People of the Book: a Decade of Jewish Science Fiction & Fantasy
by Rachel Swirsky
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).
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