Introducing Gillian Polack, writer, mediaeval scholar and all-round fascinating lady. Gillian lives in Canberra and writes, among other things, for book-based web site BiblioBuffet. She blogs on Livejournal and creates menus for historical banquets at the annual Conflux SF conventions.
And I didn't know you'd turned that Andromeda Spaceways story into a novel, Gillian! Sell it quick so we can all read it!
Meanwhile, enjoy her post, my friends. I admire someone who can use Jewish folklore, which can be very dark, to create a gently humorous story. There are writers who do it beautifully, such as Jane Yolen and Lisa Goldstein, but their stories are not humorous, at least not the ones I've read. Apart from a dybbuk story, sitting unfinished in one of my notebooks, I have never got around to writing anything connected with my own heritage. I may just be inspired to go back and try again.
A few years ago, ASIM published a short story of mine* about a Jewish feminist invoking the king of demons. This was part of a larger project, which is now out in the big world waiting publisher rejections. In this project, I wanted to explore possible Australian Jewish mythologies.
There is an aspect of Australian Jewish culture that is so far removed from Fiddler on the Roof Judaism that they almost belong in different universes. This is the culture of the Jews who migrated (mainly from England, but also from some part of Western Europe) very early in Australia's modern history. The Jews on the First Fleet were of this kind, and the guy Dickens based Fagin on was also of this kind** and so was an eighth of my family. That eighth is a very strong eighth. My family didn't get the Yiddishkeit my father's father could have given, because it was so much easier to adopt the English Jewish tradition that my father's mother's family brought, nearly a century earlier. In fact, one of the reasons I wrote the story (and eventually the novel) was because I wanted an excuse to explore this exuberantly resilient family tradition. I did an academic paper on the family foodways, but that just wasn't enough. I wanted to know what would happen if someone from that side of the family (left wing, social change agents, educated, passionate about committees) somehow ended up with magic.
I also wanted to learn about Jewish magic. Jewish magic is considered special, historically. In the Renaissance, Jewish magicians were thought to be somehow stronger, more connected with the esoteric. I know something about Medieval*** and even Renaissance magic and I thought "What if I extrapolate? What if I bring the Jewish magic systems forward from the fifteenth century and maybe earlier and turn them into an almost-lost family tradition?" The moment I articulated this, I was tempted beyond restraint. I asked difficult questions of a scholarly friend who knows a lot more than me about Jewish cultural history, and I put together a family and the members of that family and I started writing fiction.
And so, in a short story, a Sydney feminist calls forth Ashmodai.
Ashmodai isn't like the Christian Asmodeus. I like telling my Christian friends "Our demons aren't your demons." Even when they have the same names, they can be very different.
Our demons aren't all bad. Some are very nasty (my learned friend told me that we don't say "Go to hell," we say "Go to so-and-so"****) but they follow much more closely the Medieval notion of angels and demons as all one kind. We didn't have the Fall, so there's no simple dividing line between different beings. We find it harder to define them as good or bad, light or dark. They resemble humans a lot more. I fell in love with my own traditions when I discovered them. It made writing fiction worthwhile for entirely new reasons. There are so many stories to tell about demons and angels who are not like Christian demons and angels.
I regard Ashmodai as the closest thing Judaism has to a trickster god. He's a trickster almost-god who studies Torah and was a friend of Solomon. He commanded armies and had his own demon realm. And he had a sense of humour.
Judith meeting Ashmodai was a lot of fun. I still get occasional emails about that story, asking why she wasn't more scared, or admiring her patience. I now want to sell the novel so that I can write a sequel to find out what happens between the two of them.
*I don't write many short stories, so the fact that Sue read and remembered it impressed the heck out of me.
**Which is why I wince whenever I hear him performed with a Yiddish or Eastern European accent. Ikey Solomon was a Londoner. East End. Probably Sephardi.
***This may possibly be because I am a Medievalist.
****I won't give you the actual demonic name. I don't want you to use it on me! I don't know if I believe in Jewish demons, but they're Jewish and I'm Jewish, so I play safe. It's so much easier to flaunt curses from someone else's tradition.