Meet The Wizardry of Jewish Women

I promised to introduce my books to you, and it’s Chanukah (Happy Chanukah!) so I thought you’d like to get to know just one novel. It’s not my best, but it may well be my equal-most-important.

Being Jewish in Australia isn’t the same as being Jewish in the US, Canada, the UK or most of Europe. I’ve said this a lot, but, just once, I decided to tell about one type of Australian Judaism in fiction. There’s so much talk around that kinda assumes that most Jews are religious, or practising, or somehow high in their observance level. For the oldest branch of Judaism this is true for a very few, but not for the many. The many are wildly secular, yet still Jewish. I wanted to explore what this could mean in one family. A family with Secrets.

I created The Wizardry of Jewish Women to explore some of the magical adventures of that family.

Jews came to Australia with the First Fleet. In fact, those earliest migrants came as convicts on the First Fleet. They themselves came through England. Some were from England. Some were from families that had moved to England to escape persecution. Their Jewish practice was very English in style then. My father’s mother’s mother’s family weren’t First Fleeters – they arrived in the 19th century, but they were from that background. I tell everyone it’s scones-and-committee Judaism. It’s the closest you’ll see to Church of England in Judaism. Social change is high on the agenda, and university education is normative.

These days we’re a tiny minority in Australian Jewish communities, but once upon a time, we were the dominant group. Sometimes this was good, sometimes this was not so good. Always, it was interesting.

For The Wizardry of Jewish Women, I used recipes from my family, but the characters all came from backgrounds where they were Jewish by default, just like most of Australia is Christian by default. It’s such an Australian novel.

What still surprises me is that, as far as I can find out, it’s the first ever Jewish Australian fantasy novel. We’ve had Jewish writers of fantasy since our early colonial days, but Australian Jews are not the subject of fantasy novels. In fact, most publishers ask for Holocaust novels, or novels about the Ultra-Orthodox. These are obviously the novels that sell.

The good thing about Wizardry’s own life story is that whenever it looks as if it will go out of print, another publisher takes it up. Its print history is like a relay team with a baton. It’s never been taken up by a shouter-about-books or by reviewers. It’s interesting that what we think of as game changing can hide in plain sight – it’s only when critics see and publicly dissect something that what that novel does becomes visible to the rest of the world.

Still, this novel changed things for me. Since then, I’ve been able to write more of my background into my fiction. It liberated me, emotionally, from writing what others expected me to write and from building my world using solely building blocks from cultural majority backgrounds. If you read through my more recent fiction, you’ll find that, since The Wizardry of Jewish Women, I’ve become more and more able to reflect my own views of the world. I’m not there yet, but The Green Children Help Out (my most recent novel) informs me that I’ve come a long way since that first Australian Jewish fantasy novel.

One aspect of it has come back to bite me. The incident in the Parliamentary Triangle (Canberra has a Triangle, that began with a carved-out hill), the one with Molotov cocktails… was quite real. I was the president of the organisation that was attacked. Recent hate mail reminds me why I stepped down from Jewish leadership.

Fiction was part of the reason, but another part was a deep desire to walk this Earth without threats. Walking this Earth without threats is not going to happen. Being publicly Jewish has a cost. But at least it’s not Molotov cocktails right now. And I did excise the demons from that night by putting them into a novel… It’s not my best novel, but it was shortlisted for the popularly-voted Australian science fiction awards. That’s better than I expected for something that went where other novels dared not go.

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