ENCYCLOPAEDIA JUDAICA, Second Edition (1999), Volume 18, p. 207
As a discrete brand of commercial fiction, SF was first discerned, and subsequently marketed, by Hugo Gernsback (1884–1967), a Luxembourghish-Jewish immigrant to the U.S. sometimes referred to as the “Father of Science Fiction” (although Gernsback first referred to the genre as “Scientifiction”). In 1927, Gernsback launched Amazing Stories, the first magazine dedicated exclusively to SF. Often blamed (because of his emphasis on technological speculation at the expense of literary proficiency) for SF’s literary ghettoization and for its formative reputation as sub-literate, Gernsback nevertheless became the namesake for the Hugo, the genre’s premiere achievement award.
Traditional Jewish Attitudes toward the Fantastic
It would overstate matters to describe either fantasy or science fiction as necessarily Jewish, or even as bearing any great degree of Jewish specificity. Indeed, the word “imagination” only made its first appearance in the Hebrew language during the 12th century, in Maimonides’ Guide of the, where it was referred to as the literal dimyon or in terms of ko’aḥ hamedammeh (the imaginative faculty). As scholar David Stern observes in Rabbinic Fantasies: Imaginative Narratives from Classical Hebrew Literature, normative Judaism regarded even science fiction and fantasy, its own non-didactic imaginative literature – “mere stories and profane matter” – with ambivalence or contempt. This is not to say that many of the seminal biblical and post-biblical Jewish texts (most of which embarked upon narrative embellishment either to fill in gaps in the original Torah narrative or to resolve contradictions) were not thoroughly permeated by what we would now call the fantastic.
Imaginative works, which included Midrash (exegetic tales, such as the eighth-century Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer or the 16th-century Sefer ha-Yashar) mashal (parables and fables), aggadah (rabbinic legends, typically found in Talmud or Midrash), medieval apocalyptic literatures (such as Sefer Zerubbabel), sacred biographies (like the Sefer Ḥasidim), maqama (rhymed prose narrative typified by Abraham *Ibn Ezra’s 12th-century Ḥai ben Mekiẓ, about a journey to the six planets of the medieval solar system and their imaginary inhabitants); Merkabah (mystical theories of creation), and the apocryphal and pseudepigraphical Heikhalot texts (describing heavenly journeys), were rarely regarded as inherently imaginative.
Indeed, the more imaginative the narrative, the more emphatic the author or redactor’s insistence on its veracity. Unabashedly imaginative tales were generally deemed far inferior to legal, philosophical, or even mystical texts elevated to canonical or near-canonical status. Disdain for the purely imaginative persisted as a hallmark of Hebrew literature even after the 19th century; it remains partly responsible for a resistance to the fantastic that endures to this day among writers and readers of contemporary Hebrew-language fiction. However, Hebrew writers such as S.Y. *Agnon, Benjamin *Tammuz, Ḥayyim Naḥman *Bialik, M.J. *Berdyczewski, Ḥayyim *Hazaz, Yehudah Ya’ari, Yitzhak *Oren, M.Z. *Feierberg, Aharon *Appelfeld, Pinḥas *Sadeh, Yoram *Kaniuk, Yiẓḥak *Orpaz Averbuch, David *Shahar, David *Grossman and, A.B. *Yehoshua, and Yiddishists such as I.L. *Peretz, and I.B. *Singer, have variously embraced biblically and talmudically inspired folk tales, often reformulating the aggadist tradition for modern secular sensibilities.
Other renowned Jewish writers who incorporated strong fantastic elements into their work include Isaac *Babel, Saul *Bellow, Michael *Chabon, Paddy *Chayefsky, Matt Cohen, E.L. *Doctorow, Nathan Englander, Jonathan Safran Foer, Stephen Fry, William *Goldman, Mark Helprin, Joseph *Heller,
Franz *Kafka, Arthur *Koestler, Jerzy *Kosinski, Doris *Lessing, Primo *Levi, Bernard *Malamud, Cynthia *Ozick, Ayn *Rand, Mordecai *Richler, Philip *Roth, Art *Spiegelman, *Franz Werfel, and Herman *Wouk.
A Universe of Jewish SF Writers
The contributions of unusually large numbers of Jewish writers, editors, and publishers to the development of American, Russian, and (to a lesser extent) British SF, and the incorporation of themes and devices inspired by biblical and post-biblical rabbinic sources, suggest that SF may, like talmudic Judaism, provide an ideal venue for consideration of the inherent mystical or mysterious. Literary theorist Eric Rabkin regards SF and fantasy in a manner akin to talmudic Judaism: a mode of truth-seeking and reality-testing in which normative concepts of reality can be understood as a collection of perspectives and expectations that we learn to abide by in our daily existence. In Judaism, these perspectives are made to accord with holy writ, whereas in SF and what Rabkin calls “Fabulism,” they are arbitrarily and subjectively laid down by the author. Hence, perhaps, critic Leslie Fiedler’s observation that, “even in its particulars, the universe of science fiction is Jewish.”
Jewish writers and editors associated with the fantastique include Forrest J. Ackerman, Paul (Pesakh) Amnuel, Isaac *Asimov, Peter S. Beagle, Eluki Bes Shahar, Alfred Bester, Robert Bloch, David Brin, Carol Carr, Howard Chaykin, Jack Dann, Ellen Datlow, Avram Davidson, Corey Doctorow, George Alec Effinger, Max Ehrlich, Neil Gaiman, David Gerrold, Stephen Goldin, Louis Golding, Lisa Goldstein, Phyllis Gotlieb, Martin Harry Greenberg, Isidore Haiblum, Joe W. Haldeman, Russell Hoban, Guy Gavriel Kay, Cyril Kornbluth, Henry Kuttner, Stanislaw Lem, Jacqueline Lichtenberg, Richard Lupoff, Barry N. Malzberg, Judith Merril, Nicholas Meyer, Sam Moskowitz, Mike Resnick, Joanna Russ, Carl *Sagan, Pamela Sargent, Nat Schachner, Robert Sheckley, Robert Silverberg, Curt Siodmak, Norman Spinrad, Arkady and Boris Strugatski, William Tenn (Philip Klass), Sheri S. Tepper, Harry Turtledove, Joan D. Vinge, Stanley Grauman Weinbaum, Donald Wollheim, and Jane Yolen.
Origins in Jewish Myth
While some SF scholarship traces the genre as far back as the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, through the subsequent speculations of Johannes Keppler, Jonathan Swift, Thomas More, Rabelais, and Cyrano de Bergerac, one can point to the apocryphal Books of *Enoch (excluded from the Hebrew Bible yet still a canonical text for Ethiopian Jewry) as an antecedent to SF tales – the most famous being British writer Olaf Stapledon’s 1937 novel Star Maker, in which a human mind embarks through space and time on a quest to unlock the mysteries of creation. The Bible’s most formative component – the so-called “J-source” – has been characterized by scholar Harold Bloom as a particularly ironic and deliberate work of fantasy. The Hebrew Bible certainly reconfigured or introduced myths that resonate through the contemporary fantastique, most notably Genesis, the Garden of Eden, the sons of God and the daughters of men, the Tower of Babel, the Flood, the decimation of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Abrahamic Covenant, the Exodus, the parting of the Red Sea, the giving of the Torah and, of course, the End Time, or Apocalypse.
“All mythology,” observed Karen Armstrong, “speaks of another plane that exists alongside our own world, and that in some sense supports it.” Not incidentally, science fiction has sometimes been described as a mythology for the contemporary world. (Some of the more simple-minded SF treatments of biblical myth, however, inspired British writer and SF historian Brian Aldiss to christen these tales “Shaggy God stories.”)
While the purpose of science fiction has never been to prophesize so much as to comment on the present, the prophetic traditions of the Bible (many of them established in the Book of Daniel) certainly accord with science fictional efforts to delineate the general topography of things to come. Yet post-biblical Jewish myths have also resonated, sometimes formatively, often profoundly, within contemporary fantasy and science fiction. One of the most ubiquitous, the *golem (Hebrew for “shapeless form”) was first referred to in Psalm 139. Renowned in various 20t-century novels and plays celebrating the kabbalistic skills of Rabbi *Judah Loew (1525–1609), the Maharal (Hebrew acronym for Morenu ha-Rav Loew (“Our Teacher Rabbi Loew”) of Prague, this soulless homunculus was purportedly fashioned from clay and blessed with supernatural powers, but eventually defied its creator and ran amok. This oft-recounted folk tale is believed to have inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), consensually the first identifiable example of modern science fiction. It remains an influential precursor for myriad SF stories featuring robots and androids.
Tales involving dybbuks, wandering souls that attach themselves to living people, have made regular appearances in Jewish folklore since the 16th century, and were popularized on the Yiddish stage in the U.S. in 1920 by S.Y. An-Ski. Such tales helped inspire stories about spirit possession, a mainstay of religious fantasy and gothic horror, and, alternately, about another SF mainstay, rogue artificial intelligence (AI). Some scholars regard the dybbuk as a literary response to the psychological conflicts generated by Jewish emancipation.
The *Lilith myth, a midrashic invention dating back to 1000 C.E. and depicting Adam’s discarded first wife as a temptress night-demon who steals men’s seed and bears them illegitimate children, has become an icon of the feminist movement and a staple of feminist science fiction. Lilith figures centrally in C.L. (Catherine Lucille) Moore’s Fruit of Knowledge (1940), in Octavia E. Butler’s Dawn (1987) and Lilith’s Brood (2000), in Jack L. Chalker’s Lilith: A Snake in the Grass (1981), in George Macdonald’s Lilith (1981), and in Lilith’s Dream: A Tale of the Vampire Life (2003) by Whitley Strieber.
Christological myths about Jews have also figured in contemporary SF. The *Wandering Jew, a 13th century English apparition that reappeared in 17th-century German pamphlets, fueled a number of best-selling novels in the mid-19th century. The archetype has reappeared in SF novels as disparate as Louis Golding’s This Wanderer (1935), Wilson Tucker’s The Planet King (1959), Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960), and Dan Simmon’s Hyperion (1990), and, somewhat more obliquely, as the titular character in David Brin’s The Postman (1985).
The Left Behind franchise series launched by Tim F. LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins in 1995, meanwhile, envisions the advent of a Revelations-inspired Rapture, which begins with a miraculously thwarted attack on Israel, but results in the mass conversion or decimation of world Jewry following the tumultuous seven-year “Tribulations” preceding the Last Days. Veteran SF editor and historian Brian Stableford published an anthology in 1991 called Tales of the Wandering Jew.
Thematic Anthologies and Collections
Jewish themes and characters have been explored in various modern science fiction and fantasy collections, most notably in two anthologies, Wandering Stars (1974) and More Wandering Stars (1984), both edited by Australia-based American writer Jack Dann, and both largely and sardonically focused on issues pertaining to intermarriage (with aliens, one of them a sentient, ambulatory vegetable), who (or what) is a Jew, and various near and far-future Jewish and Israeli Holocausts.
A pair of short novels, Can Androids Be Jewish? By Joe Sampliner, and Miriam’s World by Sol Weiss, appeared in 1996 in The Stars of David: Jewish Science Fiction. Jewish Sci-Fi Stories for Kids (1999), by Rivka Lisa Perel, contains stories by Stephanie Burgis, Eliot Fintushel, Yaacov Peterseil, MiriamBaskin, Dan Pearlman, and Mark Blackman.
Jews, the Universe, and Everything
L. Borodulin is reputed to have written the first Yiddish science fiction novel, Af Yener Zayt Sambatyon (“On the Other Side of Sambatyon River,” 1929), about a journalist who encounters a mad scientist in the land of the Red Jews (referring not to Russia, but to lost tribesmen). Other offerings in Yiddish include A. Tanenboym’s Tsvishen himel un vaser: a visenshaftlikher roman (“Between Sky and Water: A Scientific Romance,” 1896), Doktor und tsoyberer (1899) and Di shvartse kunst: a vissenshaftlikher roman (“The Black Art: A Scientific Novel,” 1899); Solomon Bogin’s Der Ferter Internatsyonal, Fantastishe Dertseylung (The Fourth International,” 1929); Leon Kussman’s Narnbund, Fantastishe Trilogye (“Union of Fools,” 1931); Y.L. Goldshtayn, Tsuzamenbrukh oder iberboy: fantastisher roman in fir teyln (“A Fantastic Tale in Four Parts,” 1934); Velvl Tshernovetski’s Erev der Ferter Velt-Milkhome, Hines-di Kenign Fun Mars (“On the Eve of World War IV: The Martian Queen,” 1959); and Leybl Botvinik’s Di Geheyme Shlihes: Fantastishe Dertseylung (“The Secret Mission,” 1980).
For the most part, however – and despite serious offerings in French, Russian, and even Hebrew – English remains the lingua franca of contemporary SF, Jewish or otherwise. In Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960), a postnuclear holocaust Catholic Order grapples with the meaning of an obscure ancient document that belonged to a beatified Jewish physicist. A Jewish psychotherapist traveled back in time in Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man (1967), whence he replaced the historical Yeshua on the cross to ensure the Passion unfolds as described in Gospel.
Curt Siodmak preserved the DNA-based memories of a Nazi scientist within a Jewish- American scientist’s brain in Hauser’s Memory (1968); Harry Harrison’s The Daleth Effect (1970) concerned an Israeli scientist who discovers an anti-gravity device, and subsequently spirits it out to Denmark rather than see his invention used to fight the Cold War. Isidore Haiblum’s The Tsaddik of Seven Wonders (1971) offered a Yiddish-inflected romp through alternate time tracks, considering, among other outcomes, a world in which the Hasmonean revolt against King Antiochus never occurred, and in which the defenders of Masada had defeated the besieging Romans. In The Texas-Israeli War: 1999 (1974), Israel emerged from World War III unscathed and overpopulated, and Israeli mercenaries were called in to rescue the kidnapped American president from the renegade state of Texas. Leonard Harris’ The Masada Plan (1976) involved a weakened Israel about to succumb to a combined Arab attack, and which secures a cease-fire through planetary nuclear blackmail. In Michael J. Halberstam’s The Wanting of Levine (1978), America’s first Jewish president forestalls civil war; Allan Topol’s The Fourth of July War (1978) envisioned a joint American-Israeli takeover of Saudi oil fields. In The Divine Invasion (1980), SF virtuoso Philip K. Dick grappled with the dybbuk of a 14t-century rabbi; in his final novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982), he retold, through an SF prism laden with kabbalistic speculation, the story of defrocked Episcopalian Bishop James Pike, who in fact died rather bizarrely in the Negev desert in 1969 while searching for pre-Christian artifacts. Phyllis Gotlieb considered the plight of the last Jew in the universe in Tauf Aleph (1984).
David Brin and Gregory Benford’s Heart of the Comet (1986) features an Israeli scientist and former kibbutznik in self-imposed exile from a theocratic Jewish state. In The Devil’s Arithmetic (1988), Jane Yolen sent a 12-year-old American Jewish girl uninterested in her family’s Holocaust experiences back to wartime Poland; in Briar Rose (1992), Yolen used the Jewish folktale to offer a somewhat different glimpse into the era’s horrors. Joel Rosenberg wrote two novels, Not for Glory (1988) and Hero (1990), set on the Jewish planet of Metzada, which exports Israeli-style mercenaries. In Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow (1991), an aging Nazi death camp doctor begins living his life backwards, re-experiencing his complicity in Auschwitz redemptively, as gassed Jews return to life and he heads back to the womb of creation. In Snow Crash (1992), Neal Stephenson analyzed the talmudic concept of “building a fence around the Torah” in an information-dense “Cyberpunk” (a cultural sub-genre of science fiction that emerged during the 1980s and is typically set in a not-so-distant, dystopian, over-industrialized society setting).
In Harry Turtledove’s Worldwar tetralogy, an alternate history/SF hybrid beginning with In the Balance: An Alternate History of the Second World War (1994), Jews, Nazis and other unlikely partners ally against an alien invasion that interrupts the Final Solution. Lisa Goldstein pits a kabbalistic magician against a mystic rabbi during the Holocaust in The Red Magician (1995). Mary Doria Russell, a Catholic convert to Judaism, sent a team of Jesuits and a Sephardi Jew in The Sparrow (1996) and its sequel, Children of God (1998), to a planet of enslaved sentient herbivores in dire need of exposure to liberation theology. Scientist Bart Kosko envisioned an all-out nuclear conflagration consuming Israel and its neighbors in Nanotime (1997). In Days of Cain (1997) by J.R. Dunn, a group of time travelers confront time guardians who try to prevent them from erasing Auschwitz from the timeline. In Planet of the Jews (1999), Philip Graubart explored the growth of a Star Wars-like publishing phenomenon, when a hack writer popularizes a far-fetched intergalactic saga involving remnants of the Jewish people and recounted by a young ḥasidic couple. In The Cure (1999) by Sonia Levitin, a non-conformist composer 300 years hence is sent back to France, circa 1348, where a stint as the son of a wealthy Jewish moneylender facing the spread of the Black Plague is intended to purge him of his subversive passion for music. In Just like Beauty (2002), Lisa Lerner chronicled the adventures of an adolescent Jewish girl trying to come to terms with her Jewish past in a corporatist future befuddled by mindless sex and violence. Similarly, in Dante’s Equation (2003), Jane Jensen combined Kabalistic lore and theoretical physics to account for a ḥasidic rabbi who purportedly disappeared from Auschwitz in a flash of light. Robert Zubrin’s satiric novel, The Holy Land (2003), postulates a race of aliens who stage an impromptu return to their ancestral homeland, located in a small section of the state of Washington. Peaceful and industrious refugees from a distant war, the aliens, obvious stand-ins for Zionists, attract the immediate ire of their fellow Washingtonians and the U.S. government.
A Glut of Golems
In the post-feminist fable, He, She and It (1991; U.K. 1992 as Body of Glass), Marge Piercy explored the golem myth while considering a dystopian future characterized by nuclear fallout and environmental catastrophe. The novel directly concerned the destruction of the Middle East, the emergence, within a Balkanized America, of the freebooting Jewish community of Tikva, and within the shattered former state of Israel, the birth of a Jewish-Palestinian feminist collective reliant on cloning for propagation. In Kiln People (2002), David Brin, the son of the late Los Angeles Jewish newspaper editor Herb Brin, used the golem myth to explore the prospects of immortality, as people regularly inject their consciousnesses into expendable clay doppelgangers. He also featured a sentient Jewish dolphin in his “Uplift” series. In The Iron Council (2004), British author China Mi.ville grafted weird fantasy with a Trotskyist sensibility to the archetypal western, casting “golem master” Judah Low as a gay rebel who makes a bid for personal and political freedom by absconding with a “perpetual train.” Alexander C. Irvine’s The Narrows (2005) opens in a Detroit factory in an alternate World War II, where workers work under a rabbi to manufacture golems tasked with fighting Hitler’s minions. Golems have cropped up in many other mainstream and genre offerings for at least 50 years, beginning with Roger Zelazny’s This Immortal (1966) and providing the focus of numerous fanciful stories by Avram Davidson, Isaac Asimov, Ted Chiang, and others. The golem has appeared as well in poems by (non-Jewish) Argentinean “magical realist” Jorge Luis Borges; in Gregory Keyes’ A Calculus of Angels (1999); in Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000); in Frances Sherwood The Book of Splendor (2002); in Terry Pratchett’s humorous Discworld novels Feet of Clay (1996) and Going Postal (2004); in the second book of Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy, The Golem’s Eye (2004); in an episode of television’s X-Files; in several comic books (including DC’s Ragman (1976) and Monolith (2004) as well as Marvel’s The Invaders (2004), and, most recently, as a brilliant parody of the superhero comic book genre by Israeli artist Uri Fink.
The Holocaust remains a thematic and philosophical preoccupation for many contemporary Jewish writers. Fantasy, often denigrated as escapist, nevertheless offers an occasionally useful lens through which to consider a human event at once both singular and ineffable, and most often simply beyond the ability of realistic fiction to accurately represent. The challenge of representation becomes exponentially harder for writers who not only did not directly experience the event, but who were not even alive when it transpired. Some fantasists, SF writers, and children’s authors outside of Israel have resorted to the familiar SF trope of time travel to confront and either undo, or wreak revenge for, the decimation of European Jewry. Others have adopted a more versatile and, thanks to recent developments in particle physics (which postulates the endless generation of parallel worlds), a more realistic SF device: alternate, or counterfactual, history.
Whether conducted by writers of fiction or historians, alternate histories are usually intended as classical thought experiments that posit different outcomes to historical events due to vital alterations – fictional tweaking of points of divergence – in the sequence of events during critical moments in human development. An offshoot of both conventional historical study and of contemporary science fiction, alternate history tries, whether in fiction, film or essay form, to imagine what the world might look like today, in the recent past, or in the near (and occasionally far) future, had some key variant
in the historical timeline taken a pivotal turn toward a different direction. Initially disdained for its subjectivity, alternate history has come increasingly into vogue in recent years, becominga recognizable, if not yet entirely commonplace, literary and cinematic commodity.
Of the myriad historical events available for imaginative inquiry (most notably a failure of the Protestant Reformation, a Southern victory in the American Civil War, a failed bid for American Independence), not a few have concerned themselves with the vagaries of Jewish history. The earliest known example of what we today would term alternate history is the apocryphal Sefer Yehudit (Book of Judith), which depicted a reversal of the Babylonian conquest and a return to Zion by Jewish exiles that never actually happened. Another example is Benjamin *Disraeli’s The Wondrous Tale of Alroy (aka, The Prince of the Captivity, A Wondrous Tale (1833), dramatized in 1907 as a musical by P.P. Grunfeld), about a 12tt-century Jewish false messiah who founds a global empire.
No event, however, surpasses the Nazi defeat in 1945 as a focal point for counterfactual speculation. Among devotees and practitioners of alternate history, this variant is known as “Hitler Victorious (HV).” Within this variant of alternate history, Hitler’s war against the Jews becomes a central preoccupation, second only, perhaps, to questions about the extent and nature of possible domestic collaboration under a Nazi regime. Scores of HV and other alternate history stories, novels, film, and TV adaptations and series have appeared in Great Britain, the U.S., and Germany since the 1930s, and in the early 21st century showed few signs of ceasing to enthrall writers, readers, and viewers. Noteworthy recent examples, including those considered outright science fiction, include Philip K. Dick’s Hugo-winning novel, The Man in the High Castle (1962); If Israel Lost The War (1969), by Richard Z. Chesnoff, Edward Klein, and Robert Littell; Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream (1974); Len Deighton’s SS-GB: Nazi-Occupied Britain, 1941 (1978); Robert Harris’s Fatherland (1993); Harry Turtledove’s In the Presence of Mine Enemies (2003); Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004); and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2006).
Thematic anthologies include Hitler Victorious: Eleven Stories of the German Victory in World War Two, edited by Gregory Benford and Martin Harry Greenberg (1986); Alternate Histories: Eleven Stories of the World as it Might Have Been, edited by Charles G. Waugh and Martin Harry Greenberg (1986); The Way it Wasn’t: Great Science Fiction Stories of Alternate History, edited by Martin Harry Greenberg (1996); Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, edited by Niall Ferguson (1997); Roads Not Taken: Tales of Alternate History, edited by Gardner Dozois and Stanley Schmidt; and The Best Alternate History Stories of the 20th Century, edited by Harry Turtledove and Martin H. Greenberg (2001). Noteworthy non-fictional treatments include What If?: The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, edited by Robert Cowley (1999), and What If? 2: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been (2001); Third Reich Victorious: Alternate Decisions of World War II, edited by Peter Tsouras (2002); What Might Have Been: Imaginary History from Twelve Leading Historians, edited by Andrew Roberts (2004); and The World Hitler Never Made, by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld (2005).
Many SF writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were influenced by, and even propagated, the normative racism of their day, including antisemitism. Unflattering and even malevolent images of Jews (and blacks and Asians) occurred in the writing of Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.P. Lovecraft, M.P. Shiel, Clark Ashton Smith, Louis Tracy, King Wallace, H.G. Wells, and Jules Verne. Gernsback, though nominally Jewish, translated and published supremacist utopian fantasies by the German Otfried von Hanstein in Amazing Stories.
A number of writers subsequently found SF useful for disseminating antisemitic agendas. French poet Robert Brasillach published a poem in 1943 about a future visit to the V’mcennes Zoo, where mothers bring their children to attend the death of the world’s last living Jew. In The Turner Diaries (1982), Andrew MacDonald concocted a thoroughly racist and antisemitic libertarian fantasy chronicling a white Christian insurrection against a Jewish and African-American-controlled U.S government. The book has become a canonical text for American white supremacists, and is believed to have inspired the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma.
Another anti-Jewish tract that resorted to apocalyptic SF-tinged scenarios was Serpent’s Walk (1991), by Randolph D. Caverhall. The book chronicles the rise of a new American fuehrer and an Israeli-created plague that ultimately turns on its makers, decimating world Jewry and the various “mongrel” races Caverhall purports to despise. David Britton’s Lord Horror (1986) provoked vigorous argument as to whether his novel was in fact anti-semitic or a deliberate, if entirely over-the-top parody of anti-semitism. In 1993, a non-Jewish producer of the TV series Star Trek: Deep Space 9 complained that his fellow producers – both of them Jewish – had peopled the series with thinly veiled anti-semitic alien “Shylocks” whose holiest book, “The Rules of Acquisition,” malevolently parodied the Talmud. A novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper (1995), generated controversy in Australia when it was discovered that its author, Helen Demidenko, was not the daughter of a Ukrainian father victimized by Jewish commissars, as she described herself, but a British immigrant, Helen Darville, who used her book to vent spleen upon Ukranian Jewry and justify Ukranian collaboration with the Nazis.
Israeli Science Fiction and Fantasy
The Jewish state, reconstituted in 1948 as the State of Israel, may be the only country in the world to have been at least partly inspired by a science fiction novel. The work in question was called Altneuland (1902; Old-New Land), and was written by the Austrian journalist Theodor (Binyamin Ze’ev) *Herzl on the heels of his Zionist manifesto Der Judenstaat, (1896; The Jewish State). The earlier pamphlet was a cri de coeur lamenting the deplorable condition of Jews throughout the European Diaspora and containing the blueprint for the modern Zionist movement that within a half century would achieve sovereignty in parts of the historic Jewish commonwealth in Palestine. The latter publication, a thinly plotted work of fiction, was an attempt to fire up the political imagination. “If you will it,” Herzl declared in an utterance that resounds with a science fiction sensibility, “it is no dream.” Fearful lest his own dream be dismissed as a frivolous Romantic fancy, however, Herzl initially sought to dissociate Zionism from the utopian discourse that had returned to vogue duringthe 19th century with the publication, in 1888, of EdwardBellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000–1887. At least one other such work, Theodor Hertzka’s Freiland: Ein Sociales Zukunftbild (“Freeland: An Image of Future Society,” 1890) is believed to have directly influenced Herzl’s decision to craft Altneuland as a conventional utopian novel, quite possibly because of the many editions it had inspired as well as some of the real-world utopian passions it had tapped.
With his otherwise mundane story of a modern, liberal, technocratic, German-speaking Jewish commonwealth, where Jews (with Arab compliance) could engage in the kind of human engineering that would allow them to shed two millennia of disfiguring dispersion and subjugation, Herzl was actually one of literally dozens of Jewish thinkers indulging in the utopian literary and ideological speculation as to what a future Jewish state might look like. One of these, Massa le-Ereẓ Yisrael bi-Shenat Tat be-Elef ha-Shishi (“A Trip to the Land of Israel in the 800th Year of the Sixth Millennium”), published in 1892 by the Hebrew writer Elhanan Leib *Lewinsky and envisioning the flowering of Hebrew culture in Palestine, would have been recognizable as a scientific romance to H.G. Wells, who made his genre debut in 1895 with The Time Machine. Another such book was Max Austerberg-Verakoff’s Das Reich Judaea im Jahre 6000 (2241), published in 1893 and depicting a mass exodus of Jews from Europe, their settlement in Ereẓ Israel, and the founding there of a Jewish state with Hebrew as its official language. Looking Ahead (1899), by Henry Pereira Mendes, offered an American response to Herzl’s Der Judenstaat (and a Zionist response to Bellamy’s tome), describing a future Jewish state with Jerusalem as its capital. Isaac Fernhof described a future state called Israel in the aptly named Shenei Dimyonot (“Two Imaginings”). Hebrew-Yiddish writer Hillel Zeitlin published another such tract, In der Medinas Yisroel in Yor 2000 (“In the State of Israel in the Year 2000”), in 1919, following Great Britain’s proclamation of its Balfour Declaration. In Mandatory Palestine, Boris *Schatz wrote Yerushalayim ha-Benuyah (“Rebuilt Jerusalem”), published in 1924 and concerned with social and labor issues of the period. In1921, Russian-based Hebrew author Shalom Ben Avram published Komemiyut (“Resurgence”), which contained an astute and accurate portrayal of future mass immigration and the challenges and benefits of aliyah.
Most of these writings failed to inspire great notice or enthusiasm. Two, however, attained something of Altneuland’s stature as a constituting document – a text containing some of the basic myths of the new Hebrew society slated to arise in Palestine. These were Abraham *Mapu’s Ahavat Ẓiyyon (“Loveof Zion,” 1853), a historical novel set in an idealized Kingdom of Judah during the reigns of Ahaz and Hezekiah, and Yosef Luidor’s Yoash (1912/13), the Akedah (Binding of Isaac) as aMaccabean myth set against the struggle against the Arabs during the Second Aliyah.
Herzl strived mightily to avoid donning the mantle of utopian visionary even as he sought, in Altneuland, to use the genre’s conventions to stir the imaginations of Jewish and Gentile readers in a manner that would provoke sympathy and support. But the term “utopian,” even a half century before Altneuland, carried pejorative associations of impracticality, naivety and wish fulfillment. The Zionist movement –as well as the new Hebrew republic – would move mountains to avoid being stigmatized for what it was – a modern, unabashedly utopian, thoroughly realistic political movement driven, note by imaginative musings or imperialistic hubris but by desperate circumstances and diminishing options.
It has been argued that the contemporary State of Israel not only grew out of science fiction, but also has quite literally lived it every day of its unlikely existence. In their most desperately fanciful imaginings, neither Herzl nor his fellow Zionist utopians would have entertained the possibility that a mere century after the first Zionist Congress in 1898, the world would include a Jewish democracy six-million strong ewith the most powerful economy in the region, a first-rate military able to project devastating force thousands of miles away, seven major research universities, its own satellites and astronaut in orbit, and pride of place as a world-class scientific and technological innovator.
Despite these achievements, and despite a breakneck pace of change that heralds fundamental and continual transformation at nearly every level of Israeli society, the fantastic, in most manifestations outside of the literal, fares almost as poorly now – and is as thoroughly stigmatized as declasse. – as during Herzl’s heyday.
Reasons for the inordinately low premium still placed by Israeli readers and Israeli letters and arts on most forms of the literary fantastique since the founding of the state in 1948 are varied, complex, and contradictory. Despite their talent for hard-nosed realism, Israel’s founding pioneers did not, in fact, forsake the strong utopian component of Zionist ideology. Nor did the founding generations restrict their imaginings and activities merely to bringing into being a new Jewish commonwealth. A homeland in and of itself would be insufficient – even unsustainable – unless in recreating theirs, Jews could reclaim their dignity and independence, shattered during 2,000 years of dispersion, through physical labor and martial self-sufficiency.
A human engineering project of such scope and ambition, however, required a clean break with a Jewish past and culture deemed moribund, shameful, or disfiguring. With roots in the Russian Pale, many of the pre-state Yishuv’s writers and ideologues, already predisposed to the conventions of Russian literary realism, deliberately cut themselves off from the imaginative reservoir of the Jewish past. The task of the Israeli writer was to grapple with questions of religious, national and personal identity considered through the prism of the Zionist endeavor in the land of Israel. As Israeli literary theorist Ortsion Bartana has argued in his study of the work of Yoram*Kaniuk, Yitzhak *Orpaz Averbuch,and David *Shahar, Israeli writers are invariably bound up in these larger issues and simply cannot create characters who are not in some way involved
in the redemptive communal effort or affected by it. The so-called “Palmaḥ Generation” of the 1950s added social realism to their literary menu, but they, too, consigned centuries of Jewish myths, stories, motifs, images, tropes, commentaries, and super-commentaries to history and literature’s dustbin.
Some of Israel’s leading contemporary writers, most notably David *Grossman, Meir *Shalev, Etgar Keret, and Orly *Castel-Bloom, have, in recent years, acquainted themselves with, and even incorporated, some of the trappings of magical realism. To the extent that they take up the tropes of fantasy, however, it is most often to cast their glance backward, to the formative years of the nation-building effort, and almost never ahead into the foreseeable or distant future. For these writers, as indeed for their predecessors, outright science fiction and fantasy remain, even with the advent of the new millennium and the fantastique’s growing popularity and accumulating literary gravitas worldwide, at the far margins of Hebrew letters. Israelis have yet to establish their own national borders.
Any consideration of imaginary realms must therefore be seen as frivolous or escapist. With the proverbial day-after-tomorrow almost always fraught with peril, not a few Israelis prefer to avoid long-term speculation of any kind. Indeed, the culture seems almost to fetishize its fascination for the here-and-now. SF is considered a foreign import reflective of normative values far removed from Israel’s, where the struggle to consolidate a nation and its territory is ongoing and all consuming. Whereas most Israeli fiction (and indeed, most modern fiction) concerns itself with the individual’s psychological response to the exigencies of a particularistic life, SF and fantasy,
almost by definition, consider broader questions of society’s place in a changing world and a boundless cosmos. In a country where even the ground under one’s feet is not assured, such concerns are considered a luxury bound to distract and weaken. Israel has yet to contend fundamentally and directly with its relationship with its minority populations, and is only beginning to grapple with the exigencies of its relationship with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Other issues that remain to be resolved include the rift between secular and religious, between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and between haves and have-nots. Those Israelis oriented toward any future beyond one characterized by perennial strife and insecurity are therefore often dismissed as “astronautim.”
Also, many Israelis mistakenly consider fantasy and science fiction to be a form of children’s entertainment. Despite the musings of Bruno Bettelheim and other devotees of the fairy tale, not a few continue to believe that fantasy and fairy tales stir up subconscious fears in children unavoidably saddled from an early age with various forms of existential angst. And indeed, Jewish literature lacks a mythic basis for the kinds of heroic or Arthurian fantasy that might generate a Jewish version of The Lord of the Rings, a Narnia, or a Harry Potter.
Hebrew, moreover, appears to be at a disadvantage compared to the richer, more agile Yiddish language in conveying what fans of SF and fantasy call “a sense of wonder.” Indeed, the mere act of settling on a Hebrew term for science fiction initially inspired argument, with some arguing for mada dimyoni (imaginary science), with the majority finally favoring mada bidyoni (fabricated science).
Perhaps of greatest consequence for prospective and publishing writers, though, is the Israeli literary establishment’s continuing disdain for commercial literature of almost any kind as inherently unserious, and its sense that science fiction and fantasy represent the lowest forms of commercial fiction. Israeli aficionados themselves regard indigenous forays into the genre as inherently substandard, and prefer imports or translations. And publishers must contend with the fact that Israel publishes so many books every year that most books – genre or non-genre – do well if they cover their expenses.
Tales of Zion’s Fiction
A number of works construable as fantasy and science fiction nevertheless trickled into the Yishuv as early as 1931, when Reuven Grossman translated and published a Hebrew collection of stories by Edgar Allan Poe. Translations of stories and novels by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells soon followed; most were marketed as children’s literature. Several immigrants to pre-state Palestine, including the Russian-Hebrew poet Zalman *Shneour, playwright Jacob Cohen, and Austrian novelist Leo *Perutz, indulged an occasional literary penchant for the fantastic. Cohen’s Beluz (1939) concerned a hidden city of immortals at ideological loggerheads over whether to share their secret. Perutz (1882–1957) wrote a series of baroque phantasms, including The Marquis de Bolibar, in which the Wandering Jew defeats a German regiment under Napoleon, and novels such as The Master of the Day of Judgment (1929) and The Virgin’s Brand (1934), in which aspects of human civilization are inspired by viruses, fungi, and other unseen conveyances. The first identifiably SF novel to be published in Israel in the immediate post-Independence period was Yisrael be-Shenat 2000 (“Israel in the Year 2000”), published by S. Goldfluss in 1951. The name is believed to have been a pseudonym, but the book proved oddly prescient, even alluding, in metaphoric terms, to the likelihood of future Arab uprisings. American science fiction writer Avram Davidson, an Orthodox Jew, lived in Israel from 1948 to 1953 and served in the Israel Defense Forces during Israel’s War of Independence. Polish-born Mordecai Roshwald, who sojourned in Israel and taught at the Hebrew University before leaving for Great Britain, wrote two well-regarded post-nuclear holocaust novels, Level 7 (1959) and A Small Armageddon (1962). Lionel *Davidson, a British-born immigrant, wrote The Sun Chemist (1976) about the rediscovery of a lost formula devised by British chemist (and Israel’s first president) Chaim *Weizmann that uses sweet potatoes to tap solar energy. Davidson wrote two other genre novels, The Rose of Tibet (1962) – a lost world fantasy – and a children’s fantasy adventure, Under Plum Cake (1980).
During Israel’s first decade, local publishers began to publish as many as 30 Hebrew translations of science fiction standards a year, including novels by Robert Heinlein, Poul Anderson, and Frederic Brown as well as Verne, Wells, and Huxley. An early example of this kind of activity was provided by the publishing house Matzpen (Compass), which specialized in a line of translations edited by renowned Israeli SF pioneer and namesake of the nation’s top SF prize, Amos Geffen. The early 1950s, however, were marked in Israel by economic hardship, with the country’s limited resources earmarked for massive immigrant absorption and defense, and with little cash left for light reading. These publishing ventures failed, but some intrepid local fans proceeded to publish two different SF magazines, both launched in 1958. Mada Dimyoni (Imaginary Science) ran for 12 issues, Kosmos: Sipurei Mada Dimyoni (Cosmos: Imaginary Science Stories) folded after four. Appetites for pulp were said by magazines, often sold at newsstands, called “shundt,” Yiddish for trash.
At the start of the 1970s, buoyed by the economic gains following the 1967 War, Am Oved launched a series of translations of SF standards that, in fact, continues to this day. Another well-established publisher, Masada, followed suit with a new series of translations edited by Geffen. Their efforts proved successful enough to induce nearly every major commercial Israeli publishing house to launch an SF line of its own, under the respective banners of local SF mavens (and established academics) Adi Tzemach, translator Emanuel Lottem, and Dorit Landes.
The economy nosedived in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, during which time only one Israeli of literary consequence, poet David *Avidan, expressed any interest in the genre. A respected poet, Avidan was one of a very few writers who not only wrote science fiction but happily embraced the label and its conventions, going so far as to name his own publishing company The 30tt Century. Avidan incorporated such standard SF themes as time travel, sentient computers, the destruction of humanity, and telepathic powers into both his poetry and his various stage productions. In 1979, Avidan wrote and directed a short SF film, Sheder min ha-Atid (“Broadcast from the Future”), based on one of his poems.
Avidan belonged to the Israeli avant-garde, but he was not the only Hebrew poet to have addressed concerns usually the purview of science or science fiction. Others to have dipped their pens in this well included Romanian-born poet Dan *Pagis (1930–1986), scientist Zvi Atzmon (1948– ), and writers Shlomo Shoval, Maya *Bejerano, (1949– ), and Rahel Chalfi.
The election of the Likud in 1977 spurred growth in the consumer market, creating new demands for entertainment, including popular literature. In 1978, Tel Aviv University students Eli Teneh and Aharon Hauptman launched a glossy SF monthly, Fantasia 2000, which ran for 44 issues over four years (a celebratory 45th issue was published on its 40th birthday) and became the standard-bearer for local science fiction fandom. The magazine appealed mostly to adolescent males, some of whom emulated their counterparts in the U.S. and the U.K., starting clubs and publishing mimeographed pamphlets and newsletters, called fanzines. The magazine published dozens of stories culled mostly from the New York-based Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF), running ample book and film review sections as well as popular science columns and covers by talented local artists, including Avi Katz, who in 2000 would be commissioned to design an issue of millennial Israeli stamps dedicated to “SF in Israel” and slated to coincide with a major conference in 2001. Another in-house artist was Victor Ostrovsky, who would achieve notoriety in 1991 as a Mossad renegade and best-selling writer of (admittedly fabricated) exposes.
Apart from being the country’s longest-running SF magazine and the source of 400 stories, many now deemed canonical, Fantasia had the added distinction of publishing close to 100 original, hitherto unpublished Israeli Hebrew-language SF stories. While few of these proved exceptional, some were competent, and the mere existence of a venue for Hebrew SF spurred many young people to try their hand at writing. Some of them went on to careers in letters. In this, Fantasia mimicked some of the American magazines of the 1930s and 1940s, which also functioned as greenhouses for up-and-coming writers and researchers. The late Israeli astronaut, Col. Ilan *Ramon, claimed to have read the magazine assiduously, saying that while he typically hid it from his peers in the Air Force, SF made him receptive to the possibility, one day, of an Israeli foothold in space.
Israel’s ill-advised forays into Lebanon, however, put a damper on both the economy and on activities deemed frivolous. Fantasia folded, and a major international science fiction convention that had been slated to commence in June 1982 in Jerusalem was canceled. Two other magazines that had emerged during the same period as Fantasia fell by the wayside as well: Mada Bidyoni (by now, the consensual term for Science Fiction), folded after a single issue; a second, a rechristened Kosmos, gave up the ghost after six, both victims not so much of the zeitgeist as of poor quality and inadequate resources.
A number of fly-by-night publishers that had climbed on the SF bandwagon, some producing poor translations of marginal titles, quickly imploded as well. By 1984, Am Oved, with Dorit Landes at the helm of its SF line, had the genre to itself. As Israel’s Lebanon adventure bogged down, and as the political, religious, and cultural polarization of the Jewish state became more pronounced, various writers, many of them established in the Israeli mainstream, began to make forays into the fantastic, some of them producing undeniable science fiction, though they asserted, for reasons of commerce and prestige, that it was anything but. In fact, at least one Israeli author, I. Hayek, had come down with a bad case of the apocalyptic shudders as early as 1968, when his novel, The Next War, contemplated a 40-day-long doomsday battle between Israel and the rest of the world. The 1980s, however, produced what for Israel constituted a veritable deluge of nightmare visions of the imminent future, beginning with Amos *Kenan’s Shoah 2 (“Holocaust 2,” 1975), and proceeding through David Yaron’s Ha-Patria (1981), Moshe Ben David’s Ha-Beriḥah ha- Aḥaronah (“The Final Escape,” 1984), and David Melamed’s Ha-Ḥalom ha-Rivi’i (“The Fourth Dream,” 1986), each offering variations on Israel’s impeding destruction.
In September 1982, nearly half a million Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv to demonstrate against the war in Lebanon. In February 1983, a right-wing heckler tossed a grenade at Peace Now protesters in Jerusalem, killing a 33-year-old kibbutznik and paratroop officer. Kach firebrand and Jewish Defense League founder Meir *Kahane, meanwhile, traveled throughout the country calling Arabs “dogs” and promising a day of reckoning.
The prospect of destruction from without had always been an integral component of the collective Israeli psyche. But suddenly, internal dissension, which had rendered the erstwhile Jewish republic 2000 years earlier vulnerable to external forces, appeared even more likely to precipitate Israel’s eventual undoing.
In 1984, Amos Kenan, a veteran of the War of Independence, responded to this cumulative angst with Ha-Derekh le-En-Harod (“The Road to En-Harod”), which postulated a right-wing military putsch and a concurrent attempt to change the distant past, and enhance Jewish fortunes, with a time travel device. The book, which was translated into French, English, and Arabic, won a literary prize from the PLO, and was adapted for film by Israeli director Doron Eran in 1989.
In 1996, Kenan would complete his dystopian triptych with Blok 23: Mikhtavim mi-Nes Ziyyonah (“Block 23: Letters from Nes Ziyyonah”), depicting the utter destruction of the Jewish state. Throughout, Kenan vehemently denied having ever written science fiction (except in an interview in Fantasia 2000, which of course none of his literary confreres would admit to having read). The stigma attached to the genre, however, did not dissuade other Israeli writers of note from indulging in the form. A favorite theme involved a fundamentalist takeover, a la Iran’s Ayatollahs, by ultra-Orthodox Jewish zealots. Examples of sci-fi in shtreimels (festive beaver-fur kaftans worn by ḥasidic men) included Binyamin *Tammuz’s Pundako shel Yermiyahu (“Jeremiah’s Inn,” 1984), Yitzhak *Ben Ner’s Malakhim Ba’im (“Angels Are Coming,”1987), Motti Lerner’s Ḥevlei Moshi’aḥ (“Messianic Pangs,” 1988), and Assi *Dayan’s Tokhen ha-Inyanim (“Table of Contents,” 1989) and from a right-wing perspective, Ora Shem Or’s Ha-Karirist (“The Careerist,” 1990).
Variations on this theme ensued during the 1990s, culminating with Michal Peleg’s Ha-Ir ha-Penimit (“The Inner City,” 1998) and Hadi Ben Amar’s Be-Shem Shamayim (“In the Name of Heaven,” 1998). Ironically, a number of books that indulged in various SF trappings appeared during this time that were written for the sensibilities of Orthodox youngsters in Israel and in various enclaves in New York and Los Angeles. Their purpose was purely didactic.
While many of the books and stories appearing during the late 1970s and 1980s reflected the parochial political and social anxieties of the time, a number of Israeli authors turned to science fiction to explore more universal themes. Some of these stories and novels went so far as to feature protagonists with Anglo-Saxon names operating in nondescript or foreign settings. In 1973, A. Kalev published Groteska (“Grotesque”), a series of absurdist novellas weighing man’s place in the universe.
In 1980, David Melamed, a graduate of Fantasia 2000, published his first and only collection of SF stories, Ẓavu’a be-Korundi (“A Hyena in Corundi”). Though well received within the country’s fledgling SF community, the book did not perform well in the marketplace, and after writing his aforementioned novel, The Fourth Dream, Melamed deserted the genre entirely.
In 1982, Israeli geneticist Ram Moav published a hard- SF tome, Zerimat Ḥakhamim (“A Flow of Wise Men”), and in 1985 followed up with Luna: Gan Eden Geneti (“Luna: Genetic Garden of Eden”). Both novels focused on the wider implications of genetic engineering for humanity in general and touched upon Israel more tangentially. Hillel Damron’s Milḥemet ha-Minim (“War of the Sexes,” 1982) left the exigen- cies of the Arab-Israeli struggle to the pundits, contemplating a future Jewish state riven by gender-based struggles. Israeli literary theorist Ortsion Bartana published two related titles, Serifot (“Burnings,” 1985) and Ha-Sha’ot ha-Tovot Hen Sha’ot ha-Laylah (“The Best Hours Are the Hours of the Night,” 1994). Bartana also wrote a related non-fiction treatise, Ha- Fantaziyyah be-Sipporet Dor ha-Medinah (“Fantasy in Israeli Literature in the Last Thirty Years,” 1989). Fantasia veteran Yivsam Azgad published two SF titles, a juvenile, Avodat Nemalim (“Ant Work,” 1992), and Ma’of Kelulot (“Cuticula,” 1995), while fellow Fantazionnaire Shlomo Shoval published Be-Medinot ha-Shamayim (“In the Countries of Heaven”) in 1998.
Lavie Tidhar, a former kibbutznik living in the UK, has established a world-class reputation as a science fiction writer who favors Israeli settings and characters, and works with Jewish and Christological myth in a sub-genre he calls “Hebrewpunk.” His novel An Occupation of Angels (2005) concerns the murder of archangels that first materialized over the Nazi death camps in 1945. He also published a play, There Will Be A Time (2005), that purportedly takes place at the cusp of a black hole. By 2019, Tidhar had won, among other prizes, the World Fantasy Award, the John W. Campbell Award, The British Fantasy Award, the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize, a British SF Award and a Neukom prize. Anthologist Jonathan Strahan characterizes him as “one of the bravest writers at work in the genre today,” Locus Magazine critic Gary Wolfe and Asimov’s Science Fiction’s Norman Spinrad as one of its top practitioners in any sense.
Ironically, as commercial fiction began to come into its own during the 1990s, with detective novels by Batya *Gur and political thrillers by Ram Oren regularly achieving best-seller status, those inclined to the fantastique in Israel began to express a greater interest in outright fantasy than in SF. Reflecting this shift in interest, a number of small publishing houses, including Mitzuv and Opus, began publishing extensive lines of fantasies, as well as role-playing games of the Dungeons & Dragons variety, with an occasional SF title thrown in to keep the wells primed.
One development that may bode well for the future of Israeli SF is the immigration, since the fall of the Soviet Union, of more than a million Russians, many of whom had established themselves as professional SF writers, editors, and publishers. Whether they can continue to pursue this interest in Israel, either within the Russian-speaking and -reading community, or once they achieve proficiency in Hebrew, remains to be seen. The community does, however, maintain a prolific fanzine-publishing scene, and sustains, along with Russian readers in the Old Country, the careers of such Israel-based writers as Pesakh Amnuel and Elana Gomel.
Israeli publishing houses now issue some 40 genre-related titles yearly, some 15 percent of them indigenous efforts. Ḥalomot be-Aspazia (“Pipe Dreams”), a bimonthly fan magazine created by Ron Yaniv and edited by Geffen Award winner Vered Tochterman, began publishing original local SF stories on a bimonthly basis in 2003. The country boasts several clubs and an organization, including The Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy (http://www.sf-f.org.il), which organizes yearly lecture series and conventions, awards its annual literary prize – the Geffen Award, and publishes a glossy magazine featuring original stories, Ha-Meimad ha-Asiri (“The 10th Dimension”). Israeli Star Trek fans published Starbase 972, now defunct.
In 2018, Sheldon Teitelbaum, a Canadian-raised former member of the Fantasia 2000 editorial board, and Emanuel Lottem published Zion’s Fiction: A Treasury of Israeli Speculative Literature (Mandel-Vilar), the first compendium of Israel SF/F ever published in English. The first of a prospective series, that book received raves from the science fiction and the Jewish press abroad, while selling only three copies in Israel proper.
Although still gun-shy of science fiction and fantasy, Israeli writers have generated dozens of counterfactuals – Alternate Histories – both as fiction and in essays. Notably, relatively few deal directly with the Holocaust, reflecting a deep-seated Israeli taboo against any kind of fanciful consideration of the event, most especially by those who did not experience it outright.
Examples of allohistorical fiction include Dan *Almagor’s Ilu Rak (“If Only,” 1990), about Hitler’s premature death; Shmuel Argaman’s Takala be-Ḥalal (“Mishap in Space,” 2000),in which the Soviet Union and the Cold War endure; DavidAvidan’s Et Tu, Brute (1973), in which Caesar outwits his assassins; Uri *Avnery’s Ha-Telai ha-Shaḥor (“The Black Patch,” 1986), in which Nazi Germany develops along non-antisemitic lines; Eli Bar-Navi’s Suryah ha-Deromit asher le-Ḥofoshel ha-Yam ha-Tikhon (“Southern Syria, on the Coast of theMediterranean,” 1998), in which Palestine became a part ofpostwar Syria; Israel Bartal’s Medinah Mizraḥit Ketanah le-Lo Tasbikh (“A Small, Eastern Nation Without a Complex,”1998), in which the Jews never rebelled against Rome, andhence never went into exile; Dorit Ben-Tovim’s Nad Ned (“See-Saw,” 1997), postulating an Israeli defeat in 1960 and a JewishIntifada against Palestinian police; Uri Fink and Shadmi Koren’sProfil 107 (1998), a graphic novel about Israeli superheroesemerging from World War II military experiments; YanaiGose’s Be-Mehoza Yisadeti et Medinat ha-Yehudim. (“AtMehoza I Founded the Jewish State,” 1995), about a pro-JewishBabylonian empire in 502 C.E. that supports a YemeniteJewish state against Ethiopia; Yitzhak Laor’s Am, Ma’akhalMelakhim (“The People, Food Fit for a King,” 1993), in whichIsraeli soldiers refuse to fight in the Six-Day War; Isaac Oren’sHa-Kongres (“The Congress,” 1968), in which historians use a device that demonstrates alternate historical outcomes; AmiramPal’s Masa be-Merḥav ha-Zeman (“Journey in the Dimensionof Time,” 1980), in which time travelers prevent the fall of
Jerusalem in 700 B.C.E.; Doron Rosenblum’s Ḥa’im Yesh Mekhubadba-Ulam? (“Is There a Notable in the House?”, 2000),in which Albert Einstein agrees to become Israel’s first presidentin 1948; Arye Sivan’s Le-Olam Al Tomar Ilu (“Never SayIf,” 2001), a poem imagining a French takeover of Palestineafter World War I; Jacob Weinshall’s Ha-Yehudi ha-Aḥaron(“The Last Jew,” 1946), in which victorious Nazis working ona huge space project discover a Jew living in Madagascar; IvorH. Yarden’s On the Death of Hitler’s Assassin, in which Hitler’smurder in 1938 by a Jewish assassin leads to a massive pogrom,causing the assassin to be reviled by world Jewry afterhis release from prison four decades later; Ben-Dror Yemini’sLo Matimim le-Ḥalom ha-Ẓiyyoni (“Not Fit for the ZionistDream,” 1988), in which Sephardi Jews were barred from immigratingto Israel in 1949; and Oren Ziblin’s Ahalan Ḥaver(“Howdy, Friend,” 2000), in which Rabin is spared assassination, and peace with Syria results.
It is a testament to the vigor of Israeli literature that it can sustain itself on a literary tradition dating back less than one century. To be sure, the country is, in per capita terms, a Science Fiction and Fantasy, Jewish publishing powerhouse and a voracious consumer of books, not a few of which are, and have been, identifiable as science fiction or fantasy. Literary scholar Alan Mintz has observed: “No culture, however thickly substantial, can forgo its past, especially when it extends so far back in time, without running the risk of desultory shallowness … around the margins there are [in Israel] signs of cultural insufficiency that may signal more serious problems if a deeper connection to the past is not made.” To which many within the somewhat beleaguered universe of Israeli science fiction might well add, “or to the future.”
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