That’s the question Michael Weingrad asks in the inaugural issue of The Jewish Review of Books.
The article has taken heat from fans of the many Jewish fantasy authors. But most of them have missed the point. Weingrad isn’t asking whether Jews write fantasy or enjoy reading it. Instead, he’s concerned with why there aren’t any compelling fantasy “worlds” that incorporate Jewish folklore and tropes the way Narnia and Tolkein’s Middle Earth develop Christian ones.
But is that really such a puzzle? In the first place, the landscape of most fantasy novels is essentially the numinous forest of the Teutonic Dark Ages. It is not so much a Christian world as a world on the cusp of Christianity: a pagan Götterdämmerung.
Jews can, of course, appropriate this setting for literary purposes. But I don’t think it has the same imaginative gravity that it does for Christians. Similarly, the warrior values that animate a lot of fantasy are not traditionally Jewish. One could, I suppose, write a story around around a learned rabbi–but surely that would not be as interesting as one focused on knights, errant wizards, and chieftains of mounted hordes. Finally, as Weingrad notes, there’s no fantasy without evil. And Jewish teaching on this subject is extremely ambiguous; unlike some Christian doctrines, Judaism tends to deny evil as a force independent of and opposed to God.
For these reasons, Jews drawn to speculative writing may have an affinity for the science fiction over fantasy. The technological rationalism and optimism of much science fiction is also, in a way, more American–and America has offered the broadest field for Jewish literary efforts since World War II.
But Weingrad neglects a “fantasy” genre founded by Jews, and arguably shaped by Jewish preoccupations. That’s the superhero comic book invented in the 1930s by the likes of Robert Kahn–Bob Kane to you. There could never be a Jewish Narnia that would preserve the features many readers find compelling (I confess that I always vastly preferred Tolkein, whose work is richer and less didactic). But the universes of Superman, Batman, and the rest are worthy counterparts.
PS: A related question is whether fantasy is essentially conservative. One of the more interesting recent fantasy writers, China Mieville, thinks so–and has developed his urban, industrial, and democratic “Bas Lag” world as a direct competitor to Tolkein’s Middle Earth, which he considers implicitly reactionary.
ADDENDUM: I found some related arguments in the excellent post and conversation here.