Commentary Magazine


Topic: Jewish literature

Edith Pearlman’s Pins and Buckles and Clips

Edith Pearlman won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award in fiction last night for Binocular Vision, her satisfyingly fat collection of 34 stories. Although she would not have been my first choice if I had served on the prize jury — Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot is among the five or six best American novels of the past 25 years — Pearlman richly deserves the recognition that she has been denied for so long.

That she was overlooked for the National Book Award last November (in favor a sleepy-headed novel in middle-school prose) was one of the more embarrassing moments for the American critical establishment in recent memory. But such is the state of literary politics today: something like Uncritical Race Theory is the guilty conscience of a good many literary critics.

Not that Edith Pearlman is a writer without identity. She is a Jewish writer. In fact, one of her first published stories appeared in COMMENTARY. In celebration of Pearlman’s award, we are making “Settlers” available for free to her readers and ours. “I didn’t know you were interested in Judaism,” Peter Loy’s daughter says to him. “I’m not interested in Judaism,” Peter replies. “Only in Jews. They’re so complicated. . . .”

He could have been speaking for Pearlman. Now 75, she has been been exploring her interest in complicated Jews (and human beings with other kinds of complicated identity) for three-and-a-half decades. She doesn’t poke fun at the Orthodox or the Holocaust or rabbis or large Jewish families or “settlers” in the disputed territories (the settlers in her COMMENTARY story live in Boston). So her stories are not published by a large New York house, and she doesn’t get the press of a Nathan Englander or a Shalom Auslander.

Pearlman tends to write about middle-aged and middle-class Jews who (in a phrase from her story “Day of Awe”) are “giving their final years to just causes.” Her characters, in short, are familiar secularized liberal Jews, but she writes about them without either mockery or triumphant crowing about their virtuous politics. For her people, as she writes in another story, “Assimilation had become as passé as the jitterbug.”

Pearlman is fascinated by their shaky new commitments and loyalties. They bring little to their human connections beyond the strength of their heart and their willingness to adjust. Or, as she describes one woman’s approach to marriage, in a sentence that is typical of her wry and quiet prose: “She herself had brought to the union a passion for teaching, and also a cigar box of pins and buckles and clips.” The practical and the passionate sit side-by-side in Edith Pearlman’s fiction, and sometimes they are enough, as she lovingly shows, to hold people’s lives together.

Edith Pearlman won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award in fiction last night for Binocular Vision, her satisfyingly fat collection of 34 stories. Although she would not have been my first choice if I had served on the prize jury — Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot is among the five or six best American novels of the past 25 years — Pearlman richly deserves the recognition that she has been denied for so long.

That she was overlooked for the National Book Award last November (in favor a sleepy-headed novel in middle-school prose) was one of the more embarrassing moments for the American critical establishment in recent memory. But such is the state of literary politics today: something like Uncritical Race Theory is the guilty conscience of a good many literary critics.

Not that Edith Pearlman is a writer without identity. She is a Jewish writer. In fact, one of her first published stories appeared in COMMENTARY. In celebration of Pearlman’s award, we are making “Settlers” available for free to her readers and ours. “I didn’t know you were interested in Judaism,” Peter Loy’s daughter says to him. “I’m not interested in Judaism,” Peter replies. “Only in Jews. They’re so complicated. . . .”

He could have been speaking for Pearlman. Now 75, she has been been exploring her interest in complicated Jews (and human beings with other kinds of complicated identity) for three-and-a-half decades. She doesn’t poke fun at the Orthodox or the Holocaust or rabbis or large Jewish families or “settlers” in the disputed territories (the settlers in her COMMENTARY story live in Boston). So her stories are not published by a large New York house, and she doesn’t get the press of a Nathan Englander or a Shalom Auslander.

Pearlman tends to write about middle-aged and middle-class Jews who (in a phrase from her story “Day of Awe”) are “giving their final years to just causes.” Her characters, in short, are familiar secularized liberal Jews, but she writes about them without either mockery or triumphant crowing about their virtuous politics. For her people, as she writes in another story, “Assimilation had become as passé as the jitterbug.”

Pearlman is fascinated by their shaky new commitments and loyalties. They bring little to their human connections beyond the strength of their heart and their willingness to adjust. Or, as she describes one woman’s approach to marriage, in a sentence that is typical of her wry and quiet prose: “She herself had brought to the union a passion for teaching, and also a cigar box of pins and buckles and clips.” The practical and the passionate sit side-by-side in Edith Pearlman’s fiction, and sometimes they are enough, as she lovingly shows, to hold people’s lives together.

Read Less

Review: Fiction, Fiction, Burning Bright

Ben Marcus, The Flame Alphabet (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012). 304 pp. $25.95.

According to the Jews, the world begins with speech. God says, “There is light,” and so there is light. But what if something happened — it doesn’t really matter what — and speech turned lethal?

That’s the premise of The Flame Alphabet, the third novel by Ben Marcus, a creative writing professor at Columbia University and son of the feminist critic Jane Marcus. Sometime in an unspecified future, somewhere in a featureless Midwest, the speech of children begins to sicken their parents. “We feasted on the putrid material because our daughter made it,” explains Samuel, the book’s narrator. “We gorged on it and inside us it steamed, rotted, turned rank.” As the contagion spreads so does the public anxiety. The speech of Jewish children is the first to turn bad, raising official fears of mass anti-Semitic hysteria. It seems, after all, to be a “chosen affliction.” Whoever is in charge resorts to high-sounding vagueness:

From our portable radio came word that studies had returned, pinpointing children as the culprit. The word carrier was used. The word Jew was not. The discussion was wrapped in the vocabulary of viral infection. There was no reason for alarm because this crisis appeared to be genetic in nature, a problem only for certain people, whoever they were.

Before long, though, it becomes clear that all children — not merely Jewish children — are causing adults to fall sick by speech and writing. As an authority theorizes, “Language happens to be a toxin we are very good at producing, but not so good at absorbing.” People begin to die.

The novel’s opening chapters trace the search for an official diagnosis while the disease spreads, the symptoms worsen. The first half of the book ends with children being quarantined, and parents being forced — by a nameless faceless government without apparent ideology — to abandon their children. Samuel and his wife Claire prepare to leave their daughter Esther behind, but at the last minute Claire leaps from the car and is swallowed up by the government health machinery.

In the second half of the book, Samuel goes on without them. Despite the absence of road signs — they have been smudged over to prevent contagion — he somehow arrives in Rochester (probably New York instead of Minnesota, though maybe not), where he goes to work for Forsyth, which seems to be some kind of quasi-governmental mega-corporate medical lab. There Samuel conducts research into alphabetical systems without reference or communication. He creates a disappearing Hebrew, invents a private alphabet, experiments with concealing portions of text to contain the infection. Nothing works:

If we hid the text too much, it could not be seen. If we revealed it so it could be seen, it burned out the mind. No matter what. To see writing was to suffer.

And by now it should be obvious that, although it has the outward appearance of a dystopian novel, The Flame Alphabet is a philosophical allegory about language and literature. A science fiction writer would have taken the trouble to devise a plausible explanation for “a world where speech was lethal.” Not Marcus, though. Heavily influenced by Wittgenstein, he is puzzled and fascinated by the concept of private language. If speech is communication, as popular opinion has it, then meaning is a communicable disease. But if it refers only to inner sensations and locked-in mental intentions, then speech is just weird and mystifying behavior.

The implications for literature might be less obvious. Marcus is well-known (at least to literary critics) as an “experimental” writer and an apostle of “experimental” writing. The term is one that he selected for himself, although even the most passionate advocate of “experimental” writing expressed doubts about it. Marcus unfurled it in a famous attack upon Jonathan Franzen, published as a cover story by Harper’s in 2005 (and available only to subscribers), in which he upheld the principle of “literature as an art form” against the author of The Corrections, who writes a “narrative style that was already embraced by the culture.” By literature as an art form, he means writing that is “more interested in forging complex bursts of meaning that are expressionistic rather than figurative.”

There, in short, is the same opposition between language as communication of diseased meaning (“already embraced by the culture”) and the weird and mystifying artistic text, which “creates in us desires we did not know we had.”

The trouble is that The Flame Alphabet does little more than play with its ideas, refusing to let go until all the air is squeezed out of them. Marcus is nothing at all like the Kafka described by André Gide, who examines a “fantastic universe” with “detailed exactitude.” What interests him about a world in which language is deadly are the speculative games that such a premise gives rise to. What becomes of parents’ attachment when their children are the carriers of a plague? What happens to human community when language can no longer knit it together? What might language be if not communication?

Even then, however, the speculative questions are little more than occasions for an outburst of style:

The Hebrew letter is like a form of nature. In it is the blueprint for some flower whose name I forget, and if this flower doesn’t exist yet, it will. It is said that the twenty-two Hebrew letters, if laid flat and joined properly, then submitted to the correct curves on a table stabbed with pins, would describe the cardiovascular plan of the human body. And not only that.

But a little of that goes a long way. There is a Jewish subplot in The Flame Alphabet (although plot is the wrong word for a novel that is not organized by narrative), but it doesn’t amount to much, because Marcus likes to contrive knowledge, to invent allusions and quotations, in order to frustrate the reader’s desperate search for clues in a mapped and recognizable world.

His title, for example, seems as if it might refer to the classical midrashic description of the Torah as having been written, even before creation, “with black fire on white fire.” (Abraham Isaac Kook’s interpretation of the image is here.) Marcus’s account is pure fabrication:

The flame alphabet was the word of God, written in fire, obliterating to behold. The so-called Torah. . . . We could not say God’s true name, nor could we, if we were devoted, speak of God at all. This was basic stuff. But it was the midrashic spin on the flame alphabet that was more exclusive, spoken of only, as far as I knew, by [the narrator’s rabbi, with whom he has contact only by means of a listening device like the radio]. Since the entire alphabet comprises God’s name, [Rabbi] Burke asserted, since it is written in every arrangement of letters, then all words reference God, do they not? That’s what words are. They are variations on his name. No matter the language. Whatever we say, we say God. . . . Therefore the language itself was, by definition, off-limits. Every single word of it. We were best to be done with it. Our time with it is nearly through. The logic was hard to deny. You could not do it.

These are, of course, Jewish references without any resemblance to the historical existence of a Jewish people to whom the Jewish God spoke words — the Ten Commandments are called, in Hebrew, the aseret hadevarim, the “ten words” — which they have repeated to one another for centuries.

But that is exactly Marcus’s point; or, rather, his literary “experiment.” If it were possible (as he proposes) to write fiction in a language that does not communicate a message — a language does not kill itself in being consumed — so too it might be possible to lead a Jewish life without God, community, traditional religious teaching, or a light carried to the nations. In such a vision of experience, the logic may be hard to deny or even follow, but the speculative enjoyment is endless. For readers who do not agree with Marcus that “our machine of understanding is inferior,” The Flame Alphabet may seem endless too.

Ben Marcus, The Flame Alphabet (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012). 304 pp. $25.95.

According to the Jews, the world begins with speech. God says, “There is light,” and so there is light. But what if something happened — it doesn’t really matter what — and speech turned lethal?

That’s the premise of The Flame Alphabet, the third novel by Ben Marcus, a creative writing professor at Columbia University and son of the feminist critic Jane Marcus. Sometime in an unspecified future, somewhere in a featureless Midwest, the speech of children begins to sicken their parents. “We feasted on the putrid material because our daughter made it,” explains Samuel, the book’s narrator. “We gorged on it and inside us it steamed, rotted, turned rank.” As the contagion spreads so does the public anxiety. The speech of Jewish children is the first to turn bad, raising official fears of mass anti-Semitic hysteria. It seems, after all, to be a “chosen affliction.” Whoever is in charge resorts to high-sounding vagueness:

From our portable radio came word that studies had returned, pinpointing children as the culprit. The word carrier was used. The word Jew was not. The discussion was wrapped in the vocabulary of viral infection. There was no reason for alarm because this crisis appeared to be genetic in nature, a problem only for certain people, whoever they were.

Before long, though, it becomes clear that all children — not merely Jewish children — are causing adults to fall sick by speech and writing. As an authority theorizes, “Language happens to be a toxin we are very good at producing, but not so good at absorbing.” People begin to die.

The novel’s opening chapters trace the search for an official diagnosis while the disease spreads, the symptoms worsen. The first half of the book ends with children being quarantined, and parents being forced — by a nameless faceless government without apparent ideology — to abandon their children. Samuel and his wife Claire prepare to leave their daughter Esther behind, but at the last minute Claire leaps from the car and is swallowed up by the government health machinery.

In the second half of the book, Samuel goes on without them. Despite the absence of road signs — they have been smudged over to prevent contagion — he somehow arrives in Rochester (probably New York instead of Minnesota, though maybe not), where he goes to work for Forsyth, which seems to be some kind of quasi-governmental mega-corporate medical lab. There Samuel conducts research into alphabetical systems without reference or communication. He creates a disappearing Hebrew, invents a private alphabet, experiments with concealing portions of text to contain the infection. Nothing works:

If we hid the text too much, it could not be seen. If we revealed it so it could be seen, it burned out the mind. No matter what. To see writing was to suffer.

And by now it should be obvious that, although it has the outward appearance of a dystopian novel, The Flame Alphabet is a philosophical allegory about language and literature. A science fiction writer would have taken the trouble to devise a plausible explanation for “a world where speech was lethal.” Not Marcus, though. Heavily influenced by Wittgenstein, he is puzzled and fascinated by the concept of private language. If speech is communication, as popular opinion has it, then meaning is a communicable disease. But if it refers only to inner sensations and locked-in mental intentions, then speech is just weird and mystifying behavior.

The implications for literature might be less obvious. Marcus is well-known (at least to literary critics) as an “experimental” writer and an apostle of “experimental” writing. The term is one that he selected for himself, although even the most passionate advocate of “experimental” writing expressed doubts about it. Marcus unfurled it in a famous attack upon Jonathan Franzen, published as a cover story by Harper’s in 2005 (and available only to subscribers), in which he upheld the principle of “literature as an art form” against the author of The Corrections, who writes a “narrative style that was already embraced by the culture.” By literature as an art form, he means writing that is “more interested in forging complex bursts of meaning that are expressionistic rather than figurative.”

There, in short, is the same opposition between language as communication of diseased meaning (“already embraced by the culture”) and the weird and mystifying artistic text, which “creates in us desires we did not know we had.”

The trouble is that The Flame Alphabet does little more than play with its ideas, refusing to let go until all the air is squeezed out of them. Marcus is nothing at all like the Kafka described by André Gide, who examines a “fantastic universe” with “detailed exactitude.” What interests him about a world in which language is deadly are the speculative games that such a premise gives rise to. What becomes of parents’ attachment when their children are the carriers of a plague? What happens to human community when language can no longer knit it together? What might language be if not communication?

Even then, however, the speculative questions are little more than occasions for an outburst of style:

The Hebrew letter is like a form of nature. In it is the blueprint for some flower whose name I forget, and if this flower doesn’t exist yet, it will. It is said that the twenty-two Hebrew letters, if laid flat and joined properly, then submitted to the correct curves on a table stabbed with pins, would describe the cardiovascular plan of the human body. And not only that.

But a little of that goes a long way. There is a Jewish subplot in The Flame Alphabet (although plot is the wrong word for a novel that is not organized by narrative), but it doesn’t amount to much, because Marcus likes to contrive knowledge, to invent allusions and quotations, in order to frustrate the reader’s desperate search for clues in a mapped and recognizable world.

His title, for example, seems as if it might refer to the classical midrashic description of the Torah as having been written, even before creation, “with black fire on white fire.” (Abraham Isaac Kook’s interpretation of the image is here.) Marcus’s account is pure fabrication:

The flame alphabet was the word of God, written in fire, obliterating to behold. The so-called Torah. . . . We could not say God’s true name, nor could we, if we were devoted, speak of God at all. This was basic stuff. But it was the midrashic spin on the flame alphabet that was more exclusive, spoken of only, as far as I knew, by [the narrator’s rabbi, with whom he has contact only by means of a listening device like the radio]. Since the entire alphabet comprises God’s name, [Rabbi] Burke asserted, since it is written in every arrangement of letters, then all words reference God, do they not? That’s what words are. They are variations on his name. No matter the language. Whatever we say, we say God. . . . Therefore the language itself was, by definition, off-limits. Every single word of it. We were best to be done with it. Our time with it is nearly through. The logic was hard to deny. You could not do it.

These are, of course, Jewish references without any resemblance to the historical existence of a Jewish people to whom the Jewish God spoke words — the Ten Commandments are called, in Hebrew, the aseret hadevarim, the “ten words” — which they have repeated to one another for centuries.

But that is exactly Marcus’s point; or, rather, his literary “experiment.” If it were possible (as he proposes) to write fiction in a language that does not communicate a message — a language does not kill itself in being consumed — so too it might be possible to lead a Jewish life without God, community, traditional religious teaching, or a light carried to the nations. In such a vision of experience, the logic may be hard to deny or even follow, but the speculative enjoyment is endless. For readers who do not agree with Marcus that “our machine of understanding is inferior,” The Flame Alphabet may seem endless too.

Read Less

The Year’s Best Jewish Books

My second annual roll call of the year’s best Jewish books is the main feature at Jewish Ideas Daily this morning. Not to leave you in any suspense, I think the posthumous selection of Irving Kristol’s essays published in February as The Neoconservative Persuasion was the most distinguished Jewish title of 2011.

I began rereading Kristol shortly after his death on September 18, 2009. On Yom Kippur that year I took his Reflections of a Neoconservative to shul with me — reading in shul is almost as traditional as fasting on Yom Kippur — and was particularly struck by the book’s concluding essay, “Christianity, Judaism, and Socialism,” which was not included in The Neoconservative Persuasion for some reason.

Looking back, I realize now that Kristol was largely responsible for both of my own “right turns.” I quit the Left in disgust upon its widespread condemnation of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and Kristol’s Reflections, published the next year (in the nick of time), gave a name to my discontent and reset my political compass, keeping me from drifting into a sterile resentment. What is more, his description of his religious leanings as “neo-Orthodox” (not religiously observant “but, in principle, very sympathetic to the spirit of orthodoxy”) pushed me down the road toward my own “return” to Orthodox Judaism several years later.

Quite apart from my autobiographical debt to him, I have always been impressed by Kristol’s “persuasion” — both his conviction and his rhetoric, his thoroughness in giving the reasons for thinking as he thinks. The late Christopher Hitchens was also a master of rhetoric, but a more different writer could not be imagined. Hitchens’s prose is red hot; justice and the denunciation of lies are Hitchens’s passions. Kristol’s prose is not cool, though: it is warm. In his essays, Kristol is the perfect host, setting things out for the reader and radiating cordiality, even toward enemies. Here he is, for example, in “Notes on the Yom Kippur War” (originally published in the Wall Street Journal in 1973):

I have said that I find it hard to be angry at the Arabs, and that is the truth. Unfortunately, when I try to explain what I mean, people think I am being frivolous. That is because we in the West, most of us anyway, have so little sense of history, cannot take religious beliefs seriously, and are so resolutely inattentive to the ways in which history and religion shape national character. Indeed, the use of that term, “national character,” is distinctly frowned upon these days. There isn’t supposed to be any such thing, every one of us presumably born into “one world.” What nonsense. The Arabs are an extraordinarily proud people, in some ways a quite noble people, whose religion assures them that they have been chosen for a superior destiny. . . . For Arabs, the glories of medieval empire are like yesterday; the intervening centuries are a lamentable hiatus, of no intrinsic significance or even of much interest, and “soon” to be annulled by foredestined triumph.

In one passage, Kristol demolishes a current fallacy and fully explains a lack of hatred for a mortal enemy, while inviting the reader to consider whether he might not be right on both scores. Add to this that Kristol is always informative and always surprising, and you can see why I believe that even those who are filled with scorn for us neocons would probably enjoy The Neoconservative Persuasion.

There were other good Jewish books published last year — especially Lucette Lagnado’s beautiful memoir The Arrogant Years and John J. Clayton’s delightful Mitzvah Man, reviewed in this month’s COMMENTARY and probably the best Jewish novel of the year. But the writer to read, whether or not you’ve ever read him before, is the great and inimitable Irving Kristol.

My second annual roll call of the year’s best Jewish books is the main feature at Jewish Ideas Daily this morning. Not to leave you in any suspense, I think the posthumous selection of Irving Kristol’s essays published in February as The Neoconservative Persuasion was the most distinguished Jewish title of 2011.

I began rereading Kristol shortly after his death on September 18, 2009. On Yom Kippur that year I took his Reflections of a Neoconservative to shul with me — reading in shul is almost as traditional as fasting on Yom Kippur — and was particularly struck by the book’s concluding essay, “Christianity, Judaism, and Socialism,” which was not included in The Neoconservative Persuasion for some reason.

Looking back, I realize now that Kristol was largely responsible for both of my own “right turns.” I quit the Left in disgust upon its widespread condemnation of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and Kristol’s Reflections, published the next year (in the nick of time), gave a name to my discontent and reset my political compass, keeping me from drifting into a sterile resentment. What is more, his description of his religious leanings as “neo-Orthodox” (not religiously observant “but, in principle, very sympathetic to the spirit of orthodoxy”) pushed me down the road toward my own “return” to Orthodox Judaism several years later.

Quite apart from my autobiographical debt to him, I have always been impressed by Kristol’s “persuasion” — both his conviction and his rhetoric, his thoroughness in giving the reasons for thinking as he thinks. The late Christopher Hitchens was also a master of rhetoric, but a more different writer could not be imagined. Hitchens’s prose is red hot; justice and the denunciation of lies are Hitchens’s passions. Kristol’s prose is not cool, though: it is warm. In his essays, Kristol is the perfect host, setting things out for the reader and radiating cordiality, even toward enemies. Here he is, for example, in “Notes on the Yom Kippur War” (originally published in the Wall Street Journal in 1973):

I have said that I find it hard to be angry at the Arabs, and that is the truth. Unfortunately, when I try to explain what I mean, people think I am being frivolous. That is because we in the West, most of us anyway, have so little sense of history, cannot take religious beliefs seriously, and are so resolutely inattentive to the ways in which history and religion shape national character. Indeed, the use of that term, “national character,” is distinctly frowned upon these days. There isn’t supposed to be any such thing, every one of us presumably born into “one world.” What nonsense. The Arabs are an extraordinarily proud people, in some ways a quite noble people, whose religion assures them that they have been chosen for a superior destiny. . . . For Arabs, the glories of medieval empire are like yesterday; the intervening centuries are a lamentable hiatus, of no intrinsic significance or even of much interest, and “soon” to be annulled by foredestined triumph.

In one passage, Kristol demolishes a current fallacy and fully explains a lack of hatred for a mortal enemy, while inviting the reader to consider whether he might not be right on both scores. Add to this that Kristol is always informative and always surprising, and you can see why I believe that even those who are filled with scorn for us neocons would probably enjoy The Neoconservative Persuasion.

There were other good Jewish books published last year — especially Lucette Lagnado’s beautiful memoir The Arrogant Years and John J. Clayton’s delightful Mitzvah Man, reviewed in this month’s COMMENTARY and probably the best Jewish novel of the year. But the writer to read, whether or not you’ve ever read him before, is the great and inimitable Irving Kristol.

Read Less

Abandoning Realism to Preserve It

Science fiction has a surprisingly close relationship with realism, Kingsley Amis says in New Maps of Hell (1960). In distinguishing it from fantasy (with which it is often associated and confused), Amis points out that “while science fiction . . . maintains a respect for fact or presumptive fact, fantasy makes a point of flouting these. . . .”

Hence its unexpected didacticism: science fiction carries present trends to their logical (and lesson-serving) conclusion. Dystopias like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Linda Chavez’s recommendation for the holiday season, teach a lesson about current realities by the simple method of showing what might happen if they are not altered or corrected.

“[A] difference which makes the difference between abandoning verisimilitude and trying to preserve it seems to me to make all the difference,” Amis says. And something like this may go far to explain Michael Weingrad’s claim that “Judaism is a science fiction religion” (while, by contrast, “Christianity is a fantasy religion”). In other words, Judaism is a religion that preserves verisimilitude, while Christianity is a religion that abandons it.

Thus even Jewish fiction that seems upon first reflection to be fantasy turn out not to be. Take Steve Stern’s marvelous The Frozen Rabbi (2010), for example. Reissued in paperback by Algonquin earlier this year, the novel has a fantastical premise. A 19th-century Polish tzaddik, lost in a meditative trance while a storm rages around him (“his soul sat in bliss among the archons studying Torah”), does not notice that the pond on whose bank he lies has begun to rise, “inundating his legs to the waist, creeping over his chest and chin and ultimately submerging his hoary head.”

The rebbe remains underwater, “continu[ing] his submarine meditations,” while autumn turns to winter. The pond freezes over; the rebbe is discovered embedded in the ice, “apparently intact even if frozen stiff,” and carted back to the village. The frozen rabbi is stored in an ice house for a few years, and then is passed down like a holy relic from generation to generation. He is transported across Europe and eventually to America, where he ends up in an ice chest in a Memphis basement. One day in 1999 a thunderstorm causes an electrical outage and the rabbi thaws out to find himself at the turn of centuries.

Surely this is the Jewish fantasy (if not exactly the Jewish Narnia) that Weingrad had written in the Jewish Review of Books is nowhere to be found. But no. Stern’s novel respects fact and preserves verisimilitude. Indeed, the novel’s satirical purpose is to comment upon and poke fun at the “Gan Eydn” (Garden of Eden, paradise) that Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr believes himself to have awakened to in postmodern America. Stern must have his facts straight for his satire to work. His primary attention is on the social and linguistic detail of contemporary Memphis and its environs. The fantastical premise is simply a device for bringing them into clearer, even exaggerated focus.

Stern is much closer to Kafka than to Lewis, Tolkien, Rowling, and George R. R. Martin. Kafka invented a special genre of Jewish SF (perhaps more speculative fiction than science fiction). The first sentence of The Metamorphosis, when Gregor Samsa awakens from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a giant beetle, launched the new genre. Only in the first sentence — only in its initial premise — does Kafka’s story dispenses with realism. Otherwise it is faithful to the factual and the possible.

The Frozen Rabbi is just one example of Jewish fiction of fantastical premise, which momentarily abandons verisimilitude for the sake of ultimately preserving it. Joseph Skibell’s wonderful A Curable Romantic (released in paper last month) premises that one of the most famous Viennese psychoanalytic patients was not suffering from the sexual hysteria that Freud diagnosed, but from a talkative lovesick dybbuk. And John J. Clayton’s Mitzvah Man, the best Jewish novel of 2011 (to which my January fiction chronicle will largely be devoted), starts from the premise that a modern man who sets out to obey God’s commandments might just (who knows?) be capable of performing miracles. If they are miracles, though, they are miracles that occur in recognizable surroundings to recognizable human beings.

Even at its most fantastical, Jewish fiction is a fiction of realism.

Science fiction has a surprisingly close relationship with realism, Kingsley Amis says in New Maps of Hell (1960). In distinguishing it from fantasy (with which it is often associated and confused), Amis points out that “while science fiction . . . maintains a respect for fact or presumptive fact, fantasy makes a point of flouting these. . . .”

Hence its unexpected didacticism: science fiction carries present trends to their logical (and lesson-serving) conclusion. Dystopias like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Linda Chavez’s recommendation for the holiday season, teach a lesson about current realities by the simple method of showing what might happen if they are not altered or corrected.

“[A] difference which makes the difference between abandoning verisimilitude and trying to preserve it seems to me to make all the difference,” Amis says. And something like this may go far to explain Michael Weingrad’s claim that “Judaism is a science fiction religion” (while, by contrast, “Christianity is a fantasy religion”). In other words, Judaism is a religion that preserves verisimilitude, while Christianity is a religion that abandons it.

Thus even Jewish fiction that seems upon first reflection to be fantasy turn out not to be. Take Steve Stern’s marvelous The Frozen Rabbi (2010), for example. Reissued in paperback by Algonquin earlier this year, the novel has a fantastical premise. A 19th-century Polish tzaddik, lost in a meditative trance while a storm rages around him (“his soul sat in bliss among the archons studying Torah”), does not notice that the pond on whose bank he lies has begun to rise, “inundating his legs to the waist, creeping over his chest and chin and ultimately submerging his hoary head.”

The rebbe remains underwater, “continu[ing] his submarine meditations,” while autumn turns to winter. The pond freezes over; the rebbe is discovered embedded in the ice, “apparently intact even if frozen stiff,” and carted back to the village. The frozen rabbi is stored in an ice house for a few years, and then is passed down like a holy relic from generation to generation. He is transported across Europe and eventually to America, where he ends up in an ice chest in a Memphis basement. One day in 1999 a thunderstorm causes an electrical outage and the rabbi thaws out to find himself at the turn of centuries.

Surely this is the Jewish fantasy (if not exactly the Jewish Narnia) that Weingrad had written in the Jewish Review of Books is nowhere to be found. But no. Stern’s novel respects fact and preserves verisimilitude. Indeed, the novel’s satirical purpose is to comment upon and poke fun at the “Gan Eydn” (Garden of Eden, paradise) that Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr believes himself to have awakened to in postmodern America. Stern must have his facts straight for his satire to work. His primary attention is on the social and linguistic detail of contemporary Memphis and its environs. The fantastical premise is simply a device for bringing them into clearer, even exaggerated focus.

Stern is much closer to Kafka than to Lewis, Tolkien, Rowling, and George R. R. Martin. Kafka invented a special genre of Jewish SF (perhaps more speculative fiction than science fiction). The first sentence of The Metamorphosis, when Gregor Samsa awakens from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a giant beetle, launched the new genre. Only in the first sentence — only in its initial premise — does Kafka’s story dispenses with realism. Otherwise it is faithful to the factual and the possible.

The Frozen Rabbi is just one example of Jewish fiction of fantastical premise, which momentarily abandons verisimilitude for the sake of ultimately preserving it. Joseph Skibell’s wonderful A Curable Romantic (released in paper last month) premises that one of the most famous Viennese psychoanalytic patients was not suffering from the sexual hysteria that Freud diagnosed, but from a talkative lovesick dybbuk. And John J. Clayton’s Mitzvah Man, the best Jewish novel of 2011 (to which my January fiction chronicle will largely be devoted), starts from the premise that a modern man who sets out to obey God’s commandments might just (who knows?) be capable of performing miracles. If they are miracles, though, they are miracles that occur in recognizable surroundings to recognizable human beings.

Even at its most fantastical, Jewish fiction is a fiction of realism.

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The Difference between Fantasy and Sci Fi

In his Jewish Review of Books essay that I have been quoting the past few days, Michael Weingrad says provocatively that “Christianity is a fantasy religion,” while “Judaism is a science fiction religion.” From this angle, it’s no accident that several classics of sci fi — Walter Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle (1962), Philip José Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971), Robert Silverberg’s Book of Skulls (1973) — have Jewish characters and themes.

Christianity posits an “other” world, a kingdom of the spirit, where a higher law is in force. And as it happens, this is exactly the mode of thought that gives rise to fantasy as a branch of literature. Fantasy is the kind of fiction that sets aside physical law to obey a law of the writer’s devising. G. K. Chesterton calls this sovereign law “the ethics of elfland.” Fantasy must remain faithful to it, just as physical actuality is faithful to physical law. (Fiction that cheats on the ethics of its own world is lousy fiction.) Obviously, there is going to be overlap between the two legal systems. But fantasy is independent of physical law, “exempt from the conditions,” in Henry James’s words, that usually “drag upon” human experience.

Science fiction is founded upon a different way of thinking. My friend Andrew Fox, author of The Good Humor Man, says it well. “SF deals with extrapolations of theoretically possible developments in technology, the sciences, or society,” he observes, while “fantasy deals with events and phenomena which are not within the realm of the physically possible.”

That’s a great description of Jewish life — “extrapolations of the theoretically possible.” It is absurd to keep kosher, it is not easy or convenient, there is no good nutritional reason to do so, it makes no logical sense, but it is possible. Pretty much the same could be said for circumcision, daily prayer, Shabbat, taharat hamishpaha, studying the rituals of the Temple, or almost any of the 613 commandments that Orthodox Jews are required to obey. Jewish law is not the law of another world.

Even the Kabbalah, which appears magical and other-worldly to outsiders, is firmly rooted in the physically possible. The Sefirot, the ten “spheres” of creation, might seem to imply the existence of ten autonomous spiritual realms, but they are, say the mystical experts, “numerically definable.” They are the source of everything in material creation. When Kabbalists measure the limbs of God, they are certain that the limbs are actually that long. The entire purpose of Kabbalah, first, last, and always, is to renew and refresh the obedience to God’s law.

The Jewish aversion to fantasy arises from the Jewish attachment to physical possibility, the confidence that it is entirely possible to serve God in this world, where it is entirely possible for God to be. To the Jews, however — the crew of Spaceship Israel, the people of the alternate history — science fiction feels just like home.

Update: In the original version, I quietly edited Andrew Fox’s remark. In a note to me, he had referred to science fiction as SF. “San Francisco?” I wondered. So I changed it to what I assumed was the standard abbreviation. Andrew has now written to inform me that my assumption was stupidly mistaken. “The abbreviation most commonly used by those ‘inside the ghetto’ is SF,” he told me. The term sci fi “may not bother folks inside the field as much as it once did. But it is sort of our version of a racial slur, and since I tend toward the old school (my favorite works were all written prior to 1975), my sensitivities may be a bit more sensitive than most.” I’ve revised Andrew’s remark above to reflect its original form.

In his Jewish Review of Books essay that I have been quoting the past few days, Michael Weingrad says provocatively that “Christianity is a fantasy religion,” while “Judaism is a science fiction religion.” From this angle, it’s no accident that several classics of sci fi — Walter Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle (1962), Philip José Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971), Robert Silverberg’s Book of Skulls (1973) — have Jewish characters and themes.

Christianity posits an “other” world, a kingdom of the spirit, where a higher law is in force. And as it happens, this is exactly the mode of thought that gives rise to fantasy as a branch of literature. Fantasy is the kind of fiction that sets aside physical law to obey a law of the writer’s devising. G. K. Chesterton calls this sovereign law “the ethics of elfland.” Fantasy must remain faithful to it, just as physical actuality is faithful to physical law. (Fiction that cheats on the ethics of its own world is lousy fiction.) Obviously, there is going to be overlap between the two legal systems. But fantasy is independent of physical law, “exempt from the conditions,” in Henry James’s words, that usually “drag upon” human experience.

Science fiction is founded upon a different way of thinking. My friend Andrew Fox, author of The Good Humor Man, says it well. “SF deals with extrapolations of theoretically possible developments in technology, the sciences, or society,” he observes, while “fantasy deals with events and phenomena which are not within the realm of the physically possible.”

That’s a great description of Jewish life — “extrapolations of the theoretically possible.” It is absurd to keep kosher, it is not easy or convenient, there is no good nutritional reason to do so, it makes no logical sense, but it is possible. Pretty much the same could be said for circumcision, daily prayer, Shabbat, taharat hamishpaha, studying the rituals of the Temple, or almost any of the 613 commandments that Orthodox Jews are required to obey. Jewish law is not the law of another world.

Even the Kabbalah, which appears magical and other-worldly to outsiders, is firmly rooted in the physically possible. The Sefirot, the ten “spheres” of creation, might seem to imply the existence of ten autonomous spiritual realms, but they are, say the mystical experts, “numerically definable.” They are the source of everything in material creation. When Kabbalists measure the limbs of God, they are certain that the limbs are actually that long. The entire purpose of Kabbalah, first, last, and always, is to renew and refresh the obedience to God’s law.

The Jewish aversion to fantasy arises from the Jewish attachment to physical possibility, the confidence that it is entirely possible to serve God in this world, where it is entirely possible for God to be. To the Jews, however — the crew of Spaceship Israel, the people of the alternate history — science fiction feels just like home.

Update: In the original version, I quietly edited Andrew Fox’s remark. In a note to me, he had referred to science fiction as SF. “San Francisco?” I wondered. So I changed it to what I assumed was the standard abbreviation. Andrew has now written to inform me that my assumption was stupidly mistaken. “The abbreviation most commonly used by those ‘inside the ghetto’ is SF,” he told me. The term sci fi “may not bother folks inside the field as much as it once did. But it is sort of our version of a racial slur, and since I tend toward the old school (my favorite works were all written prior to 1975), my sensitivities may be a bit more sensitive than most.” I’ve revised Andrew’s remark above to reflect its original form.

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The Golem of Prague and the Jewish Aversion to Fantasy

Its devotees are entitled to their opinion that fantasy is not a genre of Christianity. They are not, however, entitled to distort the facts. The Golem of Prague, I am informed again and again, is proof positive that fantasy is not alien to Judaism. But the Golem is not the supernatural fantasy that those who know the legend only through its modern retellings think it is. As Michael Weingrad said in dismissing a similar objection to his pathbreaking essay “Why There Is No Jewish Narnia,”

Those who have offered golems, dybbuks, and magic dreidels as the answer to my question are skimming the surface or unfamiliar with the heft and richness of Judaism.

Exactly so. Michael Chabon relied heavily upon the Golem of Prague in writing The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000), his novel about the Jewish creators of comic-book superheroes. The novel’s revisionist claim is that the artist-and-writer duos of the “Golden Age of Comics” — Jewish duos like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Will Eisner and Jerry Iger, Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee — reinvented a significant subgenre of Jewish literature that had originated in the legends of the Golem, the man of clay enchanted into life by the 16th-century Rabbi Judah Löw of Prague.

The Golem’s status as an oral legend is central to the case that Jewish fantasy has, in contradistinction to those who hold otherwise, a long and honorable tradition. A short passage from the Talmudic tractate Sanhedrin is usually cited as the source of the legend:

Raba said: If the righteous desired it, they could be creators, for it is written, “But your iniquities have been a barrier between” etc. (Isa 59.2) Rabbah created a man, and sent him to R. Zera. R. Zera spoke to him, but received no answer. Thereupon he said unto him: “Thou art a creature of the magicians. Return to thy dust.”

In the medieval sources, though, “the creation of the golem had not a real, but only a symbolic meaning,” Gershom Scholem says. By the 17th century, legends of a Frankensteinian golem who is the servant of his creator had become popular among German Jews, although Scholem believes that the legends were, at least in part, a Jewish adaptation of ideas found in non-Jewish alchemy.

The version that everybody knows comes much later. And the most striking thing about it is that the most famous Golem is not an oral legend at all, but a literary reenactment. The historian Hillel J. Kieval found that the legend of the Golem of Prague was written down and published by two different folklorists — a non-Jew and a Jew — within six years of each other in 1841 and 1847.

The non-Jewish version, which called the legendary creature a Golam [sic], appeared in German in a popular Prague monthly. The legend was presented to the magazine’s readers as “partly newly told, party retold” by its author. The Jewish version, also written in German, was published in a widely read collection of Jewish legend and folklore from biblical, rabbinic, and popular sources. Its author affixed a short prologue in which he swears that the story to come is a faithful transcript of what he had heard “from the mouth of the old.” The prologue is intended to establish his reliability as a narrator, but like the prologue to The Turn of the Screw, its effect is exactly the opposite.

As Kieval says, the way in which the legend was presented to the German reading public is “testimony to the fact that the self-conscious recovery of oral traditions is a decidedly modern act.” Given the modernity of its retelling, the legend is inevitably transformed into something more closely resembling the authors’ literary influences. In the case of the Golem, the immediate and obvious predecessors are the Brothers Grimm, whose Fairy Tales had gone through four German editions by 1840.

In the last stages of its oral form, the legend had become attached to the figure of Rabbi Judah Löw, the Maharal of Prague. The story of the Golem, as Kieval puts it, was a way of “mythologizing” the Maharal, a popular testament to his greatness. It was not really “about” the Golem at all. And in its earliest stages, the oral tale testified to the power of God’s name, which was placed in the Golem’s mouth to bring him to life. Again, the story was not really “about” the Golem at all.

In the version retailed by Chabon and other recent adapters, the Golem is a champion of the Jews, heroically fighting anti-Semites in Rabbi Judah’s Prague. This version, the most popular of all, is a literary forgery created out of whole cloth early in the 20th century and reprinted three years ago by Yale University Press. The truth is that the Jewish Golem (as opposed to the Golem of popular imagination) does not belong to fantasy, does not concern a supernatural hero (who is secondary to the legend’s religious purposes), and does not loom large in Jewish thinking.

Other than that it’s a great example of Jewish fantasy.

Its devotees are entitled to their opinion that fantasy is not a genre of Christianity. They are not, however, entitled to distort the facts. The Golem of Prague, I am informed again and again, is proof positive that fantasy is not alien to Judaism. But the Golem is not the supernatural fantasy that those who know the legend only through its modern retellings think it is. As Michael Weingrad said in dismissing a similar objection to his pathbreaking essay “Why There Is No Jewish Narnia,”

Those who have offered golems, dybbuks, and magic dreidels as the answer to my question are skimming the surface or unfamiliar with the heft and richness of Judaism.

Exactly so. Michael Chabon relied heavily upon the Golem of Prague in writing The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000), his novel about the Jewish creators of comic-book superheroes. The novel’s revisionist claim is that the artist-and-writer duos of the “Golden Age of Comics” — Jewish duos like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Will Eisner and Jerry Iger, Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee — reinvented a significant subgenre of Jewish literature that had originated in the legends of the Golem, the man of clay enchanted into life by the 16th-century Rabbi Judah Löw of Prague.

The Golem’s status as an oral legend is central to the case that Jewish fantasy has, in contradistinction to those who hold otherwise, a long and honorable tradition. A short passage from the Talmudic tractate Sanhedrin is usually cited as the source of the legend:

Raba said: If the righteous desired it, they could be creators, for it is written, “But your iniquities have been a barrier between” etc. (Isa 59.2) Rabbah created a man, and sent him to R. Zera. R. Zera spoke to him, but received no answer. Thereupon he said unto him: “Thou art a creature of the magicians. Return to thy dust.”

In the medieval sources, though, “the creation of the golem had not a real, but only a symbolic meaning,” Gershom Scholem says. By the 17th century, legends of a Frankensteinian golem who is the servant of his creator had become popular among German Jews, although Scholem believes that the legends were, at least in part, a Jewish adaptation of ideas found in non-Jewish alchemy.

The version that everybody knows comes much later. And the most striking thing about it is that the most famous Golem is not an oral legend at all, but a literary reenactment. The historian Hillel J. Kieval found that the legend of the Golem of Prague was written down and published by two different folklorists — a non-Jew and a Jew — within six years of each other in 1841 and 1847.

The non-Jewish version, which called the legendary creature a Golam [sic], appeared in German in a popular Prague monthly. The legend was presented to the magazine’s readers as “partly newly told, party retold” by its author. The Jewish version, also written in German, was published in a widely read collection of Jewish legend and folklore from biblical, rabbinic, and popular sources. Its author affixed a short prologue in which he swears that the story to come is a faithful transcript of what he had heard “from the mouth of the old.” The prologue is intended to establish his reliability as a narrator, but like the prologue to The Turn of the Screw, its effect is exactly the opposite.

As Kieval says, the way in which the legend was presented to the German reading public is “testimony to the fact that the self-conscious recovery of oral traditions is a decidedly modern act.” Given the modernity of its retelling, the legend is inevitably transformed into something more closely resembling the authors’ literary influences. In the case of the Golem, the immediate and obvious predecessors are the Brothers Grimm, whose Fairy Tales had gone through four German editions by 1840.

In the last stages of its oral form, the legend had become attached to the figure of Rabbi Judah Löw, the Maharal of Prague. The story of the Golem, as Kieval puts it, was a way of “mythologizing” the Maharal, a popular testament to his greatness. It was not really “about” the Golem at all. And in its earliest stages, the oral tale testified to the power of God’s name, which was placed in the Golem’s mouth to bring him to life. Again, the story was not really “about” the Golem at all.

In the version retailed by Chabon and other recent adapters, the Golem is a champion of the Jews, heroically fighting anti-Semites in Rabbi Judah’s Prague. This version, the most popular of all, is a literary forgery created out of whole cloth early in the 20th century and reprinted three years ago by Yale University Press. The truth is that the Jewish Golem (as opposed to the Golem of popular imagination) does not belong to fantasy, does not concern a supernatural hero (who is secondary to the legend’s religious purposes), and does not loom large in Jewish thinking.

Other than that it’s a great example of Jewish fantasy.

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Fantasy Is a Genre of Christianity

Michael Weingrad’s brilliant essay “Why There Is No Jewish Narnia” in the Spring 2010 issue of the indispensable Jewish Review of Books offered several reasons for the lack of fantasy writing among Jews:

• “[T]he 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.”

• The “still agonizing historical weight” of the Holocaust “must press prohibitively upon Jewish engagement with the magical and fantastical.”

As a consequence of their history, Jews find “the notion of magic and wizards existing in our own world — as in, for example, the Harry Potter books” — hard to accept. (Warning: Weingrad gives no evidence of having read all seven Harry Potter books before daring to say such a thing.)

The main reason that Jews have largely avoided the genre of fantasy, though, is religious. C. S. Lewis was the author of The Chronicles of Narnia (1950–1956), perhaps the greatest series of fantasy novels ever written in English. Rereading the books as an adult, I was struck by what soared over my head as a boy: the Christian theology that organizes the series. But Lewis is not alone. J. R. R. Tolkien is now widely understood to be a Christian writer, and Christianity Today ranked his Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954–1955) among the top ten Christian books of the twentieth century. Even the Harry Potter books, if Bruce Charlton is to be believed, are works of “covert Christian supposal.” And no wonder.

Fantasy is ideally suited for Christianity’s kerygma, but it is a bad fit for Judaism. As Weingrad wonderfully puts it:

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.

Weingrad goes on to examine the differences between Christian and Jewish conceptions of magic and evil, which are essential to fantasy. But I’d like to draw attention to a third element.

Speaking as both an author and scholar of fantasy, Lewis said in a 1947 essay that “To construct plausible and moving ‘other worlds’ you must draw upon the only real ‘other world’ we know, that of the spirit.” No statement about the genre has ever been more definitive. The bedrock premise of fantasy, which cannot be waived without voiding the genre, is the existence of a spirit realm. Lewis’s Narnia, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Rowling’s “wizarding world,” parallel universes of all kind are imaginative reconstructions of Christianity’s first principle: namely, that the “kingdom of heaven” is the only true world.

G. K. Chesterton illustrated the connection between fantasy and a belief in the spirit realm quite entertainingly in Orthodoxy (1908):

Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense. It is not earth that judges heaven, but heaven that judges earth; so for me at least it was not earth that criticised elfland, but elfland that criticised the earth. I knew the magic beanstalk before I had tasted beans; I was sure of the Man in the Moon before I was certain of the moon. This was at one with all popular tradition. Modern minor poets are naturalists, and talk about the bush or the brook; but the singers of the old epics and fables were supernaturalists, and talked about the gods of brook and bush.

But Jewish tradition stands at a right angle to “all popular tradition.” Jewish children’s literature has developed only since 1935. Traditionally, Jewish children were taught the stories of the Bible and the Midrashim that filled in the biblical gaps, but the clear emphasis was upon practical religious lessons.

More to the point, there is no spirit realm, no “other world,” in Judaism. There is no Ascension in the Jewish religion. On the contrary, there is God’s “moving about in the garden at the breezy time of day” (Gen 3.8), there is God’s decision to “go down to see whether [Sodom and Gomorrah] have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me” (Gen 18.21), there is God’s exposing his backside to Moses (Exod 32.23). The dualism of matter and spirit, shadow and fulfillment, is foreign to Judaism.

If some Jewish readers have been exempt from the public enthusiasm for J. K. Rowling and the Harry Potter books, the explanation may lie as much in religious instinct and training as in literary criticism.

Michael Weingrad’s brilliant essay “Why There Is No Jewish Narnia” in the Spring 2010 issue of the indispensable Jewish Review of Books offered several reasons for the lack of fantasy writing among Jews:

• “[T]he 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.”

• The “still agonizing historical weight” of the Holocaust “must press prohibitively upon Jewish engagement with the magical and fantastical.”

As a consequence of their history, Jews find “the notion of magic and wizards existing in our own world — as in, for example, the Harry Potter books” — hard to accept. (Warning: Weingrad gives no evidence of having read all seven Harry Potter books before daring to say such a thing.)

The main reason that Jews have largely avoided the genre of fantasy, though, is religious. C. S. Lewis was the author of The Chronicles of Narnia (1950–1956), perhaps the greatest series of fantasy novels ever written in English. Rereading the books as an adult, I was struck by what soared over my head as a boy: the Christian theology that organizes the series. But Lewis is not alone. J. R. R. Tolkien is now widely understood to be a Christian writer, and Christianity Today ranked his Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954–1955) among the top ten Christian books of the twentieth century. Even the Harry Potter books, if Bruce Charlton is to be believed, are works of “covert Christian supposal.” And no wonder.

Fantasy is ideally suited for Christianity’s kerygma, but it is a bad fit for Judaism. As Weingrad wonderfully puts it:

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.

Weingrad goes on to examine the differences between Christian and Jewish conceptions of magic and evil, which are essential to fantasy. But I’d like to draw attention to a third element.

Speaking as both an author and scholar of fantasy, Lewis said in a 1947 essay that “To construct plausible and moving ‘other worlds’ you must draw upon the only real ‘other world’ we know, that of the spirit.” No statement about the genre has ever been more definitive. The bedrock premise of fantasy, which cannot be waived without voiding the genre, is the existence of a spirit realm. Lewis’s Narnia, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Rowling’s “wizarding world,” parallel universes of all kind are imaginative reconstructions of Christianity’s first principle: namely, that the “kingdom of heaven” is the only true world.

G. K. Chesterton illustrated the connection between fantasy and a belief in the spirit realm quite entertainingly in Orthodoxy (1908):

Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense. It is not earth that judges heaven, but heaven that judges earth; so for me at least it was not earth that criticised elfland, but elfland that criticised the earth. I knew the magic beanstalk before I had tasted beans; I was sure of the Man in the Moon before I was certain of the moon. This was at one with all popular tradition. Modern minor poets are naturalists, and talk about the bush or the brook; but the singers of the old epics and fables were supernaturalists, and talked about the gods of brook and bush.

But Jewish tradition stands at a right angle to “all popular tradition.” Jewish children’s literature has developed only since 1935. Traditionally, Jewish children were taught the stories of the Bible and the Midrashim that filled in the biblical gaps, but the clear emphasis was upon practical religious lessons.

More to the point, there is no spirit realm, no “other world,” in Judaism. There is no Ascension in the Jewish religion. On the contrary, there is God’s “moving about in the garden at the breezy time of day” (Gen 3.8), there is God’s decision to “go down to see whether [Sodom and Gomorrah] have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me” (Gen 18.21), there is God’s exposing his backside to Moses (Exod 32.23). The dualism of matter and spirit, shadow and fulfillment, is foreign to Judaism.

If some Jewish readers have been exempt from the public enthusiasm for J. K. Rowling and the Harry Potter books, the explanation may lie as much in religious instinct and training as in literary criticism.

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The Voice Is Jacob’s Voice

The main feature at Jewish Ideas Daily this morning is a collection of my short essays on Retrieving American Jewish Fiction. Starting with Emma Wolf’s Other Things Being Equal (1892), the first American novel written by a Jew on a Jewish theme for an American audience, I trace a line of descent through better known names and lesser, ending with Henry Roth’s classic Call It Sleep in 1934. (One title that was not included on the roll call is Elias Tobenkin’s Witte Arrives, the first radical novel by a Jew in America.) A short bibliography of American Jewish fiction from 1892 to 1972 can be found here.

My favorite of the bunch, though, remains Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska (pictured at right). It may be, as I said elsewhere, the first Yiddish novel ever written in English. Yezierska’s novel is the best evidence for the proposition that American Jewish fiction is differentiated, not by having been written by Jews, not by being about Jews, but primarily by its language — Judeo-English, if I’ve got to call it something.

In his slashing account last week of how English departments have almost done in American literature, Joseph Epstein characterized “Jewish novels” as one of the currently favored “sub-forms” of the American novel. He lumped them together with “science fiction, eco-fiction, crime and mystery novels . . . Asian-American novels, African-American novels, war novels, postmodern novels, feminist novels, suburban novels, children’s novels, non-fiction novels, graphic novels and novels of disability.” That is, any talk about American Jewish fiction is likely to be little more than the way in which some literary critics practice the identity politics that now dominates English departments.

Some, maybe. Not all. In her sharp-minded critical study Call It English, Hana Wirth-Nesher of Tel Aviv University differentiates Jewish fiction by its multilingualism. She is not the first. The Yiddish critic Israel Elyashev (1873–1924), who wrote under the pseudonym Baal-Makhshoves, famously quipped: “One literature, two languages.” At least two! The critic Sh. Niger, whose real name was Shmuel Tsharny (1883–1955), wrote an entire book on Bilingualism in the History of Jewish Literature. It was published, significantly enough, in Detroit in 1941. “[O]ne language has never been enough for the Jewish people,” he wryly noted. The Jewish literary practice, very nearly as a condition of exile, has been to write in two languages at once. “[T]his did not bespeak a switch from an alien language to a language that was one’s own,” Niger explains. “No, here it was a case of a desire to add a second language of one’s own to a first.”

American Jews are little different, even when they are monolingual in English. Thirty years ago the linguist Deborah Tannen, who earned a reputation by arguing that women talk in a fundamentally different way from men, said much the same thing about New York Jews. In her essay “New York Jewish Conversational Style,” Tannen claimed that Jewish speech is different from other styles of speech in four ways:

1. Topic (a) prefer personal topics, (b) shift topics abruptly, (c) introduce topics without hesitance, (d) persistence (if a new topic is not immediately picked up, reintroduce it, repeatedly if necessary).
2. Genre (a) tell more stories, (b) tell stories in rounds, (c) internal evaluation . . . over external (i.e., the point of a story is dramatized rather than lexicalized), (d) preferred point of a story is teller’s emotional experience.
3. Pacing (a) faster rate of speech, (b) inter-turn pauses avoided (silence is evidence of lack of rapport), (c) faster turntaking, (d) cooperative overlap and participatory listenership.
4. Expressive paralinguistics (a) expressive phonology, (b) pitch and amplitude shifts, (c) marked voice quality, (d) strategic within-turn pauses.

Nearly all the features of Jewish speech that Tannen describes can also be found, louder and more insistent, in American Jewish fiction. Her paragraph on the pacing of Jewish conversation is an excellent short introduction to Saul Bellow’s prose style.

Starting in the 1960’s, American literature enjoyed a “concentrated burst of enthusiasm for writers consciously Jewish,” as the non-Jewish writer Edward Hoagland said with some annoyance in COMMENTARY. In an interview with Playboy the same year, Truman Capote blamed “the Jewish Mafia in American letters” which “control[s] much of the literary scene” through “Jewish-dominated” publications — publications like COMMENTARY, for instance.

As proud as I am to serve as an enforcer for the Jewish literary mafia, I think the real explanation for the sudden and prolonged prominence of American Jewish novelists is much simpler. They sound different from other American novelists. And the sounds they make, “the jumpy beat of American English,” as Philip Roth once described it, are hard to resist. Other novelists sound laconic, if not sleepy, by comparison. American Jewish fiction is the fiction that is written in a distinctive voice — Jacob’s voice.

The main feature at Jewish Ideas Daily this morning is a collection of my short essays on Retrieving American Jewish Fiction. Starting with Emma Wolf’s Other Things Being Equal (1892), the first American novel written by a Jew on a Jewish theme for an American audience, I trace a line of descent through better known names and lesser, ending with Henry Roth’s classic Call It Sleep in 1934. (One title that was not included on the roll call is Elias Tobenkin’s Witte Arrives, the first radical novel by a Jew in America.) A short bibliography of American Jewish fiction from 1892 to 1972 can be found here.

My favorite of the bunch, though, remains Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska (pictured at right). It may be, as I said elsewhere, the first Yiddish novel ever written in English. Yezierska’s novel is the best evidence for the proposition that American Jewish fiction is differentiated, not by having been written by Jews, not by being about Jews, but primarily by its language — Judeo-English, if I’ve got to call it something.

In his slashing account last week of how English departments have almost done in American literature, Joseph Epstein characterized “Jewish novels” as one of the currently favored “sub-forms” of the American novel. He lumped them together with “science fiction, eco-fiction, crime and mystery novels . . . Asian-American novels, African-American novels, war novels, postmodern novels, feminist novels, suburban novels, children’s novels, non-fiction novels, graphic novels and novels of disability.” That is, any talk about American Jewish fiction is likely to be little more than the way in which some literary critics practice the identity politics that now dominates English departments.

Some, maybe. Not all. In her sharp-minded critical study Call It English, Hana Wirth-Nesher of Tel Aviv University differentiates Jewish fiction by its multilingualism. She is not the first. The Yiddish critic Israel Elyashev (1873–1924), who wrote under the pseudonym Baal-Makhshoves, famously quipped: “One literature, two languages.” At least two! The critic Sh. Niger, whose real name was Shmuel Tsharny (1883–1955), wrote an entire book on Bilingualism in the History of Jewish Literature. It was published, significantly enough, in Detroit in 1941. “[O]ne language has never been enough for the Jewish people,” he wryly noted. The Jewish literary practice, very nearly as a condition of exile, has been to write in two languages at once. “[T]his did not bespeak a switch from an alien language to a language that was one’s own,” Niger explains. “No, here it was a case of a desire to add a second language of one’s own to a first.”

American Jews are little different, even when they are monolingual in English. Thirty years ago the linguist Deborah Tannen, who earned a reputation by arguing that women talk in a fundamentally different way from men, said much the same thing about New York Jews. In her essay “New York Jewish Conversational Style,” Tannen claimed that Jewish speech is different from other styles of speech in four ways:

1. Topic (a) prefer personal topics, (b) shift topics abruptly, (c) introduce topics without hesitance, (d) persistence (if a new topic is not immediately picked up, reintroduce it, repeatedly if necessary).
2. Genre (a) tell more stories, (b) tell stories in rounds, (c) internal evaluation . . . over external (i.e., the point of a story is dramatized rather than lexicalized), (d) preferred point of a story is teller’s emotional experience.
3. Pacing (a) faster rate of speech, (b) inter-turn pauses avoided (silence is evidence of lack of rapport), (c) faster turntaking, (d) cooperative overlap and participatory listenership.
4. Expressive paralinguistics (a) expressive phonology, (b) pitch and amplitude shifts, (c) marked voice quality, (d) strategic within-turn pauses.

Nearly all the features of Jewish speech that Tannen describes can also be found, louder and more insistent, in American Jewish fiction. Her paragraph on the pacing of Jewish conversation is an excellent short introduction to Saul Bellow’s prose style.

Starting in the 1960’s, American literature enjoyed a “concentrated burst of enthusiasm for writers consciously Jewish,” as the non-Jewish writer Edward Hoagland said with some annoyance in COMMENTARY. In an interview with Playboy the same year, Truman Capote blamed “the Jewish Mafia in American letters” which “control[s] much of the literary scene” through “Jewish-dominated” publications — publications like COMMENTARY, for instance.

As proud as I am to serve as an enforcer for the Jewish literary mafia, I think the real explanation for the sudden and prolonged prominence of American Jewish novelists is much simpler. They sound different from other American novelists. And the sounds they make, “the jumpy beat of American English,” as Philip Roth once described it, are hard to resist. Other novelists sound laconic, if not sleepy, by comparison. American Jewish fiction is the fiction that is written in a distinctive voice — Jacob’s voice.

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