How does identity inform an author’s work?
At “A Novel Idea: Jewish Identity in Genre Fiction,” a June 25 session at the American Library Association’s 2023 Annual Conference and Exhibition in Chicago, authors from the fiction subgenres of romance, mystery, science fiction, and fantasy shared how Jewish identity was embedded into their books. Panelists included authors Ronald H. Balson (The Girl from Berlin), Jean Meltzer (The Matzah Ball), Rena Rossner (The Light of the Midnight Stars), and Steven H Silver (After Hastings). The panel was moderated by Michelle Margolis, President of the Association of Jewish Libraries and the Norman E. Alexander Librarian for Jewish Studies at Columbia University in New York.
Margolis asked each panelist how they addressed the challenges of blending the tropes of genre fiction with Jewish stories. Rossner explained that when she began writing The Sisters of the Winter Wood, it wasn’t a Jewish story—but when she decided to put Yiddish into her book, she was compelled to think about what Jewish fantasy might be. “The two became intrinsically integrated,” Rossner said. “I can’t do one without the other.”
“I think about this every single day when I sit down to write; is there a difference between a Jewish worldview on love and a non-Jewish worldview on love?” Meltzer said. “And, for me, the hardest part of writing Jewish romance for a broad audience is trying to navigate that question.”
Balson, who pens mysteries set during World War II, explained: “If you are not writing about the war from a military or a political standpoint, it’s almost necessary to write about the Jewish community and about what happened to the Jewish community.”
Silver said that science fiction examines how technology changes everyday life, and he puts that in a Jewish perspective when writing. “Every time a new technology or a new social construct comes across, Jews sit down and say, ‘Okay, how do we tie this into what we’ve been taught in the Bible or the Talmud?’” he said. “We’ve been arguing about this for 3,000, 4,000, 5,000 years, so writing science fiction is just a continuation of that kind of discussion.”
Meltzer discussed how her work has had a positive reception from non-Jewish readers. “When I sat down to write The Matzah Ball and all of my books, I always wanted to provide access points,” she said, “and it’s because I, at one point in my life, was a Jewish woman who wasn’t very educated, could barely read Hebrew.” The access points, Meltzer added, give all readers the opportunity to see “this beautiful, wise, lovely religion. That’s always my goal.”
Just being a Jewish fiction writer, said Silver, is not enough to make something a Jewish novel. Nor is just having a Jewish character in the book. “When you are reading it, do you get the feeling, ‘This is speaking to me as a Jew’?” Silver said. “Is this addressing Jewish issues in a Jewish manner? [The character’s] Judaism has to be important to their character development, to the plot, to the way they interact with the rest of the world. Otherwise, it’s just a prop.”
When presenting the Jewish experience in fiction, books do not need to be pedagogical, said Margolis. Rather, they can simply show that “Jews exist, Jews have lives, Jews love, Jews exist in history, Jews exist in science fiction,” she said.