Thursday, April 4, 2013

Jewish Storytelling

Last month, a conference on Jewish storytelling took place at Stanford University ( Unexpectedly there was a lot of talk about science fiction and fantasy: a discussion of contemporary Israeli fantasy by Danielle Gurevitch and Vered Shemtov, Samantha Baskind’s lecture on Jewish graphic novels, my own talk about Jews in/as SF and so on. This is different from similar gatherings a couple of years ago when the discussion would be safely confined to the American-Jewish realistic canon of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth etc.
But while the boundaries of genre were breached, the boundaries of ethnicity were not. Most talks took the “Jewishness” of the texts discussed for granted, either because they were written by self-identifying Jews or because of the topic, such as the Bible. For example, the scriptwriter Michael Green talked about his adaptation of the Biblical Book of Kings for TV (the series failed but the talk was quite interesting).
But if anything written by a Jew belongs to “Jewish” literature by definition, we risk instituting a sort of literary Nuremberg laws, roping into our enclosure a lot of people who have no interest in being in. Stanislaw Lem was born a Jew and in fact barely escaped the Holocaust but he was raised Catholic, wrote in Polish, and did not think of himself as Jewish. On the other hand, Isaac Asimov self-identified as a Jew and spoke Yiddish but had little to say about Jewish history or tradition.
So how about the topic? The Bible is a Jewish scripture but for millions of Christians who were the intended audience of Green’s TV series Kings, it is now their book. If we take the Holocaust as the defining historical experience of Jewry in modern times, many great Holocaust books were not written by Jews. Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America is an alternate history of the Holocaust but so are The Man in the High Castle by Philip Dick and Fatherland by Robert Harris. Roth is Jewish, Dick and Harris are not.
This is the conundrum that bedeviled Jewish literature for many years; but now it increasingly seems to be spreading into literature as a whole. More and more writers write in languages not their own; more and more live and/or publish in countries not of their birth. Both people and stories freely circulate in the borderless online universe.
Still, I do not think that it means we can abolish all national designations and speak of “global” literature. Doing so would blur the real issues of economic inequality, historical heritage and political power. Words may have no country but people do.
So perhaps conferences like the one at Stanford would do better to shift emphasis from the adjective (“Jewish”) to the noun (“storytelling”). Maybe the point is precisely that some genres, such as SF, are better at dealing with issues of homelessness, alienation, historical injustice and rapid change overtaking our world. Maybe the point is not that there is Jewish SF but rather than all SF is, in some sense, Jewish.     

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