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Naomi Novik's recent novel Spinning Silver made me wonder: is it the first fantasy novel with a Jewish main character? Or were there others before it?


I am not looking for a shopping list here. Trying to understand if there were many and I just missed them, or just a few; if this is new, or has always been there. I am curious about the first appearance of a Jewish protagonist in the fantasy genre, if this can be reasonably traced.

Note I am interested in fantasy (not science fiction - there's quite a few Jews there), and specifically in main characters, not supporting characters.

Also, while Jesus and everyone around him were Jews, stories about them are profoundly Christian in their focus, and so not what I'm looking for. (I am referring to modern stories, of course. Michael Moorcock's "Behold the Man" would be a sci-fi example.)

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    I personally know others, but I would just say that, from the outset, with at minimum thousands of fantasy novels (not to mention short stories) published each year, including many by Jewish authors, it would be extraordinary if it were the first. – Adamant Oct 8 '18 at 21:08
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    I'm downvoting, because not only is this an easily searchable question, but (even with the presence of anti-Semitism in fiction) it should be pretty clear that a book published in 2018 wouldn't be the first. – Adamant Oct 8 '18 at 21:18
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    @Adamant searching for "Jews fantasy literature" led me to the article "Why Jews write science fiction and Christians write fantasy". firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2010/03/… – Galastel Oct 8 '18 at 21:25
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    The Golem and the Jinni features a pair of protagonists, one of whom is culturally Jewish. (Guess which one) – Arcanist Lupus Oct 8 '18 at 21:43
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    Also, I bet that some of these authors feature Jewish protagonists. Just a guess. – Arcanist Lupus Oct 8 '18 at 21:46
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No

To start with, the numbers are simply against this. By some estimates, as many as 1 million books are published in the US alone each year (here's some outdated numbers). Most of those are not fantasy, and no more than 1/500 (worldwide) or 1/50 (US) would be expected to have Jewish protagonists based on chance, but even if fantasy constituted 1% of all books published, and only 1/100 as many Jews appeared in fantasy as would be expected (extreme assumptions), we'd still expect around one fantasy book with a Jewish protagonist in the US each year.

More concretely, the list of fantasy with Jewish protagonists is very long. People will disagree on what constitutes fantasy, both because of blurry genre boundaries and because it's hard to discern whether authors believed in the earliest stories (the Golem of Prague?). I'll just provide a few examples:

  • The play "The Dybbuk," is extremely famous, dates back to 1913 and has a Jewish protagonist and a heavily Jewish background. It features clear fantasy, such as "demonic possession," summoning spirits, and miracle-working, much of which is inspired by Jewish folklore.

  • Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote many fantastical short stories with Jewish protagonists, including at least "The Jew from Babylon" as early as 1971.

  • As mentioned in a comment, The Golem and the Jinni has a Jewish protagonist, and is a contemporary work of fantasy. It was published in 2013, several years before Spinning Silver.

  • There's a notable tradition of Jewish reworkings of anti-Jewish works, such as "The Jew in the Thorns." One example of this is “Among the Thorns,” whose protagonist is the daughter of said Jew.

There may well be earlier examples, but this should be sufficient to establish that Spinning Silver, published in 2018, was not the first example of a Jewish protagonist in fantasy. There's a long tradition of Jewish fantasy.

One should also keep in mind that explicit Christianity in fantasy, or fiction generally, even among main characters, is not as common as one might think. It thus becomes difficult to say whether a character is definitively Christian or not. Or, to use more specific example, are the protagonists of The Reckoners series by Brandon Sanderson or The Beyonders by Brandon Mull practicing LDS? Maybe they are, maybe they aren't. Their religion isn't terribly relevant to the fantastical plots, so it isn't really brought up, as I recall. Similarly, explicitly Jewish characters are probably outnumbered by those whose religion is unstated. This is further complicated by the wide gap between a male Hareidi Jew, for instance, where any description of their appearance must make their religion obvious if not seeking to mislead the reader, and for example a secular Reform Jew who might not think about religion much except four or five times a year.

So assessing the frequency of Jewish protagonists by seeing how many are mentioned as explicitly Jewish can be misleading.

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Is "historically based horror with ghosts and stuff" considered fantasy? If so then Anne Rice's Servant of the Bones is certainly older.

Servant of the Bones is an account of the creation and subsequent existence of a genie, Azriel. It is a story told as a fireside chat and includes historical accounts of Azriel's life as a displaced Jewish merchant's son in Babylon at the time of its conquest by Cyrus the Persian. There are also glimpses of life in ancient Miletus, in Strasbourg during a pogrom, and New York City of the 1990s.

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The Aggadaic Stories of Rabba Bar Bar Chana are probably the first Jewish "Fantasy" Stories

You can read more about the allegorical tales here and here.

The stories are found in the Talmud and are fantastical tales that (according to Jewish tradition) have deep moral and kabbalistic meanings and interpretations.

Rabba Bar Bar Chana related the following, “Sailors told me that once they were threatened with gigantic waves that could have sunk their ships. These waves appeared with a ray of whitish light at their crest and when they struck it with clubs engraved with the words ‘I will be what I will be, L-rd G-d, King of Hosts, Amen, Amen, Selah,’ the waves subsided.”

Rabba Bar Bar Chana continued, “The sailors related to me that the distance between one wave and the other was 300 parasangs (a Persian mile, about 4,000 yards) and the height of each wave lifted them so high that they saw the resting place of the smallest star. There was a flash as it shot 40 arrows of iron. If it had lifted them any higher they would have been burned by its heat.

“They also heard the following conversation between two waves, ‘My friend,’ one wave called to the other, ‘have you left anything in the world that you didn’t wash away and flood? I will go and destroy it.’ The other replied, ‘Go and see the power of the Master by whose command I must not pass the sand of the shore even as much as the breadth of a thread. It is this sand line that separates the sea from the land and yet I could not step over it.’

Rabba Bar Bar Chana went on, “I saw an antelope, one-day-old, that was as big as Mount Rabor, which measures four parasangs. The length of its neck was three parasangs and the resting place of its head was one parasang and a half.

“I saw a frog the size of the Fort of Hagronia (a fortified town in Babylon) that contained 60 houses. A snake came along and swallowed the frog and then a large raven came and swallowed the snake. The raven then ascended the tree and perched on one of its limbs. Imagine the strength of that tree.”

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    I'm downvoting because this looks more like religious parables than fantasy. In addition, some people might hold them to be true, including possibly the person who told them. Besides, this should not be a list question.... – Adamant Oct 8 '18 at 22:19
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    @Adamant I am a rabbanical student who studies these stories the whole day. (Except when Im on this site ;-) ) These stories are not mere parables, they are fantastical tales with unclear meanings. – TheAsh Oct 8 '18 at 22:22
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    These aren't precisely "stories" with a "main character." They're just brief mentions of fantastical things? Even if we were to take the sailors (for instance) as the main characters, we don't even know that they're necessarily Jewish. Obviously the rabbis are, but they're at best the authors. – Adamant Oct 8 '18 at 22:24
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    @TheAsh How to interpret such tales has long been debated in Jewish tradition. – Alex Oct 8 '18 at 22:24
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    @Adamant That's correct, though I wouldn't characterize them as parables. Even if you don't feel it qualifies as a "story" it most certainly provides a basis for later Jewish fantasy of which I've read a lot (much in Hebrew). – TheAsh Oct 8 '18 at 22:26

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