The Jewish people have a strong tradition of storytelling, and a bountiful literary heritage of heroes, myths, and fable to draw upon. Despite that, science-fiction and fantasy titles that explore and celebrate Jewish culture can be a little hard to find. If you’ve found yourself searching without much luck, then we’ve got you covered. Here are five works of imaginative literature by Jewish authors that any fan of speculative fiction — Jewish or not — will enjoy.
Naomi Novik’s retelling of Rumpelstiltskin is inspired by the experiences of her Lithuanian Jewish family members, as well as antisemitism in a broader context. Miryem’s moneylender father is incapable of collecting his debts. With their family near complete dissolution, she sets out to do what her father cannot. Miryem’s success earns her a reputation as a woman who can turn “silver into gold,” which, in turn, brings Miryem to the attention of powerful forces.
Described as a “steampunk Joan of Arc” and earning comparisons to Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, this action-packed novel of speculative fiction pits the Khazar kaganate, a nation of warrior Jews (which, in this alternate history, never fell), against a hostile nation they call “Germania”. Esther, the daughter of Khazar’s policy adviser, recognizes Germania’s anti-Semitism as the threat to her nation it really is, but few others do. Defying the sexist expectations of her family and country, Esther strikes out for a village of Kabbalists who could give her the power she needs to convince her people to stand up and fight.
A Tale of Adventure [title page only]
If you’re looking for imaginative Jewish fiction, Michael Chabon is hard to beat. The obvious recommendation here would be his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a story about the Golden Age of comic books and largely Jewish creators. Instead, we recommend Gentlemen of the Road. The best way to describe it is as a Jewish take on the pulp fiction of Michael Moorcock and Robert E. Howard. Set in Eastern Europe in 950 AD, Gentlemen of the Road is the story of Zelikman and Amram: two Jewish mercenary adventurers who earn their coin by wit and blade. The two find themselves in caught up in a war after they’re reluctantly drafted into the service of an ill-tempered Khazar prince. Is this a fantasy novel? Well, not exactly, but the swordsmen and evil emperors of 10th century Eastern Europe are fantastical enough to earn this book a place on this list.
In this unique take on the urban fantasy genre, a golem named Chava and a jinni named Ahmad find their way to the streets of 19th century New York City. The two outsiders eventually meet, forming an unlikely friendship that transcends their origins and is as deep as eternity itself. Golems, statues animated by Jewish mystics, and jinnis, legendary spirits of the Arabic tradition, are likely well-known to most readers, but rarely have the two crossed paths in one book. The Golem and Jinni is an unforgettable read.
Lavie Tidhar is the go-to guy for Jewish-flavored horror and fantasy, and HebrewPunk, a collection of short stories, finds him at his best. These stories of shape-shifters, werewolf nazis, Rabbis with magical powers, vengeful angels, and mythical nations is a great introduction to Tidhar’s wonderfully diverse bibliography.
Rachel Swirsky and Sean Wallace (Editors)
Want an introduction to some of the best Jewish-flavored speculative speculative fiction? Sure you do. This wonderful anthology features works by plenty of authors whose names you’ll recognize — Peter S. Beagle, Theodora Goss, and Neil Gaiman, to name a few — plus lots of talented newcomers. Featuring an introduction by veteran anthologist and editor Ann VanderMeer, this great book features tales of demons, dragons, golems, and adventure among far-flung stars.