Two Jewish Fantasy Novels, Despite Their Respective Charms, Are Satisfied with Superficiality

Gavriel Savit’s English-language The Way Back and Masha Zur-Glozman’s Hebrew-language Satisfying the Dragon are both, in their own ways, Jewish-themed fantasy novels. In the first, characters from a 19th-century Russian shtetl confront demons and the supernatural, while in the second the 21st-century protagonist travels to the 13th century to have an affair with French nobleman. Reviewing both, Michael Weingrad finds “dark delights” as well as “weaknesses” in The Way Back:

In interviews, Savit has spoken of mining Jewish tradition for his fantasy, but he didn’t dig that deep. For instance, of the book’s four main supernatural characters, two are (to the best of my knowledge) imports from Christian, not Jewish myth. . . . We get a canny fantasy version of the Jewish cantonist brigades of the Russian empire on the one hand; on the other, we get an episode with literal chicken soup for the soul.

As for Satisfying the Dragon, which Weingrad describes as “a Tel Aviv hipster in King Arthur’s court,” the author’s literary skill can’t make up for the “banality” of its main character Idit, and her husband Shaul.

Idit’s daily existence consists of pot-smoking, artisanal cocktails, dropping her daughter off at daycare, and stepping out occasionally to a dance club or political protest or European capital for vacation. Her husband, who supports her financially and whose family conveniently bequeaths them their seaside villa, is supposed to be some kind of Israeli cultural figure. He is the editor of the feminist magazine M’shuḥreret (Liberated Woman) and radio host of a successful arts-and-culture program. Yet neither he nor Idit evinces any interest in ideas, art, or culture apart from binging Netflix. Credentialed, progressive, and self-infatuated, they are perfect examples of today’s slightly-above-average-intelligence members of the cultural elite.

Naturally, Idit’s Jewishness is of no import to her on either side of the portal—for that matter, neither are the Christian beliefs and practices of her lover—and she doesn’t even register curiosity about the medieval Jewish doctor who tends to the family of her courtly swain. Her crusader Jean is good in bed, and that’s all Idit needs to know about the 13th century. If treated as satire, the book’s premise would make excellent Israeli television, but this novel is earnest.

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Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Fantasy, Israeli literature, Jewish literature

Salman Rushdie and the Western Apologists for Those Who Wish Him Dead

Aug. 17 2022

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder and supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, issued a fatwa (religious ruling) in 1989 calling for believers to murder the novelist Salman Rushdie due to the content of his novel, The Satanic Verses. Over the years, two of the book’s translators have been stabbed—one fatally—and numerous others have been injured or killed in attempts to follow the ayatollah’s writ. Last week, an American Shiite Muslim came closer than his many predecessors to killing Rushdie, stabbing him multiple times and leaving him in critical condition. Graeme Wood comments on those intellectuals in the West who have exuded sympathy for the stabbers:

In 1989, the reaction to the fatwa was split three ways: some supported it; some opposed it; and some opposed it, to be sure, but still wanted everyone to know how bad Rushdie and his novel were. This last faction, Team To Be Sure, took the West to task for elevating this troublesome man and his insulting book, whose devilry could have been averted had others been more attuned to the sensibilities of the offended.

The fumes are still rising off of this last group. The former president Jimmy Carter was, at the time of the original fatwa, the most prominent American to suggest that the crime of murder should be balanced against Rushdie’s crime of blasphemy. The ayatollah’s death sentence “caused writers and public officials in Western nations to become almost exclusively preoccupied with the author’s rights,” Carter wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times. Well, yes. Carter did not only say that many Muslims were offended and wished violence on Rushdie; that was simply a matter of fact, reported frequently in the news pages. He took to the op-ed page to add his view that these fanatics had a point. “While Rushdie’s First Amendment freedoms are important,” he wrote, “we have tended to promote him and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated.” Never mind that millions of Muslims take no offense at all, and are insulted by the implication that they should.

Over the past two decades, our culture has been Carterized. We have conceded moral authority to howling mobs, and the louder the howls, the more we have agreed that the howls were worth heeding. The novelist Hanif Kureishi has said that “nobody would have the [courage]” to write The Satanic Verses today. More precisely, nobody would publish it, because sensitivity readers would notice the theological delicacy of the book’s title and plot. The ayatollahs have trained them well, and social-media disasters of recent years have reinforced the lesson: don’t publish books that get you criticized, either by semiliterate fanatics on the other side of the world or by semiliterate fanatics on this one.

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Read more at Atlantic

More about: Ayatollah Khomeini, Freedom of Speech, Iran, Islamism, Jimmy Carter