire Hanukkah series - thank you!

Please put me down for the book drawing:
Scott Frank

I hope this is a tradition at SFF Chat - I can't wait for hanukkah next year!

A.H. Klein

I've been interested in this topic since I first heard of it. I'm a Jew, a practicing and observant one. And yet, I don't believe in the supernatural. I'm also a writer and as it happens I'm working on a fantasy book in which the central character is a Jew. I am definitely interested in reading this collection of stories.

Looks like a great collection.

John Leavitt
jrrl ((AT)) steampunk ((DOT)) com

I would love to read this, as a Jewish writer who has always loved science fiction and fantasy, but has always been irritated at having to ignore the religious themes getting in the way of the plot (I'm looking at YOU, Card).

Rachel Landau
rrlandau [at] gmail [dot] com

Great collection.

There is a lot of Jewish writing out there, some of the most notable characters of fiction/fantasy were created by Jews (Superman for one).

I review many Jewish themed books on my blog (as well as other books).

zohar dot laor at gmail dot com

Great response!

I already had this book on my to-read list, so I'd love to win a copy!

rivkag AT gmail DOT com


Thanks. I have been reading, and I'm thrilled people want to pick up the book. I'm interested in how religions affect their adherents as well.


I would say that the concept of fantasy is a larger category than either prose or comic books, encompassing both and other stuff, too. For the purposes of this book, of course, we were limited to prose.

I've only recently started reading graphic novels, and haven't made my way into more traditional superhero stuff, so my knowledge of Batman, etc. is superficial. But we definitely did want to include a superhero story in our book because of their connection with Jewish immigrants... we did find two which I can recommend, although we didn't end up including them (for reasons unrelated to quality).

Ben Rosenbaum's "The Death Trap of Dr. Nefario" -

and Cory Doctorow's "The Super-Man and the Bugout," available in audio as linked from here -

Interesting article. I definitely thought Weingrad was going for an overly exclusive definition of fantasy, particularly since he left out comic books.

I do wonder if the Jewish and atheist combo is something that happens more with Reform Jews than more orthodox forms of the religion. I don't see an inherent contradiction in following the ethical tenets of Judaism while not believing in G-d (I tend to be agnostic), but I can see where people could disagree. There's a Humanist synagogue here in DC that seems to function exactly like any other synagogue, just without G-d.

--Cathy Green
cathydalek at

That was a wonderful post, and I can personally relate to much that was said.

"So which is it? Are you an atheist or a Jew?"

I've been asked that too. a response of "are they mutually exclusive?" tends to start a heated argument, so I've learned to keep my mouth shut and stay in the atheist closet.

I'd love to be entered into the drawing for the book:
redhead5318 @ hotmail

Very thoughtful, thank you. I've only just begun learning about Jewish culture, inspired by Faye Kellerman's detective mysteries. There's a lot to think about here.


Thank you. You articulated this point beautifully. Though I am not Jewish, I am part of multiple subcultures - athiest, bisexual, somewhat industrial/gothic, gamer geek/nerd, intellectual, belly dancer, artist, yogini, Asian (but only half Asian, so I'm also in the multicultural subculture), and I could be forgetting a few. I am so very often frustrated by the mainstream's inability to realize that not everyone defines the world the same way they do.

In one particular instance, I was participating in a GLBT panel, in which people could come and ask us whatever they wanted about anything GLBT. One person asked us to justify it according to the terms of her bible. I explained that I'm not Christian, so the bible isn't valid for me. The concept that not everyone in the world feels the need to justify their actions according to the tenets of her religion was one she couldn't seem to handle and proceeded to give me a blank-faced stare. Then the person next to me, who was Christian and gay, proceeded to speak of the bible and her face became animated, as her little world view was set to rights again.

Thank you for the post. I will be tweeting it.

-Jen B.
prismkitty [at]

Sounds interesting :)

And Simcha, great week and such cool posts you gathered

blodeuedd1 at gmail dot com

would love to read this too.

Great post, and sounds like a really interesting book!


What an interesting post & discussion, especially to this practicing Jew/fantasy novelist! I would live to read the anthology also.


I'd love that.

susan ramirez

I've never thought of fantasy as attached to a religion, though I do realize the Chronicles of Narnia is heavily Christian based. I just always think of fantasy as fantasy, an entity entirely of its own.

Though, I'm just a teenager, and having not read much Jewish fantasy ( even though I am Jewish) I really can't compare the two very much.

-Erica Weiss

Thanks for an interesting commentary! (And thank you to @neilhimself for the link.)
mok4747 at yahoo dot com

Simcha, this week has been very intersting and has given me quite a bit to think about, so thank you.

Would LOVE to own this book, but plan to read it regardless.

librarianjessica @


Sounds really interesting! Great post! Happy reading!


I just learned to read and this sounds like something I would like to use my newfound reading skills on.


Interesting read and an interesting subject.

I would like to ask whether the comparison itself is driven by the desire to "compete" or "compare" ourselves to Christians or others or are we trying just to find the roots of the Jewish wonder. This question is important in order to understand where will it lead us. Because if it's the former, then, eventually, we'll be no better than others. However if it's the latter then we can come closer to our roots - which is definatelly makes the whole discussion worth it.

All things Jewish require Jewish definition first. Being influenced too much by the European lifestyle and traditions we came to define ourselves as Jewish and atheists (no judgement:)). And truly there's no such mixture when talking about a Jewish soul. You simply cannot blend it and make it ... less Jewish. Only less aware to it's own heritage.

Jewish heritage is one of wonder. A Jew is one that must expect and observe magical even in the everyday life. We are the people of miracle. The desire for it is rooted in our souls, our spiritual DNA. Hence the great Jewish scifi/fantasy/fiction writers.

Jewish soul requires us to try a glimse beyond what our material eyes see. It is apparent. Just review the history. The question is what are we looking there - one that other side? What are we hoping to find?

The answer to the above questions is what forever differentiate Jewish fantasy from it's peers.

Thank you for a great article.

Yehuda Gilead

Would love to read the book:

Am I correct in thinking I recognise Rachel Swirsky's name from Escapepod?

You only realise how much a knowledge of Christianity is a given in forms like horror and fantasy when you live in Israel.
I saw 'Angelheart' with a group of Israeli-born kibbutzniks. They were so dissapointed with the ending because they just couldn't understand why a guy named Louis Cypher was so scary!!
The Exorcist also elicited quite a few giggles from an Israeli audience.

eshchory AT gmail DOT com

I'd love to win. Larry Farkash

The book looks really interesting! I found Weingrad's article obnoxious for the same reason you did--he basically defined Jewish fantasy out of existence.

And then, of course, I had to try writing a Jewish Narnia:

ruthanna dot emrys at gmail dot com

This was a great article, and it sounds like a great book!

Jason Burnett

I'm into this


I read Narnia as an atheist kid. When I got to the end and realised it was all about Jesus I was enraged! I see most fantasy as pagan, if anything. I certainly wouldn't define it as Christian.
Laurel Lyon

I'm so in to this.

M'ris Berlin
relyabit at

Wendy Sinek

This sounds like a wonderful and long-overdue anthology!


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