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

July 2, 2021 | Michael Weingrad
About the author: Michael Weingrad is professor of Jewish studies at Portland State University and a frequent contributor to Mosaic and the Jewish Review of Books. 

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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