Yom Ha’atzmaut: When Fantasy Becomes Reality

[Before I start, just a brief remark on the bombing at the Boston Marathon yesterday. I, like probably all of Twitter, tweeted about it, but as this post is coming just a day later, I figure I should probably put a quick word in here. I’d like to send my deepest sympathies to everyone affected by yesterday’s attack. I wish all the wounded a speedy and complete recovery, and I hope that those responsible are brought to justice and punished accordingly. It’s fitting that I’m going to be talking about Israel, as it has suffered far too many attacks similar to yesterday’s. While I was fortunately never affected personally, I have always followed the news over there closely, and from a national perspective I was definitely affected. No one deserves to get blown up when they’re out living their life, be they watching the marathon, riding a bus, or eating in a restaurant.] That said, on to the post itself…

The last king in a line thought dead accepts his destiny and helps the entire world of men from the forces of evil. A young shepherd unites a world to defeat its most ancient evil. A street urchin helps the lowest class of society to rise up and overthrow an empire that has stood for centuries. A people, exiled from their land for 2,000 years while still maintaining its culture, and reeling from a near genocide, returns to its land, defeating the vastly superior armies of six established countries within weeks of its founding.

All of these sound like the plots of fantasy stories, and most are. But the last story is the exception, as it is an actual event. It is the (latest) story of the Jewish people, which I am proud to be a part of.

I am writing this today, on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s 65th independence day, because it is a day that I feel defines a lot of what I am, and because I feel it is important enough to mention on this site, which focuses on writing. Of course, I will tie it to writing as well, but this day is important enough that it deserves some time to itself. (And as a note, I am not really interested in discussing current politics, though the subject of Israel is one of the few political issues I care strongly enough about to get involved in. From what I’ve seen, the people on both sides of the issue are not going to change their minds, and while I obviously believe that my side is correct, I simply don’t see the value of an argument that will change nothing. History will be the judge.)

On May 14, 1948 (the date on the Hebrew calendar is the one celebrated), only a few short years after the majority of European Jewry–which made up most of the world’s Jews–came as close as we’d ever come to complete annihilation in the Holocaust, the United Nations,in one of its finest moments, approved the Partition Plan for Mandatory Palestine, a territory under British rule at the time. The plan would have created a Jewish and Arab state in what is now Israel (this coming after a larger area was promised to the Jews, a large chunk of which was broken off to create Jordan). The Jews in Israel, about 600,000 at the time, who had been lobbying for years as they immigrated and began to build up what had been a barren land–as described by Mark Twain in a visit decades earlier–celebrated, overjoyed to have a state of their own after 2,000 years and so much oppression. Their neighbors were not satisfied, and the fledgling country with a barely-there army found itself facing invasion from four larger countries with established modern armies (Egypt, Transjordan[Jordan today], Syria, and Iraq). After a year of fighting, in a war that has been described by military historians as a miracle, Israel won out, cementing its place in the world with the Jewish people effectively defending themselves for the first time in centuries. Had they lost, the entire Jewish population in the area, many Holocaust survivors, would most likely have been massacred. For the only time in history a nation expelled from their land not only managed to remain a nation in exile, but returned to its land.

This is what we celebrate today, and this is my heritage.

But now to connect it to writing, or at least, my writing. There has been discussion about a lack on Jewish fantasy authors (while there certainly are some, as well as many Jewish sci-fi authors, I feel it is entirely fair to point out the near absence of religious Jewish writers in these genres). There is certainly no lack of Jewish authors, but they either do not write in these genres or they are not religious, being only secular or completely unaffiliated.

I intend to touch on this again at a later date, but for now I want to re-pose the question, as well as provide an answer.

The question: Why do we [religious Jews] not write genre fiction? We certainly have never been known to lack creativity, and while some might cite the immigrant mentality of  writing not being able to support a family, that certainly hasn’t stopped authors in the past, Jewish or otherwise. We are certainly fans of the genres, as evidenced by the popularity of the genres in Israel, plus the fact that most Jewish people I know, especially those in my age group, love sci-fi and fantasy.

Here’s my attempt at answering the question. One the one hand there are those on the more stringent side of the spectrum of observant Jews, those who have a low opinion of most things not directly related to Judaism (not necessarily by completely banning or shunning it, but still without approval). For them it’s understandable why they don’t write science fiction or fantasy, or much fiction at all. They deal in studying Torah (the Bible) and anything they will write will relate to it. They are also most likely not fans of the genres at all, either because of elements they don’t approve of, or just because they consider it frivolous. I don’t mean to speak ill of them at all; I understand their point of view, and while I disagree, it’s their decision. It is the rest of observant Jewry that I can really comment on. By and large, we don’t cut ourselves off from the outside culture. Even the more religiously right wing in this group will watch movies, read popular books, use computers for entertainment (though there always be some things that people disapprove of). And yet we don’t write.

I can think of a few quick reasons. First, there could still be wariness about creating a world not our own, a story with other religions, creatures, and potentially gods. So in that respect, it’s possible that a fear (often likely subconscious), that writing these things will lead to people in the community who disapprove causing trouble for an individual. Particularly with fantasy, a genre that often draws of Christian philosophy and ideas, this is likely an issue, in addition to the depictions of sexuality and violence that often (but not always) are present. (Here I’d note briefly that this should not be an issue. Authors who personally feel uncomfortable depicting certain things in their writing have proven they can be successful regardless.) As such, most religious Jews who like to write end up writing ‘Jewish fiction’ as I’ve termed it, which I’ve found to be (with some exceptions) extremely uninteresting. It’s also not viable to make a career writing to such a small market. Unfortunately this post is running long (they seem to do that), so I won’t give my detailed rebuttal here. I’ve actually been working on a long (multipart) essay on my personal writing philosophy, in which I will explain why we as Jews should be writing genre fiction. (I’d hope to get it done sooner, but I want to make sure I don’t get anything wrong, in addition to figuring out how to best split it into parts. Unlike the rest of my posts here so far, which I write in one or two sittings, then post after a quick spelling/grammar check, that one I intend to be a more planned article.)

But given that today is celebration that miraculous day, the birth of the modern State of Israel, I’d like to propose a second, more abstract answer that hearkens back to the beginning of this post, where I compared the story of the return of the Jewish people from exile to their land to fantasy stories.

Our entire history has been a fantasy epic. In the thousands of years of Jewish history, things as fantastical as the events in many novels have happened to us. We’ve had high point and low points, disasters and miracles, and through it all we have endured as a nation and religion. We hit our lowest point during the Holocaust, and since then we’ve gained so much! So while I still think we should write more sci-fi/fantasy, I could understand the difficulty when our own history is as incredible as most stories we could come up with. When our national fantasy is reality, how can fiction compare?

Long live the State of Israel, long live the Jewish people, and long live good stories.

And don’t forget to keep writing! (I promise the next post will be more directly writing related. Going to JordanCon this weekend will definitely help with that. 😀 )

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