Monday Original Content: Classics Revisited: “Wandering Stars” review

WANDERING STARS: AN ANTHOLOGY OF JEWISH FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION. Edited by Jack Dann. Introduction by Isaac Asimov. Jewish Lights publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 1998.

MORE WANDERING STARS: AN ANTHOLOGY OF OUTSTANDING STORIES OF JEWISH FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION. Edited by Jack Dann. Introduction by Isaac Asimov. Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 1999.

Reviewed by Carl Rosenberg

These two books are reissues of Wandering Stars (hereafter WS), first published in 1974, and More Wandering Stars (hereafter MWS), first published in 1981. Both books feature delightful introductions by Isaac Asimov, who also appears with a story,”Unto the Seventh Generation” (in WS). Both books are really one book, and I will review them as such.

In his introductions, Asimov gives some interesting historical background on Jews and science fiction, noting that Jewish literature is not usually associated with science fiction as a genre. He points out (in WS) that many early Jewish science fiction writers used pen names: “A story entitled ‘War-Gods of the Oyster-Men of Deneb’ didn’t carry conviction if it was written by someone named Chaim Itzkowitz.” (However, Asimov almost always published his writing under his own name.)

In a wider sense, however, fantasy and the supernatural have always played a large part in Jewish literature, going back to biblical myths, continuing with supernatural tales derived from Jewish mysticism. Until the modern era, of course, this was not thought of as “fantasy” as such.

This fantastic tendency remains influential in modern Jewish literature, probably as much as realism—historically a much more recent literary tradition. This tendency can be found in the work of Jewish writers who are not usually thought of as writers of “fantasy” per se, including major writers such as Kafka, Agnon and Peretz.

Two such writers are represented here. One is Bernard Malamud, who appears with one of his best stories, “The Jewbird” (WS), which ends heartbreakingly, like much of his work. Malamud was strongly influenced by the Yiddish storytelling tradition, so that he often seems like a Yiddish writer in English. Then there are two stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, “Jachid and Jechediah” (in WS), and “The Last Demon” (MWS), both absorbing, if bizarre, stories which show Singer’s most fantastic, occult side.

The stories in both volumes are diverse in theme, dealing with a wide variety of Jewish issues and experiences, and in mood and style. Avram Davidson’s “The Golem” (WS) is a light-hearted modern retelling of the Golem legend. Howard Schwartz’s “The Celestial Orchestra” (MWS) is a lovely mystical vision. Jack Dann’s “Camps” gives a grim juxtaposition of the young protagonist’s pain in a hospital and his dreams (or are they dreams?) of  a Nazi concentration camp. Barry Malzberg’s “Leviticus: In the Ark” (MWS) gives a bizarre, Kafka-like view of Jewish ritual, and its possible development (or regression). Hugh Nissenson’s “Forcing the End” (MWS) is a stark portrayal of religio-nationalist fanaticism all too relevant to present-day Israel.

Two stories (in WS) offer variations on the overbearing Jewish mother, a theme I  find tiresome (and often sexist). I found this true as well of Harlan Ellison’s “Mom”; however, Robert Sheckley’s “Street of Dreams, Feet of Clay” is more imaginative.

Some of the stories show the possibilities of Jewish life in extraterrestrial settings, such as Robert Silverberg’s thoughtful “The Dybbuk of Mazel Tov IV” (WS), and William Tenn’s lighter “On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi” (WS). The latter story features a narrator who is a futuristic version of Tevye the Dairyman—“Milchnik the TV Repairman.” This story is flawlessly told in the style of Sholem Aleichem’s monologues.

These books could have gone even further afield by including a story or two from a major non-Jewish writer of the fantastic: the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges, who had a strong interest in Jewish culture and lore. Borges wrote at least two stories (two of his best) on Jewish themes: “The Secret Miracle” and “Death and the Compass,” the latter a detective story using Kabbalistic themes.

Whatever their limitations, these anthologies contain many entertaining stories which will interest those with a penchant for modern Jewish literature, for science fiction and fantasy, and those like myself who enjoy both.

First published in Outlook Magazine <>, Vancouver, BC, Canada, July/August 2001.


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