Fun fact: Both Mark and I have produced fairly substantial academic work on Tolkien, though it’s not the main area of academic interest for either of us. Still, we like to keep half an eye on what’s happening in the world of SFF scholarship. So, of course, I’ve been staring at this article and thinking I should write something about it all week. (For those of you who don’t feel like clicking links, it’s the article by Michael Weingrad in the Jewish Review of Books that claims that there aren’t really any Jewish fantasy writers.)
To start off, just for the sake of clarity, it’s wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. Except I think the problem is a bit deeper than a reviewer who just plain didn’t do their homework. As I pointed out on a certain mailing list, the argument of the piece is basically a tautology: fantasy is literature not written by Jews (for a number of reasons), and therefore any literature that looks like it might be Jewish fantasy is either not really Jewish or not really fantasy. This is clear when Weingrad reaches for the narrow definition of fantasy, the swords-and-sorcery tales with their roots in the (very Christian) medieval European feudal system. If a Jewish author writes that sort of book, it will either be based on a deeply Christian socio-cultural system (and thus not distinctively Jewish), or else it will subvert that system (making it more Jewish) and thus fall outside the genre boundaries.
I’m not going to waste the time arguing over genre definitions; that’s neither a winnable nor, frankly, a very interesting debate. I am much more interested in the questions about identity that open up around the tautology Weingrad employs. The thing is, there has been very little Jewish culture that’s grown up in a vacuum. Even the idyllic shtetl world that’s often deployed as the ground zero of Authentic Jewish Culture (and there are some really great shtetl fantasies–like Hereville, for example) is actually a product of the feudal system; the shtetl is surrounded on all sides by the larger Christian cultural system.
Robert Goldy’s book, The Emergence of Jewish Theology in America argues that Jewish Theology (by which he means pretty much any innovation in Jewish belief or practice, from the 1st century Rabbis to Maimonides to the German Reform Movement) always arises in conversation with another religious/cultural system. Literature is even more open to cultural cross-fertilisation, and contemporary Jews are as much inheritors of the artistic and literary products of medieval feudalism, or of anything that went before (or came after), as anyone else. So, Neil Gaiman borrowing liberally from any and every mythology he can get his hands on? That’s every bit as Jewish as Sholom Aleichem.
The problem with the distinction between ‘Jewish’ and ‘non-Jewish’ fantasy is the same identity problem that confronts any Jew from a remotely ‘inter-‘ background. There’s a strand of discourse–a fairly dominant strand–that wants to define ‘Jewish’ as its own pristine thing, untouched by any ‘outside’ influence.
That’s not the way it works.
 I’m ignoring his assertion that ‘the experience of wonder, of joy and delight on the part of the reader, has long been recognized as one of the defining characteristics of the genre’, because reader reactions are just not a good criteria for genre classification. If they were, then I would surely be able to define Karl Barth’s Romabrief and Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever as members of the same genre, marked by my strong desire to throw the books across the room.
Oh, and while I’m nitpicking? Tolkien never actually SENT the letter that Weingrad quotes.