Not long ago, I was hav­ing shab­bat lunch at my local Chabad House. I’m rarely at that table with­out meet­ing anoth­er rab­bi from some far-flung part of the globe— I’ve even met the rab­bi of JFK air­port — but nev­er have I met a more inter­est­ing rab­bi than I did on the shab­bat in question.

His name, of course, was Men­achem Mendel, and his Chabad House was in Hobbiton.

That’s right — Hob­biton. In Mid­dle Earth.

It wasn’t a bad gig, he said. The hob­bits were gen­er­al­ly pret­ty respect­ful, if a lit­tle sus­pi­cious, and there were always dwarves com­ing through on their way to Bag End or the Blue Moun­tains. You could always count on dwarves to at least put on tefillin.

I’m kid­ding, of course, but I’m also mak­ing a point, and it’s this: Jews and fan­ta­sy go togeth­er like chal­lah and wine. It just makes sense.

And maybe there’s a rea­son. All three of the foun­da­tion­al texts of con­tem­po­rary fan­ta­sy—The Lord of the Rings, The Chron­i­cles of Nar­nia, and the Har­ry Pot­ter series — have a kind of Jew­ish­ness some­where deep in their source code.

Tolkien’s dwarves are famous­ly Jew­ish­ly inflect­ed. Tolkien him­self acknowl­edged that Gimli’s bat­tle cry at the Horn­burg — Baruk Khazâd, Khazâd ai-mēnu!” — is essen­tial­ly Hebrew. And I was sur­prised and thrilled to find on my most recent reread that the Elvish name for Tom Bom­badil — that reclu­sive, joy­ous, cos­mic out­sider, the clos­est thing to a Hasidic rebbe in Tolkien — is Iar­wain ben Adar. Tolkien purists will insist that despite appear­ances, this name has no ety­mo­log­i­cal con­nec­tion to the Jew­ish patronymic form or the month in which Purim occurs. But I believe that there’s at least a small mea­sure of the­mat­ic rhyming at play: a sort of sub­cre­ative hash­gocha pro­tis, or divine providence.

Jews and fan­ta­sy go togeth­er like chal­lah and wine.

The Jew­ish­ness in Nar­nia is a bit more dif­fi­cult to detect. The Chron­i­cles are a pro­found­ly Chris­t­ian cor­pus; in 2010, the Jew­ish Review of Books even ran an essay by Michael Wein­grad enti­tled Why There is No Jew­ish Nar­nia that decried the fun­da­men­tal goy­ish­ness of the fan­ta­sy genre as inspired by the indeli­ble Chris­tian­i­ty of medieval nostalgia.”

It’s true that there’s no Iar­wain ben Adar to be found in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but I’d argue that the fun­da­men­tal Chris­tian­i­ty of the work cre­ates a very Jew­ish neg­a­tive space. Nar­nia is a world in which there is a great leo­nine Christ, but no sign of the Jew­ish Jesus; a castel­lat­ed medieval-ish cap­i­tal — Cair Par­avel — with no Jew­ish quarter.

But there is no Chris­tian­i­ty with­out Judaism. Any pic­ture of the medieval world, even if run through the fan­tas­ti­cal fil­ter, is either incom­plete or inac­cu­rate with­out the pres­ence of Jews and Jew­ish­ness some­where, and it would be hard to believe that Oxford don C. S. Lewis was unaware of this fact.

But of the — excuse the expres­sion — holy trin­i­ty of con­tem­po­rary fan­ta­sy works, I’d argue that Har­ry Pot­ter is the most Jewish[1]. I don’t refer here to Antho­ny Gold­stein, the Jew­ish Raven­claw pre­fect and Dumbledore’s Army mem­ber. Nor do I refer to his dis­tant rela­tions, the only nom­i­nal­ly Jew­ish Tina and Quee­nie Gold­stein of the Fan­tas­tic Beasts and Where to Find Them fran­chise, who some­how man­age to be Jews in New York in the 20s while seem­ing very much like gen­tiles in New York in the 20s. I’m not even refer­ring to the trou­bling­ly semit­ic gob­lins who run Gringotts Wiz­ard­ing Bank.

No, I have in mind a more thor­ough­go­ing and struc­tur­al Jewishness.

Imag­ine for a moment that I say I belong to a group of dif­fer­ent peo­ple, a close-knit soci­ety with­in the larg­er cul­ture that qui­et­ly car­ries on an ancient tra­di­tion, trans­mit­ting it from gen­er­a­tion to generation.

Am I a Jew or a wizard?

Imag­ine I say that when I came of age, I got a let­ter in the mail that told me I had been admit­ted to a spe­cial school for peo­ple like me, a school in which I could study the arcane tra­di­tions and prac­tices of our people.

Am I talk­ing about Hog­warts or Yeshi­va University?

Maybe it was this sim­i­lar­i­ty that first drew me to the idea of writ­ing Jew­ish fan­ta­sy. After all, I am solid­ly of the Har­ry Pot­ter gen­er­a­tion; I was eleven, like Har­ry, when the first book was out, and his mat­u­ra­tion par­al­leled my own. I was also a thor­ough­ly Jew­ish kid. I was raised in Mod­ern Ortho­doxy, sip­ping folk mag­ic with my kid­dush grape juice. To me, Jew­ish­ness and fan­ta­sy didn’t seem like any­thing that had to be com­bined — they were already two sides of the same coin. Think of Singer, of Peretz, of An-sky, of Der Nis­ter — the angels and demons, magi­cians and dyb­buks in the rich lit­er­a­ture of Ashke­nazi Jews.

To me, Jew­ish­ness and fan­ta­sy didn’t seem like any­thing that had to be com­bined — they were already two sides of the same coin.

The only issue was that when I was a boy, I saw no work equal­ly acces­si­ble to tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish audi­ences and lovers of con­tem­po­rary fan­ta­sy — as Michael Wein­grad would have it, no Jew­ish Narnia.

And so I set out to write it.

My new book, The Way Back, begins in a nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry shtetl of my own inven­tion called Tupik. It traces the spooky adven­tures of two Jew­ish kids, Bluma and Yehu­da Leib, as they strug­gle with and even­tu­al­ly declare war on the Angel of Death. Along the way, they find them­selves run­ning up against ancient Juda­ic demons — Lilith, Mam­mon, Dumah — com­ing face-to-face with exalt­ed rebbes and their devot­ed Hasidim, and bar­gain­ing with an angel­ic guardian that they nev­er even knew was there.

It’s a book for the Pot­ter­heads in cen­tral Nebras­ka and the Low­er East Side immi­grants of 120 years ago.

I wish I’d had it to read when I was young. And I hope you enjoy it.


[1] It is unfor­tu­nate­ly nec­es­sary to artic­u­late here that my love and appre­ci­a­tion for J.K. Rowling’s work in no way implies the endorse­ment of her dis­tress­ing and repug­nant trans­pho­bia; I choose to take solace in the knowl­edge that Hermione would assured­ly dis­agree with her views, cer­tain­ly firm­ly, and like­ly loudly.

Gavriel Sav­it holds a BFA in musi­cal the­ater from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan in Ann Arbor, where he grew up. As an actor and singer, Gavriel has per­formed in three con­ti­nents, from New York to Brus­sels to Tokyo. He is also the author of Anna and the Swal­low Man, which The New York Times called a splen­did debut.”