I interviewed Gillian Polack about her new urban fantasy novel, THE WIZARDRY OF JEWISH WOMEN.
We spoke about magic, antisemitism, Anglo-Jewish culture, narrative forks, middle-aged protagonists, and science.
Warning: There are some minor spoilers for those who haven’t read the book.
JF: Why did you choose to feature two middle-aged women as protagonists for your new book, the Wizardry of Jewish Women?
GP: They’re young women compared to three of the protagonists of The Time of the Ghosts! In this case it wasn’t their age that was critical, it was where they were up to in their lives. I needed them to have key life experiences like relationships, children, career changes. Also, so many women I know sort out big things in their lives in their thirties and early forties. I wanted to see what would happen if I kept throwing life events at women who are determined to do just that.
JF: The two protagonists have different stories, but they’re both Jewish–but they’re neither of them particularly so. Rhonda is barely aware of her heritage and does not identify as Jewish, and Judith only begins to become interested as a side-effect to a developing fascination with a set of papers bequeathed to her by a deceased ancestor. Given that the word ‘Jewish’ is in the title of the novel, why the distance between the protagonists and their culture?
GP: Recently I asked around to see what kind of books were published in Australia with Jewish protagonists. I read half a dozen of them. Australia is a wonderfully secular country, but the books I read had religious Jews, often Ultra-Orthodox Jews, as protagonists. There are so few Ultra-Orthodox Jews in this country – I know this because I’m related to several of them. There are more practising Jews (of various traditions), but most Jews have exactly the same religious profile as most other Australians. You know, the ones who will write down their religion as C of E on the census, but when pressed say “Well, I celebrate Christmas.” Australia is a secular country and yet we have precious little literature that shows secular Jews. So I built a profile of Jews who are very Australian and still Jewish. Not Jewish in the way I am, for I had a very traditional upbringing, but Jewish as many of my friends are.
They aren’t religious, but their Jewish culture is very strong. Whether they know the term ‘tikkun olam’ or not, their hearts are in making the world a better place, which is central to Judaism. Family counts and family decisions are big decisions. Not cooking well is a bit embarrassing, really. Learning and books are terribly, terribly important. Guilt haunts one. All of this is part of being Jewish. It doesn’t look like that to people who think that ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ Jewish or ‘Woody Allen’ Jewish are the only kinds of Judaism, but it is. It’s Anglo-Australian secular Jewish. Judaism is a religion, but it’s also a hundred thousand cultures: I depicted just one of them.
JF: The two protagonists in this have their own distinct stories. They are connected–tenuously–at the start, by events and, we later discover, by blood, but they don’t join up again at the end as one might expect. Why this bifurcation of the story?
GP: I was looking at family culture at the time. It struck me that families create patterns in their lives. The two paths and the places they meet in the novel show just how much of our lives is determined by our family culture. The families meet not because of shared ancestry, but because of shared culture resulting from it. I’ve seen this time after time in real life. People who marry only to discover they’re distant cousins, for instance. Or me. I took up crochet lace only to discover my grandmother had done the same thing fifty years before. We possess some surprising inheritances. I wanted to show how this plays out over time when two quite different people have basically the same family culture, but with quite different factors influencing their lives.
It was a fun thing to do as a narrative. I have another novel with two tracks and it will be out next year – its two tracks are different, but it was written as a balance to this one. I’m playing with narrative.
JF: One of the factors that you mentioned there is antisemitism. How does this effect the fracturing of the families and also the present moment for Judith and Belinda?
GP: Antisemitism in Australian often leads to a diminution of some aspects of Jewish religion and culture. There are so many potential ways of handling it. Some families handle it by losing aspects of their culture that they think might trigger it, or by denying their religion in public (because, from their family’s experience, it’s safer). Others handle it by marrying out, or by affirming their identity and using the hate as a reinforcement. There is always a small group who maintain the religion and the culture despite it all, but most Jews here will blend in if they can. One of my nephews had eggs thrown at him when he was school age, because didn’t hide his religion. Given this sort of thing, I entirely understand the people who come to me and say, quietly “My parents were Jewish.” It’s a lot easier to deal with hate by doing what the haters think is the right thing. For me, the haters are bullies, so I’m open about my Judaism and I deal with the consequences. i don’t deal with them gracefully, but I deal with them.
Choices made due to antisemitism can be minuscule or enormous. They can be made 10,000 times in one person’s life. The choices made by people around you are going to affect the choices you make. So a choice to do something that’s more acceptable to the non-Jewish community (in the case of the novel, that would be marrying out) and extraordinarily difficult for the Jewish family, can and does lead to splintering. I have relatives I don’t know, for similar reasons. The pressure of antisemitism isn’t always a constant, but it returns and it returns and it returns and every time, it changes our lives in some way. I put the past and the present into the novel partly to show this. The modern characters have to make their choices, just as their ancestors did.
JF: Have you personally observed antisemitism becoming worse and if so, why do you think that is?
GP: I’ve observed that I’m forced to defend myself more often now. And that people are unbelieving about antisemitism, even when it’s fully documented. I cite statistics and send them to web pages. Also, I’ve been told far more frequently than I used to be that other people are hurting more. I should just deal. We had our moment of attention. This is the most offensive thing. They’re assuming that the Shoah is something we did to get attention. I’ve also been told how I think and what I believe, especially by the Left. I have some pre-prepared answers, because some issues arise over and over. I also joke a lot about Jewish languages, because so few people understand that the most common mother tongue for Jews globally is English.
JF: Rhonda and Judith both possess different kinds of magic, but the only person who is aware of both strains is dead. The knowledge has been lost and it seems that there’s nobody left who can connect the dots. Again, why do we have this fork in the story?
GP: This is a different type of fork. One very important aspect of being Jewish is how much we lose each time we have to hide or have to run. One of the big things that has been lost for most Jews is Jewish magic. For at least a thousand years, European and North African non-Jews have said that the language of magic is Hebrew and the best practitioners are Jewish. I’ve seen it time after time in medieval sources, for instance. Modern supernatural stories use Latin and turn everything Christian, but until recently, the really powerful magic was suposed to be Jewish. And we’ve lost it. There must be Jewish magicians out there (for to lose something so very strong, culturally, is unbearable) but if I’ve met any practitioners, they’ve not admitted it to me.
Mostly, though, I wanted a subject through which I could explore just how much forgetting persecution and cultural change have brought. Melusine, in The Time of the Ghosts, looked briefly at the persecution, and this novel is looking at the role of cultural change. Modern Judaism is a bastion of scientific thought – this has to have affected the preservation of Jewish magic. I created a family where these things mattered, historically. And one of the side effects was a natural splintering of the magic abilities: it’s a natural result of the loss of control mechanisms.
JF: So the advent of science has further disrupted the transmission of magical knowledge down the generations? Why do you think that it has been adopted so vociferously by modern Judaism?
GP: Judaism, religiously, embraces questioning. Science fits within Judaism wonderfully. It always has. It’s no co-incidence that so many scientists identify as Jewish proportionately to the world’s Jewish population. It’s a cultural thing based upon the really cool nature of our religion, where it isn’t just OK to ask questions, it’s obligatory.
JF: There are many Jewish writers of science fiction, but very few who write in the fantasy genre (present company excluded). Do you think Jews’ preoccupation with science is the cause of this–a simple preference–or do you think there are other reasons that Jewish writers of genre fiction avoid Fantasy?
GP: I don’t think we do. I can instantly think of a half-dozen major fantasy writers who are Jewish. Most of them exclude their Judaism from their fiction, but that’s not the same thing. We talk about Asimov as representing Jews, but not Kushner, for instance. There aren’t many Australian Jewish fantasy writers. But then, there aren’t many Australian Jews.
JF: Thank you, Gillian. It’s been a pleasure, as always!