It’s been a while since I’ve posted an author’s interview. I’m excited to spend some time with this powerhouse, Valerie Estelle Frankel. She has has won a Dream Realm Award, an Indie Excellence Award, and a USA Book News National Best Book Award for her Henry Potter parodies. Frankel has written over 80 books on pop culture, including Hunting for Meaning in The Mandalorian; Inside the Captain Marvel Film; Star Wars Meets the Eras of Feminism; and Who Tells Your Story? History, Pop Culture, and Hidden Meanings in the Musical Phenomenon Hamilton.
Many of her books focus on women’s roles in fiction, from her heroine’s journey guides From Girl to Goddess and Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey to books like Superheroines and the Epic Journey and The Many Faces of Katniss Everdeen. Her Chelm for the Holidays (2019) was a PJ Library book, and now she’s the editor of Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy, publishing an academic series for Lexington Press. Once a lecturer at San Jose State University, she now teaches at Mission College and San Jose City College and speaks often at conferences. You can explore her research at http://www.vefrankel.com
Impressed yet? I know I am! Let’s get on with the interview. It is sure to be fascinating!
Host: Welcome to my blog, Valerie. I am so happy to get to know you.
Guest: Hi, thrilled to be here. We need more Jewish book sites—there’s so much amazing fiction and scholarship out there!
Host: I couldn’t agree more! A few years ago, I dabbled in writing a bit of Jewish Historical Fantasy with Becoming Malka. By incorporating a mythical (and mystical) tarot card, I transported my modern-day protagonist to Imperial Russia at the beginning of the 20th century. And in my latest novel, a Jewish Historical Romance entitled Celestial Persuasion, I introduced Judaism’s ancient connection with Astronomy and Astrology. Why do you think it is important to emphasis the Jewish factor in these genres?
Guest: Jewish history is quite distinct from the history of the local country. Sadly, the main reason is that of pogroms and other persecution (I’m reminded of the moment in The Big Bang Theory in which actress Mayim Bialik tells the cute goy girl that it’s actually not an adorable story that she and her Jewish fiancé come from neighboring Polish villages). I think every Jew I’ve met identifies as Ashkenazi or Sephardic before having ancestry from a particular country (Israel being the exception here). You can really see it in the languages, the food, the culture beyond the religion.
Host: In the introduction of your latest book, Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy through 1945, you state that “Science has always been linked to Judaism.” What do you find so intriguing about this subject matter?
Guest: I see so many people insisting they have to choose—that total faith in God means ignoring science, facts, reality itself. One thing I’ve always about Judaism is that such blind denial isn’t required. We’re a religion that invites argument, debate, even protest. And you mentioned the astronomy and astrology (at the time a legitimate science, so it goes)—exactly! While the Arab world is known for mathematics and early science, Jews also heavily participated in medicine, invention, and translation, especially partnered with them in the Golden Age of Spain.
Of course, the other fascinating, largely unknown story (if we fast-forward all the way to 1920s America) is that science fiction as we know it was really created by Jews. After Frankenstein, the genre was popularized by Verne and Wells, and then authors like Robert E. Howard, but they were all writing pulps—a focus on adventure in which the science didn’t have to be even a little plausible. Hugo Gernsback, a Jewish-Belgian immigrant in New York, started the first real science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, which emphasized the plausible inventions being developed all around him. In fact, his electronics-based short story called “Ralph 124C 41+,” predicted microfilm, vending machines, tape recorders, synthetic fibers, the jukebox, the television, satellites, and spaceflight and even included a blueprint for radar. His authors, many young Jewish New Yorkers, spun off to edit more magazines. They also founded the first fan clubs, fan zines, and conventions. And the first inter-fandom battles, but that’s another story…
Host: Did they invent superheroes too?
Guest: There was a lot of crossover. The brand-new industries of American film, science fiction, and comic books all were willing to hire Jews, at a time when most “serious” professions weren’t. So Jews started working in them all, and, along with Sci-Fi and the comic book itself, invented almost all the well-known superheroes. Superman and Captain America were fighting Hitler on front covers. Likewise, Batman (plus Catwoman, Joker, Robin and the rest), Sheena, Black Canary, and Green Lantern were all invented by Jews—everyone but Wonder Woman. (All the Avengers, the X-Men, Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Daredevil, and Black Panther were invented by Jews as well, but not for a few more decades.) Overt Judaism was rare, but they were all fighting for social justice.
Host: The idea that these Jewish artists were crafting stories based on our history and experiences is riveting. It has always appeared to me that, here in America, we tend to focus on two narratives: The Holocaust and Fiddler on the Roof-type themes. There is so much more to discuss! For example, I have always been curious to learn about the lives of medieval Jews. What has your research taught you about Jewish customs and traditions during these times relative to your subject matter?
Guest: I know what you mean! Publishers are out there begging for diverse Jewish stories about the modern experience. Or history besides 1939 and 1492. One fascinating area few have heard of is that the Khazars, Turkish horsemen living between the eastern Crimea and the northern Caucasus, converted as an entire country to Judaism. From 650 to 965 CE, the Khazars balanced life between the Byzantine Empire and the Arabic lands as mighty warriors who wrote in Hebrew and followed rabbinic beliefs.
There are a few history books as one might expect. But there’s also an Indiana-Jonesstyle lost world novel–The Wind of the Khazars by Marek Halter—and a Michael Chabon sword and, er, sword (not any sorcery that I recall) novel called Gentlemen of the Road. The Book of Esther is alt-history as it sets the Khazar empire in the 1940s and sends a young warrior woman out to save her people. Most fascinating was Yugoslavian author Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars, which tells a postmodern triple story from the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim perspectives. Dreams, folktales, and letter-magic are woven in to give it a magical realism flavor too. So that’s just one moment in history that fantasy writers have decided to share in so many colorful ways.
Host: Magical realism seems to play an important role in Jewish literature. Is that different from Fantasy?
Guest: Well, there’s the culture—European-American fantasy generally has a big reason magic works—you have to cross over to Oz, or the wizards have been hiding at Hogwarts, or we’re in the ancient past of Middle-Earth, or you find a magic ring or leprechaun (or a magic tallit in the lovely children’s book The Blue Thread). It’s a shocking moment. By contrast, in magical realism, a woman starts crying and then cries so hard the house is flooded and they have to move—magic is treated as everyday and dealt with practically. It’s largely seen in South America and Israel (who have developed their own flavor of fantasy) but some European countries have it too. It’s often marketed as general fiction in America.
Host: The Wizard of Oz isn’t considered a Jewish story per se, or is it?
Guest: Hmm. There, I’ve got nothing (it is a very American Midwestern fantasy, arguably based on politics of the time). I know the composer of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” was Jewish, and I’ve seen Jewish analysis of the tune and message. Lots of Jews blend the story into their Purim shpiel and the heroine of The Devil’s Arithmetic film tells the story in the camps. Oh, and now I’ve looked up The Secret Jewish History of the Wizard of Oz (ah, Forward…), it adds that in the film the lion was doing Borsht Belt shtick and they had a few more of those comedians lined up for the wizard. So there we go. I still like Mel Brooks’ version in Spaceballs.
Host: I once heard—and was surprised to find— the J.R.R. Tolkien based his elves on the Jewish people and even incorporated stories from the midrashim into his narrative. I believe you speak to this in your chapter on British fantasy. I found that to be very interesting, as Tolkien is not, himself, Jewish. While doing your research for this book, what most moved you? Did anything come as a surprise?
Guest: The Khazars were cool (okay, they’ll be in Book Two I think). The biggest thing was what a huge genre this is. I’ve written a LOT of analysis (80 books worth) on Buffy, Star Wars, Hamilton, Game of Thrones, that stuff. I thought it would be fun to discuss Jewish themes in Sci-Fi and talk about my favorite authors like Peter S. Beagle and Jane Yolen. I imagined I’d pop this book out like the others in a month or two. Now it’s been years and the project is currently about 500,000 words (or in laypeople’s terms, 5 books) and it’s spun off into multiple anthologies and books by other authors too. Oh, and I’ve been made an editor of Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy for Lexington Press in order to make a home for this colossal thing. At this point, this, not the TV stuff or the heroine’s journey, may end up being my legacy.
When I started, I was surprised no one had written such a book, just some essays and an excellent bibliography. Now I know why…
Host: There is some controversy surrounding the Khazars. I’d be interested to see your take on the history in Book Two! Looking again at the introduction of Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy through 1945, I was happy to see that you dedicated some time to discuss Latin America. When my eyes spotted the word, Argentina, I was immediately drawn in! As I was born there, Jewish Argentina is a passion of mine. Tell us what you learned, for example, about Borges, the Sephardim and kabbalah.
Guest: Borges, like Tolkien, was an admirer of Jews and wrote about them respectfully in his fiction. The questioning of religion was a real draw for him, a skeptic. Also, he thought of Jews and Latin Americans both as people of dual cultures forced to find balance. He was fascinated with kabbalah, and most of his stories have some kind of self-referential writing on the power of words and language. Short stories “The Secret Miracle,” “Baruch Spinoza,” “The Golem,” and “Death and the Compass” all address Judaism. “The Library of Babel” and “The God’s Script” were also fascinating.
South American Judaism doesn’t get a lot of press (until lately— Professor Ilan Stavans in particular is filling the shelves with collected fiction and scholarship). A few famously were the conversos who fled Spain. However, the waves of Ashkenazi immigration to the US in the late nineteenth century were paralleled in South America, and of course by the thirties, Jews were heading anywhere that would take them in. Consequently, there’s Jewish immigrant fiction that blends folklore of the old country and the new to make something unique. I’ve been searching up all the available collections…and really enjoying the treasure hunt side of all this.
Host: I consider myself a Trekkie—maybe not as knowledgeable as most devotees, but still a great fan. Mr. Spock, that venerated Vulcan, seemed to mirror Judaic philosophies and traditions. His “Live Long and Prosper” greeting, accompanied by the famous hand gesture, had us all kvelling! The traditional Vulcan response is to say, “Peace and Long Life.” It sounds very much like saying: Shalom Alecheim (Peace be Upon you) with its response: Alecheim Shalom (Unto you Peace).
It is fun to see one’s culture incorporated in literature and other media. How else has Judaism interacted with Science Fiction and Fantasy in the modern age?
Guest: Oh yeah, when people at parties ask me, “So what is Jewish science fiction,” I just give the Vulcan salute. Even non-fans get that one. And did you know that when Nimoy directed Star Trek III, he modeled Vulcan on Israel? (Star Trek, likewise, will be in Book Two. But there’s quite a lot to say about it.)
When I think of TV and the big franchises, I think of overt Jewish themes vs tokenism. Characters like Willow on Buffy identify as Jewish but never do anything with it. More recently, the Arrowverse has a few characters of that type. There’s also the “golem episode” in many shows, which features guest Jewish characters but doesn’t affect the big plot.
By contrast, Babylon 5 has Lt. Commander Ivanova sit shiva with Theodore Bikel and light Hannukah candles in a symbolic moment. And Neil Gaiman wrote an episode based on the eruv concept. Another fascinating one is the big metaphor behind Doctor Who—a bookish, pacifist wanderer exiled from his home, created by a Jewish immigrant. Another series more about a Jewish outlook than Jewish characters is the original Twilight Zone—which was condemning Nazis in a decade when America just didn’t want to discuss them. And yes, Rod Serling was Jewish. In subtly Jewish-flavored YA, Shadowhunters and Shadow & Bone just became TV shows. Of course, for the most Jewish-fantasy TV ever, check out the Israeli vampire show Juda, which fully explores all the theology and how the magic would fit into Jewish law and practice. There you can really feel the big questions.
Host: Are you working on Book Two now?
Guest: Oof, two, three, and four (maybe five) at once. Plus editing some anthologies of scholarly essays on Jewish SF (and I still have room! Everyone, contact me if you want to write one!) And editing others’ books for the series (one all about Goliath adaptations is coming next). And when I told Kar-Ben, the Jewish kiddie publisher who did my Chelm for the Holidays chapter book, about all this, they suggested I write a kiddie scifi story for each holiday. So I’m hoping that collection will come out soon too. Also my book on The Villain’s Journey will be out in September—which has nothing to do with any of this. And an academic anthology on Bridgerton. Phew. Clearly, I keep busy. I also teach.
Host: I am flabbergasted at the amount of work you put out! And as a fan of Regency, your academic anthology on Bridgerton caught my eye. That series has also sparked some controversy, especially in Jane Austen fandom. Valerie, thanks so much for stopping by today and sharing your passion. What would you recommend for fans of Jewish science fiction?
Guest: Thank you too—this has been great. As for the message, read! With Own Voices children’s and YA books I’ve been seeing a lot as Jews are encouraged to share their backgrounds. There’s so much great stuff—the bibliography has more than I ever would have guessed. (At the end of the bibliography is a video of a panel I did on Jewish SF, by the way, if you’d like specific recommendations). And if you’d like to contact me, I’m happy to chat about all this. Finally, to add the gratuitous author plug, all my books are on Amazon. Happy Jewish adventuring!