When Israel was declared a state in 1948 and the Hebrew language was rejuvenated from obscurity (perhaps “reinvented” is a better word for it, thanks to one man with an obsession, but that’s a whole different story…), 69% of the books published were translations. Today, Hebrew is alive and vibrant, and more than 65% of published books are by Israeli authors, with many of those eventually translated to various other languages. The first generation of Israeli authors were Jewish immigrants from Europe or Russia and the prose tended to reflect that heritage and their own tradition of Judaism. As a result, they did not often deal with speculative fiction or fantasy to any large degree.
Slowly a second, incredibly influential generation of Israeli authors appeared. They replaced the focus on Judaism, or at the very least laced it with the new national identity to created prose which is uniquely Israeli. Yet none of those giants of this period took to the science fiction or fantasy genre—which is surprising, at least to me, since most Israelis I know, are obsessed with innovation and technology. Despite its small size (only 8 million in population), Israel is second only to the USA in patent registration. It is a powerhouse of technological firms and start-up companies. In recent years, Israeli SF/F is a slowly growing genre, and it is my hope that we will see more and more from Israeli authors writing in new and previous unimagined directions.
Most of the fantasy we read in the West is rooted in the Christian and European set of beliefs and culture. Despite the fact that Jewish fantasy-based folklore and mythology is widespread and varied, however, most fantastical elements of Judaism are not widely known, even to secular Jews such as myself. As I have discovered, if you dig deeply enough there are some shining gems out there (also, I am dying to write about a vampire-busting, Kabbala-wielding Rabbi who dishes out kosher justice with a vengeance, using a set of tiny but very sharp knives…)
My own aspirations aside, the size and activism of the sci-fi and fantasy community in Israel grows each year, and a new generation of authors has begun to publish fiction in both genres. Their prose is a mix of Israeli chutzpa, strong, unabashed political views (try talking to any Israeli about politics and you’re in for an earful…), and Israeli innovation. It is also rooted and influenced by Jewish tradition and dark history—even if that only means breaking from it.
My first recommendation is an expat, Lavie Tidhar, who was born and raised in Israel but lived all over the world (a very Israeli thing to do…). He has won numerous prestigious awards for his books, including the 2010 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel (Osama). Central Station is perhaps the most sci-fi of his books, but all of his stories deal with speculative fiction and he is unafraid of touchy subjects. In A Man Lies Dreaming, Tidhar creates an alternative reality in which Hitler is a private eye; The Guardian called it “a Holocaust novel like no other.”
Tidhar’s latest work, Unholy Land, touches on another delicate subject by delving into Israel’s history. The story is set in a reality where Theodor Herzl, the head of the Zionist movement, accepted the offer made by Joseph Chamberlain, the British Colonial Secretary at the time, to establish the state of Israel in Africa instead of the Middle East.
Next, to quote Neil Gaiman, “Hagar Yanai gives us that rarity in fantasy: something perfectly new. An imaginary cosmology that feels like it came to us straight from ancient Babylon, a book filled with humor, adventure, philosophy and two brave children. It’s powerful, good stuff, and deserves a world-wide audience.”
I don’t think I can add to the praise (or weight) of Gaiman’s words. The Leviathan of Babylon is the first book in a Middle Grade series that uses motifs from Jewish, Babylonian, Sumerian, and Akkadian mythology, and also creates a new and exciting alternate history.
Ofir Touché Gafla’s The World of the End deals with the reality of the afterlife but also touches on one of Judaism’s greatest sins, suicide. The name of the book derives from a Hebrew phrase describing a passing of life, halach le’olamo, which literally translates to “went to his own world.” Ben Mendelssohn, a widower, cannot stand the pain of the loss of his wife, Marian. One bullet to the brain later, Ben is in the Other World, where he discovers a vast and curiously secular existence utterly unlike anything he could have imagined: a realm of sprawling cities where the deceased of every age live an eternal second life, and where forests of family trees are tended by mysterious humans who never lived in the previous world. But Ben cannot find Marian anywhere.
Keren Landsman has long been known in the Israeli SciFi and Fantasy community for her Geffen Prize-winning short stories and short story collections and for the anthologies she’s edited. In 2019, Angry Robot will publish The Heart of the Circle, Landsman’s alternate world fantasy thriller about the Sons of Simeon, a group of religious extremists, with a love story at its heart.
My last example is a delicate matter, since Rena Rossner is not just a dear friend but also my literary agent. But I’ll risk being accused of bias because her debut novel, The Sisters of the Winter Wood, is a prime example of Jewish fantasy. Rossner, a practicing Orthodox Jew currently living in Jerusalem, raising five kids, and representing scores of authors (apparently, she can bend time as well…) tells a story of two sisters living in a small, remote village on the borders of Moldova and their discovery of a magical heritage they possess. Rossner’s fairy story is laced with Jewish folklore, magic, poetry, and mystery.
Of course, as the authors above might attest, sometimes politics and religion chase after you, no matter how far you run away from them. Despite occurring in the 24th century, I had to consider the sensitive political and religious issues and tensions at work in the current Middle East in my novel The Lost Puzzler (Harper Voyager). In my first draft, the main character, Rafik, was a devout Muslim who finds out that he possesses special, forbidden powers and suffers greatly for it. Considering my nationality and the faith I was born into, and for fear of coming off as biased, I eventually decided to mix Judaism and Muslim into one religion which named Sons of Abraham. In one stroke I solved my own problem in the story and was able to explore an alternative peaceful solution to a decades-long bloody conflict (and it wasn’t even such a hard thing to do…at least in fiction).
Many of the Israeli authors and books mentioned here deal with alternative history or reality—unsurprising, perhaps, given the genres we immerse ourselves in. But it might also be because packing up (really quickly) and starting over somewhere new—or at the very least wishing and imaging things were different—is a very Jewish thing to do; it’s an impulse that informs and connects many of our stories, past, present, and future.
Eyal Kless is a classical violinist who enjoys an international career both as a performer and a teacher. Born in Israel, Eyal has travelled the world extensively, living several years in Dublin, London, Manchester, and Vienna, before returning to Tel Aviv. His first novel, Rocca’s Violin, was published in Hebrew in 2008 by Korim Publishers. Eyal currently teaches violin in the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music at Tel Aviv University, and performs with the Israel Haydn String Quartet, which he founded. His novel The Lost Puzzler is available from Harper Voyager.