When it comes to speculative fiction, there is seems to be no lack of Jewish writers. Among the science fiction genre (for which Jews are famously known for) are writers such as Isaac Asimov, Michael Chabon, Jack Dann, Sarah Pinsker and others. Though some have argued in the past that “if Christianity is a fantasy religion, then Judaism is a science fiction religion,” that ignores the many Jewish writers who have used their religion and cultural background to ground their work in the world of fantasy.
From witches to dybbuks to golems, Jewish writers have touched upon Jewish mythology and folklore, giving new breath into the stories passed down through generations past. Whether set at modern-day Yale, as seen in Leigh Bardugo’s “Ninth House,” or set in 19th century New York, as seen in in Helen Wecker’s “The Golem and the Jinni,” Jewish fantasy literally spans time and space. Whether you are in the mood for young activist superheroes or murder-solving immigrants, I guarantee there’s a story worth your time and interest.
Here’s a list of some Jewish fantasy books I’ve personally read or am looking forward to devouring. Note that this is not a fully comprehensive list of all the great Jewish fantasy out there. Just a starter guide to ignite your appetites. Enjoy!
1. “Burning Girls and Other Stories” by Veronica Schanoes
From the brilliant and Jewish professor and storyteller Veronica Schanoes, “Burning Girls and Other Stories” is definitely a collection of fantasy stories that burns bright. This book is an ode to fairytales, Judaism and history, casting a strong light on the past while re-examining antisemitism, class struggles and other injustice through the lens of fantasy. Honestly, the first story, “Among the Thorns,” was enough to get me hooked! Please check out this book, as well as her article on Jewish books and magic.
2. “Whistle” by E. Lockhart, illustrated by Manuel Preitano
To me, superheroes straddle a fine line between fantasy and science fiction, but the presence of women who can control plants and talking dogs seems to fit that sweet spot of speculative fiction. And what could be sweeter than E. Lockhart’s newest book “Whistle,” which features DC’s first Jewish superhero in over 40 years?! While it obviously took wayyy too long to happen, Willow Zimmerman (aka Whistle) truly honors this legacy. A young woman with the weight of the world on her shoulder, Willow is a young activist filled with a fire to protect her own and make the world a better place. Also, Willow’s hair and friendship with a Great Dane named Lebowitz are honestly goals. You can read more about the comic, and the inspiration behind in, in Alma’s interview with Lockhart. Here’s hoping for a future team-up with other Jewish vigilante icon, Batwoman!
3. “The Rabbi’s Cat” (“Le Chat du Rabbin”) by Joann Sfar
Created by the half Ashkenazi, half Sephardic French comics artist Joann Sfar, “The Rabbi’s Cat” is a hilarious, theological romp about a wise rabbi and his rambunctious cat, who develops the ability to speak to humans. Featuring a beautifully distinctive style, this graphic novel is a combination of wacky adventures, including the cat trying to become a bar mitzvah, as well as quiet discussion on Jewish faith and philosophy. The book, as well as the animated film based on the book, are definitely worth checking out.
4. “The Golem and the Jinni” by Helen Wecker
In “The Golem and the Jinni,” a creature made of earth and a creature made of fire are born. Inspired by Jewish and Arabic mythology, Wecker weaves an incredible story about two strange characters who find themselves lost and trying to survive as outcasts in the urban chaos that is 19th century New York. A touching rumination of assimilation and immigration through the lens of the supernatural, simply put, this story is magic.
5. “Honey on the Page: A Treasury of Yiddish Children’s Literature” by Miriam Udel, illustrations by Paula Cohen
The name of this book, which was inspired by the Jewish tradition of putting honey on students’ books to make the learning sweet, is a fitting title. Translated by Miriam Udel, “Honey on the Page” is a collection of Yiddish stories and poems focusing on Jewish holidays, history and folklore. From talking lions to mystical rabbis, the tales in “Honey On the Page” capture the very heart of fantasy that brings breath to Jewish culture, honoring our people’s mythology and mysticism. Though the stories were primarily designed for children to grow and learn from, anyone of any age can enjoy them.
6. “The City Beautiful” by Aden Polydoros
Though I admit I haven’t had a chance to read this book (yet), the synopsis alone is enough to make me curious. Set in Chicago, 1893, Alter Rosen is a young Jewish boy trying to survive in a harsh and hostile world. Unfortunately, when he gets possessed by the dybbuk of his best friend, Alter gets thrown into a mission to find his friend’s killer, or else risk losing himself forever. Vengeful spirits, historical fiction, unapologetic queer and Jewish representation? If that’s not enough to make you want to run to this book, I don’t know what will. You can read more in Alma’s interview with Polydoros.
7. “Ninth House” by Leigh Bardugo
Written by the legendary Leigh Bardugo (author of the also slightly Jewish Grishaverse series), “Ninth House” is a dark academic urban fantasy and Bardugo’s first non-YA book. Haunted by the ghost of her past (literally in the case of the phantoms that only she seems to see called “grays”), Alex Stern starts her freshman year at Yale before soon reckoning with its secret societies, navigating the privilege and chaos that enters her path. Alex is of Sephardic descent and sings Ladino songs throughout the book to connect to her family (which is, yes, incredibly Jewish).
8. “Wild Visionary: Maurice Sendak in Queer Jewish Context” by Golan Y. Moskowitz
Maurice Sendak was truly a mensch in the world of children’s literature. Author of the well-loved “Where the Wild Things Are” Sendak wrote stories for children who were navigating a hostile, conformist world, creating spaces where they could escape and be “wild things.” Jewish studies scholar Golan Y. Moskowitz honors Sendak’s memory through studying the various facets that made up his identity and informed his art.