Matthew Kres­sel is the author of the Jew­ish-themed fan­ta­sy epic King of Shards. He is guest blog­ging here all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series on The ProsenPeo­ple.

A few years ago an arti­cle in the Jew­ish Review of Books by Michael Wein­grad pro­claimed that there is no Jew­ish Nar­nia, that Jews do not write fan­ta­sy lit­er­a­ture, that the pop­u­lar fan­ta­sy canon has a great big void in the shape of a Star of David.

The premise is absurd, of course. Nev­er mind the fact that Isaac Bashe­vis Singer was award­ed the Nobel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture for writ­ing what can only be described as fan­ta­sy, a sim­ple Google search would have pro­vid­ed many such counter-exam­ples to Wein­grad’s the­o­ry: Lisa Gold­stein’s The Red Magi­cian, Michael Chabon’s The Yid­dish Police­men’s Union, and pret­ty much the entire oeu­vre of Neil Gaiman — not to men­tion the Wan­der­ing Stars antholo­gies edit­ed by Jack Dann. I could go on, but my point is that Jews love writ­ing fan­ta­sy (and sci­ence fic­tion) just as much as we love read­ing it.

This is because Judaism (like all reli­gions) is full of awe and mag­ic and ter­ror and won­der, and those brought up in its tra­di­tions, who have been steeped in its rich folk­tales, can­not help but be influ­enced by its oth­er­world­ly themes. When obser­vant Jews recite at the end of Sukkot, May I mer­it in the com­ing year to dwell in the sukkah of the skin of Leviathan,” the fan­ta­sy writer among them thinks of ancient sea ser­pents and vic­to­ries over uncon­quer­able ene­mies. When Jews say kay­na­horeh to ward off the Evil Eye, the fan­ta­sy writer thinks of mag­i­cal tal­is­mans and charms to keep evil at bay. And one does­n’t even need to be a Jew­ish writer to be influ­enced by Judais­m’s mag­i­cal stories.

Con­sid­er the astound­ing tales of the Baalei Shem, the Mas­ters of the Holy Name. Accord­ing to folk­lore, these learned rab­bis were able to jump across vast dis­tances of space and time by utter­ing or writ­ing var­i­ous spellings of the Divine Name. One such mas­ter was the famous Baal Shem Tov, and one of his dis­ci­ples is quot­ed as saying:

Some­how the rebbe was able to trav­el great dis­tances in impos­si­bly short peri­ods of time. I do not know how he did it. Dozens of times we trav­eled hun­dreds of miles in only a few hours. As the hors­es could nor­mal­ly cov­er only five to ten miles in an hour, we nev­er under­stood how the mas­ter was able to accom­plish such a feat. But he did it so many times, we stopped questioning.”

The name for this mag­i­cal pow­er? Kefitzat ha-derekh, the Short­en­ing of the Way.” Sci­ence fic­tion read­ers will imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­nize the name. It isnear­ly iden­ti­cal to the moniker for the Mes­si­ah-like fig­ure in Frank Her­bert’s Dune: Paul Atrei­des is the pow­er­ful Kwisatz Hader­ach, the one who can be two places simul­ta­ne­ous­ly” and the one who can be many places at once” — and Her­bert’s def­i­n­i­tion for Kwisatz Hader­ach? The Short­en­ing of the Way.” Her­bert was­n’t Jew­ish, but clear­ly influ­enced by a Jew­ish folk­tale, using it to con­struct one of the most pop­u­lar sci­ence fic­tion (some call it fan­ta­sy) nov­els of all time.

I was at a sci­ence fic­tion and fan­ta­sy writ­ing con­ven­tion sev­er­al years ago. I was still new to these things, and I did­n’t know a lot of folks. I was sit­ting in a cir­cle with ten oth­ers, sit­ting on chairs and on the floor. We broke the ice by describ­ing books, shows, and films we loved. Every­one warmed to one anoth­er. We were dis­cussing the astound­ing abil­i­ty of one par­tic­u­lar edi­tor to do so much with so lit­tle time, and I jok­ing­ly called him The Kwisatz Hader­ach of pub­lish­ing.” Every­one laughed, and I remarked, Wow, this is the first time in my life where I have been in a room and every­one knows who the Kwisatz Hader­ach is.” I did­n’t ask, but I’m pret­ty sure most in the room weren’t Jew­ish. And I’m pret­ty sure most had no idea (I did­n’t then, either) that the words I had used as a punch­line to a joke came from a 400-year-old Jew­ish myth with ori­gins in the Talmud.

The thing is, there are dozens of sto­ries like these. Pop cul­ture is rife with Jew­ish myths, it’s just that their direct con­nec­tion to Judaism has been for­got­ten or obfus­cat­ed, some­times inten­tion­al­ly, some­times not. The truth is, we are sur­round­ed by Jew­ish Nar­nias. A large pro­por­tion of pop cul­ture today owes its exis­tence to myths and folk­tales elab­o­rat­ed by Jews in the last three mil­len­nia. Some­times when a thing sits before your eyes for so long you fail to see it, but that does­n’t mean it’s not there. 

Matthew Kres­sel is a short fic­tion writer and the co-host of the Fan­tas­tic Fic­tion at KGB read­ing series in Man­hat­tan with Ellen Dat­low. His first nov­el, King of Shards, was released Octo­ber 2015 from Arche Press.

Relat­ed Content:

Matthew Kres­sel is the author of the Jew­ish-themed fan­ta­sy epic King of Shards. He is a pro­lif­ic writer of short fic­tion, his works appear­ing in the pub­li­ca­tions Clarkesworld, Light­speed, Night­mare, io9​.com, Inter­zone, Apex Mag­a­zine, the antholo­gies Naked City, The Peo­ple of the Book, After, and else­where. He is the co-host of the Fan­tas­tic Fic­tion at KGB read­ing series in Man­hat­tan with Ellen Dat­low, and he is (slow­ly) learn­ing the Yid­dish lan­guage. By day he writes code for cor­po­ra­tions and universities. 

Short­en­ing the Way

Sur­viv­ing Leonard Nimoy’s Super­hu­man Salute

Golem Sto­ries, from Mys­ti­cism to Fic­tion to the Realm of Plausibility