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People of and in the book

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03/11/2014

People of and in the book photo

I know, I know it’s not kosher to review books before you’ve finished them, but when you’re too angry to keep going, that’s sort of a review in itself, right?

Let me back up. I always get excited when I find Jews in fiction and media. Part of me thinks this is because I grew up in a small college town with a vibrant but small Jewish community, mostly university faculty and a rotating cast of students. Even moving to Chicago didn’t take away that pleasant moment of surprise when you realize someone is Jewish too.

The next best feeling is realizing that a character in a book or a film or a show is Jewish too. When a story in your favorite genre (fantasy) features a whole culture that’s an explicit analog of medieval Spanish Jews? I did a little dance when I found out about Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan, I won’t lie.

Kay, who is Jewish, published Lions in 1995, just before Game of Thrones was first released, but readers may recognize some of the same nation-jostling and king-killing in Al-Rassan, which is based on Moorish Spain and populated by three major religions. The Jaddites resemble Christians, the Asharites mirror Muslims and the Kindath are clearly Jews. The Kindath are wanderers, frequently persecuted, occasionally allowed to flourish and happily slaughtered when other people get unhappy.

There’s more to the story than that, but the point at which I stopped, about three-quarters of the way through the book, depicted the beginnings of a massacre. I was exhausted by it. I was done. And even though this novel borrowed from and transformed real history, I was tired of it. I don’t want more stories about Jews as victims and only victims, no matter how learned or talented or valuable they are when tolerated by the wider culture. I don’t want that to be our
inevitable story.

This is the fear that dogs me as soon as I realize characters in books or films or shows are Jewish. Will they be the plucky/tragic survivors whose suffering gives meaning to non-Jewish characters (nowhere more egregiously than for Spielberg’s Oskar Schindler)? Will they be neurotic man-children, a la Woody Allen? Will they be high-maintenance suburban princesses or sexy, ruthless Israeli soldiers? Will they even be from anywhere other than New York?

The stereotypes are insidious, even if you think you’re aware of them. Once upon a time, when I was taking improv classes, I made up a character with a nasal accent who tried to solve everything by pushing bagels on my scene partner. After, I felt ashamed, and I tried to figure out why I’d done it. I think it was because I believed I could get a laugh, that everyone knew that caricature and enjoyed it.

That isn’t the Jewish community that I know. I’m grateful for the Jewish characters who are as vibrant and diverse as the people I love, and for the creators who are working to do more. For my next read I have People of the Book, a Jewish sci-fi anthology, which should be interesting. Author G. Willow Wilson wrote the fascinating Alif the Unseen about a universe much like ours that operates according to Islam and Islamic mythology; I would very much like to see a Jewish book like that.

I don’t want to imply that we should smooth over or ignore our own history. Suffering is, of course, very much a part of the Jewish experience, and we should honor that. But just yesterday I learned about Qalonymos ben Qalonymos, a writer born in Arles, France, in the 13th century. “On Becoming a Woman” (in the original Hebrew, with translation) is a stunning poem written in 1322, and I find it somewhere between unlikely to impossible that it’s not speaking from the perspective of a transgender woman. In Provence, in the 1300s! We have this! How am I only hearing of it now?

We have so many tales to tell and people to be. I look forward to the new and wonderful ways in which we’ll do it.

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