Jewish Heritage in Horror: An Interview with Elana Gomel
Elana Gomel was born in a country that no longer exists, and since then has lived in several others, including Israel, Hong Kong, Italy, and the US. She currently resides in California. She is an academic with a long list of books and articles, specializing in science fiction, Victorian literature, and serial killers. She is also a fiction writer and the author of more than a hundred short stories, several novellas, and four novels. Her story “Where the Streets Have No Name” was the winner of the 2020 Gravity Award, and her story “Mine Seven” is included in The Best Horror of the Year 13 edited by Ellen Datlow. Her latest fiction publications are Little Sister, a historical horror novella, and Black House, a fantasy novel. Her current projects include another historical horror novel set in the same world as Little Sister, and a fairy-tale-based dark fantasy. She is a member of HWA and can be found at https://www.citiesoflightanddarkness.com/ and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
What inspired you to start writing?
I was a storyteller before I could read or write, spinning yarns for the entertainment of my mother, my toys, and myself. I was an only child, and creatures of my imagination were my constant companions. So, I always wanted to be a writer. But I took a detour via the academy and for a long time, I wrote about speculative fiction rather than writing speculative fiction. I am still very active in academic research and publishing. But about ten years ago, I realized that if I did not start writing fiction now, it would never happen. So here I am, with four published novels, more than a hundred short stories and several novellas. And I still have lots of stories to tell, some of them going back to the dreams and nightmares of my childhood.
What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
In John Webster’s Renaissance tragedy “The Duchess of Malfi” there is a scene where the Duchess who knows she is about to be killed, asks her maid to tell her “some dismal tragedy”. When the maid points out that their situation is dismal enough, the Duchess says: “To hear of greater grief would lessen mine”. I always felt that this scene symbolizes the appeal of horror. We all experience grief and anxiety in our lives. Horror enables us to face our fears and to exorcise them through the magic of art. People often regard horror genre with suspicion. There have even been legislative attempts to censor certain kinds of horror, based on the mistaken assumption that horror comics, or movies, or games encourage violence. But just as Shakespeare’s and Webster’s tragedies contributed to the humanist awakening of the Renaissance, good horror can make our lives better. The way to conquer our individual and collective monsters is by facing them, not by running away or pretending they don’t exist.
Do you make a conscious effort to include Jewish characters and themes in your writing and if so, what do you want to portray?
We write ourselves. By this I mean that every writer pours their personal experiences into their work. I am Jewish, and an heir to the painful history of Jews in Eastern Europe. Naturally, echoes of the Holocaust and the Gulag find their way into my work. However, I do not consciously set out to write “Jewish” stories, primarily because my definition of Jewishness is not the same as that of my American audience. I am an atheist, so I find Judaism as a religion to be of limited interest. The nostalgic aura of the shtetl, the Fiddler-on-the-roof sugary fantasy, has no appeal for me either. My great-grandparents lived in a shtetl and their lives were nasty, brutish, and short. My late grandmother escaped the shtetl by embracing communism and never looked back. My Jewishness is a matter of history, not faith or folklore. And Jewish history, from the Roman diaspora to the Holocaust; from the Spanish Exile to the kibbutzim; from the Rothschilds to Einstein, is unique. It seems impossible that a people comprised of so many different communities, tenuously held together by a shared religion and some vague cultural memories, could sustain their identity for thousands of years. It seems outrageous that this tiny ethnic group would be the subject of endless persecutions whose pretexts mutate from deicide to conspiracy theories, from theology to racism. And yet, this is Jewish history, in all its phantasmagoric strangeness and its cruel glory. If anything can inspire a horror writer, this history can.
What has writing taught you about how to express your Jewishness or the experiences you’ve had as someone who is Jewish?
I recently talked to another writer who said that writing was the most Jewish activity she had ever done. I totally agree. We are called “people of the Book”, not necessarily because Jews are more educated or better read than anybody else but because our history is an endless story, constantly written and rewritten, binding us together as characters in this unfolding and mysterious drama of our continuing existence. So writing is the most important way in which I express my Jewish identity. But as a Jew, one is constantly shadowed by antisemitism, whether explicit or implicit. It is regrettable, of course, but it also toughens you up and makes you better able to handle the inevitable setback, rejections, misunderstandings, and disappointments of writing and publishing. There is a Hebrew song roughly translated as “We have survived the Pharaoh, we shall survive this”, whatever the current “this” may be. So, while being a writer is an expression of my Jewishness, my Jewishness has been a helpful training for my being a writer.
How have you seen the horror genre change over the years and do you think there’s more that can be done to educate readers and authors on Jewish culture?
Some time ago, I wrote an article called “The Man from the Yellow Star” discussing Jewish themes in science fiction and horror. This article was extremely depressing because it was mainly about antisemitism. From Lovecraft’s racist and antisemitic tropes in his depiction of cosmic monstrosities to outright Jew-hatred in white supremacist sci-fi, such as The Turner Diaries, speculative fiction, including horror, was either consciously or unconsciously hostile to Jews. There were, of course, many Jewish SF writers, such as Isaac Asimov, but they mostly avoided explicit Jewish themes.
Fortunately, this has changed. Today, there is much more openness in horror and other genres of speculative fiction to non-Eurocentric, non-Anglophone writers, themes, and characters. This is a wonderful development. In my academic capacity, I am working on a Reader of International Fantasy, and I am constantly amazed at the wealth of stunning fantasy written outside the Anglo-American linguistic and cultural area. I hope in the future to do a similar project for International Horror. This is a roundabout way of saying that Jewish horror, fantasy and sci-fi have been buoyed by this wave of global awareness in the book market. From Jewish-themed anthologies, such as People of the Book (2010) and The Jewish Book of Horror (2021), to writers of speculative fiction who explicitly address Jewish history, such as Helene Wecker in The Golem and the Jinni and Lisa Goldstein in The Red Magician, Jewishness no longer equals othering. Speculative fiction has found a way to talk about Jews as human beings rather than monsters, demons, or aliens.
Following up, how do you think that process will continue to evolve through the years?
I am always an optimist, so I hope that the process of “de-othering” of Jews will continue, and more diverse Jewish voices will enter the arena of speculative fiction. Since there is no agreement among Jews themselves on what “being Jewish” means, this process will, hopefully, result in spirited fights and raucous debates. I don’t believe in consensus. The more genuine disagreement, the better, as long as debating is done respectfully and with intellectual integrity. However, recent global developments may, unfortunately, create the fertile ground for a resurgence of antisemitism. Historically, Jews were often blamed for epidemics and wars. COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine, accompanied by Putin’s propaganda, may impact the Jewish involvement in global culture and literature in unpredictable and dangerous ways.
How do you feel the Jewish community has been represented thus far in the genre and what hopes do you have for representation in the genre going forward?
The main thing is that Jews themselves have to speak about our fears, hopes and desires instead of having them spoken by others. We want to have our own monsters, not to serve as the monsters of our haters.
There is no singular “Jewish community”. American Jews and Jewish Israelis barely understand each other. Mizrahi Jews whose ancestors lived in Arab-speaking countries and Ashkenazi Jews whose ancestors spoke Yiddish differ culturally, linguistically, and theologically. There are black and white Jews, secular and religious Jews, Jews of every political creed, ideology, and social class. The one thing we have in common is our history. My hope is that more Jewish voices will come forward to articulate what Jewishness means for them, and to braid together the diverse strands in our continuing story. The main thing is that Jews themselves have to speak about our fears, hopes and desires instead of having them spoken by others. We want to have our own monsters, not to serve as the monsters of our haters.
Do you think there is a difference between Jewish horror and horror that is Jewish or are they one in the same? For example, the realism of the Holocaust is horrifying and the otherness that comes with it compared to the folkloric horror of dybbuks, possession and other creatures?
The Holocaust is the most important event in modern Jewish history. Thus, much of Jewish horror focuses on this event whose magnitude, causes, and consequences are hard to comprehend even today. And here I have to disagree with those who believe that any fantastic representation of the Holocaust is somehow morally suspect. Just the opposite: the Holocaust was so phantasmagoric that fantasy is the only appropriate venue for representing it. Just think about it: if you did not know that it happened, would you believe that a civilized democratic European country would elect a leader whose main goal would be to kill every man, woman, and child belonging to a tiny, well-assimilated minority that posed no danger to his country whatsoever? And yet, this is precisely what the Holocaust was. How can speculative fiction not be drawn to an event so enormous, so inexplicable, and yes, so horrifying? Moreover, the Holocaust is also a watershed in global history, and thus, it is of universal significance. Dybbuks and other elements of Ashkenazi folklore do not even speak to all Jews (Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews have their own folkloric monsters). The Holocaust speaks to everybody. Thus, I believe, Holocaust horror and fantasy will continue to be written (and not just by Jewish writers) and will, in fact, become more prominent.
Who are some of your favorite Jewish characters in horror?
I was struggling with this question because I seldom think of literary texts in terms of “favorite characters”. I think of the world that is created; of the plot that draws the reader in; of the glow of the imagination without which no work of literature, no matter how affecting, holds any interest for me. Human characters are only elements of the textual tapestry, and not the most important ones, as far as I am concerned. So, to think of an interesting Jewish character I had to go way back, to Ira Levin’s foundational The Boys from Brazil (1976), which features the living Angel of Death, Dr. Mengele of Auschwitz, who, in a stunningly ironic twist, was still alive and in hiding when the novel was written. Mengele is an obsession of mine, both as a human being (how could a compassionate doctor do what he did?) and as a cultural icon. But Levin’s novel offers a worthy protagonist to offset the inhuman chill of Mengele: Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter Yakov Lieberman. Lieberman is vulnerable and flawed enough to make it easy to identify with him and yet heroic enough to foil Mengele’s plot to clone Hitler. The scene in which he meets a boy who, he realizes, is a clone of the Fuehrer and grapples with the ethical dilemma of killing such a child or letting him live is unforgettable.
Who are some Jewish horror authors you recommend our audience check out?
There is an amazing crop of new Jewish writers of horror and dark fantasy, including, but not limited to, Helene Wecker, John Baltisberger, and many others. Just a look at the TOC of The Jewish Book of Horror could be a guide to the rapidly growing field of Jewish speculative fiction. There are too many to mention but if I have to choose, there are two I warmly recommend: Josh Schlossberg and Lavie Tidhar. The first who is the editor of The Jewish Book of Horror combines elements of Ashkenazi folklore with folk horror and eco-horror – both important and rapidly growing trends. Tidhar who lives in the UK and writes in English is an Israeli, and his writing reflects both the shared burden of the Holocaust and the unfamiliar, to many, contours of a new Jewish-Israeli identity.
What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
Don’t be afraid. Horror is about meeting monsters face to face, looking them in the eyes, and transforming fear into wonder. You will be criticized for what you say and what you don’t say; people will look at you askance; parents will claim you corrupt their children. Don’t listen. The world needs more monsters, not fewer.
And to the Jewish writers out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?
Whatever Jewishness means to you, embrace it as part of yourself. Don’t let anybody else define you. For millennia, Jews were defined by others. Now it’s time to speak of our own darkness and our own light.