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One of the side effects of these guest blogs is that I’m constantly thinking, “Ooh, I want to read that!” as people mention stories and books in the essays and comments. I’m going to try to put together a reading list based on the conversations around each essay, though it may take me a few weeks to pull that together after all of these have been posted.

For now, please welcome Gabrielle Harbowy to the blog, talking about what it was like growing up Jewish, and  representation and stereotyping in the genre.

Jewish children are raised with an unusually sophisticated burden: complicity in the Santa Claus lie. “No, he’s not real,” my mother explained when I was eight, “but it’s important to Christian kids to believe that he is, so it’s our responsibility to respect that and play along.”

“But we’re lying to them!”

“I know. But they want us to. Their parents would be mad if you told them, and then they might not let you play with them anymore.”

Christmas is everything. It’s the most anticipated event of the year. Unless you’re a Jewish kid, in which case it’s a treat dangled out of reach. A game everyone gets to play…except you.

Sure, there might be one silver and blue star among all the red and green. As a child, I was told that I was supposed to be grateful for, and contented by, that. Yet, Christian decorations appeared all over my life without my consent: on my radio; on the front door of my school or my apartment building, as if they represented everyone inside. To dissent, to say that I didn’t want my space representing a belief I didn’t share, was to incite backlash.

Jewish children learn early not to rock the boat. If someone wishes you a merry Christmas, it is proper to thank them and improper to correct them.

Because of this, Judaism is not well understood and Christianity remains the default. The “New York immigrant” stereotype is only a small fraction of Jewish history and culture, but the old man who speaks with the Yiddish accent is most modern media’s default representation of Jews.

I was writing a piece of Jewish science fiction recently, and I found that most of my response to non-Jewish critique partners came in the form of shooting down my readers’ requests to see those stereotypes. They thought the Brooklyn immigrant dialect, the matchmaking yenta, the thriftiness and parental guilt, would make the work more “authentic.” It hurt to have to write “STET. We aren’t all like that” over and over in the margins. It reinforced the feeling that my cultural heritage was in the margins, too.


Growing up Jewish, I’ve always been blind to New Testament symbolism. I have read the New Testament, but I haven’t internalized it the way someone who grew up with it would have. My husband grew up Catholic, and only by watching him react to media do I realize there’s a layer I’m missing. I’m fortunate that he doesn’t mind explaining.

If I were to fall into a random piece of fiction, I’d be at a huge disadvantage. My places of worship are few and infrequent. It is unlikely that a small town will have one. Even if it does, it’s unlikely to be my denomination. I don’t know the Lord’s Prayer, so I don’t know how I’d prove that I’m not a witch. If a vampire were to attack me, odds are low that I’d conveniently be wearing a cross at my throat.

The first solid representation of Judaism I found in genre fiction brought vampires into my world: “Why is This Night Different” by Janni Lee Simner (in Sisters in Fantasy 2). It’s a Passover story in which a vampire is passing a house as its residents proclaim, in accordance with tradition, “Let all who are hungry come and eat” …which certainly counts as an invitation to enter. It was a brilliant use of Judaism taken to its logical extreme in a fantastical context. This wasn’t a story with or about a token Jew, or even a token Jewish family. Judaism was integral to the story. It was overwhelming to see myself, my family, a ritual I’d grown up with, on the page. I remember thinking, “You can do that?”

He, She and ItNext, I found Marge Piercy’s He, She, and It. Piercy brings the golem legend into science fiction by playing on its parallel to the android, with plenty of Jewish culture and history to provide setting, context, and flavor. Some of it was the result of extensive historical research, but some of it was the kind of flavor that only experience can provide. Someone else in the world knew what it was like to grow up with a grandmother like mine, with holidays I celebrated. I’d been the only Jewish kid in my class—for five years, the only one in my whole school—so I’d never had a friend who grew up with the same rituals and references I did. To find it in a book was to find a friend.

But that’s just science fiction and spec fic. In the typical medieval fantasy world, the binary theological options are Christianity on one hand and the author-created pantheon on the other. Though, I do refer any Jewish aspiring dragon-hunter types to Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s wonderful Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals—another formative reference that deserves mention—I still wonder, has any Jew has ever slain a dragon or become a divine healer in epic fantasy?

And it’s so tempting to insert one, to make that happen, but I don’t want to tokenize people like me for the sake of inclusion. If someone like me is in a story, I want it to have purpose and expose a culture, a worldview, an experience, to people who aren’t familiar with it. We see the beasties more often than the people—the dybbuks and golems, without the presence of the culture that gave them form.

What does it say when our monsters get more representation than our people?

There are so many unmined fantastical elements of the real history, culture, and practice of Jewish life, and such a strong Jewish tradition of scholarship and commentary about that which is opaque and unknowable, that it seems natural to take these elements beyond their earthly logical extremes and into the more extreme extremes only possible in speculative fiction.

Speculation, after all, is inherent to Judaism. “Next year in Jerusalem,” we say on Passover—we don’t know where we’ll be a year from now, but we can aspire to be personally and philosophically closer to what we consider important at this time next year than we are today.

Gabrielle Harbowy is an award-nominated editor of fantasy and science fiction, a submissions editor for Apex Magazine, and managing editor of Dragon Moon Press. She co-edited the acclaimed “When the Hero Comes Home” anthology series with Ed Greenwood, and writes a column for the Lambda Literary Review. Her short fiction has appeared in various anthologies, including Carbide Tipped Pens (Tor), and her first novel is forthcoming from Paizo in 2016.

Gabrielle Harbowy

Photo by J. Daniel Sawyer

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.


( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 9th, 2015 03:57 pm (UTC)
Thanks for sharing this. I grew up with a Jewish best friend, and never really thought about the Santa Claus thing. She never spoiled the magic for me, but it occurs to me now that even though I knew what a Menorah was and got invited to her house for Passover, the idea that Santa wasn't part of her family's tradition didn't even cross my mind as a kid. It's so easy to take stuff for granted when your assumptions aren't challenged, which is why these guest posts are so, so important.

And wow, that Vampires + Passover story sounds amazing!
Mar. 9th, 2015 04:10 pm (UTC)
I've always loved Susan Schwartz, Grail of Hearts, because it took both the Grail and the Last Supper out of the Christian context that was always enforced on them in most fiction.
Mar. 9th, 2015 04:16 pm (UTC)
That definitely matches my experience growing up. There was even a friend in third grade who asked me to watch for Santa for her. She'd been told that if she saw him, he wouldn't give her any presents. But I wasn't getting presents from Santa anyway, so no risk for me.

Plug for a friend's stuff (I hope that's OK): Shira Glassman's Mangoverse now contains three YA books. They are second-world fantasy novels - but it's a *Jewish* world, in which characters light Shabbat candles and celebrate Seders. There are also lesbians, mangos, dragons, labor disputes, wizards, food allergies, and assorted other aspects of real and fantasy life contained therein.

Edited at 2015-03-09 04:18 pm (UTC)
Mar. 11th, 2015 07:05 pm (UTC)
I don't know whether it's OK or not, but they're books that totally would never have been on my radar; I just bought the first one.

(Also, I don't think anyone has mentioned Bogi Takács yet; and yes, reading a universe that's fundamentally Jewish shows just how narrow-minded a lot of SFF is.)
Mar. 12th, 2015 01:56 pm (UTC)
OK, those look awesome. Bought! :D
Mar. 9th, 2015 04:47 pm (UTC)
That's disquieting. No, it's saddening.

I read that, hoping (ever more faintly) that it might be some kind of overreaction, such as so many, many people have. It isn't. The delivery of these observations is infused with the grayness of mundane reality, and any writer who could produce the real thing (not just the patina that impressed so many of my teachers in school) would never waste it on fiction: a writer who could do that could make a reader accept a time-traveling dragon. And would rather.
Mar. 9th, 2015 07:14 pm (UTC)
There's Veronica Schanoes. You can read two of her stories on Tor.com's website--"Among the Thorns" and "Burning Girls." "Among the Thorns" is a retelling of one of the Grimms' more anti-Semitic fairy tales. "Burning Girls"--just read it. It involves lilits and demons and magic and America. Both are very solidly grounded in Jewish history.

But aside from Schanoes...no, I can't think of many Jewish characters in fantasy.

Fortunately, the internet helped me out here.

Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy

Mar. 9th, 2015 09:08 pm (UTC)
I didn't come from a Jewish background at all (that's putting it mildly--I didn't even know I was Jewish until a couple of years ago), so most of this I only noticed recently, but I have to agree.

The one thing that struck me as a bit odd is this:

If someone like me is in a story, I want it to have purpose and expose a culture, a worldview, an experience, to people who aren’t familiar with it.

This to me says that she thinks that if a character is going to be a member of a minority, there has to be a reason for them to be that minority. That's something that anti-diversity people say, with the "logical" conclusion being that if there isn't a plot-related reason for them to be a member of a minority, they should just be a cishet non-disabled, neurotypical, white Christian (and so on) man. I'm pretty sure that isn't what she's saying, so I find this perplexing.
Mar. 9th, 2015 09:34 pm (UTC)
This to me says that she thinks that if a character is going to be a member of a minority, there has to be a reason for them to be that minority. That's something that anti-diversity people say, with the "logical" conclusion being that if there isn't a plot-related reason for them to be a member of a minority, they should just be a cishet non-disabled, neurotypical, white Christian (and so on) man. I'm pretty sure that isn't what she's saying, so I find this perplexing.

I found that odd, too.
Mar. 10th, 2015 12:07 am (UTC)
It may come as a shock to you that not all marginalized people feel the same way about depictions of marginalized people. If only there were... I don't know, some sort of set of essays by marginalized people who could talk about their different perspectives. Maybe on a website that a lot of people read? That might help increase the perception of marginalized people as individuals with individual opinions. I should think about who I know who might host something like that on their website.
Mar. 10th, 2015 03:52 pm (UTC)
Whoa, there's no reason to get so defensive. I was just pointing out something I found odd.

There's also no reason to assume, as you apparently did, that I'm unfamiliar with the opinions of marginalized minorities (or that I'm not a member of any), just because I disagree with something someone said. I thought, as you said, that the whole point of this was to discuss our opinions.

But never mind, I don't have the time or energy for this.
Mar. 10th, 2015 07:56 pm (UTC)
My intention was for this to refer to the token silver and blue star in the winter holiday decorations. It was meant to say that there's a difference between tokenism and actual inclusion...and that I try to be aware of that difference when I write.
Mar. 10th, 2015 10:06 pm (UTC)
OK, then, I think we were thinking the same thing in different ways: that you shouldn't just have a character named Miriam Levy or Isaac Katz or *cough*Anthony Goldstein*cough* or whatever and have them mention Chanukah a few times and call it a day, all the while congratulating yourself for how inclusive and diverse you're being--that their Jewishness (or other minority status) should inform their life and be an essential part of their character, not something that's tacked on to make your novel's cast more diverse. Is that what you're saying?

Because certainly I've come across a lot of Jewish characters where the writer tells us that the character's Jewish but doesn't show how that impacts their lives. Same with other minorities.

FYI, Jim, and everyone else, I deleted a identical comment to this (except for this part) because I think I responded to the wrong person, so if you were notified that I deleted a comment, that was it.
Mar. 10th, 2015 10:11 pm (UTC)
OK, and now I'm still not sure that I responded to the right comment, but whatever.
Mar. 12th, 2015 05:29 pm (UTC)
Well, that makes total sense then. Restating to make sure I'm understanding you right: there don't have to be plot reasons for a character to belong to a minority group*, because people do come in all flavors. But those categories we're in - or more properly, the experiences we have and the way society reacts to us because of those categories - influences the person we've become. So you can't just say that someone identifies as Jewish or queer or whatever, you have to show that as part of their character. Is that what you're meaning?

* "Minority" is a funny word. Women aren't minorities, nor are people or Asian or African descent if you take a world view, and as for disabilities we all encounter them sooner or later. But women or people of color or people with disabilities as the heroes of their own stories sure are minorities, so I guess the word does fit.
Mar. 9th, 2015 10:35 pm (UTC)
Try Guy Gavriel Kay's The Lions of Al-Rassan, for a fantasy with a strong Jewish-analogue presence. No actual Seders. mind, any more than actual mosques or actual crucifixes: it's analogue all the way, in a fantasy equivalent of Moorish Spain. Also brilliant, all the way.
Mar. 10th, 2015 10:59 am (UTC)
I just cracked open this book yesterday!
Mar. 11th, 2015 03:14 am (UTC)
Well, this was timely. gabrielle_h, did you know it would be posted now?

Eurgh, the stereotype of the New York, Ashkenazi nebbuch is really irritating and really hard to shake. Also the ones about Eastern European food and deli being "Jewish" - Jews ate local food wherever they were, just modified to comply with kashrut, but even other Jews sometimes forget this. My sympathy.

One of the things that makes me feel excluded reading SFF as an observant Jews is the lack of ethical monotheism portrayed in the genre. Fantasy tends towards polytheism or an analogue of Medieval Christianity (part of the general trend of All Fantasy Took Place in Europe), and religion doesn't feature heavily in much sci-fi. I can't think of too many genre pieces that show religious characters whose daily lives are shaped by their religion, who do regular ritual and prayer, or have dietary restrictions, or cannot cut their hair for religious reasons, or don't wear certain kinds of clothes, etc. If there are characters like that, they tend to be monks - as though you cannot be that active in your religion unless it's your primary occupation - and they are almost never female. I want to see more actively religious female characters in genre, particularly ones who practice ethical monotheism.
Mar. 16th, 2015 03:27 am (UTC)
I've noticed, as someone who is non-Jewish, that Barbara Hambly's books often have a theme of the outlier-as-Jewish—that is, there is a group of people, often magical, who are treated as Jews were treated historically in many countries. They're restricted to certain jobs, they're socially restricted to certain roles, and in some cases, it's death to be found out as a member of that sub-group.

It's not overtly stated, but I have a decent knowledge of history and the thematic setting is fairly well established. They may not be Jewish but the parallels are obvious.
( 19 comments — Leave a comment )


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