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?

Announcing the Magical Princess Harriet Kickstarter!

Kickstarter Banner

I am proud to announce that the Kickstarter campaign for Magical Princess Harriet is finally underway!

If you haven’t been following this saga as it has developed, MPH is a Young Adult Fantasy novel about a Jewish middle school student named Harriet (neé Harris) Baumgartner who is charged with dealing with a family of Nephilim who are trying to take over her town, all while having to deal with her growing awareness that she was never meant to be a boy. Yes, that’s right – I wrote a novel that is basically a queer, Jewish version of a magical girl anime. So there.

You can find out more by visiting the Kickstarter page here. Watch the video, check out the characters, and please consider donating if you can!

What it felt like

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.

Why No Jewish Narnia?

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

Podcast!

I had the honor of being featured in the inaugural episode of #trending Jewish, a new podcast being put out by the Reconstructionist movement. I had a great time recording this with Bryan and Rachel. In the episode we talk about the importance of Talmud as a source of inspiration for rethinking Jewish life in the 21st century, the union of analysis and emotion, and the potential of using electronic music in a liturgical context. Plus, a few tunes by yours truly! I’d highly recommend giving it a listen.

Back Again (and a prayer for Sukkot)

Well, once again it has been quite a while since I posted anything here. A lot has happened in the last two years, to be sure – graduated, became a rabbi, got married… I’m a step-parent now. For real. But there will be time enough to hash all that out. For now, this is what I have to say: For those of you out there who actually read this thing, I apologize for letting it languish for so long. Due to one thing and another, for a long time I wasn’t certain that I actually had anything to say. Now, I’ve decided that I do. So stay tuned, I guess. In the meantime, here’s what I’ve been praying this year for Sukkot:

Beloved God, often are you praised as the one who settled our wandering ancestors in the land of your promise, but how often do we praise you for commanding Abraham and Sarai to abandon house and home for a life of wandering? Often are you praised as the maker of peace; how often do we praise you as the one who unsettles the mind and brings disquiet to the heart? Contentment, security, comfort – we crave these things above all else, and so we beg you for them when we don’t have them and praise you for them when we do. And yet, what is it that you ask of us? To “go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)

In our generation many of us have only a tenuous connection to the soil, and so it may seem paradoxical to us that this the season of harvest rejoicing was also for our ancestors the time of deepest anxiety. Giving thanks for the sustaining bounty of the earth, they also prayed like hell for the life giving rains that might or might not come this year. This then was the essence of your promise – to take us out of slavery in a land of security watered by the never-ceasing Nile and to grant us freedom in a land whose rocky heights are forever dependent on the rains of heaven. So goes the psalm:

Place not your trust in human benefactors

In human beings without power to save

Their spirit leaves, they go back to the ground

On that day their plans are lost

Happy is the one with the God of Jacob for a help

Whose hope is in the Lord our God

Dear one, you know what we are like. In unsettled times it is hard for us not to dig in, to retrench, to close the gates and bar the doors and wait for the storm to pass regardless of who might knock without, looking for shelter. This, we know, is the way of humanity, but it is not your way, and so you command us at this time of year to leave the security of our homes, to camp out in temporary shelters like the refugees we are and were and ever will be, to welcome in every guest.

And so, in this the season of our insecurity, we pray to you not for comfort, but for clarity; not for complacency, but for compassion; not, above all else, for security, but for the disquiet of the heart that drives us out into the world to do your work.

Sticking Points

Here’s a dilemma which I think a lot of modern liberal Jews have to face whenever we go to the Torah looking for wisdom: On the one hand, we find these beautiful, life-changing values of community, justice and faith in God that really speak to us on a fundamental level. On the other hand, we find these values situated within the framework of an ancient culture whose fundamental assumptions are often radically different from our own. In the best of times this can be challenging as we work to understand just what the text is saying in its own context, and what it could mean in our own. But sometimes it can be profoundly alienating, especially when those cultural assumptions run so profoundly counter to our own values that the message gets completely lost in translations.

I think most of us have some of these “sticking points” – themes or ideas in the Torah that profoundly unsettle us. They’re a natural consequence of living our lives in more than one civilization, or as philosopher Jeffrey Stout would put it, speaking more than one “moral language” fluently. Whenever we encounter one of these sticking points, it forces us to stop and wrestle mightily with the text. In this struggle we sometimes come out on top, emerging with some fresh insight to lead us on our way. Sometimes, however, it is all too much for us and we are forced to come to terms with the fact that even in our most sacred texts there are elements which simply defy our efforts to derive meaning from them.

I’m sure everyone’s sticking points are different, but for me one of the major ones comes up at the beginning of Parashat Shelach-Lecha, in which Moses sends out twelve spies to scout out the land and its people. There is certainly a lot to be learned from this story – lessons about courage, loyalty and the importance of not selling ourselves short. One of my favorite takes on the story, to be found in Midrash Rabah, imagines the spies in dialogue with God:

“And we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves,” the spies say, recalling the gigantic stature of the inhabitants of the land. The Holy Blessed One said: [This point] I would concede to you, except that you then said, “And so we appeared to them!” Do you claim to know how I made you look in their sight? Who can say that I didn’t make you appear as angels to them? (Num. Rabah 16:11)

There is certainly much that is beautiful and true that we can learn from this teaching, but every time I come to read this passage I stumble over a single, unavoidable fact that often tends to be glossed over – that the fundamental purpose of the mission being carried out by Joshua and Caleb and the ten other men is to spy out the land in preparation for invading it and slaughtering its inhabitants, men, women and children.

This legacy of violence and ethnic conflict is often celebrated or simply taken for granted in the tradition, at least as long as it’s the Israelites who are inflicting the violence. As someone who grew up in a world haunted by the specter of ethnic violence – in Bosnia, in Northern Ireland, Rwanda, Israel/Palestine and my own home, the United States – this aspect of the Torah’s worldview is a major sticking point for me, a stumbling block I just keep tripping over each time I return to the text.

While I was thinking about this, I happened to come across a teaching in Me’Or Einaim, a Torah commentary by Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl. In his discussion of this parsha, the Chernobyler Rebbe addresses the complicated relationship between knowledge and choice. God, whose knowledge of the universe is perfect and incontrovertible, is aware from before the beginning of creation what every decision and its outcome will be. And yet, as humans, we have the freedom to decide what to do and to choose between right and wrong. How can this be?

Drawing upon the tradition of Lurianic mysticism, the Rebbe tells a story of how before the creation of this world God created many worlds but destroyed them all, finding each one in turn to be unsatisfactory. But the shards of those rejected worlds didn’t simply vanish. They remained, mixed together with the stuff of this world. Thus, our world and everything in it is a mixture of good and evil, and our task as humans is to choose the good, sifting through the discarded shards of might-have-beens to find the sparks of divine light concealed within.

The sin of the spies, explains the Rebbe, was not that they observed something negative about the land God had promised to the Israelites. It was that , seeing the bad things mixed in with the good, they essentially washed their hands of the whole affair, rejecting it entirely, and forgetting that our critical task as Jews and as human beings is to sift through the bad in order to find the good.

Reading this, I found myself asking: If this is so for the ten spies, then why not also for me, the reader? Perhaps all these stumbling blocks and sticking points are there for a reason – because our task, as readers as in life, is to search through the shards of a broken world in search of meaning.