At Continuum 13, I was on a panel about speculative fiction from our childhoods. We were each asked to speak for a few minutes, so I thought I’d reproduce my talk here (I went a little off-script, but this is the guts of it). It was pretty personal and fun to write, and it seemed to be well received.
I could talk about my memories of my dad reading us The Hobbit, and how proud I was when I read Lord of the Rings all by myself. I could talk about Star Wars, and how I wrote Princess Leia fanfiction before I knew that was a thing. But really, ours was a pretty typical geeky household in a lot of ways. Magic swords and spaceships were normal for us. So instead, I’d like to focus on the context in which our geekdom occurred.
Unlike most, if not all, of you, I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home — specifically, a Lubavitch Hasidic household, and I went to an all-girls’ school of the same denomination. For many people outside that world, their perception is of a closed community involving men in black coats and subservient women.
The truth, as always, is a bit more complicated than that. If I had to summarise the driving force of my upbringing, it wouldn’t be isolation, even though that was a factor. My school offered a comprehensive secular education and encouraged university studies, and my parents never censored our reading (although they limited our access to TV and cinema).
No, the focus of Hasidism is not isolation. It’s a deeply spiritual belief system that seeks holiness in all things. To make the world better by uplifting the mundane into the sacred. It’s what my sister describes as an “augmented reality” — a lens that allows you to see a “spark of Godliness” in everything, if you hold the secret combinations of words and actions to unlock them.
With a bit of imagination, I hope you can see how this mindset might affect how I consumed speculative fiction. It’s easy to suspend disbelief when you’re already a believer; when your life is steeped with miracles; when your version of Santa Claus wanders the earth low-key saving lives and then disappearing before anyone notices; when you’re taught that Bible stories really happened.
And those stories were taught to us without censorship. Much like fairy tales, those stories can be dark, filled with rape and murder — not to mention racism and misogyny. But there were some bright spots for me as a young girl, like the story of Esther, who must find the courage to approach the king she’s forced to marry, in order to save her people from genocide. Like many of the works we experienced growing up, there might have only been one women in most stories, but at least she tended to be pretty kickass. Jewish girls are given these names: Miriam, Devorah, Esther, Yael. The lesson is explicit: you can be that woman of valour.
But Jewish tradition extends far beyond Bible stories. There are Talmudic tales of angels and demons. There’s Midrash Aggadah, which is almost like Bible fan-fiction, if fan-fiction existed to extract moral lessons from canon, to explain the major player’s thought processes and daily lives. The practice of dissecting story for meaning didn’t start on Tumblr or even LiveJournal.
In the Hasidic way of thinking, every word, and even every letter, from Bible story to folk tale, has deep significance. The story is never just a story.
So to illustrate all this, I want to share a snippet of a story that I read often as a child, which ties all of this together and also has lady pirates. Yes, really.
This story is called “The King and the Emperor” but I remember it as the lady pirate story. After her father, the emperor, tears his daughter away from her beloved, she does what every self-respecting emperor’s daughter does and runs away, stealing a ship and kidnapping eleven noblewomen to be her crew. They turn to a life of piracy, of course, but of the chaotic good variety; they’re sure to ask their victims’ professions, and choose to attack other pirates:
“We are also pirates!” she replied. “You rob with your strength, but we rob with cleverness. We know languages and music. What will you gain if you kill us? Better marry us. Then in addition to our wealth, you will also have wives.”
They go on to murder the pirates and plunder their treasure, and after various adventures and scheming, she finds her long-lost love. All as you might expect, more or less. But I wanted to show you this page to give, if nothing else, a sense of the story-to-footnote ratio. Every character and object in this story is symbolic, referencing multiple Bible stories (including the aforementioned Esther) and kabbalistic and other Jewish concepts.
These stories also have traditional times and places. Rabbi Nachman lived in Ukraine at the turn of the 19th century, and he told these stories to his followers, the growing Breslov sect of Hasidim. Most were originally told at particular times of year, and on Shabbat — the Sabbath — when writing was forbidden, so they had to be transcribed from memory hours later. Unlike a bedtime fairy tale, which might well give a small child nightmares, Jewish folk tales are told at mealtimes, specifically on Shabbat or festivals. As the heavy festive meal digests, so does the story, giving space for new understandings… or daydreams.
As a child, I also read these stories to myself, generally without even glancing at the footnotes. But I never forgot they were there. I knew there were layers upon layers of meaning to be found in these stories — and by extension, in others too — if only my eyes were open to them. I’m not a believer anymore; but I’m still a believer in symbolism, and, of course, stories.