I’m reading Naomi Novik’s excellent recent novel Spinning Silver, which deals with Jews and Christians in a fantasy version of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, apparently in some equivalent of the 16th century.* Much of the plot and recurring themes in the book revolve around money lending and the re-payment of debts. There’s also evil ice faeries, fire demons and spell casting in it. I’ve never read any Jewish historical fantasy before, and I was curious to learn what Jewish readers think about it. So I googled “jewish news review novik spinning”.
The first surprise was pleasant: I had to scroll through lots of general secular news and reviews sites before I found one with a specifically Jewish perspective. This book enjoys wide exposure (including 22,000 ratings on Goodreads.com). The second surprise was less fun: when I finally found what I was looking for at the Jewish Review of Books, the reviewer Michael Weingrad turned out to be a nationalist grinding his historical axe.
This guy complains that the Christians in this fantasy novel aren’t mean enough to the Jews. He’s unhappy with the degree to which some families from either group are willing to co-exist in a friendly manner. He states incorrectly** that Novik’s fantasy Jews don’t speak Yiddish. “Novik has stocked her book not with anything resembling historical Jews and Christians but with 21st-century secular liberals who have no commitment to group identity in the first place. … none of Novik’s main characters, Jew or Christian, express any attachment to peoplehood, religion, or nation.”
Weingrad’s take on the book is exactly like complaining that since Tolkien’s hobbits are a fantasy version of Victorian Englishmen, The Lord of the Rings is crap because it doesn’t deal with the downsides of colonialism. Spinning Silver does refer repeatedly in passing to pogroms, but Weingrad apparently can’t enjoy (grimly) his Jewish historical fantasy unless it focuses on anti-Semitism in dirty detail, plus some faeries, demons and spells.
But then I’m a 21st-century secular liberal who has little commitment to group identity. I sincerely believe that the world needs a lot less less attachment to peoplehood, religion and nation. I should probably have googled “progressive jewish news novik spinning”. And I recommend the book.
* There’s tobacco, so after 1492, and Lithuania is still independent, so before 1570. But even impoverished peasants drink tea, which wasn’t available to the imperial Russian court until 1638.
** Chapter 18. Wanda, a poor Christian teen who probably speaks fantasy Polish: “I thought at first they were just talking so fast that I couldn’t understand, but then I realized they were saying words that I didn’t understand at all, mixed up with words that I did know.” And in chapter 21, “… I did not care anymore that I did not understand what they were saying.”