How Not to Write a Jewish Fantasy Novel

Oct. 26 2018

Set in late-medieval Eastern Europe, Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver has as its heroine a Jewish girl, named Miryem Mandelstam, who is abducted by a group of supernatural beings called the Staryk. Michael Weingrad finds the book’s Jewish characters entirely deracinated, and its message one of superficial tolerance:

More unbelievable than any supernatural element [in Spinning Silver] is that the Jewish and Christian characters are friendly to the point of (sometimes literal) cuddliness. Indeed, Miryem’s rescue, and the saving of all of Lithvas [the book’s fictionalized version of Lithuania], from an eternal winter conjured by the Staryk king, is made possible because of her friendships with the peasant girl Wanda and her brothers. In fact, Miryem’s and Wanda’s families eventually decide to live together in one big house. The book even ends with an interfaith (and interspecies) marriage between Miryem and the Staryk king. (Of course, Miryem insists they have a ceremony with a rabbi; no word yet on how they’re planning to raise the children.) Wanda and her brother Sergey sign the k’tubah [Jewish marriage contract] as witnesses.

Sure, all this beats a pogrom. But given that Novik clearly intends the book to work as a commentary on the situation of Jews in the East European past, the result is an unconvincing muddle. In Novik’s fairy tale, anti-Semitism (along with most other problems) seems mainly a result of economic inequity, scarcity, and greed. If people would just learn to share instead of seeking profits and hoarding wealth, it would go away. But this is only remotely plausible because Novik has stocked her book not with anything resembling historical Jews and Christians but with 21st-century secular liberals who have no commitment to group identity in the first place.

“I confess I had never been very attached to Torah,” says Miryem. (It doesn’t help that Novik has Miryem repeatedly cite the story of Judith and Holofernes as Jewish “color.” Novik seems not to know that the book of Judith is part of the Christian scriptural canon, not the Jewish Bible.) For that matter, none of Novik’s main characters, Jew or Christian, expresses any attachment to peoplehood, religion, or nation. Tellingly, Novik’s Litvaks don’t even speak Yiddish.

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More about: Apocrypha, Arts & Culture, East European Jewry, Fantasy, Jewish literature, Literature

Hizballah Is in Venezuela to Stay

Feb. 21 2019

In a recent interview, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mentioned the presence of Hizballah cells in Venezuela as further evidence of the growing unrest in that country. The Iran-backed group has operated in Venezuela for years, engaging in narcotics trafficking and money laundering to fund its activities in the Middle East, and likely using the country as a base for planning terrorist attacks. If Juan Guaido, now Venezuela’s internationally recognized leader, is able to gain control of the government, he will probably seek to alter this situation. But, writes Colin Clarke, his options may be limited.

A government led by Guaido would almost certainly be more active in opposing Hizballah’s presence on Venezuelan soil, not just nominally but in more aggressively seeking to curtail the group’s criminal network and, by extension, the influence of Iran. As part of a quid pro quo for its support, Washington would likely seek to lean on Guaido to crack down on Iran-linked activities throughout the region.

But there is a major difference between will and capability. . . . Hizballah is backed by a regime in Tehran that provides it with upward of $700 million annually, according to some estimates. Venezuela serves as Iran’s entry point into Latin America, a foothold the Iranians are unlikely to cede without putting up a fight. Moreover, Russia retains a vested interest in propping up [the incumbent] Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro and keeping him in power, given the longstanding relationship between the two countries. . . . Further, after cooperating closely in Syria, Hizballah is now a known quantity to the Kremlin and an organization that President Vladimir Putin could view as an asset that, at the very least, will not interfere with Russia’s designs to extend its influence in the Western hemisphere.

If the Maduro regime is ultimately ousted from power, that will likely have a negative impact on Hizballah in Venezuela. . . . Yet, on balance, Hizballah has deep roots in Venezuela, and completely expelling the group—no matter how high a priority for the Trump administration—remains unlikely. The best-case scenario for Washington could be an ascendant Guaido administration that agrees to combat Hizballah’s influence—if the new government is willing to accept a U.S. presence in the country to begin training Venezuelan forces in the skills necessary to counter terrorism and transnational criminal networks with strong ties to Venezuelan society. But that scenario, of course, is dependent on the United States offering such assistance in the first place.

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More about: Hizballah, Iran, Mike Pompeo, Politics & Current Affairs, U.S. Foreign policy, Venezuela