“Are you a geek?”
Congregation Beit Tivkah’s Miriam Winder Kelly immediately asked me this hard question as soon as I logged on to the congregation’s Zoom discussion with author D.H. Aire on July 14 to learn about science fiction books with Jewish themes.
Aire is a fantasy author who has led discussions on science fiction and Judaism at the Baltimore Science Fiction Convention. His most recent release is “Nowhere to Go But Mars,” a reverse Ellis Island immigrant experience tale.
“My Jewish journey was also my sci-fi journey,” Aire said. As he questioned what it meant to be Jewish, he questioned his identity’s presence — or lack thereof — in fiction.
At the beginning of the talk, Aire discussed how sci-fi characters are relatable. “The idea of finding people in the future who are kosher, that resonated with me.”
Another idea that intrigued Aire was the idea that Jews are not only in space or science fiction, but all over the world.
For example, there is a large population in Uganda that claim Jewish ancestry, partly because Uganda under British control was offered as a Jewish homeland.
Another example comes from Peru. “In the 1970s, rabbinate went to Peru and thought the natives can’t be Jewish,” Aire said. “They asked them ‘What do you call God?’ And they said ‘Hashem,’ which is the Hebrew name. So they asked, ‘Where did you learn that?’ It was during the Inquisition. People came to Peru and the natives had to take on those traditions to marry.”
Aire also told the group about the Bnai Menashe in India. This community practices Judaism, and, in 2005, then-Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel Shlomo Amar recognized them as the descendants of an ancient lost Israelite tribe, according to Hareetz.
Just as this representation challenges society’s Ashkenormative perceptions, “when you find there is a Jewish character in the future, it breaks down stereotypes.”
It’s important for Aire in turn to provide this for his readers. “I want my fiction, when someone Jewish reads it, to say ‘Oh, we’re there in the future.’ I think there is a reason the Jews have stuck around and not the Greeks or Roman mythologies, for example. I’m encouraged when Jews go all over the world, pass on who they are, and it’s still around 400 to 500 years later. I truly believe there is going to be Jews in the future.”
Kelly, volunteer treasurer, invited D.H. Aire knowing that Beit Tivkah’s community appreciate a “geek talk.” In fact, the congregation had its first beginnings at a science fiction event, the Baltimore Science Fiction Society meetings. Kelly, who signs her email “at the venn diagram of Judaism Science, and science fiction/fantasy,” was right. The group of 11 participants gobbled up the book recommendations Aire provided, and we hope you will too.
“Central Station” by Lavie Tidhar
A worldwide diaspora has left a quarter of a million people at the foot of a space station. Cultures collide in real life and virtual reality. The city is literally a weed, its growth left unchecked. Life is cheap, and data is cheaper. When Boris Chong returns to Tel Aviv from Mars, much has changed.
The author is Israeli, too.
“Midnight at the Well of Souls” by Jack L. Chalker
Aire read this book, by a Baltimore author, when he was just 10. But it wasn’t until years later that he realized one of the characters was Jewish.
The story constructs an ancient defunct race known as the Markovians. A starship captain is suddenly transported to the “Well World” by a hidden gate. There he must stop mysterious forces from taking control of the Well World and the universe. But to do so, he must deal with bizarre transformations, which have changed people into centaurs, mermaids and giant insects.
“That’s one of the earliest books I’ve ever read, I must have been 11 or 12. I ran out of things to read and read it,” Aire chuckled.
“Tigana” by Guy Gavriel Kay
The plot of “Tigana,” written by a Jewish author, focuses on a group of native rebels attempting to overthrow tyrants and win back their homeland. “This book is about an exiled people coming home to their homeland. The things I look for are like this, with Jewish themes,” Aire said.
“The Fantastic Four” by Stan Lee
Benn Grimm, or The Thing, is a Jewish character in this famous science fiction comic. If you skipped the year 2015, “The Fantastic Four” is a superhero story from Marvel Comics before Marvel became the massive Avengers-universe cult that it is today. The superhero team were originally astronauts, but when something goes wrong in space they all acquire powers. Grimm’s specialty is an orange rock version of the Hulk.
“There’s an old story about Ben Grimm having a bar mitzvah. Later he’s being goaded in one scene to do something anti-Semitic and across the street there’s someone who was at his bar mitzvah,” Aire said. “He becomes a defender against anti-Semitism. You know he has a heart of gold even though he’s made of stone. To have a hero who is Jewish pop up in popular comics is really important.”
“Enchantment” by Orson Scott Card
In this homage to “Sleeping Beauty,” the main character stumbles upon a clearing in a forest where he finds a princess sleeping. But beneath the foliage is an evil spirit who chases him off. When he grows up, he cannot forget that day. Thus, he returns to find out what really happened. This time he does not run and kisses the princess, awakening a thousand-year-old universe.
“Think of this 14-year-old bar mitzvah boy who crosses this veil between Brooklyn and the fantasy world,” Aire said. “He’s from two worlds. To me, discovering that Orson had done that is so inclusive.”
Aire also pointed out that there is a theme of Sleeping Beauty tales being made into Jewish folk tales. For example, for readers who love Sleeping Beauty and can handle a dark, depressing book, there is also “Briar Rose” by Jane Yolen, which incorporates Sleeping Beauty as a metaphor for the Holocaust and the self-discovery journey of one girl and her genealogy.
“These stories are like Midrash. They aren’t necessarily true but they fill in the blanks,” Aire said.
“1632” by Eric Flint
Aire commended that this book integrated Jews into society with positive personality traits.
This book covers the tale of what happens when the entire state of West Virginia is transported back in time, to 1632 Germany. Timelines change and a whole bunch of historic facts and knowledge are thrown in.
“Mike, the union president, is an orphaned Jewish man raised by a childless Jewish couple,” Aire said. It also includes historic Jewish figures.
“Dune” by Frank Herberts
In all of Frank Herberts’ books, according to Aire , “you can see a cross cultures living together in the future.” In this classic science fiction Aire l set thousands of years in the future, religion is a powerful influence still on people. It explores the concepts of how religions could change, and offers plenty of diversity.
Aire noted that Herbberts is interested in creating the figure of the Jewish messiah.
Also, “You have Jews living in the future. And you still have people keeping Kosher! To me, that is Jewish science fiction. You know [characters] ask, oh you’re Jewish, and [the character replies] No, I’m just getting back to my roots. That might have been something I would say, you know, before I became more religious. Oh, I’m just connecting to my roots. To me, that’s heartwarming. We’ve been around this long so why wouldn’t be in the future!”
“The Dalleth Effect” by Harry Harrison
An Israeli scientist discovers a way to achieve space travel. It also has the potential to be used as a weapon. He defects to Denmark to protect his discovery. When it is sent into space to rescue two Soviet cosmonauts who are stranded on the moon, Klein is forced to reveal his secret to the world.
“This one is a pretty old book, but it’s an Israeli scientist who discovers anti-gravity. He gives it to the Danes because he was a Danish Jew. And because the Danish king put a yellow star on himself,” said Aire , so he thinks he can trust them.
“Planet of the Jews” by Philip Graubart
Suddenly Judah, a Manhattan comic book editor, is caught up in an enchanting sci-fi fable of the future, a time when Jews, once again, are persecuted and driven not only out of their lands, but off Earth and onto a strange new world.
“I haven’t read this one yet. Someone gave it to me and though Barry needs to read this. Says it’s a very funny and wonderful look at Jewish life,” Aire said.