A few years ago an article in the Jewish Review of Books by Michael Weingrad proclaimed that there is no Jewish Narnia, that Jews do not write fantasy literature, that the popular fantasy canon has a great big void in the shape of a Star of David.
The premise is absurd, of course. Never mind the fact that Isaac Bashevis Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for writing what can only be described as fantasy, a simple Google search would have provided many such counter-examples to Weingrad’s theory: Lisa Goldstein’s The Red Magician, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and pretty much the entire oeuvre of Neil Gaiman — not to mention the Wandering Stars anthologies edited by Jack Dann. I could go on, but my point is that Jews love writing fantasy (and science fiction) just as much as we love reading it.
This is because Judaism (like all religions) is full of awe and magic and terror and wonder, and those brought up in its traditions, who have been steeped in its rich folktales, cannot help but be influenced by its otherworldly themes. When observant Jews recite at the end of Sukkot, “May I merit in the coming year to dwell in the sukkah of the skin of Leviathan,” the fantasy writer among them thinks of ancient sea serpents and victories over unconquerable enemies. When Jews say kaynahoreh to ward off the Evil Eye, the fantasy writer thinks of magical talismans and charms to keep evil at bay. And one doesn’t even need to be a Jewish writer to be influenced by Judaism’s magical stories.
Consider the astounding tales of the Baalei Shem, the Masters of the Holy Name. According to folklore, these learned rabbis were able to jump across vast distances of space and time by uttering or writing various spellings of the Divine Name. One such master was the famous Baal Shem Tov, and one of his disciples is quoted as saying:
“Somehow the rebbe was able to travel great distances in impossibly short periods of time. I do not know how he did it. Dozens of times we traveled hundreds of miles in only a few hours. As the horses could normally cover only five to ten miles in an hour, we never understood how the master was able to accomplish such a feat. But he did it so many times, we stopped questioning.”
The name for this magical power? Kefitzat ha-derekh, the “Shortening of the Way.” Science fiction readers will immediately recognize the name. It isnearly identical to the moniker for the Messiah-like figure in Frank Herbert’s Dune: Paul Atreides is the powerful Kwisatz Haderach, “the one who can be two places simultaneously” and “the one who can be many places at once” — and Herbert’s definition for Kwisatz Haderach? “The Shortening of the Way.” Herbert wasn’t Jewish, but clearly influenced by a Jewish folktale, using it to construct one of the most popular science fiction (some call it fantasy) novels of all time.
I was at a science fiction and fantasy writing convention several years ago. I was still new to these things, and I didn’t know a lot of folks. I was sitting in a circle with ten others, sitting on chairs and on the floor. We broke the ice by describing books, shows, and films we loved. Everyone warmed to one another. We were discussing the astounding ability of one particular editor to do so much with so little time, and I jokingly called him “The Kwisatz Haderach of publishing.” Everyone laughed, and I remarked, “Wow, this is the first time in my life where I have been in a room and everyone knows who the Kwisatz Haderach is.” I didn’t ask, but I’m pretty sure most in the room weren’t Jewish. And I’m pretty sure most had no idea (I didn’t then, either) that the words I had used as a punchline to a joke came from a 400-year-old Jewish myth with origins in the Talmud.
The thing is, there are dozens of stories like these. Pop culture is rife with Jewish myths, it’s just that their direct connection to Judaism has been forgotten or obfuscated, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. The truth is, we are surrounded by Jewish Narnias. A large proportion of pop culture today owes its existence to myths and folktales elaborated by Jews in the last three millennia. Sometimes when a thing sits before your eyes for so long you fail to see it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Matthew Kressel is a short fiction writer and the co-host of the Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series in Manhattan with Ellen Datlow. His first novel, King of Shards, was released October 2015 from Arche Press.
- People of the Book: A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction & Fantasy by Rachel Switsky and Sean Wallace
- Ilana C. Myer: How Jerusalem Infiltrated My Fantasy Novel
- Helen Wecker: The Most Jewish Thing I Do
Matthew Kressel is the author of the Jewish-themed fantasy epic King of Shards. He is a prolific writer of short fiction, his works appearing in the publications Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Nightmare, io9.com, Interzone, Apex Magazine, the anthologies Naked City, The People of the Book, After, and elsewhere. He is the co-host of the Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series in Manhattan with Ellen Datlow, and he is (slowly) learning the Yiddish language. By day he writes code for corporations and universities.