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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Read more at Jewish Review of Books

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

As World Leaders Gather to Remember the Holocaust, They Should Ask How Anti-Semitism Differs from Ordinary Hatreds

Jan. 22 2020

Today, an international conference titled “Remembering the Holocaust, Fighting Anti-Semitism” opens in Jerusalem, attended by representatives from some 40 governments, including the presidents of France, Russia, and Italy and the vice-president of the United States. While ample attention will no doubt be paid to the anti-Semitism of the extreme right, Fiamma Nirenstein fears that less will be paid to that of the left, and still less to the Islamic variety. She also fears that those in attendance will give in to a related, and dangerous, temptation to subsume anti-Semitism into an amorphous “hatred”:

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Read more at Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs

More about: Anti-Semitism, Holocaust, Intersectionality, Radical Islam