Reading Harry Potter While Jewish
We started reading with our daughter the story of a young man who, when the awful government wants to kill him, lets them do it. Then he rises again to save the world from evil.
It’s Harry Potter, y’all!
Of course, Harry Potter is not the only JC-substitute in Western culture, or even in Western YA lit. Lots of reviewers see the Potter books as the latest entry in the venerable British tradition of children’s fantasy doubling as Christian parable, like the books about Narnia (didn’t read!) and Lord of the Rings (Bilbo forever!).
Hogwarts just feels like a better version of life to American Jewish kids. Wizards can say a Latin word and turn their pencils into kittens. Feasts magically appear without ragged, frizzy parents schlepping them to the table. Regular kids save the world using totally logically consistent rules of magic.
Also, American Jewish kids reading about those glorious Hogwarts Christmas celebrations maybe wonder if Dumbledore would trick out the Great Hall in comparable splendor for Chanukah. Or maybe they just assume that, as in most of our own Great Halls in December, young Jewish wizards will huddle in their own blue and silver corner.
My children don’t know enough about Jesus’s story to identify Harry as a British substitute (and, of course, they’re too young to get to the scary end of the series). But we’ve all, growing up here, soaked in enough Christian-American culture to feel deeply the power of the books’ central crisis of good and evil, even if it doesn’t map completely onto a Jewish ethical worldview. In these books, evil is embodied by an ugly, vainglorious, racist wizard. Goodness is a handsome, ragtag crew of benevolent misfits that risk their lives to fight racism. Our Christian culture has taught us that most fights which matter are between a Good and Evil that are totally separate and perpetually at war.
But there’s a tiny bit of Jewish worldview smuggled in. And not just through a wizard student named Goldstein, whom I didn’t even notice until trolling the Potternet for this post. See, unlike that lion in Narnia, Harry’s not purely good. He has a little piece of evil inside him. This nasty seed doesn’t bloom in him after a failure of heart, purity, or belief. And he is not supposed to obliterate it to be a better person. It’s not Original Sin. Instead, the dark part of him makes his magic possible. When Voldemort killed Harry’s mom, a fragment of his soul split off and landed in Harry. Harry’s “Volde-mini” grants him exceptional powers, such as speaking to snakes, making really cool spells work better than they should for someone his age, and saving people.
I’m pretty sure those manicured California rabbis 30 years ago told me Judaism describes us the same way: a little squeeze of bad mixed into everything good, like the horseradish in charoset. Jewish sin is lower case: minor, daily, no big whoop. In fact, our own Volde-minis make us human by giving us the chance to choose between hoarding or sharing the cupcakes.
Furthermore, Rowling is deeply committed to an evil that looks a lot like a British KKK. This helps us see Harry’s crew as part of what I believe is the very best of American Jewish tradition: our fight against racism during the Civil Rights movement.
Of course, when Lumpkin wants to talk to me about her favorite books, she’s not asking about the nature of evil. She just wants to pretend that when she shouts “Accio book!” waving a pipe cleaner wand, her copy of the Prisoner of Azkaban will zoom into her hand.
But later, when she and her brother start asking tough questions about our unequal society, the types of questions our tradition teaches us to ask, I’ll have these familiar, beloved stories to use as answers. And then I’ll give them some cupcakes.