Next Year in Jerusalem – Gabrielle Harbowy
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.
March 9, 2015 @ 12:22 pm
Are you familiar with this lisT:
March 9, 2015 @ 12:26 pm
I forgot to credit Steven Silver who compiled the list.
March 9, 2015 @ 3:06 pm
I had a moment of “Judaism isn’t represented?” cluelessness on seeing this post. Then it occurred to me that growing up reading Jane Yolen might give that impression – but she’s also ONE person, and it’s almost exactly the same as citing Samuel Delany over and over to say black people are already represented in SF/F. One voice is not sufficient, however much a grandmaster she may be. (She is awesome, though). So, I apologize for my thoughtlessness, and thank you for a post which made me reconsider a significant blind spot.
I can also note Marie Brennan’s current series (Starting with a Natural History of Dragons) as using a faith obviously based on Judaism instead of Christianity.
March 9, 2015 @ 4:41 pm
Thank you for this. Even worse for me were the SF books where there’d be one character with a Jewish last name, not necessarily actually said to be Jewish but given traits from the old stereotypes (big nose, cheap, untrustworthy).
@Lenora – I can’t begin to tell you how excited I was when I was reading Natural History of Dragons and suddenly realize the people were Jewish!
March 9, 2015 @ 5:20 pm
Thanks for sharing this.
I grew up in a very Jewish part of NY and so absorbed bits and pieces via osmosis from my friends and teachers growing up. It was a painful awakening when I moved to the midwest and more than a little upsetting. This is a major reason why I support and want non-stereotype diversity in narratives – because when there isn’t, it’s really easy to make “those people” the enemy.
Anyway, as Lenora Rose before me mentioned, Marie Brennan’s books are good.
March 9, 2015 @ 7:12 pm
I’d never given this idea a lick of thought,until I saw Ivanova on Babylon Five, when I realized that none of the religions I knew about, outside of Christianity, were referenced in Genre shows. That was twenty years ago and I still haven’t noticed much difference.
I’m an atheist, too, so when Christianity isn’t being referenced, I noticed most people seem to have no religious backgrounds at all. Like there’s only two options.
D. D. Webb
March 10, 2015 @ 7:38 am
I’m afraid this is going to ignite an argument; sorry in advance. But in all honesty, I’m struggling with the inclusion of religion on this otherwise excellent series.
I write a webserial. It’s an epic fantasy which uses a lot of very recognizable tropes–y’know, the world of dragons, wizards, elves and demons. My favorite thing is subverting expectations, and my story deconstructs, analyzes and averts a lot of those “classic” story elements. In addition, I’ve found great satisfaction in expanding my cast beyond the typical high fantasy demographics handed down to us from Tolkien. Working online without the aid of a publisher, I can use all the queer characters and people of color I like, and nobody tells me that won’t appeal to readers. No one has ever complained about it, either, which leads me to suspect those industry objections are groundless in the first place. I would like to think, in short, that I’m doing fairly well on the matter of representation.
There are, however, no Jewish characters in my story. Nor Muslim, nor Christian, or anything else we’d recognize as a religious identity. In fact, faith and religion are central themes of the story, but explored entirely through the lens of fictional gods and fictional faiths. I see this as a categorically different issue, in terms of worldbuilding and characterization. It seems to me that a cast (and their story) is weakened by showing only a small slice of the spectrum of human identity, but…when I say things like that, I’m always referring to actual traits of people. Race, sexual identity, even mental illnesses (or conditions like autism that are arguably traits and not disabilities), these are inborn characteristics. Religion isn’t.
Religion is ideas, choices, and actions. It is a thing people do, not a thing they are. And with apologies for my bluntness, the fact is that with regard to a given religious action, a person doesn’t NEED to, and could stop. If a person finds satisfaction, peace or growth in religion, excellent. It can even become central to their identity–but in the way that a career, or hobby, or choice of partner can be, not in the way of skin color or sexual orientation.
I support broader religious representation in the forms of media where it makes sense, which is anything set in our actual world. It seems unhealthy and dishonest to exclude or misrepresent real religious groups if you’re going to try to represent real life. But I don’t write about the real world. Here I am, a fantasy author reading the blog of a fantasy author, and I come face to face with an implication that the lack of Jewish characters in my work makes me part of a problem.
An author of speculative fiction can create worlds under any rules they like; I could easily make a world where everyone is white and straight. Goodness knows enough authors have done that. But it would feel, to me, inherently prejudiced to do this, which is why I have so much enjoyed this series on representation. It’s not a passive omission, but an active elimination–and even in fiction, actively eliminating sections of the population is problematic at best.
Yet, I write a story in which Jewish, Hindu or Scientologist readers aren’t going to see that aspect of themselves. Nor will software engineers, NASCAR drivers or air traffic controllers, for exactly the same reason. It’s not bigotry, or lack of understanding, or ignorance. Those are just areas of human activity that don’t make any sense outside of a specific context; they are not inherently integral to anyone’s existence. They’re actions, not traits.
If I’m to be honest, I guess what I’m feeling here is resentment. It smarts, being told that I’ve failed to be inclusive because something a person has chosen to do with their life isn’t represented in anything I’ve written. I sympathize with the person looking for themselves in the stories they read, I think it would be wonderful to see broader representation in all genres, but in particular fantasy–because it’s my first love, and because I see a real problem with the lack of representation in it. I do my best to show a wider variety of the human race than my genre has traditionally done. And yes, I know that nothing here was aimed at me; emotional reactions aren’t logical. I don’t blame Ms. Harbowy or Mr. Hines or anyone for my own stuff, as it seems pretty obvious to me the intentions here were all positive. It should be noted, further, that the question of Jewish identity in particular is more complex than the specific issue I’m discussing here, as that is not only a religion but an ethnicity, and while a person can be one and not the other, they are culturally linked.
When we talk about representation in speculative fiction, there’s always somebody who stands up at the back and shouts about “checklists,” how requiring authors to include a certain number of characters with different traits will strangle creativity. And we roll our eyes, because nobody’s trying to do that and it’s an obvious derailing tactic. Sometimes I wonder, though, if we aren’t straying into checklist territory. To me, the essential category of consideration is inherent traits that human beings have, things that people are and cannot help.
Religion is not one of those things. It’s not fair or reasonable to ask that all personal choices get a slice of the limelight. Some things, in their story representation, are the province of niche stories, and honestly I think that’s fair. Traits and actions are different things.
I apologize sincerely if I offended anyone, which was not my intention; I was trying to balance honesty with politeness. I hope everyone can find the stories that speak to them.
Jim C. Hines
March 10, 2015 @ 7:52 am
While I appreciate your honesty, I’d suggest taking a step back and asking where that resentment is coming from. Nobody told you that you’ve failed as an author. Nobody said you personally have to change the stories you’re writing, or that you have to be able to check off every aspect of humanity that’s come up in these guest posts. And nothing in Gabrielle’s essay said you were Doing It Wrong.
What is it that’s making you feel so defensive? Why does someone talking about how much it meant to her to see this aspect of her identity included in the genre in a thoughtful and positive way make you feel resentful or scolded?
D. D. Webb
March 10, 2015 @ 8:14 am
Valid questions, which I’ve been mulling.
From my perspective on the other side of this issue, it’s always seemed to me there’s an inevitable element of accusation in calling for more representation. The lack of it in so many genres is tied strongly to societal prejudices; it’s an issue that exists because creators have failed to depict humanity in its full scope. Perhaps it’s only my issue, but I can’t get away from the perception that if someone is let down, it’s because someone let them down. And as I said in my post above, the exclusion of lots of kinds of people from much of fantasy isn’t a passive thing, however creators may have intended it. When you write a whitewashed story, you’ve washed a lot of people out of it.
Aside from that, I do and have always drawn a distinction between religion and inborn human traits, and I’ve long been troubled by protections of religious activity being held on a par with protections against persecution on other grounds. It doesn’t seem right to me that a choice of action should warrant the same class of protection as a person’s integral characteristics as a human being.
Perhaps at the intersection of these perspectives, I’m troubled by implications here that I’m the only one seeing. I certainly don’t hold up my perspective as absolute, but I do think these things are worth considering and discussing.
Perhaps not here, if you don’t feel it’s appropriate for your comments section. I’ll drop the matter if you wish. I think I pretty much said what was on my mind anyway; not much use in fostering an argument.
Jim C. Hines
March 10, 2015 @ 8:39 am
Re: accusation, I think it depends. There certainly tends to be frustration and even anger about feeling excluded. And you’re right about the ongoing failure to really write about the broad range of humanity. I guess I see it as the distinction between “You, D. D. Webb, have FAILED as an author” and “We, as a community of SF/F authors, can do better.” So maybe there is an element of accusation there. But I don’t feel like it’s a personal accusation. And if it’s an area where I’ve fallen short, my takeaway is that it’s more for me to think about and learn. But it doesn’t mean that a given story was wrong, or that I should go back and include Judaism in the goblin books, for example. (Though it’s interesting to think about how that might work, given that universe…)
Anyway, I do see your point about religion being distinct from inborn traits or aspects of a person’s identity. But I don’t think that takes away the importance of representation, either.
D. D. Webb
March 10, 2015 @ 8:45 am
I think you’re right; there’s a bit of a knee-jerk reaction there that may not be appropriate. You mentioned that in your introduction to the next post in this series, which I personally found helpful. We humans are defensive creatures when we perceive a challenge.
And of course, we can always try to do better.
March 10, 2015 @ 11:53 am
That’s an interesting take on representation. Now that I think about it, stories where religion is mentioned at all involve only Christian weddings and Christmas celebrations. I’m not Christian, neither by birth nor by choice, and yet I never thought, “why are the protagonists always Christian?” I suppose I had subconsciously accepted that that’s just how it is. That most people are Christian. Now I realise how similar that line of thinking is to “most people are white”. That is to say, it is (a) inaccurate, and (b) irrelevant. ‘Most’ is not the same as ‘all’.
Thanks for writing this and helping me realize!
And, oh goodness, my TBR mountain will soon be big enough to crush an entire city if it keeps growing at this rate.
March 10, 2015 @ 12:31 pm
I think we’re getting closer to the source of your discomfort.
“I’ve long been troubled by protections of religious activity being held on a par with protections against persecution on other grounds. It doesn’t seem right to me that a choice of action should warrant the same class of protection as a person’s integral characteristics as a human being.”
You are considering “religion” as a personal philosophical choice. But it is much more than that. It is also a cultural identity and a personal identity. For many, many, many people, religion is an integral part of their personal identity. If you want to understand anything about the religious you’re going to have to get your head around that.
For myself, I could no more stop being Jewish than I could stop being heterosexual, or female, or white. Which is to say: I could. I could identify myself as Christian, or gay, or male, and I could even self-identify as another race; only some of these self-defined transitions would be supported by the larger culture around me, however. Converting religion, in this time and place, is perhaps the easiest identity transition I could make, but in other places and times it would be the hardest.
In Iran, for example, some gay men transition to female rather than leave Islam, which forbids homosexuality but accepts heterosexual transgender women. Leaving Islam is a crime punishable by death. In that place, in this time, gender is more mutable than religion.
Here in the US, as gender transition becomes more accepted, it will perhaps someday be argued that remaining female is a choice I am making, just as remaining Jewish is a choice. By your logic, therefore, sexism could be seen as acceptable; why should my personal choice of gender be protected? I could say that my gender reflects something immutable about myself, my concept of myself, my history, my experience of the world, my understanding of that experience. But those are all things that I could say about religion, too, which in your view is also a choice.
I’ve often used the inverse of this to argue for protections for gay people. The gay rights movement has put a lot of emphasis on the innateness and immutability of sexual orientation in order to appeal to people like yourself who believe that only innate and immutable traits should be protected from bigotry. “Born this way,” etc. But sexuality and its expression are much more complex; sexual attractions may change over a person’s lifetime, and be expressed in different ways in different cultures and contexts. My argument was that, even if sexuality could be seen as a choice, it should be protected in the same way that religion is: a choice *of conscience,* something that is a deeply personal reckoning and should not be coerced or punished.
March 10, 2015 @ 3:51 pm
I appreciate the comments and the discussion. My intent was not to say “we’re/you’re doing it wrong” or make it about which flavor of God is the best (personally, I’m an atheist with a very strong tie to a cultural identity), but to share a personal moment in which I highlight and celebrate my own personal discovery of “people like me” in fiction.
I’m pleased that it’s made people think; that was my aim. Kanika’s comment, below, sums up my intent better than I can.
So, I’m definitely not here to preach or scold, or to imply that the first resources I found are the only ones that exist (Of course they’re not; this is a tale of my experience, not a scholarly bibliography), or to Call for Action. I’m not up on a soap box, and I don’t mean to suggest you’re doing it wrong. In fact, when you say you’re conscious in your fantasy-writing of including “areas of human activity that don’t make any sense outside of a specific context,” I think you’re doing it right.
Not every piece of fiction has to make every statement. It’s just exciting to find the pieces of yourself mirrored (effectively, respectfully) on the page that don’t often have a voice there.
March 10, 2015 @ 7:16 pm
Harry Turtledove writes a lot of explicitly Jewish characters in his SF. And even in one fantasy: the hero in “The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump” is Jewish, and vampires are repelled even more by a Star of David. It’s a more potent symbol, being older and all.
I love the “Wandering Stars” anthologies. Some of the characters are kinda heavy on the old stereotypes, but nevertheless (as another great Jewish writer said): Jews In Space!
I always had Jewish friends growing up, and a large enough population that the holidays were understood and celebrated in schools (I made a dreidel in kindergarten), so was aghast when I went to college and met a girl who’d grown up no more than 200 miles from me who still didn’t know the difference between Jews and Christians.
My dad, whose hobbies were fishing and pissing people off, used to respond to “Merry Christmas” with “And a Happy Hanukkah to you.” Just to see the look of confusion and the spluttering unless/until they realized he was kidding (being an atheist from a tent revival family). Made ’em think, though.
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March 16, 2015 @ 2:08 pm
[…] Next Year in Jerusalem – Gabrielle Harbowy. On the paucity of Jewish characters in SF/F (guest post, part of the “Invisible” series on Jim C. Hine’s blog) […]