Michael Weingrad made something of a splash last year in writing “Why There is no Jewish Narnia” at the Jewish Review of Books. Of course, Weingrad misunderstands Narnia. To explain the seven novels succinctly, let us refer to the following equation:
Jesus was Jewish (therefore) Aslan was Jewish (therefore) Narnia = Jewish Autonomous Oblast (and) The White Witch = Christianity/Rome. QED.
But before you give me the combined Nobel Prize for Physics and Literature, let’s think about that seeming paradox. The fields of both science fiction and fantasy are filled with Jewish writers, from Isaac Asimov (can you get more Jewish than that?) to, erm, William Shatner. (Yes, he wrote TekWar! No, the Federation is not proud). Why, then, do so few genre works deal with Jewish universes? Where are the vampires who laugh at a crucifix, the Space Navy with Stars of David proudly painted on the hull of the ships? Imagine the ending for 2001: A Space Odyssey: “My God! It’s full of Jews!”
Or the Jewish immigrants passing en masse through the wardrobe to get to the safe-haven of Narnia, kicking some holy lion butt in the process. No?
Yes and no.
Joel Rosenberg’s novel Not For Glory (1988) features a galactic corps of Israeli mercenaries from the planet of Metzada (no, really, it does!). And one of the most obscure of science fiction’s Jewish masterpieces (its only one?) is the unjustly neglected The Tsaddik of the Seven Wonders, by Isidore Haiblum, concerning the comic adventures of two galactic operators trapped in Jewish history, and turning to the eponymous Tsaddik (and his travel maven Greenberg) for help. If Rosenberg’s novel is, how shall we say, not so great, Tsaddik is a true classic, one I return to with joy every time (appropriately enough, I have both the English and Hebrew editions, both long out of print).
Israel is enjoying something of an awakening in terms of Jewish fantasy and science fiction. Recently it has produced the first true masterpiece of Israeli SF – the novel Kfor by Shimon Adaf. It is an astonishing novel, following the lives of several characters in the Jewish city/country of Tel Aviv in five hundred years’ time, and combining science fiction, detective fiction, poetry and absolutely wonderful, heart-breakingly beautiful writing. It is unlikely to ever be translated.
Another novel by Adaf, however – the massive Sunburnt Faces – will be published in English next year by PS Publishing in the UK, the same small publisher that had taken such a chance on my own Osama. Small publishers can afford to take risks larger ones can’t, and to me this is nothing less than an event, an opportunity for a new audience to appreciate, for the first time, Adaf’s unique talent.
Do we need Narnia? This is what we ask ourselves after a couple of pints at the pub. What’s the real estate value on Cair Paravel? And just which law firm represents the White Witch’s interest? We picture Maurice Levy from The Wire as he defends yet another faun or centaur caught in the deadly world of illicit Turkish Delight wholesaling.
Let them have their Narnia, I say. We have the Tsaddik of the Seven Wonders, and we now have Shimon Adaf.
And we’ll always have Shatner.
Being compared to Philip K. Dick is great, especially when they secretly mean “will die a penniless paperback writer at the age of fifty-three.” In other words, such a comparison doesn’t exactly invite trust.
My new novel, Osama, recently came out. It’s available on the Kindle, and in a fancy hardcover edition from its small, UK-based publisher. It got rejected more times than Andie Macdowell’s character in Four Weddings and a Funeral had sex (“less than Madonna, more than Princess Di… I hope”). One can see why. For one thing, it’s called Osama.
The comparison I mention is, specifically, to Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, made recently by reviewers for both the UK’s Guardian newspaper and The Financial Times. Yes, I’m tooting my own horn here. Someone has to! But of course Osamaowes a huge debt to Dick’s brilliant alternative history, where the United States has lost World War Two and is divided between the victorious Germans and Japanese.
But I was thinking about Philip K. Dick a lot recently. He’s a constant reminder of Gustave Flaubert’s maxim, “Writing is a dog’s life, but the only life worth living.” Forget riches: for that matter, forget holidays, new clothes or a square meal more than once a week. Forget fame, either. Even notoriety is hard to come by these days. And forget respect: you’ll get reviews comparing your work, variously, to processed cheese or toilet paper, and you’ll be glad someone even noticed.
And yet and still. I can’t imagine doing anything better. Maybe I’m a romantic, fondly believing in the image of the artist starving for his art. I often talk about moving to that mythic attic in Paris where I could sit drinking bourbon and punching keys on my typewriter. You know. In the sixties.
I’ll move as soon as someone invented a time machine.
Maybe I’m just putting it on. I’m hardly starving. In fact I could do with losing a few. It’s the sedentary life, you know. You get more exercise from shifting books than writing them.
I commute from the bedroom to the lounge. Writing these days seems to consist mostly of checking your e-mail, Spider Solitaire and Twitter, followed by checking your e-mail again.
Nope. Nothing from Steven Spielberg today either. Red nine on black ten, red five on black six… is it four o’clock in the afternoon already? Where did the time go?
I’d better take another break.
I might be obsessed with historical figures. Maybe it’s a Jewish thing. But my two most recent books were Osama (a novel) and Jesus & The Eightfold Path (a novella) – though the one may be too early to be called historical, and the other may not be historical at all. Josephus Flavius, supposed chronicler of my novella (The Gospel According to Josephus, we learn half-way through) is our only contemporary historian to mention Jesus, but it appears quite likely the mention – a single paragraph – was inserted into the text centuries later.
Be that as it may, with a recent short story called “The Lives and Deaths of Che Guevara” (in the Solaris Rising anthology) chronicling the effect multiple clones of the legendary revolutionary had on the world’s various conflicts and wars, I think I might suffer from Historical Figure Fixation, and that just sounds like a bad Woody Allen movie (which is, basically, any Woody Allen movie after 1985. Badabing).
I keep saying my next book will have to be Mother Teresa, Gunslinger. I also like to say I never joke about future books. Though it occurs to me this might be better as a graphic novel. Certainly my planned book about a gun-slinging Walt Whitman traversing a future planet Mars accompanied by an automaton Golda Meir (in search of mysterious alien ruins, perhaps!) isn’t a joke. I’m just waiting for someone to pay me to write it.
I might be waiting a while, though.
Still, as long as you’re willing to be poorer than someone who was made redundant from McDonald’s, the writing life is a wonderful thing. You get to come up with titles like “The Were-Wizard of Oz” and sell the resultant story to an anthology (Bewere the Night, in all good bookstores!) or, indeed, re-imagine what would have happened if the three Wise Men from the East were the three companions of the Buddha (that is, Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy) from the Chinese classic A Journey to the West. The working title, needless to say, was Kung Fu Jesus.
Four Jews made an undeniable impact on 20th century culture. Freud gave us psychoanalysis. Marx gave us Marxism. Einstein gave us Relativity. And Haim Saban gave us Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.
It’s a hard act to follow.
But history’s a great thing for a writer. Otherwise it just, sort of, sits there. Doing nothing. Might as well package it. Ideally with some kung-fu.
But I think I’m getting better. I avoid the history books. Shun the History Channel. No more HFF for me. The words of my grandfather keep echoing in my ears, instead.
When, he said, when will you stop writing this weird… stuff, and write something serious for once?
I don’t know, Granddad. I don’t know.
So the tents have come down at Zuccotti Park. Occupy Wall Street is over. Or, as the more hopeful would have it, it has morphed into Occupy Everywhere. I hope they’re right. I hope Occupy Wall Street does become Occupy Everywhere. I hope the issues of the 99 percent become a focus of the upcoming Presidential campaign. And I hope real, lasting, meaningful change comes of this movement.
But just for a moment I’d like to look at the other side of the coin.
I’d like to sing the praises of failure. I’d like to point out that failure is in fact the universal fate of truly transformative social, political, or religious movements. And I’d like to argue that graceful failure matters just as much for revolutionaries as it does for source code and suspension bridges.
Actually, I’ve been thinking about graceful failure ever since Simchat Torah. This year it fell just after the Occupy Wall Street march on Times Square. My husband and I were more spectators than marchers, since we had two sleepy kids in tow. But a few days later when I looked at the bright faces of the children gathered under the tent of the upraised prayer shawls, whispering about important things like chocolate while we grownups droned on overhead about death and creation, I suddenly remembered the faces I’d seen streaming out of Times Square after the march.
It was a very New York crowd: a crowd of every age and color and social class. There was a radiant joy and hope in those faces that is all too rare in America today. And the sight of that great flood of humanity streaming across Manhattan reminded me powerfully of Martin Luther King Jr.’s prophetic words about justice rolling down like a mighty river.
Of course justice never did roll down like a mighty river. If it had, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s hate crime blog would be a lot quieter than it is. And the statistics on African-American children in poverty and African-American men in prison would not be source of national shame. The history of transformational politics in America is essentially a lesson in failing, failing again, and failing better. The late Howard Zinn dedicated much of his life to documenting this history. And more recently two wonderful books — John Nichols’s The ‘S’Word: A Short History of an American Tradition … Socialism and James R. Green’s Death in the Haymarket: A ShortStory of Chicago, the First Labor Movement, and the Bombing that Divided GildedAge America – have documented this underground history.
Martin Luther King knew this history. And he had a theologian’s grasp of the readings that waft over the heads of the children in synagogues all over the world each Simchat Torah. King understood that failure is the fate of all truly transformational social movements. If you read through the arc of his life and writings, you see him always pushing toward the next goal, peering around the next bend in the road, reminding people that the moment you begin to reify a movement — to become infatuated with success or paralyzed by the fear of failure — you have started the slow slide from revolution to institution, from transformation to status quo. This was one of his great contributions to American politics, though it’s one that is a lot harder to quantify and celebrate than his more tangible successes.
People like to tell fairy tales, of course. And as a fantasy writer I’d be the last person to claim that fairy tales are mere escapism. Fantasy turns a magic mirror on our world that can reveal long-accepted injustices and inspire us to transform society in light of our highest ideals. But many fairy tales have an insidious lie at their hearts: the promise of a happily ever after where conflict and corruption are banished; the promise that slaying dragons is a once-in-a-lifetime event, something you do right before sailing off to what James Thurber (tongue firmly in cheek as usual) called ‘the blessed isles of Ever After.’
But in real life there are no blessed isles of Ever After. In real life Moses dies in the desert. In real life Martin Luther King, Jr. died just as he was beginning to take on the truly intractable problems of socioeconomic injustice in America. In real life the promised land is always on the other side of the river — and transformative social movements are always crushed or corrupted, diluted or deflected, or simply lost in the flood of daily trivia.
So as we talk about what it means that the tents have come down, we should remind ourselves that it was never a question of whether Occupy Wall Street would fail. It was only a question of when. Occupy Wall Street will inevitably fail, just as all truly radical attempts at transformation fail. But if it fails well, then it will have brought us to the bank of the river. And it will have given us the courage to learn from our failure, turn back to the beginning of the scroll, and risk everything once again in a new act of creation.
Like so much of the Jewish liturgy, Simchat Torah is a ritual that meets you wherever you are in life and seems to impart new wisdom from year to year. As a parent I see it mainly as a time to give thanks for the gift of children and reaffirm my commitment to their Jewish education. But this year I was struck by the great gift that the ritual gives to our children: the gift of teaching them that failure is, if not exactly sweet, then at least part of the life’s cycle and no more to be feared than any other part.
That’s not a gift most of us are very good at giving our children in real life. Don’t get me wrong; kids certainly get plenty of chances to watch their parents fail. But we rarely do it gracefully. Usually we look around for someone else to blame. Or we lie to ourselves — especially in the realm of politics — settling for the achievable compromise and then reacting with fury when anyone has the chutzpah to remind us that we once hoped for bigger and better things. Simchat Torah cuts through the denial, in the most simple and unsentimental way imaginable.
And so we sing our songs of hope and failure. We put up our tents even though we know they will be taken down. We tell our children that the Torah is as sweet as honey. We tell them about Moses dying in the desert within sight of the promised land. And then we turn the scroll back to the beginning, and we start a new year of struggle, and we hope we fail better next time.
When I try to explain why I wrote The Inquisitor’s Apprentice – and why it’s emphatically not a Jewish Narnia a la Michael Weingrad — I always end up telling people that this is the book I wrote for my children.
Basically, I wrote it because I was a frustrated mother who wanted my son to be able to read a boy wizard book where the Jewish kid got to be the hero. That was the first kernel of the idea that has become the NYPD Inquisitor books: me rereading the books I remembered from my childhood, and then reading the new books that had been written since then, and realizing that the book I wanted my son to be able to read still wasn’t out there.
I wanted a children’s fantasy about a Jewish kid. And I wanted a book with all the magic, adventure, and humor of my childhood favorites, but whose mythology, worldview and characters would celebrate our family’s roots, beliefs and values.
I might as well be honest about it and admit that those values were hot pink. I grew up in left-wing New York political circles, in a predominantly Jewish but significantly multiethnic community that had its own distinctive hagiography (the Lincoln Brigade and Freedom Riders), family stories (the Rosenbergs, the McCarthy blacklist, the Peekskill riots), music (can you say Hootenanny?) and even summer camps (my mom went to Camp Redwing. Get it, wink, wink, Redwing?)
My husband grew up only a few miles away from me. Until the most recent Manhattan construction boom you could actually see my parents’ apartment building from his parents’ apartment building if you knew where to look. But he grew up in a New York that embodied a completely different version of the Jewish-American experience. His grandfather emigrated from Russia, went to work in the garment district, saved up his money, went into wholesale, and had two sons who both grew up to be cardiologists. My grandparents were atheists, his were Orthodox. My grandparents marched on Washington, his retired to Florida. And — this last sentence says it all, really — I grew up on the Upper West Side, he grew up on the Upper East Side.
I wanted to share both sides of that New York heritage with my children. I wanted to tell them about the Vaudeville musicians and the sweatshop workers, the rabbis and the wobblies, the grandfather who grew up on Avenue J, and the grandmother who grew up in Greenwich Village. I wanted to take my kids back to the Lower East Side a hundred years ago, and let them see first-hand the lives, the struggles, and the values of their great-grandparents. I wanted to celebrate the special magic of New York — and the equally special magic of the loud, zany, eccentric and argumentative New Yorkers I grew up around. I wanted to get my son excited about being Jewish, excited about the Lower East Side, and curious about the vibrant intersection of Judaism and left-wing politics that contributed shaped not only our own family’s history but much of American history throughout the 20th century.
And … well … if he developed a taste for klezmer, too, I wasn’t exactly going to cry about it.
In one sense, of course, this was a deeply Narnia-esque project. Because, let’s be honest, it was all about proselytizing. But the proselytizing wasn’t aimed at other people’s kid’s, only at my own. And it was about telling my children where they came from, not telling them where I thought they should go in life. I wanted to write a sort of family origin myth, one that went to the heart of what I hope my children will value in their own complex, multiethnic, but emphatically Jewish heritage. And if there was any preaching going on, then it had a lot less in common with C. S. Lewis’s Christian apologetics than with William Goldman’s The Princess Bride – a book that uses humor, romance and magic to drive home the underlying moral of “Hey, would it kill you to turn off the TV and listen to your grandfather’s stories once in a while?”
Those stories are what it’s really about for me. Stories of grandparents and great-aunts and uncles that were passed on around kitchen tables over three generations, that made me and my husband who we are, and that will continue to shape our children long after we ourselves are gone. Building fantasy out of those stories is not about resurrecting a mythical lost medieval world in which my children can escape from the complexity and moral ambiguity of real life, but about shedding the transformational light of fantasy on this world: the one my children will build their future in. And recasting our family’s story as fantasy is the best way I’ve found to share my own questions about faith, politics, ethnicity, and what it means to be Jewish in America with my children.
I say questions instead of answers because, as every parent knows, we cannot force our children to accept our answers in life. We can only share our questions with them. We do this in the hope that they will find better and wiser answers than we can yet imagine. And one of the ways we do it is by telling them the story of where they come from.
The Inquisitor’s Apprentice is my attempt to do that. And if it’s wrapped up in a New York fairy tale, with a little romance, and a big dose of slapstick humor? Well … love, laughter, and fantasy are some of the best ways humans have of making sense of our world.