Dan Goodman's prediction and politics journal.

Sunday, May 02, 2004


Dan Goodman quoted from someone else on soc.history.what-if:

"Well, Harry Turtledove has a Ph.D. in history from UCLA. His specialty was Byzantine history, but I am positive that Ph.D. requirements from a major university such as UCLA include fairly broad & deep education in history in general.

"So why are you inclined to distrust him on Jewish history?"

From my response: Partly because someone I consider knowledgeable has found some large errors in Jewish law in _The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump_. I'm contacting her to get the details again.

"Her" is Lee Gold, and here are the details:

When I read Turtledove's TOXIC SPELL DUMP, I was surprised at all the things he got wrong. A year or two later, I encountered him at a convention and asked him if he'd read up at all on Jewish theology or practice or anything before writing the book, and he said, "No, I didn't bother." I asked him which denomination of Judaism he was, and he said, "Secular."
The webpage with my nitpicks on this book is no longer up (and wasn't cached by Google) but here's the file.

--Lee Gold

Belated Nitpicks on THE CASE OF THE TOXIC SPELL DUMP by Harry Turtledove by Lee Gold
Address and edress here: http://theStarport.com/xeno/leegold.html.

A number of (non-Jewish) friends recommended this book to me as a delightful fantasy mystery with a Jewish narrator. I suppose it comes down to one's standards for fantasy. I don't think a fantasy should contravene the known universe without a rationalization. Thus, it shouldn't change either nuclear physics or Judaism without some sort of explanation as to why things are different than in our own world.

Harry Turtledove seems to meticulously research history for his alternate history books. I wish he'd put a tenth as much effort into researching Judaism for this book.

Who am I to nitpick Turtledove? I'm a Reform Jew who went to religious school and has continued studying Judaism afterwards. I'm not nearly as assimilated as the narrator of this novel. (For instance, I don't say "Jesus" when I'm upset.) Then again, our narrator is an assimilated Orthodox Jew; he goes to Friday night and Saturday morning services EVERY week, doesn't mix milk and meat, and won't eat pork or seafood. He ought to know at least as much about Judaism as I do.

Of course, this novel is set in a decidedly alternate world in which demons, angels, and the gods of ALL practiced religions are openly manifested in our world, and that's bound to change all religions' perspective to something less One True Wayish. Even so and yet, I found a number of things about the narrator's Jewishness sufficiently peculiar as to crash my willing suspension of disbelief. For those interested, here are my nitpicks, listed by page of the paperback edition.


page 8: "There are places in the Temple in Jerusalem, and even in your ordinary synagogue, where gentiles' perceptions are excluded...." There's nothing in a synagogue a non-Jew shouldn't see. In our world, there isn't a Temple in Jerusalem. If there was, supposedly nobody would be allowed to see what was in the Holy of Holies except for the High Priest once a year on Yom Kippur.

page 14: "ornaments of the perimeter fence....Crosses, Magen Davids, crescents,...." A Magen David (the six-pointed Star of David) is NOT a holy symbol but a national one, a symbol of the Davidic kingship. Jewish holy symbols are words (including the Tetragrammaton, the Name of God), usually written in Hebrew letters. A Torah or mezuza isn't holy (and can't be used for religious purposes) if any of its letters are missing.

page 14: "I dribbled a few drops of Passover wine onto my spellchecker, murmured the blessing that thanked the Lord for the fruit of the vine." Jewish blessings are only said if you are about to perform an associated action, in this case: drinking the wine. Jews don't do libations of wine. Contrary to the statement on page 291 that Passover wine is "specially blessed," Passover wine doesn't get any additional blessings. It has been carefully supervised to make sure that it doesn't contain any grains that could react with the wine yeast to break the Passover rule against leavened grain. Most of the year, there's no need no need for Passover wine; it's only important to have around during the seven days of Passover (eight days if you're not in Israel).

page 28: "I slid in my reserved parking space (penalty for unauthorized use, a hundred crowns or an extra year for your soul in purgatory or both)...." Purgatory is a Catholic concept. Judaism has a Gehenna that reasonably behaved people get out of in less than a year.

page 101: about a baby (of Spanglish-speaking Christian parents) who was born without a soul: "...poor little Jesus Cordero (the irony of the name struck me as soon as I heard it)...." What he'd have heard was Hay-soos, not Jee-sus. It's stated elsewhere that he doesn't speak Spanish except for a few phrases, so my guess is that he'd do a doubletake if/when he got the irony of the name.

page 112: The only Jewish knickknacks our narrator's girlfriend has in her apartment are a Hanukah menorah (strange to find it always out) and brass candlesticks for the Sabbath. She should also have a spicebox and cup and candlestick for havdalah (for Saturday night farewell to the Sabbath). A more observant Jew would have a mizrahi on an eastern wall, showing the direction toward Jerusalem. And of course there should be a mezuzah on her door.

page 166: "I grabbed a dachshund sausage at the first mom-and-pop joint I came to...." I assume "dachshund sausage" is that world's equivalent of a "hot dog", but still I'm surprised he didn't specify that he ordered an all-beef one.

page 176: "With the Powers the [Catholic] Church has Over There, it's not very easy even for a Jew like me to disagree very loudly." This is a TERRIBLE underestimation of Jewish abilities.

page 196: "...the Japanese have figured out a way to power the looms that make their flying carpets by kamikaze -- divine winds" Kamikaze were the (kami-inspired) unseasonal typhoons that destroyed the two Mongol invasion fleets back in the 13th century. Umm, well actually, kamikaze is an American mispronunciation of the two kanji as they were in isolation; actually, the Japanese read that pairing as shimpu. Kamikaze is a word in Japanese nowadays (borrowed from the Americans): it means lead-footed driving. In any case, a typhoon is like a hurricane, not a very safe way to power a flying carpet.

page 227: "The shofar, the ram's-horn trumpet which commemorates the trumpets that toppled Jericho's walls." The shofar's symbolism goes back to the ram that Abraham sacrificed instead of Isaac (the symbolism gets mentioned every Rosh HaShana, when the sacrifice of Isaac is one of the standard Biblical readings).

page 244: He enters his fiancee's building and knocks on the door, then lets himself in. No mention of his touching her mezuza.

page 248: "...the Long Beach crew had a regular library of scriptures on which the people with whom they dealt could swear....They pulled out a Torah for me. I rested my hand on the satin cover while I repeated the oath...." Swearing on the Torah is charged enough that many pious Jews would willingly forfeit money on which they had a fairly strong claim rather than take a Torah oath. One should never touch the Torah's cover directly with one's hand. Instead, one touches something to the Torah -- a prayerbook, a prayer shawl, a handkerchief.

page 296: "Even if mixing meat and milk wasn't kosher, it sounded good to me." Most people brought up to keep kosher think that mixing meat and milk would taste slimy. (It's sort of like the standard American reaction to mixing orange juice and milk.)

page 307: "The only times I've ever been hungry were at Yom Kippur fasts...." Our narrator probably also observes Tisha B'Av (the anniversary of the Destruction of the First Temple, Second Temple and the expulsion from Spain). If he's a first-born, he fasts the day before Passover. An observant Orthodox Jew would observe more fasts. The Yom Kippur fast from food means skipping two meals. You eat dinner before sunset one day and after sunset the next. What one remembers about Yom Kippur isn't hunger but thirst. You're not allowed to drink ANY liquid, not even water -- unless you or a doctor think your health would be seriously threatened.

page 335: "Most rituals designed to counter the Crackler assume a Catholic victim." If he thought the Crackler was too powerful to be banished by just saying the Sh'ma to invoke God's power/aid, why didn't he think to call in a rabbi? There are many folktales in which a rabbi holds a din torah (court of judgment) to banish a demon or exorcise a dybbuk.

page 351: "I cleaned [my apartment] cleaner than it had been since just before the High Holy Days the year before." Cleaning up isn't especially part of the pre-High Holy Day pattern. It is part of what you do before Passover. Not just because it fits into the "spring cleaning" pattern but because there's the ritual search before Passover starts in order to throw out ANY trace of food made with leavening.


Our narrator seems to be more familiar with Christianity than with Judaism. I only noticed ONE quotation from or allusion to the Bible: the 23rd Psalm. I didn't notice ANY quotations from Jewish prayers. Incredibly odd for someone who attends Sabbath services so regularly. Here's a list of Christian references. I've suggested parallel Jewish references in some cases but didn't bother doing it for all of them.

page 9: "In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God [sic], and the Word was God." He says he knows this is Christian, then traces it back to Egyptian mythology. I'd be reminded of the story about how God made the universe with the letters of the (Hebrew) alphabet, who quarreled among themselves over which deserved the honor of being first.

page 14: "Leave a carpet unwarded for even a few minutes, and you're apt to find it's walked with Jesus."

page 15: "I flashed my EPA sigil. At a toxic spell dump, that effectively turns me into St. Peter -- I'm the fellow with the power to bind and loose, at least."

page 38: "...the little pay phone demon, which must be descended from Mammon by way of the Gadarene swine."

page 40: "She gave me her more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger look, the one calculated to make even an eight-circle sinner get the guilts." This is, of course, a reference to Dante's Inferno.

page 84: "canon lawyers (and the nephews of Catholic canonists)" There was an earlier reference to canon law, but this is the first time it's explicitly associated with Catholicism. I'm surprised this society doesn't tie it in with Jewish halakhah and Islamic sharia as well.

page 96: "He should have been a Jesuit." The Jewish parallel to Jesuitry is Talmudic pilpul.

page 98: "I started working like a man possessed; had a priest wandered by, he probably would have wanted to perform an exorcism on me." Jewish exorcism (for someone possessed by a dybbuk) is performed by a rabbi or rabbis holding a din torah (a court of law).

page 102: The crucifix is "one of the most potent mystical symbols on This Side." I'd have expected a comparison to the Jewish Sh'ma (also traditionally used for banishing evil).

page 108: "You ever look back on your life and notice just how many sins you've committed to get where you are...until you're peering straight down into the Pit?" The Pit is a translation of Sheol, the grave; some Jewish theologians say the dead will rest in Sheol until God resurrects them. It's Christianity that uses Sheol to mean Hell.

page 108: "contemplating Armageddon": This is from Revelations.

page 136: The narrator confronts a spirit by saying "Adonai, Elohim, Jehovah": Adonai is the ONLY standardly used Jewish reading of the Tetragrammaton. Jehovah is a standard Christian reading of the Tetragrammaton, and is somewhat unlikely for a Jew to say. Elohim means God. In any case, a spirit afraid of divine names couldn't have gotten past the mezuza on the door, which contains several divine names and which invokes God's protection on one's home.

page 231: "The distinction between clergy and laity is much less in Protestant churches than in Catholicism...." A Jew might have remembered that Jews are ALL priests ("a nation of priests unto the Lord") with a Cohen being a priest of priests. (Rabbi means "teacher," NOT priest.)

page 244: "What's that New Testament line? "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof'?"

page 260: "...when the boss says come unto this one, he cometh, and when she says go unto that one he goeth...."

page 296: "...a creed which for the research thaumaturge ranked right up there with the one hammered out at Nicea" Another Christian reference. He apparently hasn't heard of Maimonides' Thirteen Principles, the basis of a popular Jewish hymn.

page 311: "We all stared toward the east like the Kings of Orient...."

page 333: "You know, of course, which road is paved with good intentions."

page 334: "I slept almost as soundly as if I'd been in Ephesus."

page 359: "...seeing her there made me understand all at once how Beatrice must have looked to Dante."

I think this book would have held up a lot better if the author had made the narrator either a secular Jew who wasn't familiar with his religion -- or had done more research himself.

Response: My questioner saw no reason why a shaky knowledge of Jewish law would lead anyone to suspect a shaky knowledge of Jewish history.

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