How Not to Write a Jewish Fantasy Novel

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.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

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

 

Iran’s Calculations and America’s Mistake

There is little doubt that if Hizballah had participated more intensively in Saturday’s attack, Israeli air defenses would have been pushed past their limits, and far more damage would have been done. Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack, trying to look at things from Tehran’s perspective, see this as an important sign of caution—but caution that shouldn’t be exaggerated:

Iran is well aware of the extent and capability of Israel’s air defenses. The scale of the strike was almost certainly designed to enable at least some of the attacking munitions to penetrate those defenses and cause some degree of damage. Their inability to do so was doubtless a disappointment to Tehran, but the Iranians can probably still console themselves that the attack was frightening for the Israeli people and alarming to their government. Iran probably hopes that it was unpleasant enough to give Israeli leaders pause the next time they consider an operation like the embassy strike.

Hizballah is Iran’s ace in the hole. With more than 150,000 rockets and missiles, the Lebanese militant group could overwhelm Israeli air defenses. . . . All of this reinforces the strategic assessment that Iran is not looking to escalate with Israel and is, in fact, working very hard to avoid escalation. . . . Still, Iran has crossed a Rubicon, although it may not recognize it. Iran had never struck Israel directly from its own territory before Saturday.

Byman and Pollack see here an important lesson for America:

What Saturday’s fireworks hopefully also illustrated is the danger of U.S. disengagement from the Middle East. . . . The latest round of violence shows why it is important for the United States to take the lead on pushing back on Iran and its proxies and bolstering U.S. allies.

Read more at Foreign Policy

More about: Iran, Israeli Security, U.S. Foreign policy