Mixed Multitudes: The Firstborn Son

I should have felt resentful toward the Hebrews, for whose sake the curses of their God had befallen my people, but in fact all I felt that night as I lay in my bed waiting to die was an immense sense of relief. I remember thinking, My life is about to be over. After tonight, I will never have to lie to anyone about who I am again. Perhaps that in itself is a kind of mercy.

When I awoke the next morning, I was filled with confusion. At first I thought it hadn’t happened, that the Pharaoh had defeated the Hebrews’ God after all. I felt a pang of sympathy for the Hebrew slaves. Ah well, I thought, it just shows that it is better not to hope, not even for release. But then I heard the wailing from outside, a cry of anguish rising up from the houses of my town such as I had never heard, and a kind of wonder crept over me, for I knew that it had happened after all. But why had I of all the firstborn sons of Egypt been spared?

I went to see their prophetess. I found her with a group of other women, face and arms covered with flour, hurriedly mixing dough in preparation for their departure. 

“That will never have time to rise,” I observed.

She didn’t even look up, focused on her work. “We’ll make do. Now what is it you wanted? Better make it quick — as you can see, we’re in kind of a hurry.”

Haltingly, uncomfortably aware of the eyes of the women upon me, I told her who I was and put my question to her: “Why was I, of all the firstborn sons of Egypt, spared?”

Now she did look up, when her eyes met mine they crinkled up and she laughed. My heart went cold — somehow this daughter of slaves knew what I had never uttered to a living soul.

“Do you think anything is hidden from the eyes of God?” she said. “The firstborn son of your house is dead, but you were spared. If you ask me, I think you’ll be better off without him. Now come along and help me with this bread.”

Still smiling, I got down on my knees alongside the other women of Israel and began to knead.

Mixed Multitudes: The Boy Next Door

The boy next door was about my own age. It’s funny, but I can’t seem to remember what his name was anymore. When we were small he would show up at our door every morning, politely asking if I would come out to play. I always did. His parents were Egyptian and mine were Hebrew, my parents slaves and his free, but that didn’t seem to matter… that is, until my brother Chayim was born. Nowadays when a woman gives birth to a son it’s a cause for celebration, but back then the prayer on every pregnant woman’s lips was that God would give her a daughter. We daughters, you see, were allowed to live. The Pharaoh’s men came for my brother Chayim on the day of his brit milah. After Chayim was taken, whenever the boy from next door came to ask for me I would hide and pretend I wasn’t there. I could no longer bring myself to play with a child of the people who had stolen my brother from me.

Then the man of God came. We watched as plague after plague rained down upon the Egyptians, and in my heart I was glad, for the sake of my brother who was never allowed to live. But after the darkness departed and the Pharaoh still refused to let us go free, the word reached us that God was planning to visit one more plague upon the Egyptians — the death of every firstborn male. Standing outside our house, watching my father as he painted the doorposts with blood to ward away the angel of death, I looked over at the house next door, and saw the boy I used to play with looking back at me through the window. From the look on his face I could tell he knew well what was in store for him. All at once the memory of our time spent playing in the courtyard came flooding back, and I knew what I had to do. I talked with my mother and father, and they talked with his mother and father. That night, when we celebrated the Passover feast, there was one more sitting at our table than there had been the night before. And when we departed Egypt the next day, my brother Chayim went with us.  

Mixed Multitudes: The Borrower

The Hebrews came to our doors in the early morning on the day when they were to leave us, asking to borrow our fine clothes, our vessels of gold and silver, to be used for the festival of their God. We knew it was a lie, of course — the part about borrowing. And they knew we knew. And yet we gave willingly. Why? 

I knew the woman who showed up at my door. She was much older now, her back bent with toil, face lined with years of hardship, but still I remembered her as she had been on that day long ago when the Pharaoh’s men shoved her roughly out of the very same door I was standing in now. “Egypt for Egyptians,” is what they called it, but the thing I remember most was the look on her face as she was cast out from the home she and her family had lived in for generations to make way for another family — my family. At first we felt guilty, of course, but what could we do? It was the Pharaoh’s will. And then over the course of the years the house began to feel less like someone else’s home and more like our own, and we thought less and less of the Hebrews whose hands had built these walls. Now, standing in the doorway of my home, with my son’s body growing cold in his cot in the kitchen and my husband’s in the bed in the back room, I looked upon the face of the Hebrew woman and remembered. 

“Go,” I said as I handed her the vessels, among them items that had been left by her family when they were forced to leave in haste all those years ago. “And ask for your God to bless me also, for my heart is broken into pieces.”

“Ask Him yourself,” she said, not unkindly. “It is said that He is close to the broken-hearted.”

When the Hebrews marched out later that day, I followed them. I did not look back, nor did I bother to shut the door of the house my family had borrowed for a time. 

Last chance for the Magical Princess Harriet Kickstarter!

Harriet

The Kickstarter for Magical Princess Harriet is on its last day. One month ago I launched this campaign hoping that others would be as excited as I was about the idea of a Jewish fantasy novel with a transgender protagonist, and the response has been truly phenomenal. In only 29 days ninety people have contributed a total of $3,180, enough to ensure that Magical Princess Harriet will in fact see the light of day. I am so deeply honored that so many people believed in this enough to help make my vision a reality.

If you are still interested in pre-ordering the book and having your name appear on the thank-you page, you can donate to the campaign here. Thanks again!

Why Fantasy?

As a rabbi, one might argue that my proper purview in life is things like God, Torah, Israel, Justice and other matters commonly held to be Serious Business. Why then, you might ask, am I devoting my time to something so frivolous as writing a fantasy novel for teens?

Inkedstraw-man_LII’m glad you asked, Mr. Rhetorical Straw Man! Here’s the deal: Throughout its illustrious history, the Fantasy genre has often been maligned as a form of escapism. Those who read fantasy, the argument goes, are unable to deal with reality and so escape into an imaginary world where they don’t have to deal with their problems. This argument is problematic for several reasons – first, and rather ironically, it paints reality itself in a really negative light. If reality were genuinely so bad that people had to resort to fantasy novels to escape from it, then it seems as if that would be a serious indictment of reality, not fantasy. Second, because fantasy fiction doesn’t really hold up as an effective means of escape – no matter how much I enjoy re-reading The Lord of the Rings for the 100th time, my problems are still going to be there when I put down the book. Third, and most importantly, the “fantasy as escape” argument tends to ignore the many ways in which fiction and reality interact with each other.

No work of fantasy, however creative, can ever separate itself completely from all connection with the lived reality of the author or the reader. While J. R. R. Tolkien may have celebrated fantasy as a form of “sub-creation,” a way in which human beings can emulate their Creator by giving birth to worlds of their own, he did not mean by this that the new worlds we create can ever be completely devoid of reference to our own world. Part of what makes fantasy fiction so enjoyable for the reader is the way it often has of taking some idea or issue from the world we live in and re-examining it through a different lens. The Lord of the Rings evokes the despair and heroism Tolkien witnessed serving in the trenches during World War I. Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time deals with issues of authoritarianism and the hazards of conformity that were supremely relevant when the book was published in 1962. Ursula K. Le Guinn deconstructs the patriarchal assumptions of most medieval fantasy in the later Wizard of Earthsea books, and thereby holds a mirror up to patriarchy in our own time. None of these classics of fantasy fiction make much sense when viewed in terms of “escapism” because each of them wrestles with the very real issues important to their authors in ways comparable to more “realistic” fiction.”

But the real importance of fantasy fiction comes into light not when we examine the impact reality has on fantasy, but that which fantasy has on reality. The notion of “reality” is a tricky one – it seems to presume something fixed and unchanging, an underlying substrate we can point to as the “real” as distinguished from the merely “imaginary.” But the nature of humanity is such that we tend to reshape our reality in accordance with the values and concepts that inform our lives. Technology, systems of government, economic relations, politics, art – all of these are means that humans employ to change the “given” reality around them into a form in keeping with their desires and preconceptions. In other words, the nature of the human imagination is such that the imaginary is constantly spilling over into the real and remaking it in its image.

Given this fundamental fact of human life, what we spend our time imagining may be just about the most important thing for us to consider. The realm of the imagination prefigures and ultimately determines the forms which can be assumed by the world around us, and so if we are to have any hope of changing this world for the better, it becomes vitally necessary to do the work of imagining what that world would be like and how it could be brought about. This is precisely the work that fantasy fiction is ideally suited for. Fantasy (along with its twin sibling, science fiction), is the conceptual test ground for the world we are in the process of constructing, and what that world is like will be ultimately determined by what we find it possible to imagine and what will remain literally “unimaginable.”

Furthermore, imagination is one of the ways in which we can reach out and grasp the ineffable, whether that is understood in terms of the theological/metaphysical underpinnings of reality or the barely-understood mysteries of our own identities. Growing up as a closeted transgender girl, for a great deal of my life my own truest self was something that existed solely in the realm of my own imagination. This wasn’t about escapism – on the contrary, my imagination was for me a place where I could hold those truths which were for me so true that at least for the time being there was no way they could find themselves into the unimaginable world in which I found myself. Fantasy can be an incredibly powerful way for queer and otherwise marginalized youth to connect to and explore their identity when the world around them gives no other space in which to do so. It can also be a tremendous way of forming contacts and relationships with other “dreamers,” thereby creating the social networks that will become the basis for bringing their dreams to life later on.

Another Excerpt

Another excerpt from my upcoming book, Magical Princess Harriet:

As the door swung shut behind her Harriet stood there for a moment, leaning against the doorpost, her heart beating a mile a minute. The bathroom was a long, narrow, poorly-lit room, its walls tiled in a particularly unpleasant shade of muted yellow-green that put one in mind of things rotting in a swamp – or perhaps that was just the smell. Along the wall facing the door were a row of stalls, with a row of urinals opposite them. Next to these were a number of shabby-looking sinks that looked as if they’d been installed around the time Eisenhower was president. The rusty faucets were dripping incessantly and the sound of the drops falling into the cracked porcelain basins echoed weirdly off of the room’s abnormally high ceiling.

She had been so upset when she came in that it took a minute before she realized she wasn’t alone. The room’s other occupant wasn’t immediately visible, but Harriet could hear them breathing in weak, shuddering gasps. The sound was amplified strangely by the room’s odd acoustics, so that at first she wasn’t certain where the sound was coming from. Bending down to examine the empty space along the bottom of the bathroom stalls she spotted a pair of black-on-black canvas sneakers that clearly belonged to someone standing on the other side of the last stall, in the space between it and the green-tiled wall.

“Hello?” she called out softly. “Are you okay?”

The echoes of her voice sounded metallic and distorted. When there was no response she crept tentatively forward and leaned around to see what was going on. Harriet gasped, eyes widening in alarm at what she saw. The boy – he must be in her grade, but he was so small and slim that he looked much younger – stood, or rather slumped, against the side of the bathroom stall, his eyes open but unseeing. The lower part of his face was obscured by the shadowy, amorphous form of a creature much like the one that Azrael had loosed on her the previous day in the upstairs hallway. It was clinging to the boy’s body with its long, wispy tentacles, its body slowly expanding and contracting, while beneath its translucent gray skin what looked like little clusters of glowing bubbles were gently pulsating with a ghastly violet light vaguely resembling the chemical phosphorescence of a glow stick.

A shudder ran through Harriet’s whole body. Her mind went back to those horrible moments, to the dreadful chill that had invaded her body when the creature had latched on to her and begun to feed. Gritting her teeth, she reached out to grab hold of the thing, meaning to pull it off the boy. When she did however she found that her hands passed right through its body, clutching nothing but empty air. She grunted, half in exasperation and half in pain as the cold, tingling sensation she remembered from before began to creep up her arms.

Taking a step back, Harriet’s hand went automatically to the pocket of her jeans where the little paper rose lay but it paused there, not quite touching it, her eyes darting nervously to the door through which she’d come. What was she supposed to do in a situation like this? Clearly the boy needed help – his breath was coming out in shallow wheezes that made her wince in sympathy just to hear them. But was she seriously considering bringing on the transformation right here in the middle of the boy’s bathroom? What if someone were to come in to use the toilet? What was she supposed to do then — shrug and say, “Sorry guys, guess I must have taken the wrong turn?”

As she stood there, paralyzed with indecision, Harriet’s eyes went back to those of the boy. They were wide and staring and utterly blank – the eyes of a human being on the verge of being totally lost. Shivering, she found herself recalling the words that Nuriel had spoken to her just before it disappeared:

You are a caring soul and your eyes have been opened to a danger which threatens people you care about, the angel had said. You have been given a gift which you are only beginning to understand, something which might otherwise have remained hidden from you for years to come. No one can hope to win in a fight against their own true nature. When the time comes and you are faced with the choice whether to live by that truth or betray it utterly, you will act.

Heaving a sigh of resignation, Harriet closed her fingers around the rose.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this, why not consider donating to my Kickstarter and help Magical Princess Harriet come into the world?