How Jewish Tradition Makes Its Way Into My Epic Fantasy Books
When I began writing my debut novel, Silent Hall, my only purpose was to tell a good fantasy story, set in a world that interested me. It was not, as it might seem when reading the finished product, to tell an allegory of Jewish trauma and resilience. In fact, I had long resisted any suggestion that I ought to write Jewish stories as opposed to “classic” fantasy. In college, my faculty advisors had practically begged me to bring my Jewish background into my writing, but I refused. I found Jewish content too familiar to be interesting, and I had never been a fan of allegorical storytelling.
How times have changed.
I probably should have known that if my setting was inspired by my reading of the Torah, there would be more Jewish content where that came from. From main characters who are reminiscent of the seder’s four children to the novel’s basic premise, my cultural background seeped into seemingly every corner of my storytelling. Silent Hall is, after all, a story about refugees cut off from their homeland, trying to rediscover their identities among hostile peoples with hostile gods. That’s not such an unfamiliar premise for us, especially come Passover time.
The surprising thing, at least to me, was how much I enjoyed it. Epic fantasy as a genre is anything but over-reliant on Jewish cultural history, and it was in some ways therapeutic to inject my own background into this otherwise very Christian landscape. What began as accidental became, over the course of my drafting and revising, very intentional. I reveled in adding references to Talmudic discussion, and to the rabbinic storytelling tradition known as midrash, and when one of my characters finds a supposed history of his people, it’s awfully reminiscent of the anti-Jewish polemics of the Middle Ages. These things were all in my system; all it took was for me to give myself permission, and they came spilling out.
When it came time to write a second book in the series, I didn’t shy away from the Jewishness of my writing. I embraced it. If my first book was about the primal trauma of the Jewish people – the Diaspora – the second is about something far more recent: the political assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. I was too young when it happened to understand the assassination’s full impact, but even then, I knew it was truly devastating because of the way it affected my parents. There were many tears in our house, yet it was only when I was in college that I fully understood the tragedy that had befallen not only my people, but the Palestinian people as well. It was devastating to realize that peace had been possible, but that without leaders on both sides courageous enough to seize the opportunity and credible enough to sell it to their own nations, the opportunity had slipped away.
In writing Among the Fallen, I did my best to metabolize the trauma my community had experienced. I rewrote the story of Rabin’s assassination, giving readers an ending that is less tragic than the one in the real world. I believe in hope and I believe in peace even when both seem impossible, and so for all the difficulties my characters experience along the way, my fiction remains stubbornly optimistic, as do I. You must dream a thing before you can make it a reality.