One of the side effects of these guest blogs is that I’m constantly thinking, “Ooh, I want to read that!” as people mention stories and books in the essays and comments. I’m going to try to put together a reading list based on the conversations around each essay, though it may take me a few weeks to pull that together after all of these have been posted.
For now, please welcome Gabrielle Harbowy to the blog, talking about what it was like growing up Jewish, and representation and stereotyping in the genre.
Jewish children are raised with an unusually sophisticated burden: complicity in the Santa Claus lie. “No, he’s not real,” my mother explained when I was eight, “but it’s important to Christian kids to believe that he is, so it’s our responsibility to respect that and play along.”
“But we’re lying to them!”
“I know. But they want us to. Their parents would be mad if you told them, and then they might not let you play with them anymore.”
Christmas is everything. It’s the most anticipated event of the year. Unless you’re a Jewish kid, in which case it’s a treat dangled out of reach. A game everyone gets to play…except you.
Sure, there might be one silver and blue star among all the red and green. As a child, I was told that I was supposed to be grateful for, and contented by, that. Yet, Christian decorations appeared all over my life without my consent: on my radio; on the front door of my school or my apartment building, as if they represented everyone inside. To dissent, to say that I didn’t want my space representing a belief I didn’t share, was to incite backlash.
Jewish children learn early not to rock the boat. If someone wishes you a merry Christmas, it is proper to thank them and improper to correct them.
Because of this, Judaism is not well understood and Christianity remains the default. The “New York immigrant” stereotype is only a small fraction of Jewish history and culture, but the old man who speaks with the Yiddish accent is most modern media’s default representation of Jews.
I was writing a piece of Jewish science fiction recently, and I found that most of my response to non-Jewish critique partners came in the form of shooting down my readers’ requests to see those stereotypes. They thought the Brooklyn immigrant dialect, the matchmaking yenta, the thriftiness and parental guilt, would make the work more “authentic.” It hurt to have to write “STET. We aren’t all like that” over and over in the margins. It reinforced the feeling that my cultural heritage was in the margins, too.
Growing up Jewish, I’ve always been blind to New Testament symbolism. I have read the New Testament, but I haven’t internalized it the way someone who grew up with it would have. My husband grew up Catholic, and only by watching him react to media do I realize there’s a layer I’m missing. I’m fortunate that he doesn’t mind explaining.
If I were to fall into a random piece of fiction, I’d be at a huge disadvantage. My places of worship are few and infrequent. It is unlikely that a small town will have one. Even if it does, it’s unlikely to be my denomination. I don’t know the Lord’s Prayer, so I don’t know how I’d prove that I’m not a witch. If a vampire were to attack me, odds are low that I’d conveniently be wearing a cross at my throat.
The first solid representation of Judaism I found in genre fiction brought vampires into my world: “Why is This Night Different” by Janni Lee Simner (in Sisters in Fantasy 2). It’s a Passover story in which a vampire is passing a house as its residents proclaim, in accordance with tradition, “Let all who are hungry come and eat” …which certainly counts as an invitation to enter. It was a brilliant use of Judaism taken to its logical extreme in a fantastical context. This wasn’t a story with or about a token Jew, or even a token Jewish family. Judaism was integral to the story. It was overwhelming to see myself, my family, a ritual I’d grown up with, on the page. I remember thinking, “You can do that?”
Next, I found Marge Piercy’s He, She, and It. Piercy brings the golem legend into science fiction by playing on its parallel to the android, with plenty of Jewish culture and history to provide setting, context, and flavor. Some of it was the result of extensive historical research, but some of it was the kind of flavor that only experience can provide. Someone else in the world knew what it was like to grow up with a grandmother like mine, with holidays I celebrated. I’d been the only Jewish kid in my class—for five years, the only one in my whole school—so I’d never had a friend who grew up with the same rituals and references I did. To find it in a book was to find a friend.
But that’s just science fiction and spec fic. In the typical medieval fantasy world, the binary theological options are Christianity on one hand and the author-created pantheon on the other. Though, I do refer any Jewish aspiring dragon-hunter types to Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s wonderful Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals—another formative reference that deserves mention—I still wonder, has any Jew has ever slain a dragon or become a divine healer in epic fantasy?
And it’s so tempting to insert one, to make that happen, but I don’t want to tokenize people like me for the sake of inclusion. If someone like me is in a story, I want it to have purpose and expose a culture, a worldview, an experience, to people who aren’t familiar with it. We see the beasties more often than the people—the dybbuks and golems, without the presence of the culture that gave them form.
What does it say when our monsters get more representation than our people?
There are so many unmined fantastical elements of the real history, culture, and practice of Jewish life, and such a strong Jewish tradition of scholarship and commentary about that which is opaque and unknowable, that it seems natural to take these elements beyond their earthly logical extremes and into the more extreme extremes only possible in speculative fiction.
Speculation, after all, is inherent to Judaism. “Next year in Jerusalem,” we say on Passover—we don’t know where we’ll be a year from now, but we can aspire to be personally and philosophically closer to what we consider important at this time next year than we are today.
Gabrielle Harbowy is an award-nominated editor of fantasy and science fiction, a submissions editor for Apex Magazine, and managing editor of Dragon Moon Press. She co-edited the acclaimed “When the Hero Comes Home” anthology series with Ed Greenwood, and writes a column for the Lambda Literary Review. Her short fiction has appeared in various anthologies, including Carbide Tipped Pens (Tor), and her first novel is forthcoming from Paizo in 2016.