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A short excerpt from my upcoming book, Magical Princess Harriet:

 

As Harriet grasped the paper rose her skin began to glow from the inside, and again she felt that tremendous surge of warmth and wellbeing flowing through her. It felt like…

What it felt like, really, was love. That was the only way to put it into words. The thing that filled her up to overflowing with a light so bright that it literally lifted her up off the ground, pulling her toward some higher place she could not see but could just barely feel – that was love. It was big – far too big for her to really grasp the sheer scale of it without losing all sense of herself. It was a love big enough to encompass the entire universe and then some, and yet somehow at the same time it seemed radically specific. The love was in her and for her, just as she was in it and for it. It called out to her from somewhere deep inside of her, and since the only way to follow the sound of that voice was to turn completely inside-out, that is exactly what she did.

So way back in the day, when I was still living in Tulsa, OK and had maybe just converted to Judaism, my rabbi handed me a copy of the (then relatively new) Jewish Review of Books. In this particular issue was an article by Michael Weingrad entitled “Why There Is No Jewish Narnia.” I read it. It bothered me. It still does.

This article is not without its issues. At the very least Weingrad’s understanding of Fantasy seems overly reductionist, placing undue emphasis on romantic nostalgia for a vanished feudal past as a central and essential element of the genre. But while it might be a useful exercise for a later time, I’m not here today to critique the article itself, because it’s not really the article itself that I take issue with.

It’s the title.

When I read the article all those years ago, I initially misread the title. Rather than “Why There Is No Jewish Narnia,” I thought it said “Why Is There No Jewish Narnia?” A subtle difference, but an important one, because it underscores how Weingrad approaches the question as if it were already answered, as though taking it for granted that there are good reasons why Jewish culture has produced so few notable works of fantasy. That’s what bothers me.

Underlying all of this is a set of assumptions about what Judaism is and what it can be, a set of assumptions that were outdated and inaccurate back in the 60’s and 70’s and which continue to be so to this day – that Judaism is “this-worldly” rather than “other-worldly,” that it is somehow more inherently rationalistic than Christianity, that elements of magic, the supernatural, and above all mythology are foreign to it. The fact is that these elements of Jewish self-understanding are ultimately derived from the 19th-century Wissenschaft des Judentums movement, representative of the efforts of members of the newly-formed class of German Jewish academics to cast Judaism in a light that would be more palatable to the rationalistic mainstream German academic culture. In pursuit of this goal, historians like Heinrich Graetz cast the history of Judaism a particular light, downplaying the deep importance of mysticism and mythology to the development of Judaism as a religion. The fact that Hasidic Judaism, grounded in a version of medieval kabbalah radically reformulated to be accessible to the masses, was developing in eastern Europe into one of the most successful religious movements in Jewish history, was apparently too insignificant to have been worth their notice.

Today, despite the work of such noteworthy researchers into the field of Jewish mysticism as Gershom Sholem and Moshe Idel, the idea of Judaism as an essentially rationalistic and “this-worldly” faith is still with us. But this way of looking at ourselves seems deeply limiting to me. It strikes me as ignoring not only a fundamental aspect of the history of our civilization, but of our own spiritual being. In order to be a healthier, more complete people, I think we need to come to terms with the mystical side of ourselves, and of our religion, which to this day still tends to be ignored. I also happen to think that the most powerful way of exploring this less-than-adequately-acknowledged side of Judaism may be through the medium of fantasy fiction.

I’ve thought about Weingrad’s article from time to time over the years, and more than once I’ve wondered why it bothers me so much. I think at last I may have an answer – because in reality the title doesn’t strike me as a bare statement, nor as a question calling out for scholarly inquiry. To me, it feels much more personal than that. It feels like a challenge. In that light, the answer to the question, “Why is there no Jewish Narnia?” seems laughably simple.

It is because I haven’t finished writing it yet.

Next post: Introducing Magical Princess Harriet

There once was a person – let’s call hir Someone – who lived all by hirself in a big, old house a long way from anywhere. Someone didn’t get out a lot, and nobody ever came to visit hir, but Someone didn’t mind much, and on the whole zie was reasonably content with hir solitary existence.

Then one day out of the blue a letter arrived in the mail. This was something of a surprise in itself because Someone never got any mail. Zie had kind of assumed, because zie lived way out in the middle of nowhere, with no towns or even neighbors close by, that the postal service simply didn’t deliver all the way out here. Certainly Someone couldn’t think of anyone who might want to write to hir.

The letter was unsigned and had no return address, and when Someone opened and read it zie discovered that it consisted of only three words –

I am coming.

Receiving this letter left Someone understandably confused and a little nervous. In all the time zie had been living in the house zie had never had a single visitor, and zie couldn’t imagine who might want to visit hir now. What is more, the letter’s terse language left Someone without any idea as to the purpose of the visit or what the visitor’s attitude toward hir might be. Did they know Someone? It seemed unlikely, as Someone didn’t know many people. Were they coming to visit Someone, or just the house where zie lived? Were they coming for a short visit, or did they intend to stay longer? On what basis did they presume the liberty to come and visit without consulting Someone’s opinion on the matter?

All of these questions and more occupied Someone’s mind over the next several days, but the more Someone pondered them, the more mystifying they became. As zie considered this strange turn of events, however, it began to occur to hir that that house in which zie lived, adequate enough for hir own solitary needs, was woefully unprepared for receiving guests of any kind.

And so, partly out of nervousness at what the mysterious visitor might do or say should they arrive to find that adequate preparations had not been made for their stay, and partly out of embarrassment at the rather shabby condition of hir home, Someone began to tidy up and make the house ready for the visitor’s arrival. Zie opened up a spare room that hadn’t been used for ages and cleaned off the layer of dust that had been allowed to settle over everything. Zie got out the extra linens and made sure they were freshly washed. Zie picked up all the half-read books lying strewn all over the living room and put them back on their shelves.

And in the midst of all these preparations, as Someone was hanging the freshly laundered sheets out to dry in the lawn, zie happened to glance in the direction of the road and found to hir surprise that the flag on the mailbox was up – another letter had arrived!

This second letter was as mysteriously devoid of identifying features as the first and when Someone removed it from the envelope zie found that it contained a message more or less similar to the first. This one read –

I love you.

I am coming.

This letter threw Someone into even greater depths of confusion than the first one had. If it was improbable that zie might have forgotten some prior acquaintance who might wish to visit hir, that zie should be unable to recall someone who loved hir seemed beyond belief. At the same time, Someone was relieved to discover that the visitor’s feelings toward hir were evidently positive and they did not appear to mean hir any harm.

Nevertheless, when Someone looked around at the work zie had done to prepare for the visitor, zie was suddenly dissatisfied. Certainly there was a room now prepared for the visitor, and the living area was tidy, but it now occurred to Someone how shabby the exterior of the house had grown over the time zie’d lived there. It had never really occurred to hir to think what a visitor might think, because no visitor ever came. But now there was a visitor coming, one who apparently had deep feelings for Someone, even if zie could not remember them. It seemed a shame somehow to think of them arriving and finding the place in such a shambles.

And so Someone began to fix up the exterior of the house. They rehung the shutters that had been blown down in a storm, replaced the missing shingles on the roof, weeded the garden and even gave the door a fresh coat of paint.

In the midst of all this fixing and weeding and painting, Someone happened to glance again in the direction of the road and lo and behold, once again the flag was up on the mailbox – another letter!

This one was as indistinct as the first two had been, but this one read –

I miss you.

I love you.

I am coming.

Someone read this new letter with a sense of anxious trepidation in hir heart. Evidently the visitor who was soon to arrive felt a great connection to Someone, but as much as zie wracked hir brains zie could not think of a single person who might feel this way about hir. Only now did this fact strike hir as rather sad. Zie had never really realized how lonely it was living by hirself, with no one to talk to or share hir day with. Now though, Someone felt that there was nothing zie wanted more, and so zie resolved that when the visitor arrived, even if they didn’t recognize each other, even if it was all a mistake, zie would as the visitor – beg them, if need be – to stay a little while and keep hir company.

But where was the visitor? Three letters had now arrived to announce their coming, and yet there had been no sign of them. Someone began to get nervous. Perhaps it really had all been a mistake and no one was coming. Maybe the letters had been delivered to the wrong house entirely. Or maybe the visitor had suddenly realized they had been writing to the wrong person. Perhaps they had been expecting Someone to write back, to acknowledge their coming, and when no reply had been forthcoming they had decided they were unwelcome and not to come after all.

This last though – that some response had been expected and that by failing to give it Someone had caused the visitor to rethink their plans – distressed Someone greatly. Zie took to wandering through the house, thinking hard about what zie might do to signal to hir mysterious correspondent that that they were welcome and indeed eagerly awaited in Someone’s home.

It was a big, rambling house, most of which Someone didn’t even use on a regular basis, and lost in thought Someone wandered into a passage that zie hardly ever visited. Suddenly, zie was startled to to notice that at the end of the hallway was a door zie’d never noticed before. Ordinarily, that end of the passageway was shrouded in darkness, even in the daytime, and so it was not surprising that in hir infrequent trips to this part zie’d missed the door. And yet now there was a thin line of yellow light visible through the crack beneath the door. What is more, Someone could hear the sound of footsteps coming from the other side – there was a person in the room beyond!

Feeling as if zie was dreaming, Someone walked slowly to the door and turned the handle. The footsteps on the other side paused in their pacing, as if listening expectantly. Steadying hir nerve, Someone opened the door.

Inside was a cozy little room with a small bed, next to which was a night table with a lamp, from which was coming the warm, yellow light that Someone had seen under the door. There was an old armchair and a shelf containing some books and various odds and ends. In one corner was a writing desk on which were strewn several sheets of paper identical to that on which the letters had been written, and standing in the middle room was a person Someone knew instantly must be the mysterious visitor zie had been so anxiously awaiting.

“When did you get here?” Someone asked, beside hirself in astonishment.

“I’ve been here all along,” the visitor replied. “I built this house as a matter of fact. For a long time I lived here all by myself, and the loneliness was almost too much to bear. When you arrived it seemed like the the answer to my prayers, but I found suddenly that I was to nervous to face tou. And so I hid in here, and I’ve been hiding ever since, watching you from afar, taking pleasure from your company, even if you didn’t realize I was there. After a while though it didn’t seem right that I should be able to take comfort from you when you weren’t even aware of my existence. So I had the idea of writing you a letter and presenting myself as a visitor. At the same time, I was still a little afraid you wouldn’t want to see me, so I’ve been trying to work up the courage to show my face.

Someone couldn’t believe it – all that time they had been sharing the house with the visitor without even knowing it! Filled with sudden joy, Someone held out hir hand to the visitor.

“I’ve been working so hard to make everything ready for your visit,” zie said. “I was worried you were never going to come. Come with me and I’ll show you.” And the visitor, smiling, took Someone’s hand and together they left the room.

This is kind of a departure for me, but I’ve been working on this for a little while and wanted to post it somewhere for people to see. It’s an experiment in fiction-as-midrash based on the Torah readings for the High Holidays. More than that though, it’s a story about a goat.

You’ll have to excuse the expression, but I’m a goat. If I’ve got a name no-one’s ever told me what it is, but I know who I belong to. It’s branded on my side, seared in letters of pink, puckery scar tissue where the fur will never grow back: ”L’Azazel.” Which is to say, ”for Azazel.” Before all this happened I’d never heard of the lady personally, which isn’t all that surprising–your social circles are pretty limited when you’re a goat. In all my wandering since, I’ve never run into her, but if you do, you let her know she’s got a goat waiting for her if she cares to claim him. Personally I’ve got my doubts.

Hell, we all do. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about humans–and I mean no disrespect by this, some of my best friends are humans–it’s that each and and every one of them is deep-down crazy because they know they belong so someone who will never show up to claim them. You can feed me whatever line of pious bullshit you want, but you know in your heart of hearts that what keeps you up in the middle of the night is the fear that your owner is never gonna show up for you and when it’s all over you’re gonna find yourself stuck out in the wilderness all by yourself like an old lady on a bench, clutching a plastic shopping bag to her chest as the darkness falls around her, waiting for a bus that will never come.

There I go again. I didn’t used to talk like this when I was just your run-of-the-mill, every day, garden variety goat. I didn’t talk at all in fact. Goats don’t, as a rule. Don’t bother asking whether that’s because they can’t or because they just don’t feel the need. I’ve asked myself that question more than once and I don’t know the answer. To tell you the truth it’s getting harder and harder to remember what it was like being just a goat. I never used to think about things so much as I do now, and a lot has happened since then.

Back in those days I didn’t belong to anybody like I do now. For certain, some schmuck probably considered me his property–it’s hard to be a goat in this world without somebody laying claim to your furry behind. But the thing is, I never really knew anybody owned me, so as far as I was concerned, I was a self-made goat. We lived in the same house as the family of humans who cared for us, and ate much the same food, so we were more inclined to regard them as equals and family members than as owners and masters. We lived our lives and, in their own inscrutable way, they led theirs.

I lived in a herd with all my brothers and sisters. We spent most of our days wandering the pasture land looking for what to eat. When the sun was high up and the air got hot enough to rise in shimmering waves from the dry, dusty ground we would laze about in the shade of a terebinth or in the cleft of a rock. There were the humans too who spent their days with us–girls with dusky skin and long black hair who would go out with us at dawn and come back with us at night. Sometimes when we were resting in the afternoon one of them would lift her voice up in song, and it seemed like the whole world would go quiet, listening.

It wasn’t a bad life for a goat, and none of us knew anything else. In due time I probably would have been quietly slaughtered and ended up as some family’s festival meal, and that would have been the end of me–an unassuming end for an unassuming goat. But God, that old trickster, had another road laid out for me, a road that stretched all the way from the top of the mountain where the great temple stands down into the trackless wastes inhabited by no one but outlaws, dreamers and men of God, a road with no map but a name seared into my flank: L’Azazel.

And here is how it all began:

One morning as the summer was drawing to a close my siblings and I were following the girls who watched over us down the narrow, winding path that led from little village on the hill down to the pasture land in the valley below. The sun was just beginning to crest over the hill when I looked up and there, standing in the village square waiting for us was a small group of men. Some of them I recognized from the village, from the house where we slept at night, in fact. There were others there too, though–men like I’d never seen before, tall and well-fed with sleek, luxuriantly oiled beards that cascaded down over their chests. They were dressed in long robes, and as we came up the path they seemed to be talking with the men from the village, scrawny and undernourished in comparison, who carried themselves with an air of anxious deference. At least I think I thought that–it’s really hard to say at this point what I was really capable of understanding at the time, and what I only recollected afterwards, when my mind had started to work in ways no ordinary goat’s could.

Rather than turn aside down the hill as we ordinarily would, the girls led us up to the little clump of men and brought us to a halt. We milled around in the early morning light, as nervous as our human owners, unsure what the reason was for this unwarranted delay in the daily routine. The servants walked among us at the direction of the tall men, examining my brothers one by one, opening the mouth of this one to get a better look at his teeth, prodding the flank of that one, carefully scrutinizing the belly of another. In the end, they singled me out along with one of my brothers and brought us before the great men, who nodded with approval. We had been found acceptable, though for what we couldn’t say. Instead we bleated sadly as we were driven away down the hill by the tall mens’ servants, separated from the herd and from everything we had known in our short lives.

Great sages have debated for centuries about the true significance of the temple sacrifices. I’ve had the opportunity to speak to a number of them, because great sages have a way of pissing off powerful men and being banished to live or die in the wilderness as their wisdom allows. Some have held that the sacrifice is nothing more or less than the food of God, and that as its flesh is consumed in flame it rises up in smoke as a pleasing odor before the Lord. Others have suggested that the very innocence of the animals offered up allows their sacrifice to serve as a meeting point between man and the divine, and that this is why predatory or unclean animals are never offered up. Still others assert that the animal itself is virtually irrelevant, but what really counts is its blood which, as the most potent and concentrated form of life, is necessary to cleanse the sanctuary of the taint of death generated by the sins of the people. In any case, if one thing is certain it’s that no one ever thought to consult the animals in question. Our willingness to be sacrificed, or at least our powerlessness to resist, is taken as a given.

My brother and I knew nothing of these things as we were loaded into a cart and set out on the long journey up to Jerusalem. Idly we munched on our fodder and watched the landscape slowly rumble past, completely ignorant of our fate or of the weighty significance that was to be placed, for a short time, between the horns of two simple goats. The road was hot and dusty and the wagon wheels creaked incessantly as we trundled along. The priests rode along in silence, mostly, maybe preoccupied with thoughts of sins to be atoned for in the solemn days ahead, maybe just tired of the journey and daydreaming of the comforts of home. The temple functionaries who accompanied them talked among themselves, occasionally breaking into snatches of song. First one would start and then others would join in, their voices harmonizing with the ease of long practice, sending the cliffs ringing all around us as the psalm rose heavenward.

The road wound steadily upward though the rocky hills of Judea. Occasionally we would pass a herd of goats grazing on the hillsides and my brother and I would lift up our voices in our own imitation of the Levites’ song, calling out to the strangers. Every so often one of them would raise their head and bleat in response, but for the most part they carried on grazing, unconcerned with what happened to a couple of goats from a different herd. At last, after hours of travelling without any change to break the monotony, we came around a bend and there looking down on us was the city, its walls shining golden in the rays of the setting sun.

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