April 6th, 2014

A Panel on Jewish Fantasy

On Wednesday I went to Portland, Oregon, to be on a panel about Jewish fantasy.  Also on the panel was Michael Weingrad, author of the famous (or infamous) article "Why Are There No Jewish Narnias?" and Barry Deutsch, Ruth Tenzer Feldman, Willa Schneberg, and David Michael Slater.

By the time I tried to read Michael's article it was behind a paywall, but I got a sense of it from the responses, some of which are here and here.  But, since this is the internet, some of those responses were fairly heated, and I wasn't completely sure what Michael was trying to say.  I did know that I probably disagreed with him -- whenever someone says, "You can't do this," my natural tendency is to try to prove them wrong.

More became clear to me on the panel.  C. S. Lewis was one of the most famous Christian essayists of his time, and, not surprisingly, Narnia is based on Christian theology.  So why, Michael wondered (while reading the Narnia books to his son), aren't there books like it based on Jewish theology?  Why are there no battles between good and evil in Jewish fantasy?

Possibly, he said, it was because Judaism doesn't really have this division between good and evil -- the devil is mentioned only once in the Old Testament, in the Book of Job.  (I think -- maybe he makes other appearances, but not very often.)  Other reasons for no Jewish fantasy of the kind Michael wanted: Jews didn't have a tradition of kings and knights and landed gentry; Jewish writers were mostly from the United States, while the big fantasy writers (Lewis, Tolkien, William Morris, Lord Dunsany, Hope Mirrlees, etc.) were British; Jewish tradition concentrates more on this world instead of a world to come, and isn't very interested in the fantastic.

By this point there were discontented rumblings on the panel and in the audience, people saying that there was too Jewish fantasy.  Gratifyingly, a lot of them mentioned The Red Magician -- and also Peter Beagle, Neil Gaiman, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Franz Kafka, Michael Chabon, and most of the writers and artists who created superhero comics. But, as Michael reiterated, these weren't stories based on a Jewish theology, which is what he wanted.  Well, I said, what about the Old Testament?  An epic story, filled with fantasy, about God's relationship with the Jews?

(Parenthetically, it was surprising to me how hesitant I was to mention this.  I could almost hear my very religious uncle thundering that there was nothing fantastic about God talking from a burning bush, and I wondered if there were people in the audience who would agree with him.  But no one said anything.)

Naturally we never even got close to any kind of conclusion.  Based on the formula "Two Jews, three opinions," I estimate that we had about nine opinions on the panel -- and I felt like at least three or four of them were mine.

We talked about other things too, of course.  Willa discussed poetry, David talked about his fantasy series, Barry showed us a sped-up version of how he created a panel for his graphic novels, condensing an hour into a minute and a half.  (The books are about an eleven-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl who fights monsters, which certainly sounds intriguing.)  And Ruth, who had come up with the idea for the panel, talked about her YA series, which is about a woman mentioned twice in the Bible -- once as one of the Jews going into Egypt and again as someone leaving Egypt 400 years later -- and her conclusion, which is the only rational response, that the woman was a time traveler.  Ruth also did a terrific job of moderating.

I had a final thought, which unfortunately came after the panel ended but which I still managed to mention to Michael before he left.  At FogCon I'd told Dave Nee, one of the proprietors of Other Change of Hobbit bookstore, about the panel, and he'd responded, "Well, why are there no Chinese Narnias?"  And, I thought, but only after the panel, what about Muslim Narnias,* and Hindu Narnias, and Buddhist Narnias; what about Native American Narnias and Hispanic Narnias and Narnias from any of a myriad of African traditions, and other traditions all over the world?  Could it be that cultures besides Anglo-Saxon or Norse or Celtic are marginalized, passed over by publishers?  Could someone have already written the Jewish Narnia only to come up against publishers' prejudice?

Anyway, I had a great time.  Any day I get to visit Powell's bookstore is a good day.  Ruth was a terrific host, and it didn't even rain.

* I know there's a book called The Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed, which could possibly answer this description.  Still, it doesn't bode well if I can only think of one example.