Judaism and Fandom

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Jewish faith and traditions are explained most clearly at Judaism 101.

cover of T-Negative Tribute Issue, "Shalom, Welcome Aboard, Miss Berman"

There have always been Jews in fandom; and Judaism is periodically portrayed in fannish source-texts, in ways both accurate and absurd.

Recent years have brought a number of related identity issues to the forefront of several fannish communities. Alongside discussions of race and fandom there have been conversations about the intersection of religion and fandom which have sparked growing awareness of some of the places where Judaism and fandom mesh neatly -- and some of the places where Judaism and fandom sometimes collide.

On a meta level

On a meta level, some fans have argued that fandom itself is a quintessentially Jewish enterprise, because fandom is an interpretive community of people who create and strengthen connections with each other through exegesis of shared source texts:

Just as Jews create community through engaging around our shared stories, so do fans. But instead of writing stories or essays or making short films which offer exegeses of Biblical or Talmudic texts, fans write stories and essays and make short films which explore pop culture texts. We respond and re-purpose, turning and turning all kinds of stories to see what might be found inside. Often what we find there -- what we foreground, or what we add -- says as much about us as it does about the book or movie at hand. That's part of the fun.[1]

According to this line of thinking, there's something innately Jewish about the very (f)act of fandom, even if the source-texts around which we gather aren't explicitly Judaic and even if the fans who are discussing them are not Jews. Playing with that idea are catch phrases such as "Next Year in Lansing" (Lansing, where MediaWestCon -- once the center of all gen mediafannishness -- is) deliberately echoing the phrase "Next year in Jerusalem" said at the end of the Passover seder every year.

Within fandom: Is Character X Jewish?

Many shows do not explicitly state the religious background or beliefs of any of their characters, meaning fans must deduce these things from small details of canon. As with all fanon there will be fans who treat it as unassailable canon and other fans who just don't see it. In some cases, "is X Jewish" became incredibly contentious, with some fans considering a certain character's Jewishness to be obvious, and other fans refusing to take even solid indications-- such as Willow Rosenberg's Jewish "egg baby"-- as "proof." Some examples would be:

  • David Starsky. Was played by a Jewish actor, but was never explicitly stated to be Jewish. In one episode, Starsky was extremely enthusiastic about celebrating Christmas; however, a blue Star of David can be seen among the decorations adorning the dashboard of his beloved Torino, and once or twice a menorah can be glimpsed (very briefly) in his apartment. In a pre-DVD age this was probably missed by many fans. (Fanon often attributes Starsky's fondness for Christmas to his having been partially raised by non-Jewish family friends.) Straight-ahead Reform Jews often celebrate Christmas as a winter festival of gift-giving, and it's normal for a lot of families to combine Christmas and Chanukah.
  • Blair Sandburg. Fanon tends to portray Blair as generally non-observant, due to his being raised by a single mother with New Age beliefs, and no canonical mention of any other (presumably estranged) family members; however, he does make a canonical reference to having had a bar mitzvah.
  • Willow Rosenberg.[2] Despite Willow's statement in season two that her "egg baby" was Jewish [3] some fans refused to take that as conclusive proof that Willow herself was Jewish; perhaps, the argument went, she could have just been respecting the wishes of her (hypothetically Jewish, but unseen in the episode) egg baby's "father." However, five episodes later, canon did confirm that Willow is Jewish, explaining why she has to hide the crucifixes she is putting up in order to repel vampires. [4] Some viewers have criticized "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" for portraying Willow's family's Jewishness as "[taking] the form of anti-Christianity, rather than of, as far as we can tell, any positive Jewish practice[,]" [5] such as being skipped over by Santa Claus and not being allowed to watch Christmas movies.
  • Marvel comics' Ben Grimm of the Fantastic Four. The character was created in 1961 and finally canonically confirmed to be Jewish in 2002.
  • Marvel comics' Magneto (Erik Lehnsherr) of the X-Men. Created in 1963, revealed to be Holocaust survivor in the 70s. It was unclear for almost a decade if Magneto was intended to be ethnically Gypsy/Roma or Jewish. See Is Magneto Jewish? for a comprehensive view of the debate circa 1998. This debate ended shortly after the X-Men movieverse debut, as a young Erik is shown wearing a yellow star in the first scene of the film; a comic miniseries called Magneto: Testament has since come out to unify the two backgrounds.
  • A running gag among S.T.A.R. San Diego fans was that "all Vulcans are Jewish" because Leonard Nimoy and Celia Lovsky were, and because the Vulcan hand salute was based on a gesture associated with a Jewish rabbinical blessing.
  • The Rozhenkos, Worf's parents, were played by actors who were not just Jewish, but among the biggest names in Yiddish theater. This, together with a few other subtle hints, led many fans to believe that Worf's adoptive family (and by extension, Worf) are implied to be Jewish.[6]
  • Superman was created by two Jewish men, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who were themselves fans of pulp magazine stories. He has been repeatedly compared both to Moses, for his origin story; and to Jesus, for his father's having sent him specifically to Earth to help and inspire humanity.

Within fandom: story exchanges

Some conversations about Judaism and fandom have been sparked by secret santa and other story exchanges. In 2007 there was a Yuletide-related controversy around the scheduling of the challenge's various dates and its buy-in to the Christian holiday cycle, which seems, to some Jewish fans, like an example of Christian cultural hegemony. mamadeb's initial post questioning the timing of Yuletide signups ultimately made Fandom_Wank. Fan response to her post ranged from disbelief to snark to outrage, and the conversation got ugly. In one representative post, Melymbrosia wrote:

I know Jews and members of other religious minorities in the West who are not bothered by the terms "Yuletide" or "Secret Santa" and who have Christmas trees (and who set up huge fandom-crossing obscure fandom ficathons!) and who distinguish the cultural practice of Christianity from the religious practice of Christianity. I am not one of them, partly because so few Christians seem to have an understanding of Christianity as a cultural practice, or the ways in which they receive the privilege of a cultural default, even when they themselves are not religious or choose atheism or a different religion. Why should they have this understanding? Privilege is the headache they don't know they don't have.
I am going to be very explicit about this: I'm not just talking about this ficathon. I'm not asking for the name "Yuletide" to be changed. I think that would be a huge headache, to begin with, and at this point I even have positive associations with the name, because of my happy involvement with the challenge. But I am saying that "Yuletide"--whether in reference to this challenge or in general--is not nondenominational. It is not religiously neutral. It is not broadly inclusive.[7][8]

The word Yuletide itself is not Christian. It is the Old Norse word for the winter holiday and the season in which it occurs. What we call "Christmas" is derived partly from these ancient, pre-Christian celebrations.

Other fans argued that an overfocus on feelings of marginalization within fandom can itself be counterproductive, and that we should respond to negativity by creating more positive energy.[9] Out of the often-frustrating conversations about Yuletide et al, some positive developments arose, including the 2008 launch of Purimgifts (a ficathon/story and art exchange scheduled to coincide with a holiday when Jews customarily exchange gifts) and the creation (also in 2008) of Stilljewish.

Within fandom: antisemitism

Some conversations about Judaism and fandom have been sparked by waves of antisemitism within fandom.

  • In 2008, there was nasty name-calling. kita0610 was called a kike by an anonymous commentor (see Well that made my day and chopchica's "To Whomever Came Into A Friend's Journal and Like A Fucking Anonymous Coward, Called My Other Friend A Kike")[10]
  • That year there was also a flare-up over an RPG called Kristallnacht. chopchica wrote, in a wrap-up post, "It wasn’t just about the name of the comm and the FAQ. They were offensive and hurtful, yes, but mostly, the were just the tip of a very large - and very ugly – iceberg, and *that* is what I called out in my post..."[11]

(this is just the stuff I remember; I'm sure there's more, pls add/edit/recontextualize)

Within media sources

Some beloved fandoms handle Judaism really well. The Sports Night episode "April is the Cruelest Month" centers around Passover, one of the most important Jewish holidays. The episode has been praised for placing a Jewish holiday other than Chanukah at the center of an episode, and for offering a depiction of Passover that feels true to many Jewish fans' experiences;[12] and for interweaving the themes of the Passover story into what's happening in the characters' lives. ("On one level, it's the natural progression of what's going on with the characters at this point in time. Isaac, Jeremy, Casey, Dan, Natalie -- all of them are moving through the arc that's been established and that's been in-progress all season. On another level, this is a deeply religious story, and one that plays with themes of Passover all over the place."[13])

In the Northern Exposure episode "Kaddish for Uncle Manny," "Joel's friends are trying to round up Jews for him in Alaska.[14] Joel is portrayed as a very typical New York Jew, the kind who doesn't think Judaism exists west of Pennsylvania, and so he skeptically asks this total big burly Alaskan logger type to say the Shema. And the logger guy does."[15] In season 4 of House, M.D., the episode "Don't Ever Change" features a Hasidic Jew as patient-of-the-week, and despite House's predictable sarcasm the show treats Judaism, and religious faith in general, with surprising respect.

In The West Wing, Toby Ziegler is a practicing Reform Jew and is shown going to Friday night shul, consulting his rabbi about capital punishment (while a female cantor practices in the background), and in a later episode, observing funeral traditions when Leo McGarry dies. Joshua Lyman is nonpracticing, but culturally Jewish. The pilot episode briefly addresses Jew-hatred on the part of hardcore right wing fundamentalists. Speaking about a fanatical preacher who criticized Josh's "New York sense of humor", Toby snapped "She means Jewish. When she says 'New York sense of humor', she's talking about you and me."

In Ripper Street, Deborah Goren runs the Jewish orphanage in 1889 London. She's a strong, interesting character who visibly draws on Jewish values. In the second episode, she self-identifies as secular, but quotes Talmud in saying that one who saves a single life, it is as though they had saved the world entire.[16]

Other beloved fandoms handle it less gracefully. Numb3rs features the Eppes family, played by three Jewish actors, yet, three seasons in, there were no canonical mentions of Judaism (although anyone knowledgeable about Jewish tradition probably have picked it up in the pilot, which included a reference to brisket for dinner on Friday night. There were hints off camera that the season opener for season 4 would 'out' the family as Jewish, complete with quotes from the three actors as to whether it was a good idea or not.[17] When the episode finally aired, the plot was about the Holocaust, yet all mentions of the Eppes being Jewish had been removed from the episode. They finally mentioned it overtly ("Is it because I'm Jewish?") in Episode #66.

In the current season, however, as part of the character Don's continued questioning about himself and his role at the FBI, he was shown walking into a synagogue. (Scan Man, airdate 10/31/08.) He discussed this briefly in the following episode, and his father asked Don if he had failed Don by not giving him more of a religious upbringing.

thirtysomething featured Christmas-Chanukah episodes two years running:

In two separate TV seasons of thirtysomething's Christmas-Chanukah episodes, Michael undergoes crises of religious identity and spiritual soul-searching brought on by the ' 'December dilemma" and his recent fatherhood... [he and his wife] must renegotiate all the rules for a harmonious intermarriage that they had laid down in calmer and simpler times.[18]

(Of course, how television and fandom alike depict intermarriage is a related issue, but one fraught with its own complications in the Jewish and fannish communities alike.)

The release in 2014 of X-Men: Days of Future Past, the film adaptation of a major X-Men storyline, sparked criticism regarding the diminished role of Kitty Pryde in comparison to the original comic book. Some chalked her displacement by Wolverine down to sexism,[19][20] but others focused on the importance of a her role as a Jewish character in a narrative revolving around Holocaust allegory.[21][22][23]

In the Welcome to Night Vale episode "Cassette", Jewish fans were happy to hear that Cecil's full name is Cecil Gershwin Palmer. Gershwin, a derivative of Gershowitz, denotes him as a (probably matrilineal) Ashkenazy Jew. There has been some speculation how the faith is practiced in Night Vale. There is a "Jewish Cecil" tag on tumblr, and a "Jewish Cecil Is Canon" tumblr blog (although it is devoted to more general Social Justice Warrior issues).

Within fanworks

Judaism and fannish sourcetexts are like chocolate and peanut butter! Fans have created all kinds of fanworks which combine Judaism and fandom in interesting ways.


There's a list of Passover-themed holiday stories at the Holidayfic page in the subsection titled Passover fic.

There's also a subcategory of fanworks which articulate feelings of alienation from dominant Christian culture, specifically Christmas:

Places to find Jewish-fannish goings-on

Livejournal/Dreamwidth communities

  • Stilljewish - Originally established on livejournal, this comm has now moved to Dreamwidth; in its new incarnation, moderated by Kass and batdina, the community features locked posting (currently posts are accessible to members only) and each lunar month is marked by a new discussion topic relating to matters of Judaism and fandom.

Ficathons

Further Reading/Meta

References

  1. On Transformative Works, accessed November 18, 2008
  2. Rosenberg is, of course, a Jewish name.
  3. Xander: You gotta take care of the egg, it's a baby. You gotta keep it safe and teach it Christian values.
    Willow: My egg is Jewish.
    Xander: Then teach it that dreidel song.
    -- Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 2, episode 12, "Egg Baby"
  4. Willow: Ira Rosenberg’s only daughter nailing crucifixes to her bedroom wall? I have to go to Xander's house just to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas every year. -- Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 2, episode 17, "Passion"
  5. Naomi Alderman and Annette Seidel-Arpaci, Imaginary Para-Sites of the Soul: Vampires and Representations of 'Blackness' and 'Jewishness' in the Buffy/Angelverse. Last accessed Oct 11, 2011
  6. Memory-Alpha: Jew (Accessed February 24, 2015)
  7. Here are my thoughts on /y/a/o/i/ "yuletide," fandom, and anti-Semitism, accessed November 4, 2008.
  8. The word "Yuletide", of course, is much older than Christianity. Yule was the winter festival for Germanic and Norse peoples and connected with the Norse Gods. It involved animal sacrifice and a great feast. It was only merged with Christmas much later, under the influence of King Haakon I of Norway.
  9. On Judaism and fandom, accessed November 3, 2008.
  10. What the fucking FUCK, fandom?
  11. When I made my post about the Kristallnacht game on Friday night...
  12. My Happiest Moment as a Fannish Jew (Jewish Fan?), accessed 11.3.08
  13. More on Sports Night. Because, wow., accessed November 3, 2008.
  14. Kaddish is a prayer recited when someone dies. Tradition requires that family and friends recite Kaddish in front of ten witnesses, who must be adult men (this is called a minyan). The prayer affirms faith in God despite the loved one's death.
  15. Comment thread, My Happiest Moment as a Fannish Jew, accessed 11.3.08
  16. This is part of tikkun olam or healing the world; one of the most important aspects of Jewish ritual and daily life.
  17. The article contains the line, "Yet one aspect of the characters has been neglected, at least until tonight's show -- their obvious Jewishness."
  18. All in the (Jewish) Family, accessed December 10, 2008
  19. "Kitty’s displacement is symptomatic of the lack of female representation in action films," in Hollywood is a Jerk: Kitty Pryde, Sexism, and Days of Future Past on The Mary Sue.
  20. "Days of Future Past is, in the comics, a Kitty Pryde story," from Hi, I'm The Guy Who Didn't Like 'X-Men: Days of Future Past' on Comics Alliance.
  21. "You can’t just keep the concepts of the Holocaust as a metaphor for persecution in the film and then remove all the Jewish characters from the central focus of the plotttttt."
  22. "Days of Future Past, the comic source, centers TWO JEWISH MUTANTS," from this review by seekingferret.
  23. "Wish there was a Jewish X-Man who could make this sort of thing REALLY hit home... oh wait," from What Was Kitty Pryde Thinking?.
  24. posted to livejournal on 2007-12-04, archive.is
  25. posted 2005-07-15 on livejournal.archived. dreamwidth copy.
  26. posted to livejournal on 2004-12-10. archived