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Can there be such a thing as Jewish fantasy?


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Why There Is No Jewish Narnia

Tolkien and Lewis’s gentility would hardly bear comment were it not for the fact that they are not isolated examples in this regard, but only the most well-known figures within an entire literary genre—perhaps the only such genre—in which Jewish practitioners are strikingly rare. I 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.

So why don’t Jews write more fantasy literature? And a different, deeper but related question: why are there no works of modern fantasy that are profoundly Jewish in the way that, say, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is Christian? Why no Jewish Lewises, and why no Jewish Narnias? . . .

Some readers may have already expressed surprise at my assertion that Jews do not write fantasy literature. Haven’t modern Jewish writers, from Kafka and Bruno Schulz to Isaac Bashevis Singer and Cynthia Ozick, written about ghosts, demons, magic, and metamorphoses? But the supernatural does not itself define fantasy literature, which is a more specific genre. It emerged in Victorian England, and its origins are best understood as one of a number of cultural salvage projects that occurred in an era when modern materialism and Darwinism seemed to drive religious faith from the field. Religion’s capacity for wonder found a haven in fantasy literature. . . .

To answer the question of why Jews do not write fantasy, we should begin by acknowledging that the conventional trappings of fantasy, with their feudal atmosphere and rootedness in rural Europe, are not especially welcoming to Jews, who were too often at the wrong end of the medieval sword. Ever since the Crusades, Jews have had good reasons to cast doubt upon the romance of knighthood, and this is an obstacle in a genre that takes medieval chivalry as its imaginative ideal.

It is not only that Jews are ambivalent about a return to an imaginary feudal past. It is even more accurate to say that most Jews have been deeply and passionately invested in modernity, and that history, rather than otherworldliness, has been the very ground of the radical and transformative projects of the modern Jewish experience. This goes some way towards explaining the Jewish enthusiasm for science fiction over fantasy (from Asimov to Silverberg to Weinbaum there is no dearth of Jewish science fiction writers). . . .

To put it crudely, if Christianity is a fantasy religion, then Judaism is a science fiction religion. If the former is individualistic, magical, and salvationist, the latter is collective, technical, and this-worldly. Judaism’s divine drama is connected with a specific people in a specific place within a specific history. Its halakhic core is not, I think, convincingly represented in fantasy allegory. In its rabbinic elaboration, even the messianic idea is shorn of its mythic and apocalyptic potential. Whereas fantasy grows naturally out of Christian soil, Judaism’s more adamant separation from myth and magic render classic elements of the fantasy genre undeveloped or suspect in the Jewish imaginative tradition. Let us take two central examples: the magical world and the idea of evil.

Christianity has a much more vivid memory and even appreciation of the pagan worlds which preceded it than does Judaism. Neither Canaanite nor Egyptian civilizations exercise much fascination for the Jewish imagination, and certainly not as a place of enchantment or escape. In contrast, the Christian imagination found in Lewis and Tolkien often moves, like Beowulf or Sir Gawain, through an older pagan world in which spirits of place and mythical beings are still potent. . . .

In general, Judaism is much warier about the temptation of dualism than is Christianity, and undercuts the power and significance of any rivals to God, whether Leviathan, angel, or, especially for our purposes, devil. Fantasy literature is often based around conflict with a powerful evil force—Tolkien’s Morgoth and Sauron and Lewis’s Jadis and the White Witch are clear examples—and Christianity offers a far more developed tradition of evil as a supernatural, external, autonomous force than does Judaism, whose Satan (or Samael or Lilith or Ashmedai) are limited in their power and usually rather obedient to God’s wishes. . . .

We will probably see more Jewish writers producing fantasy, as younger Israeli writers seek to follow global trends, and as younger American Jewish writers shed older instinctive hesitations about the genre. But we will have to wait some time, if not forever, for a genuinely Jewish fantasy work to appear. It may not be impossible, but it will take some audacity and may require more literary stimulation than any anthology of forgotten Jewish mythic materials, such as Schwartz and Dagan have given us, is likely to provide. It would require at least a Jewish education equivalent to the philological and medievalist backgrounds of the Oxford and Cambridge dons Tolkien and Lewis. Perhaps there is some Jewish Studies professor or yeshiva student even now scribbling in a notebook.

Michael Weingrad, Jewish Review of Books, Spring 2010

- - -

Ross Douthat @ The New York Times responds.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Wow... Processing...

First thoughts. Michael Chabon's Adventures of Cavalier and Clay? Dara Horn's beautifully and heartbreakingly fantastical The World to Come?

Aside from Douthat's good response, I wonder if part of the problem with Jewish Fantasy literature as defined by a nostalgia for a feudal agrarian past and a pagan/Christianity dualism is that because of diaspora, Judaism has never had a land until the mid 1900s. The only pervasive Jewish corporate nostalgia is either the religious calendar or the Holocaust.

Some interesting cases were made that Inglorious Basterds was a form of Jewish Fantasy literature, but that doesn't quite work as Tarantino is not to Judaism as Lewis is to Christianity.

"It would require at least a Jewish education equivalent to the philological and medievalist backgrounds of the Oxford and Cambridge dons Tolkien and Lewis. Perhaps there is some Jewish Studies professor or yeshiva student even now scribbling in a notebook."

I hate to disagree with a Jewish studies professor, as I may just be wrong, but isn't there already a lot of fantasy embedded in rabbinic literature? He poses Christianity as a fantasy religion and Judaism as a science fiction religion. But as Christianity is very sacramental in the basic sense of the term (divinity either manifested by or accessed by material things), I am not sure that is the case. There is nothing fantastical, for example, about the Protestant Work Ethic.

Some first thoughts here, thanks for linking this very provocative piece.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

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Douthat:

we should begin by acknowledging that the conventional trappings of fantasy, with their feudal atmosphere and rootedness in rural Europe, are not especially welcoming to Jews, who were too often at the wrong end of the medieval sword. Ever since the Crusades, Jews have had good reasons to cast doubt upon the romance of knighthood, and this is an obstacle in a genre that takes medieval chivalry as its imaginative ideal.

I don't think it's any more complicated than that. Why should Jews emulate a literary genre that takes its cultural basis from a worldview that persecuted them and shunted them off to ghettos? There's no Jewish literature that lionizes Adolf Hitler, either. There might be a reason for that.

Edited by Andy Whitman
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First thoughts. Michael Chabon's Adventures of Cavalier and Clay?

That was my immediate thought upon seeing the headline. And his latest novel, and Summerland, qualify too, don't they?

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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M. Leary wrote:

: Aside from Douthat's good response, I wonder if part of the problem with Jewish Fantasy literature as defined by a nostalgia for a feudal agrarian past and a pagan/Christianity dualism is that because of diaspora, Judaism has never had a land until the mid 1900s.

Ah, good point.

: Some interesting cases were made that Inglorious Basterds was a form of Jewish Fantasy literature, but that doesn't quite work as Tarantino is not to Judaism as Lewis is to Christianity.

Hmmm. And isn't it also a little too modern to be considered "fantasy literature" in that sense? In the broadest understanding of "speculative fiction", you could certainly categorize it under "alternative history" or some such thing, but I'm not so sure "fantasy" would be the best fit.

: I hate to disagree with a Jewish studies professor, as I may just be wrong, but isn't there already a lot of fantasy embedded in rabbinic literature?

I think he would say that the presence of the supernatural does not, in and of itself, constitute "fantasy". At least not in the world-building sense that he's using the term.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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we should begin by acknowledging that the conventional trappings of fantasy, with their feudal atmosphere and rootedness in rural Europe, are not especially welcoming to Jews, who were too often at the wrong end of the medieval sword. Ever since the Crusades, Jews have had good reasons to cast doubt upon the romance of knighthood, and this is an obstacle in a genre that takes medieval chivalry as its imaginative ideal.

I don't think it's any more complicated than that. Why should Jews emulate a literary genre that takes its cultural basis from a worldview that persecuted them and shunted them off to ghettos.

I dunno, seems to me Jews might have at least as much to say about that worldview as anybody. In principle, a fantasy novel informed by the experience of persecution and ghettos makes as much sense as other approaches. Even Tolkien's writing was partly a critique and subversion of the heroic ideal. Why not a Jewish critique/subversion?

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

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Hmmm. And isn't it also a little too modern to be considered "fantasy literature" in that sense?

Probably. But Judith, which was referred to in that thread, is the kind of scene straight out of many of the novels he lists. That's kind of what I was referring to. And how is Jewish myth-making not fantasy literature? Genesis 1-12? The book of Judges? What about the grand major and minor prophet narrative? All that stuff is in George R.R. Martin's storytelling tool box. Tolkien's as well.

And again, the diaspora question is important. If fantasy is posed as this nostalgia for land, a certain highly stratified social system, agrarian culture, well... that could be on the dust jacket for the Old Testament.

I think he would say that the presence of the supernatural does not, in and of itself, constitute "fantasy". At least not in the world-building sense that he's using the term.

That isn't quite what I am referring to. The "supernatural" is actually not really a dominant theme in rabbinic literature, but world-building is at least as prominent. The great Jewish concept of "the world to come" does have a fantasy element to it. But that fantasy element is somewhat removed from "fantasy" as described in the article. Sadly, I prefer what seems to be Jewish fantasy literature.

I dunno, seems to me Jews might have at least as much to say about that worldview as anybody. In principle, a fantasy novel informed by the experience of persecution and ghettos makes as much sense as other approaches.

Chabon, again. You know, the first thought that runs across one's mind when the words Jewish and fantasy pop up is the Golem, which does have its roots in the era in question.

Edited by M. Leary

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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I dunno, seems to me Jews might have at least as much to say about that worldview as anybody. In principle, a fantasy novel informed by the experience of persecution and ghettos makes as much sense as other approaches.

Chabon, again. You know, the first thought that runs across one's mind when the words Jewish and fantasy pop up is the Golem, which does have its roots in the era in question.

I wouldn't call The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay a fantasy novel, although it certainly has fantasy elements. But it has far too many realistic elements to fit comfortably within the genre. It's no more fantasy than Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King is fantasy, or Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint is fantasy, in which case we have a long line of Jewish fantasy. Come to think of it, maybe Roth would be a good candidate for the Father of the Jewish Fantasy Novel. B)

Edited by Andy Whitman
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I wouldn't call The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay a fantasy novel, although it certainly has fantasy elements. But it has far too many realistic elements to fit comfortably within the genre. It's no more fantasy than Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King is fantasy, or Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint is fantasy, in which case have a long line of Jewish fantasy. Come to think of it, maybe Roth would be a good candidate for the Father of the Jewish Fantasy Novel. B)

I think Adventures keeps coming up in response to this essay because it draws a direct Jewish link from the Golem to Superhero fiction in America. But then, superhero fiction isn't really the very neatly defined kind of fantasy the essay is talking about. I think this is the problem with the article. It's premise is that there will not be a Jewish Lewis or Tolkien. But there won't ever be any Christian Chabon or Woody Allen.

So sure, Humboldt's Gift is fantasy. Portnoy's Complaint is fantasy. Heck, Bananas and Purple Rose of Cairo are fantasy.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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I wouldn't call The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay a fantasy novel, although it certainly has fantasy elements. But it has far too many realistic elements to fit comfortably within the genre. It's no more fantasy than Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King is fantasy, or Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint is fantasy, in which case have a long line of Jewish fantasy. Come to think of it, maybe Roth would be a good candidate for the Father of the Jewish Fantasy Novel. B)

I think Adventures keeps coming up in response to this essay because it draws a direct Jewish link from the Golem to Superhero fiction in America. But then, superhero fiction isn't really the very neatly defined kind of fantasy the essay is talking about. I think this is the problem with the article. It's premise is that there will not be a Jewish Lewis or Tolkien. But there won't ever be any Christian Chabon or Woody Allen.

So sure, Humboldt's Gift is fantasy. Portnoy's Complaint is fantasy. Heck, Bananas and Purple Rose of Cairo are fantasy.

Well, you're using the term "fantasy" much more loosely than I would. Sure, those are novels, and novels, by definition, are fictional. You're essentially using "fantasy" as synonymous with "made up," a created world. But that's not the sense in which Douthat is using the term, and I would think that most readers would not equate Portnoy's Complaint with "fantasy" either. Nor would they equate Superman (or The Escapist of Chabon's novel) with "fantasy."

Go to the Fantasy section of your local bookstore. What do you see? Swords and sorcery, wizards, brave knights, elves, dwarves, maidens in distress (particularly if they are dwarves). That's fantasy. And that kind of fantasy has as its basis the Chivalric/Romantic tradition that dates back to the Crusades, a period upon which the Jews, in particular, would not look back nostalgically.

That's the context of Douthat's argument. And I would argue that the very form and subject matter would be repulsive to the Jews. That's why there's no Jewish Fantasy literature. I could see Woody Allen tackling this from his unique perspective, but I certainly couldn't see a serious work of Jewish Fantasy.

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Well, you're using the term "fantasy" much more loosely than I would.

You are misreading me here. There isn't a Seinfeld "So... how does one define fantasy?" emoticon. If so, it would have ended that post. I was riffing off your Roth joke.

Nor would they equate Superman (or The Escapist of Chabon's novel) with "fantasy."

Well, Chabon comes up because of the Golem -> Superman link which keeps popping up in response to this essay. The book itself isn't fantasy at all, but the book does cover the cultural history of a certain kind of fantasy. As it turns out, that fantasy is not what is narrowly defined in the essay in question. So in the author's terms, it is irrelevant. I just think his terms are odd.

but I certainly couldn't see a serious work of Jewish Fantasy.

Just as we couldn't see a serious work of Christian Midrash, at least according to the author's logic. (Which makes the Book of Hebrews, for example, problematic.) I think that logic is faulty, but hey: two fantasy definers, three opinions.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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e2c wrote:

: I think the idea that fantasy is somehow inimical to Judaism and Jewish heritage is .just plain silly. (and uninformed.)

The guy who directs the Jewish Studies program at Portland State University is "uninformed"? Uh, okay, if you say so. Or did you mean he's uninformed about fantasy, rather than Judaism?

: Philip Pullman drew on some of that mythology in His Dark Materials, via gnostic Christian sources primarily, but not exclusively.

Well, yes, but just because Philip Pullman incorporated various source materials into his fantasy, that does not, in and of itself, make his source materials fantasy. John Milton's Paradise Lost may or may not be make-believe, but is it "fantasy" in the sense that Weingrad is using the term here?

Likewise, do folk tales and fairy tales really fall under the category of "fantasy" as it has been defined here?

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Likewise, do folk tales and fairy tales really fall under the category of "fantasy" as it has been defined here?

I hate to quibble on this, but in terms of cultural anthropology, they can. If a folk tale over here functions the same way as a fantasy over here, then there is a sense in which they are essentially the same thing (cue Lewis or Levi-Strauss, take your pick). This is why we can talk about Genesis 1 in the same way we talk about originating myths in other religions. Could we have a comparative literary discussion about midrash on Genesis 1-12 and the Silmarillion? Yes.

Edited by M. Leary

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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Ellen, the original article (and the Ross Douthat response) already noted that sci-fi and superhero stories are in a whole different category from the "fantasy" genre.

Indeed, the whole THRUST of Weingrad's article, whether you agree with it or not, is that fantasy is essentially Christian and looks backward to the pre-modern era, while science-fiction is strongly Jewish in some ways precisely because it looks forward to the modern era and beyond. (As you probably know, even Superman has been called "The Man of Tomorrow", which is as modern and progressivist a nickname as a character can have -- and Superman was, of course, created by a couple of Jewish guys.)

So linking to a bunch of sci-fi authors and comic-book writers doesn't really address the question any. You need to make clearer distinctions if you are going to response to Weingrad's article on some level.

Weingrad specifically links the rise of the "fantasy" genre to the Victorian era and the way in which the rise of modernity back then caused some people to look back fondly to the pre-modern era. (Call it a form of Romanticism, I guess, or at least something somewhat parallel to that.) This suggests, to me, that while pre-modern folk tales may have been incorporated into "fantasy" stories later on, they would not necessarily be considered "fantasy" stories in the sense that Weingrad is describing.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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It's interesting that one little word can generate such intense discussion, both here and in the wider world, as others have noted in the responses to Weingrad's article.

And most of it strikes me as people talking past each other, using different definitions of "fantasy." Weingrad used the term in the somewhat narrow sense of sword and sorcery tales, with Lewis and Tolkien as the most obvious exponents of the genre. This is what you will find under the big "Fantasy" sign at Barnes and Noble or Borders. Others have taken their potshots at him because he wasn't apparently talking about mythology, science fiction, comic books, religious mysticism, or historical fiction.

One can argue the definition, and it might be helpful to pin down the distinctives of Fantasy as a literary genre. But as it stands, and as Weingrad was using the term, I'm inclined to agree with him. There hasn't been a great Jewish fantasy writer. Surely Jewish writers have made important contributions to the other genres noted above. But it really does depend on how you define the term.

Me? I'm not willing to call The Book of Genesis, The Golem of Prague, Superman, or Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road (or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) "fantasy." They just don't pass the Barnes and Noble test. That's not to say that they aren't wonderful stories or works of literature. They are.

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Me? I'm not willing to call The Book of Genesis, The Golem of Prague, Superman, or Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road (or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) "fantasy." They just don't pass the Barnes and Noble test. That's not to say that they aren't wonderful stories or works of literature. They are.

I wonder if part of the debate is connected to how many of these stories have an intimate relationship with the development of people's imagination life. Some seem to take this essay as saying: your conception of fantasy is invalid.

I like his Barnes and Noble definition, and I think the historical distinction is important. This is a white European genre. It is steeped in thoughts about social structure, colonialism, etc... There are certainly swaths of Jewish literature that serve the same function as Christian fantasy, they are just much different in terms of genre, structure, etc... (such as Andy's list immediately above). Yikes, I may need to backpedal here a bit before I become the token structuralist here.

But now, just for kicks, I want to see the companion essay. What literary genre is so steeped in something unique about Jewish history that there aren't any Christian practitioners?

I have always found it interesting that Christianity and Judaism share the same originating myth, but end up embedding it in fiction so differently.

Edited by M. Leary

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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John Granger responds to the original article:

As I’ve argued here before, I think that the English fantasy tradition grows out of a Coleridgean, anti-nominalist, even sacramental determination to subvert modernity (empiricism, materialism, industrialism, etc.). Weingrad’s thesis about the dearth of Jewish fantasy writers being a consequence of Jewish intellectual fidelity with the modern revolution and worldview is compelling.

On the Christian side he isn’t as good. He mistakes the power of myth experienced through the transparency of Romance (as Frye defines it) for “otherworldliness,” which suggests that Christians are looking to escape from the world through portal fantasy-writing for a short vacation in the Middle Ages. As Tolkien scholar Ralph Wood writes, high fantasy is not about escaping out of the world but
into
it, which is a sacramental idea springing from traditional pan
en
theism (God is both entirely other
and
transcendent and nearer than our breath, completely imminent). This might also be a worldview issue that makes Jewish fantasy writing problematic. I don’t know enough about Judaism to have any idea.

e2c wrote:

: I did request that people would do so last spring, shortly after the board changed hands. Maybe you missed that post?

So did several others, I guess. If you take this up with one of us, you might as well take it up with all of us. So far, though, you haven't, so why start now?

: (Especially since it purports to be a book review but doesn't really stick to the plan.)

Oh, well, journals like The New York Times Review of Books and Books & Culture and so on and so forth often situate their reviews within broader discussions of the genres or disciplines within which those books are written. No surprise there.

: Obviously, a lot of Jewish writers of fantasy and sci-fi . . .

There you go, blending categories indiscriminately again.

: I was not attempting to bait or provoke you, but commenting on the article.

Well, no, you weren't, not really -- that was my point. You were throwing links at the article but there was little to no evidence that you had actually read the article and understood what Weingrad was saying. Your continued insistence on speaking about "fantasy" and "sci-fi" in the same breath suggests that you still don't understand what Weingrad was saying, or that you are not yet ready to discuss the article on its own terms.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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