Modern Magical 


Writing To Tell The Tale

b y   t a m a r a   k a y e   s e l l m a n   ~    m a r g i n

I read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez for the first time on an Israeli kibbutz where I was suffering from a mysterious fever. About midway through the novel I was burning, my fever so intense I had to set down the book and go outside and remind myself that I was still in this world, the one I'd been in before I picked up the book. The moon and stars were close enough to touch, the air smelled of oranges, the turkeys cried, and I wandered, crowned by a wreath of yellow butterflies, just like the young man in the novel. García Márquez made me dizzy with the sense of possibility, of how high a writer can aim. Even more he made me realize that his Macondo was no more fantastic or magical than the world that surrounded me—i.e., the Israeli reality, the culmination of centuries of Jewish dreams and fantasies. Jewish history is a primer in understanding magical realism: a small group of wanderers who are persecuted wherever they go because they persist in shooting the clay feet from every idol and in finding God in the imagination rather than in the flesh. Jewish identity, in all its ghetto-mellah-converso-ashkenazi-Sephardic-mizrahi beauty, pain and absurdity, is the essence of magic realism....
          —Ruth Knafo Setton, The Road to Fez

To paraphrase Américo Castro, one can study Jewish literature without taking Latin America into account, but one cannot study Latin American literature without including Jewish writers.
          —Common Magazine

IT'S UNCOMMON to think of literary magical realism in terms that reflect the Jewish worldview. Gabriel García Márquez, who American readers consider the Father of Magical Realism, was not Jewish, but Roman Catholic. (Even then, he rejected religion as a young man and went on to satirize, even criticize, religion in novels and stories.)

While it's not unreasonable to assume a large Roman Catholic influence pervades Latin America, it is inaccurate to think of Latin America as purely Catholic or Christian. The truth is, Judaism established itself in Latin America well before the first words of El Boom were ever committed to the page. Might the history of Jewish migration to Latin America have some bearing on the rise of literary magical realism there? It's hard to say, but key moments along the diasporic timeline bear relevance to a discussion of Jewish magical realism.

Judaism came to Latin America through several waves. A handful of Jews accompanied Columbus on his first cross-Atlantic voyage, which may not be so remarkable in an of itself, except that the day they left (August 3, 1492), the Spanish monarchy decreed that Spanish (Sephardic) Jews convert to Catholicism or be expelled (the Spanish Inquisition). This led to a movement of hidden Jewish practices called Crypto-Judaism, in which some Jews maintained their ties to their own faith in private while practicing Catholicism in public.

Once Columbus "discovered" the New World, migrations to the Caribbean for the purposes of colonization extended to settlements of Sephardic Jews, many who were hoping to escape the Inquisition. While some Jews in Mexico and Cuba (these being Spanish and Portuguese territories supporting the writ of the Inquisition) were executed during this time, several other entire communities expanded across the whole of Latin America and flourished. Within a century, Barbados, Brazil, Jamaica, Suriname and Curaçao hosted well-organized Jewish settlements.

Brazil was, in particular, a safe haven for Sephardic Jews, who moved there for the promises inherent in the country's rich sugar plantations. Their impact on trade was particularly meaningful and allowed Jews to practice their beliefs in an extraordinarily tolerant environment. The Inquisition moved in on the heels of a civil war, however, and in the mid-1600s, Brazilian Jews were forced to resettle elsewhere. A second resettlement of Jews in Brazil took place in the 1800s and continued to grow through the next two centuries with little major persecution of any kind, leading to an extremely diverse community that has been described as a microcosm of Brazilian society.

Meanwhile, Jews also fled to Argentina, including the Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews. Around the turn of the 20th century, the influx of Jewish immigrants to Argentina could be measured at a rate of 13,000 annually. By 1920, there were more than 150,000 Jews living in Argentina.

Not long after, the spread of anti-Semitism began to take its toll on Argentinian Jews in particular. Pogroms at around this time were particularly harsh. At the end of the WWII, Nazis were permitted asylum in Argentina and Jewish immigration was put to an end. Various eruptions of violence since then have created unrest in Argentina, but in the current day, the country remains populated by a substantial Jewish community.

Jews were also not initially well received in Mexico because of the strong Catholic presence there. However, a wave of Ashkenazi Jews, who migrated from Russia and Eastern Europe to avoid persecution, ended up settling in Mexico, followed by another wave of Sephardic Jews and yet a third wave of European Jews fleeing persecution in Nazi-controlled Europe.

Generally speaking, many Crypto-Judaic families from these migrations assimilated into the Catholic mainstream over the centuries, in Mexico and elsewhere. Some, however, claim an enduring consciousness of their ancestral faith even today. Catholic Mexicans still consider the Crypto-Judaism heritage a strong possibility within their own families.

The most recent Jewish community to settle in Latin America resides in Puerto Rico, and is made up primarily of Jewish descendants who fled Castro's Cuba in the mid-20th century. The strong Catholic presence in Puerto Rico also recognizes the community of Crypto-Jews, many who are Catholic but who continue to practice certain Jewish customs.

Most Jewish immigrants to Latin America ended up in the more densely populated cities like Buenos Aires, Havana, Mexico City and Montevideo. There, they established support systems (synagogues, newspapers, schools, welfare organizations). Hebrew was taught alongside Spanish, and other aspects of Jewish culture—including its folklore—became part of the larger ethnological and cultural landscape whenever it was safe to do so. Likewise, the Latin American landscape became a part of their identity.

At the turn of the 20th century, Reform Judaism entered the American mainstream bent on reason and rationalism, yet contemporary Jewish American author Richard Jay Goldstein, who grew up with these teachings, will swear that "Reform teaches the most magical teaching of all, that the world can be saved, redeemed, by love and care." Indeed, the more complicated and hardened our world becomes, the easier it is for many to trust in miracles, which may not be as glamorously presented today as they have been in the oldest stories, but which are certainly no less marvelous or necessary for the survival of the collective human psyche.

(Editor's Note: Understanding Jewish literary history only sheds more light on the subject. Jewish literary scholar Dr. Alan Mintz has written extensively on the subject of Zionist narrative and captures, in the form of an historical survey, the development of contemporary Jewish literature, especially postmodernsim and magical realism, in his article, "Fracturing the Zionist Narrative," which first appeared in Judaism in Fall 1999 (No. 192, Vol. 48, #4). We recommend you read Dr. Mintz's article, included especially for Margin's readers, as a way to gain as articulate and authentic a context on the subject matter as possible. We thank Dr. Mintz and the American Jewish Congress for allowing us to reprint his excellent contribution as a companion to our feature.]

For the uninitiated (including the author of this article), a fundamental understanding of Jewish mysticism helps enlarge one's understanding of symbology and perspective in Jewish magical realism. However, disagreement over whether the spiritual folklore of Judaism is mystical or mythological complicates matters.

The Jewish holy books, the Torah(1) and the Tanakh(2), contain writings which function like the mythos within other religions. That is, they detail creation myths, offer moral lessons and provide stories and histories to advocate these ideas. Religious scholars consider these writings a presentation of Jewish mythology.

Jewish Oral Law is comprised of two sections: the legal section where the mitzvot(3) and halakha(4) are addressed; and a section (or, if you will, a treasury) of secretive, deeper teachings under which the aggadah, a medium of rabbinical teachings, is kept. This record of moral codes, folklore, references to mythical creatures, allegories and chronicling of miraculous events has been kept for thousands of years and is considered mythological, as is the literature of esoteric Jewish mysticism found in Kabbalah.

"The undercover wisdom of Kabbalah recognizes parallel worlds that sidle alongside ours, trying to sell us soft watches, tree-like worlds of scintillating light and information," explains writer Goldstein. "Sometimes these worlds bleed wonders across the singular border. Or we can at times cross the cosmic creek upon these worlds, as upon rocks in a creek of mere water, and we become lost in a Garden, hear a voice we've heard before and see a shadow we've always known."

However, religious Jews, especially those from the Orthodoxy, are offended by the term "myth" to refer to any part of Judaism. They consider it a pejorative denigration of those teachings most valued by Orthodox Jews, for all the books of both classical Judaism and Kaballah, in their perspective, are uncompromisingly sacred and divine. For some of the more "fantastical" tales, like the Lilith narrative (which explicates the inner meaning of the Adam and Eve story), they hold that such "fantastical" tales, which move well beyond rationalism, are too difficult for modern Western people to grasp. To them, these are tales of mysticism, not mythology. Other Jews who do not ascribe to the Orthodox perspective have also dismissed these fantastic tales (such as the story of Lilith) as mythology as well, creating, as a result, an ideological division among all Jews.

Contemporary Jewish American writers can't help but ponder these differences, for they reside at the root of their own cultural and creative identities. New York author Janice Eidus seems bound into the secular vision of Judaism when she writes,

Jewish culture is steeped in myth—myths of fabulous dybbuks, myths fueled by paranoia, myths fueled by ancient ritual, folkloric myths, myths about the way the world works. Jewish literature reflects this. At the same time, many contemporary Jews, like myself, were raised to honor Jewish culture with a humanistic, secular worldview, yet with a tremendous stake in the ethical and moral beliefs of Jewish culture, as well as in its history and arts. We embrace that which is rational while we honor and subvert—i.e. make our own—that which is magical and mythical.

But Jewish literary scholar Daniel Jaffe spins it differently.

…[M]ysticism is in the eye of the beholder. In other words, the very same story can be perceived as bearing mystical, spiritual content or simply as containing a clever set of metaphors. When we read fairy tales to children, do we imagine them as possibly real? Do we adults believe there might actually have been a pair of red shoes that once forced a ballerina to dance to her death? Or do we regard those shoes as a metaphor for ambition gone wild? Do we believe it possible for a wooden boy to have existed, let alone to possess a nose that grows each time he lies? Or do we tell the story so as to teach our children the inadvisability of lying, to impart a lesson in ethical behavior?

Writer Goldstein moves the idea further when he adds: "Jews have always known that if nothing is real, everything is real. The world is a secret to be kept under your hat, and that's why Jews used to always keep theirs on."

Another major influence on Jewish writing which may have helped to unlock the door to the magical realist worldview for earlier Jewish writers came in the form of Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment. In the 1700s, Haskalah represented a kind of Jewish renaissance in education and the arts and borrowed from traditional stories to create new artistic modes. Modern Jewish authors like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Howard Schwartz, who employ techniques of fabulism and magical realism, will tell you they were influenced by the Haskalah traditions of storytelling.

Contemporary magical realist stories influenced by Jewish narrative tradition usually contain elements of superhumanity, unusual characterizations (i.e. giants), impossible transformations and the same sorts of unnatural incidents one finds in work from nonJewish Latin American magical realists. This sometimes makes it difficult to say whether a story is magical realist or fabulist. Some magical realist stories have fable-like narrative structures. Which are they, then? Certainly in fables, it's possible for the mundane and the extraordinary to coexist on the same plane.

Making the distinction can be rather challenging. Jaffe, who edited the anthology, With Signs & Wonders: An International Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction, is clear on the difference:

…[F]abulism is the broad alternative to realism; it's a kind of fiction in which the impulse of fable plays a part—stories which suggest the possibility of a reality beyond the tangible one in which we live every day. For most of us in the West, everyday reality is based on (and limited by) the five physical senses and contemporary notions of the laws of physics and Western principles of logic. Fabulist stories, however, accept the premise that the intangible might be just as real as the tangible, that laws other than those of empirical physics might govern alternate realities. Some fabulist stories involve a character's exploration of the spiritual: are our lives influenced by the divine? do human beings bear souls?

Other stories, those I would label as magical realist, are a subset of the fabulist. In magical realist stories, the spiritual plane of existence manifests itself in ways that are tangible to our five senses. Something treated as intangible or impossible in realistic fiction now becomes tangible and possible if we tweak the rules we're accustomed to living with: a spiritually enlightened person is actually able to fly during prayer, an angel sits on your kitchen counter shaking his head in disappointment at your behavior, a new kid on the block turns out to be made entirely of inflatable plastic—be careful not to pop him!

In his introduction to the anthology, Jaffe sets the tone with a quote from Deuteronomy:

And the Lord brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders.
He follows with a foray into Jewish fabulism which sets readers up for a necessary merging of history, faith and tradition: a required element of imaginative Jewish literature.

The recorded tradition of Jewish fabulist literature begins with the Bible: through one miracle after another God creates the universe, creates mankind from dust, destroys much of creation with a flood, saves the Jewish people—Moses' shape-changing rod in Pharaoh's court, the Plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, pillars of fire and smoke. Eve chats with a snake; Abraham, Moses, and others converse with God; Jacob wrestles with an angel; Joseph has prophetic dreams; Ezekiel has mystical visions; Jonah is swallowed by a great fish and lives to tell of it. The Bible may be regarded variously as a historical chronicle, an imagined cultural foundation myth, a metaphor for psychological experience, or a mix of these. Nevertheless, the fact remains that biblical storytelling relies heavily on the fabulist.

Jewish fabulism typically orbits around themes of spirituality (whereas magical realism doesn't require it) because, after all, Judaism's rich history of mystical teaching and supernatural folklore demands it. Again, from Jaffe's introduction:
Subsequent religious texts written to interpret, elucidate, and elaborate upon the Bible—the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds(5) and the Midrash(6)—explored the fabulist dimension of the Bible through legends, tales, and fables. In the Middle Ages and later these stories made their way into rabbinic and even lay Jewish folklore. Supernatural creatures such as golems, dybbuks, and demons became part of Jewish storytelling.

In thirteenth-century Spain the Zohar(7) appeared and became the foundation of later kabbalist mysticism. In their attempts to gain insight into the nature of God and creation the Zohar and other kabbalist texts explored, among other issues, the mystical nature of sexual expression, the transmigration of souls, and the nature of Satan, devils, and demons. Kabbalist mysicism flourished in the sixteenth-century Sephardic Safed in Palestine, particuarly through the teachings of Isaac Luria, who claimed that the mysteries of creation had been revealed to him by the prophet Elijah. This study and influence of mysticism later contributed to the widespread seventeeth-century belief in the false messiah, Sabbatai Zevi of Turkey. In the following century the Kabbalah influenced the rise of Chasidism, ecstatic movement founded in Eastern Europe by the Baal Shem Tov. The movement's most influential storyteller was the Baal Shem Tov's great-grandson, Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, whose oral iddish narratives merged kabbalistic symbolism and mysticism with the motifs of Eastern European folktales in the Ashkenazic tradition. Chasidic storytelling, particularly as recounted by Martin Buber and Elie Wiesel, continues to capture the modern imagination." (8)

Goldstein explains it more playfully: "There is a tradition of text exegesis, commentary, and riffing called midrash, engaged in by graybeard rabbis from antiquity until just now, rabbis creaky with dignity and dusty with venerability. Midrash is magical storytelling at its best, nesting Russian dolls of storytelling, story within story within story, as the unreal lives within the real, as reality lives in every dream, as dream in every day."

This fertilizes the territory of the magical real. "[M]agical realist stories can serve as vehicles for conveying non-spiritual thought," points out Jaffe. "On the other hand, even if the objective is to teach an ethical lesson rather than to suggest that there is, in fact, magic in the world, these stories spark the reader's imagination as to the possibility of magic and spirituality. So, in a way, the form is inherently mystical/spiritual/magical."

Jewish magical realists have at their command a great number of specific elements and concepts from which to derive their stories. The concept of the Dream world is universally understood among Jews as having divine connection. There is also the idea of the Evil Eye, which represents the threat of extinction. Omens, superstitions and expressions of good or bad luck also inform the imagination. Miracles, demons and angels make up the more sacred influences in Jewish magical realism. And a host of literary characters manifest themselves in various ways as well. To wit:

Broxa: A medieval witch or demon.

Dybbuk: The wandering soul of a dead person which enters the body of a living person and controls his or her behavior.

Golem: An artificial creature made of soil and magic, often to serve its creator. In Hebrew, "golem" stands for "shapeless mass."

Lilith: 1. An evil female spirit alleged to haunt deserted places and attack children. 2. The first wife of Adam in Hebrew folklore, believed to have been in existence before the creation of Eve.

Rahab: The prostitute from Jericho who housed spies in flax bundles before the city fell. She identified her house with a scarlet cord. (Some say this element was later adapted by prostitutes to become a red light that was placed at their windows to indicate the nature of their business to potential customers, perhaps making Rahab's story the initial inspiration for the term, "the world's oldest profession.")

Tannin: Demon; sometimes referred to as Leviathan.

Despite popular assumptions, not all Latin American fiction is magical realism. The same can be said of Jewish literature. However, the cultural histories of both groups share in common the legacy of political upheaval, cultural disruption and other elements of exile.

"In a way, Judaism is all about magical realism," writes author Goldstein. "It's not only magical realism, of course, but at its sweet, majestic, mystical heart, Judaism feeds root and twig and bud on stories steeped in vision and rapture and portent. … Tanach (call it Scripture, or Bible, or whatever you want) is one long narrative of wonders and crazy wonder-workers and visitations and miracles, woven all together with matriarchs and patriarchs and eerie strangers and towering heros and idiot-savants. Whether legend, chronicle, or the living word of the living god, makes no diff. Our history has been a thriller of magical escape and immortal sorrow and deep study. A history designed to make its people fond of the fantastic."

For both cultures (even when considered separately), the presence of dislocating and/or colonizing forces and the inevitable intransience that follows (i.e., concentration camps, police states, imprisonment, “disappearing”) has resulted in a body of literature that seeks to tell the truth—their truth— before it can be officially erased. erased. The curious unrealities of war and oppression becomes so normalized as to become ordinary, hence the ease with which writers can convey extraordinary events as seemingly blasé and ordinary events as exaggeratively miraculous.

Both Jews and Latin Americans (again, both separately and as a collective group) have long suffered the task of preserving identity via collective memory, naming, cultural ritual, language/dialect and even through acts of materialism. (It's not uncommon in Jewish fabulist literature to find Jewish ghosts coming back to their homes to see other people living there, using their things, co-opting what was theirs. Not surpisingly, they are always outraged.) Capturing these cultural material realities through literature is akin to acquiring living proof and acknowledgment of one's identity where there was none before.

Populations that are restricted often rely upon diffusions of reality to keep up hope and to explain what is often otherwise inexplicable. They turn to dreams, visions and mysterious hallucinations for ways to put back the pieces of their lives that have been either torn away from them or forced out of joint. Magical realism captures that merging between concrete reality and subjective realism, not to rationalize it, but to show how people enduring oppressive conditions must live among and between these worlds in order to survive psychically. It's up to the readers to decide whether the events they read from magical realists are true or simply metaphoric. For the writers, it's all real, it's all true.

Author Goldstein grew up Jewish, though not at all mystical in practice. "Yet every Shabbat, every holiday, every season, even we basked in a stew of outrageous myth and historical marvels. They just called them folktales, or they called them traditions, or they called them jokes, and there you go." Anyone who has ever read a few works from Gabriel García Márquez can, no doubt, recognize the similarities between Goldstein's experiences and Gabo's. Life for both has served as a vessel of story. "We all live in the stories our people have told and outside of those stories we are disembodied wraiths," writes Goldstein. "We tell these stories now about the past and the past lives. They told stories of the future and we live. And vice versa." García Márquez, it seems, is not the only one to live to tell the tale.

Magical realism throughout the world captures consistently the coexistence of the living with the dead, not so much for the supernatural thrill of it but as a way to speak, in a sense, for those who no longer can. Jewish writers of magical realism chronicle their conversations with the dead in much the same way that Latin American authors do. Other ways of vocalization occur through contemporized allegory, the animation of objects within a setting and the vivid portrayal of landscapes as characters in their own right.

Also, if there's a single area of expertise that Judaism can claim, it's that it has long catalogued the art of transmigration. Change, metamorphosis is intrinsic to the Jewish cultural identity, and no wonder. Who else could identify more closely with change than people who have been relocated repeatedly across an entire planet?

Aside from common cultural history and belief systems which incorporate all that is otherwise fantastic or impossible, both Jewish and Latin American magical realists share an interest in using nontraditional literary techniques (i.e. use of folk tales, allegories, fables, legends, tall tales, myths, timeless narrators) to tell their truths.

They also incorporate the world of paradox in a way that presents opposites and duplicities comfortably. The tension in their stories, after all, usually doesn't reside in the opposite-ness of things, but rather in the way they can exist without canceling one another out. These sorts of juxtaposition work well. For instance, the arguing dead Jews climbing out of their mass grave in Poland in Joseph Skibell's A Blessing on the Moon generate wonderful humor in the bleakest of circumstances.

Time is also allowed to move of its own accord, which loosens it, allowing space for new ideas. The timelessness of Sheherazade or the Buendía family can easily be captured in tales infused with the proven timelessness of Jewish mysticism.

Both Jewish and Latin American magical realism have a flair for the strange and uncanny, an interest in the journey or grail story as a shared motif, an unapologetic use of archetypal characters and symbology, and exaggerative narratives that are rendered believable nonetheless. While they may focus on different aspects of spirituality and culture, these two variants on a singular narrative mode are so close, they may as well be cousins.

While there's little evidence to support the idea that Judaism in Latin America had any direct influence on the development of the narrative boom in magical realism there in the early third of the 20th century, it's certainly not far-fetched to think that the weaving of Jewish culture into the Latin America landscape might have had a more deep-seated influence on writers than might have previously been understood.

Argentine magical realist Jorge Luis Borges so closely identified with Judaism that he considered himself a Jew (even though it's not clear whether he actually was Jewish). He was humble enough about it: "I have done my best to be a Jew. I may have failed… Many a time I think of myself as a Jew, but I wonder whether I have the right to think so. It may be wishful thinking." The Kabbala, he explained, appealed to him "because it is a cosmology through which everything in the universe becomes a symbol." Naturally, this is evident in his writing, as his fans will attest. Borges was influenced in particular by the Jewish concept of the golem. His empathy for the Jews during WWII and the influx of Nazism to Buenos Aires inspired an almost obsessive kinship with Jews. Readers will find Jewish protagonists throughout his stories. This marks a prolific period in Borges's writing life. One of his major story collections, The Aleph, was a product of this tense sociopolitical environment.

Borges was not the only nonJewish Latin American magical realist to be influenced by Judaism. When Gabriel García Márquez was a student at the university, he picked up a copy of Jewish author Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis and was so profoundly impacted by the alternative shape of Kafka's narrative and the author's unwillingness to follow classic plot structure that he found himself liberated as a writer. "I thought to myself that I didn't know anyone was allowed to write things like that," he once admitted. "If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago." In particular, García Márquez marveled at the way Kafka's storytelling styled echoed his grandmother's voice. Fans of Gabo's work cannot help but note the influence of García Márquez's grandmother on his writing, thanks, in part, to Kafka's influence.

Mainstream American readers have likely heard of, if they haven't already read, the work of many classic Jewish magical realists, such as Isaac Babel, Nikolai Gogol, Franz Kafka, Bernard Malamud, Bruno Schulz and Isaac Bashevis Singer. But they might be surprised to learn that Alejo Carpentier, one of magical realism's major founders in Latin America, was Jewish. So was Clarice Lispector, one of magical realism's early female authors from Latin America. Some lesser known but pivotal Jewish magical realist authors include S.Y. Agnon, Primo Levi, Reb. Nahman of Bratslav, Moacyr Scliar and I.L. Peretz.

Contemporary literature reveals a longer, more diverse list of popular writers of Jewish magical realism. Creating buzz these days are the works of Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything is Illuminated), Gina Ochsner (People I Wanted to Be) and Myla Goldberg's Bee Season, which was recently released as a motion picture. Other films to consider (as a media extension of popular magical realism): Ushpizin by Gidi Dar, Woody Allen's Picking Up The Pieces and work by the Coen Brothers (i.e. The Hudsucker Proxy, Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski).

Other successful authors of Jewish magical realism include Marjorie Agosin, Kathleen Alcalá (whose novel, Spirits of the Ordinary, delves into Alcalá's own identity as a Crypto-Jew growing up in southern California), Mario Vargas Llosa, Steve Stern, Gina B. Nahai, Cynthia Ozick, Ruth Knafo Setton and Joseph Skibell, whose debut novel, A Blessing on the Moon received raves back in 1997. Avi Shmuelian's work has been compared to Gabriel García Márquez. Barry Yourgrau's short-short stories are punchy combinations of macabre humor. With Signs & Wonders, edited by Jaffe, introduces a worldwide cross-section of international authors that's worth pursuing. Other Jewish magical realist authors to read include Julius Lester, Yitzhak Oren, Amos Oz, Gerald Shapiro and Sean Stewart, as well as a long list of female authors who have begun to chart the Judaic identity through the additional Otherness of feminism: Anita Brookner (A Closed Eye), Eva Figes (The Seven Ages), Shifra Horn (Four Mothers), Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (Heat and Dust), Nicole Krauss (A History of Love), Joan Leegant (An Hour in Paradise), Teresa Porzecanski (Sun Inventions), Frances Sherwood (The Book of Splendor) and Anzia Yezierska (Bread Givers).

In addition, several Jewish magical realist authors' works have appeared in Margin, including stories by Aimee Bender, Gayle Brandeis, Ewing Campbell, Janice Eidus, Richard Jay Goldstein, Atar Hadari and Ozzie Nogg; creative nonfiction from Zelda Gatuskin; essay-writing from Gina Ochsner; and poems by Charles Fishman, Hermine Meinhard and Ruth Knafo Setton.

Would it be silly to imagine a future for Jewish magical realism, since it appears that the new Latin American authors, of late, seem to be more interested in retiring an old penchant for something more realistic?

Magical realism's work has only begun, if one were to ask feminist and gay writers, who are starting to fully appreciate (and find commercial success with) magical realism's broader boundaries as a way to capture the truths of their own communities. Jewish magical realism also seems to be on the upswing (see Mintz). With modern life flying through the arc of time in seeming hyperspeed, cultural change and the failing memory of passing generations can filter the oldest stories into a disheartening sepia, while at the same time fading out more recent stories of survival blended with miracle (post-Holocaust). But this isn't just a problem for Jewish writers. The rise in spirituality, religious fundamentalism and evangelism speaks to humanity's need for something larger than themselves, and the expression of that need is being felt and seen now through cultural production all around the world: books, film, art, music.

From Daniel Jaffe:

"I think we will see an increasing appreciation for spiritual writing. For some, such writing is part of a general interest in religious matters, stories about the power of faith, human connection with the divine. For others, such writing offers an escape from the increasingly technological and scientifically definable world in which we live, an assertion that we human beings are more than atoms and chemical and biological processes, that we are somehow greater than the sum of our parts, and that our greatness lies precisely in our capacity to relate on a spiritual plane. … Actually, it's science that has been teaching us this lesson: we are becoming increasingly accustomed to the notion that we can make real whatever we imagine—sending people into space, communicating with others around the world with the click of a mouse, creating life in a laboratory. Science has proven that if we can imagine something, we can transform that imagining into reality. So, if we can imagine another plane of existence, then mightn't we be able to transform that imagining into reality, as well? At the very least we can do so on the page and, thereby, into another's imagination."


(1) Torah refers to the first section of the Tanakh–the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, but the term is sometimes also used in the general sense to also include both of Judaism's written law and oral law.

(2) Tanakh refers to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.

(1,2) Clarification from Richard Jay Goldstein: "Torah is the first five books of the Tanach, the 'Books of Moses.' The word Tanach is an acronym built on T-N-K, standing for Torah, Nevi'im [Prophets], and Ketuvim [Writings], the latter including some material that seems pretty fictional [Job, for instance]. Tanach includes the entire Jewish Bible [the so-called "Old Testament"], but there are many other semi-canonicle works, such as the Talmud, Apocrypha, Zohar." updated Jan 16, 2006

(3) mitzvot refers to the Hebrew word for "commandment."

(4) halakha is the collective body of Jewish rabbinic law, custom and tradition.

(5) Talmud refers to the record of rabbinic discussions on Jewish laws and ethics, customs, legends and stories which Jewish traditionists consider authoritative.

(6) Midrash refers to a compilation legal, interpretations and commentaries on the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.

(7) Zohar refers to the most important work of Kabbalah, a mystical commentary on the Torah (the five books of Moses) which contains, in several books, a mystical discussion of the nature of God, the origin and structure of the universe, the nature of souls, sin, redemption, good and evil, and related topics.

(8) Daniel Jaffe writes: "Lengthy discussions of the history of Jewish literature, including fabulist traditions, can be found in Howard Schwartz's introduction to Gates to the New City, ed. Howard Schwartz (New York: Avon Books, 1983), 1-108; David Stern's introduction to Rabbinic Fantasies, eds. David Stern and Mark J. Mirsky (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 3-30; and Gershom Scholem's Kabbalah (New York: Meridian, 1978), 8-86.


Thanks to Daniel Jaffe, Dr. Alan Mintz, Richard Jay Goldstein, Ruth Knafo Setton, Janice Eidus, the American Jewish Congress, and the Jewish Virtual Library for their assistance with this article. Special thanks to educator and writer Susan Rich for giving me the impetus and inspiration to approach this subject matter.—TKS, ed.



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Rev'd 2005/12/16