Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy Through 1945: Immigrants in the Golden Age


Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy Through 1945: Immigrants in the Golden Age by Valerie Estelle Frankel (Lexington Books, 2021)

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

This book presents an interesting kaleidoscope of Jewish contributions to the genres of science fiction and fantasy, starting with the late nineteenth century through the end of World War II. It is presented like an academic study, but is actually quite readable for a lay audience as well. Alongside the more obvious names like Franz Kafka, Isaac Asimov, and Shalom Aleichem are some less apparent authors who contributed to this field, like Theodore Herzl and Jerry Seigel. The book cites many earlier scholars who researched this topic and brings together all sorts of thought-provoking insights as to how Jew contributed to the literary fields of science fiction/fantasy in various artistic media (including short stories, books, comics, graphic novels, silent films, and talkies).

The first few chapters of this book focus on providing the reader with synopses of various short stories and other collections written by Jews that represent the experimental stage of the genres in question, i.e., before they had become mainstream reading. Part of these chapters focus on the so-called Futurists who wrote fantastical stories about a time unlike their own. As the author makes clear, these Jewish writers were clearly influenced by earlier secondary Jewish literature/beliefs that included stories about such things as the Dyybuk, the Golem, and assorted tales about King Solomon.

Later chapters explore how Jews’ writing in fantasy related to Nazism, Zionism, humor, and the like. In the lead-up to World War II and during the dark years of the Holocaust, some Jewish writers and those who sympathized with the Jewish plight used harnessed the power of fantasy and science fiction to produce anti-Nazi propaganda and affect public opinion.

This book also discusses famous Jews in the early movie industry including the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, and Charlie Chaplin (who was not Jewish himself, but certainly commiserated with the Jews), as well as the individuals involved in comic book industry in its earliest years.

Various literary motifs that this book shows were heavily influenced and established by Jewish writers include time travel, alternate histories, utopia/dystopia, and—of course comedy.

Another important Jewish theme that the author shows is omnipresent in the works of early fantasy and science fiction is the notion of assimilation versus tradition. Many Jews involved in writing or producing works of fantasy immigrated to America from the Old Country, and in some ways were eager to shed their Old-World identities and adopt new ones. Yet, on the other hand, they were often proud to be Jewish and wanted to express their Jewishness in some way. In practice, many of these immigrants changed their names to give off the appearance of being more American, but still used Jewish themes and ideas in their actual works. Indeed, this tension also often led to the covert expressions of Jewish ideals and concepts in the works of early fantasy writers, without the need to explicitly label characters in their works as Jewish.

Case in point: Superman represents the quintessential superhero of this genre, and like many Jews in America at the time, he too came from a faraway, strange land, but adopted a thoroughly American identity in the form of Clark Kent to blend in with his newfound home. Of course, Superman was the creation of Jewish fantasy writers, and his aboriginal Kryptonian name Kal-El even has a Semitic ring to it. In fact, this book cites a witty observation from another scholar who noted that anyone whose name ends in “-man” is either Jewish (e.g., Grossman, Goldman, Lieberman) or a superhero (e.g., Superman, Batman, Spiderman).

In final analysis, this reviewer feels that the book was a fun read. It was generally easy to follow the author’s arguments and, all in all, was an easy read. Although in this reviewer’s opinion the book could have benefitted from more editing, Ms. Frankel’s author biography boasts an impressive “over eighty books on pop culture.” Besides the sources she cited in the body text of the book, the author also provides the reader with a comprehensive bibliography that contain many more related sources, should the reader choose to pursue further examining the topic. Indeed, once the reader whets his appetite with Ms. Frankel’s book, he or she might want to learn more about the Jews’ place in forming the modern genres of fantasy and science fiction.

5 Books Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

Don Isaac Abravanel: An Intellectual Biography by Cedric Cohen-Skalli (Brandeis University Press, 2021) – This book is a scholarly study on the Abarbanel’s personal life and how that intersects with his various writings. The author skillfully weaves together Abarbanel’s biography with analyses of the major works that he penned. Doing so explores how when and where Abarbanel chose to write a specific book or commentary work reveals much about the ideals or motives that shaped that work. For example, the author discusses to what extent Abarbanel’s experiences serving the kings of Portugal and Castile shaped his view of politics and his apparent endorsement of Venetian-style Republicanism. The author also shows how Abarbanel pragmatically balanced his various loyalties in his roles as Jewish community leader, royal advisor, merchant, and Biblical/philosophical exegete throughout his seventy-year life. Unlike earlier scholars who viewed Abarbanel as simply following contemporary Humanist/Renaissance trends or as establishing a failed Messianic movement (Benzion Netanyahu), this book shows that the truth about Abarbanel is more nuanced and multi-faceted than previously scholars would admit. In doing so, the book portrays Abarbanel and his literary efforts in a positive light as meant to inspire and strengthen the Jews of Iberia who were expelled starting in 1492.

The Analytic and Synthetic Etymology of the Hebrew Language by Dr. Isaac Fried (The Hebrew Etymology Project, 2004) – This book features a 32-page introduction to Dr. Fried’s theory of etymology, followed by a several-hundred page etymological dictionary that shows how his ideas relate to thousands of specific words. If I understand the theory correctly, Dr. Fried argues that all Hebrew consonants can be classified into seven groups of consonants, each group representing a certain idea that he called “fundamental concept.” He then argues that all roots/words reflect the concepts represented by the groups into which the consonants that comprise them belong. This book is daring in its use of a single theory to explain the origins of Hebrew words, as well words in proto-Indo-European (PIE), a theoretical ancestor of English and many other languages. What bothers me about this work is something that my wife likes to call the “Horoscope Problem.” Basically, whoever writes the horoscope section of a newspaper is tasked with writing something that is on the one hand very vague, but on the other hand very specific. That way, when somebody reads their predicated horoscope, no matter what happens in their life, they will be able to interpret those events as consistent with what the horoscope predicted for them. I feel like the same thing applies to the etymological categories (“fundamental concepts”) that this book proposes; they are vague enough that anything can fit into them if you are a little bit creative, but specific enough that they feel like separate categories. I’ll be honest: I don’t think I truly appreciate the brilliance of this book. I think it may be beyond my skill level at this point. Maybe in a few years I’ll look at it again and realize the true depth of his approach.

Links to Our Legacy: Insights into Hebrew, History, and Liturgy by Mitchell First (Kodesh Press, 2021) — If you’ve read Mitchell First’s previous book Roots and Rituals (also published by Kodesh Press), then you already know if you’ll enjoy this book or not because it’s more of the same. The first section of this book analyzes various words in Hebrew to find their respective etymologies, test for cognate words in other languages, and show the links between different derivatives of a given root. For example, why does neshek mean “kiss” and “weapon”? What is the difference between a komer and a kohen? Does mass refer to monetary taxes or forced labor? The second section of the book offers short essays on various topics in Jewish history, including some related to the Hebrew Alphabet, some related to the Book of Esther, and some related to the Dead Sea Scrolls. The last section features seven essays on various oddities in Jewish liturgy. If you appreciate Mitchell First’s not-so-subtle humor and his random pop culture references, then this book is for you. If you don’t, then this book is still for you—just try to ignore those interpolations.

Torah IQ: The Great Torah Riddle Book by David Woolf (Tellwell, 2021) – This is a fun book for the whole family. It presents cute riddles and their answers related to each Parashah and Jewish Holiday. My family and I read some of the questions and answers at the Shabbos table and my kids found it quite enjoyable; the questions weren’t too hard or too easy, but they definitely required thinking. Some of the riddles are really just trick questions or are based on one obscure source, but for the most part we actually enjoyed this book and discovering new things. While we can quibble over the accuracy of some of the riddles, all in all, the author did a great job in collating Parashah-related trivia (but not necessarily trivial facts) that are especially entertaining for baalei kriyah and young children learning Chumash.

Sanctified Sex: The Two-Thousand-Year Jewish Debate on Marital Intimacy by Noam Sachs Zion (The Jewish Publication Society, 2021) – This book offers a study on the various Jewish perspectives on martial intimacy going back to the differing views present in the Talmud down to contemporary models for husband-wife interactions. The author does a decent job at collecting the relevant sources in Chazal and presenting them using contemporary terminology. Of the different approaches that he presents, he seems to approve most of the sex-positive attitude espoused by Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Sher (1875–1952) and the Steipler Gaon Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky (1899–1985), although he also documents and analyzes the ascetic practices of some Chassidic groups like Slonim and Ger. This reviewer recommends that readers skip the parts of the book related to Kabbalah because they are based on academic sources rather than legitimate Kabbalistic interpretations, as well as the chapters on non-Orthodox approaches to sex.

Parting Words: 9 Lessons for a Remarkable Life

Parting Words: 9 Lessons for a Remarkable Life
 by Benjamin Ferencz (Little, Brown Book Group, 2020)

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

If you’ve never heard of Ben Ferencz and his amazing life story before, then you’re in for a special treat. While Ben might come across as an ordinary centenarian living in the retirement community of Delray Beach, Florida, his story is nothing short of the extraordinary. In this book, we meet Ben as he transitions from criminal to lawyer, from husband to father, and from immigrant to influencer.

Ben was born over a century ago in Transylvania under Romanian rule. His impoverished family immigrated to America when he was just an infant, and he grew up in the crime-stricken neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen in New York City. Despite his Eastern European origins, Ben always identified himself as an American—a Jewish American. Like other boys of his age, he turned to a life of crime, but eventually found himself on the right side of the law. From then on, he committed to crime prevention and protecting the less fortunate.

After a late start to formal schooling, Ben was eventually recognized as a gifted child and admitted to Townsend Harris High School, which all but assured his future entry to college. In his immigrant social circles, he hadn’t even known anyone who went to college, as finishing high school alone was considered the highest possible achievement. Though his high school diploma was unfairly held back from him for eighty years, Ben managed to gain acceptance to City College, where he studied sociology and social sciences. After graduating, Ben was miraculously accepted into Harvard Law School, and not long after he finished his degree in law, he was drafted into the US Army—in the middle of War World II.

After some tough times in the beginning of his army career, Ben was eventually recognized for his superlative skills in law and was put in charge of gathering evidence of the Nazi atrocities committed during the war. Soon after, he became one of the main prosecutors in the famous Nuremberg Trials. After the war, he opened a private law practice, but continued to study and write on issues of International Law, eventually playing an important role in the creation of the ICC.

Besides the biographical sketch of Ben Ferencz’s life and the humorous anecdotes he presents (which always have a moral lesson), this book is peppered with motivational quotables (usually in boldface) like: “Whatever situation you come from, believe that you can do something different if you want,” “Patience is a virtue, good things come to those who wait, and, despite the frustrations and resentments, you must take the laughs where you can,” “Just because it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Don’t expect perfection,” “You will likely always have adversaries, and you won’t always get your just reward,” “Adolescence is a time of temporary insanity,” and “Never let anyone say they want to die for their country. That’s stupid. You should want to live for your country.”

This book also includes various inspirational one-liners like: “It’s important to work out what’s worth fighting and what isn’t,” “Friends are important but it’s good to make peace with your own company,” “Don’t let anyone bully you twice,” “Everything is impossible until it’s done.”

This book’s major weakness is that it doesn’t really explore Ben’s Jewish identity and how he related himself to the Jewish People as a whole. This lacuna in Ben’s life story is quite conspicuous for a clearly American Jew who lived through the time of the Holocaust and even served as one of the great advocates of justice in the post-WWII era. Most tellingly, Ben never speaks about God, the Torah, or religion. In one particularly disturbing passage, Ben writes: “I survived the war by damn good luck”—a borderline blasphemous statement that downplays the miraculous Divine intervention that took place on European shores.

Furthermore, despite Ben’s professed allegiance to “the law,” this book does not explore what makes the law so central and binding. It’s almost as Ben places the man-made “law” — as it is on the books —on the highest pedestal and everything else falls to the wayside.

Ironically, Ben criticizes people for taking advantage of the law or bending its rules, but he himself had no qualms about illegally issuing a warrant for his wife’s arrest so that he can meet up with her when her boat finally arrived in Germany, or demanding that the Russian Government return his parachute which landed in Russian-held territory on the basis of it being US Government property, but then taking that parachute home as a souvenir for his home garden.

Despite these slight shortcomings, Ben Ferencz’s book is a delightful story that offers all sorts of musings on life, marriage, parenting, and beer. In his alluring and oftentimes funny way, Ben offers us all sorts of lessons and insights into life. His informal easy-to-read writing style and refreshing candor add to the book’s charm, truly leaving this book as a worthwhile legacy of Parting Words from our centenarian in Florida.