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Tell More (Jewish) Stories!

There are only five short days before the launch of the biggest crowdfunding campaign of my career, an ambitious quest to raise funds for Maggid Magazine, a monthly publication of fun, all-ages Jewish comics for a broad and curious audience. In crafting our messaging around the project, we’ve been very particular about shaping a positive, proud message about the value of authentic, diverse Jewish stories in a pop-cultural medium.

I believe this message wholeheartedly. I believe that Jewish history, tradition and culture offer a ton of fantastic raw materials for crafting new, exciting, engaging and meaningful entertainment. As a creator who is not just Jewish, but well-versed in so much of our narrative tradition, I can’t help but feel a little bit obligated to share this amazing wealth of stories, characters and themes with the world.

It’s been invigorating to imagine all the fun we’ll have when this magazine is funded. Reinventing Jewish legends like the golem and the dybbuk, reframing popular genres through a Jewish lens, even drawing out the mythologies, folklores and characters of non-Ashkenazi Jewish traditions, which have been mute for so long without a voice in popular culture.

But every so often – too frequently these days – I am reminded of another reason that I am compelled to do this work. I write this with humility, and with quite a bit of absolute terror: If we do this work well, and get others to do it with us, we might save the world.

Whoa. Heavy.

World-saving is a common plot in superhero comics, but it’s rare that real people (especially ‘regular folks’ like you and me) have that kind of clout. So what sort of delusional narcissism is driving me to feel this way?

It all stems from a realization I had about six years ago, when I ran my last crowdfunding campaign for a certain short film about Jewish pirates.

The Pirate Captain Toledano” was a unique project, the first narrative film to depict pirates as refugees from the Spanish inquisition, prowling the Caribbean for both survival and revenge against their oppressors. During the crowdfunding campaign, I spent a lot of time online, trying to find other people who took an interest in the unusual history of Jewish piracy. We Jews – for various reasons – hadn’t given this piece of our historical narrative much attention. But I bet you can guess who did.

I hadn’t gotten very deep into my “Jewish Pirates” Google search before I hit blatant anti-Semitism. Blog and social media posts co-opted our story and twisted it to their ends. Jewish pirates were not oppressed vigilantes fighting for justice in an unjust world. They were (according to these anti-Semites) “proof” of some sinister quality shared by Jews everywhere.

The evolution of the story of Jewish pirates offers a clear example of what happens when we neglect to tell our own stories. When we don’t tell our tales, someone else will tell them for us… often with ulterior motives, and to our great detriment.

It’s tempting to imagine an evil storyteller, hunched over a keyboard in some dark hovel, sniffing out the stories we haven’t told and warping them to some evil end… but I don’t believe that’s how this really plays out. I think stories emerge quite organically to fill a vacuum.

Living in a vibrant Jewish community, it’s easy to forget that there really aren’t many of us. Roughly 2% of the US population is Jewish. Globally, we’re only half a percent. In most parts of the world, there are no Jews, and where there are Jews, we’re quite rare. Most people on the planet have probably never met a Jew, and certainly have never had a meaningful interaction with one.

But we’re in movies, and we’re in books, and we’re on TV. We’re characters – often caricatures – squeezed through a narrow cultural definition of “Jewish.” I’m not even talking about the overtly negative stereotypes that were common in older narratives – Shakespeare’s Shylock and Dickens’ Fagin are by far the most well-known Jewish characters of classical literature. But how many times have you watched a crime show with a lawyer named “Goldberg”? How many times have you seen a scene where a character is rushed to the hospital and “Dr. Cohen” treats them? At first blush, it might seem that there’s really nothing wrong with these modern stereotypes. There’s nothing wrong with being a doctor or a lawyer. Those are impressive careers that require a ton of intelligence, not to mention years of training and hard work.

If you’re part of the 99.8% of the world that isn’t Jewish, and your impression of Jews is limited to these narrowly-defined depictions, you’re left with the unsettling sense that there must be something more to those Jews – something we aren’t being told about.

It’s a narrative vacuum, and it’s absolutely true. There is much more to Jews, Jewishness and Judaism than what people see on TV.

But nature abhors a vacuum – even a narrative one. Without thinking about it, people begin to fill in that blank space between the Jewish doctor and the Jewish lawyer. It might be something they heard once on the bus to school. Or it might be something they heard on an unscrupulous radio show. Often, people do what we all do when we stare too long into that dark closet in the middle of the night. They imagine monsters in the darkness.

Two summers ago, I took a trip to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. At one point on the subterranean tour, the tour guide turned off the electric lights that illuminated the cave. For a few moments, we were plunged into pure, utter darkness, a black that was almost palpable. And then, the tour guide lit a match. Just one match, and we could see the entire vast cavern, and all seventy-odd people in the tour group.

It doesn’t take much light to dispel darkness. But we still need to strike the match. If a lack of authentic Jewish stories leaves a void in the popular narrative, we need to tell those stories.

We need to. It’s not optional. It’s an obligation.

That’s what this magazine is going to do.

But wait – I started off with a really brash declaration: that our work was going to save the world. Much as I feel strongly about Jewish stories making the world better for Jews, I recognize that’s not quite enough to warrant such a bold assertion.

How does the good we’re doing extend beyond us? How does it save the world?

If we can get this magazine to work – if it becomes a breeding ground for new popular fiction about a diverse and vibrant array of Jews and Jewishness – it can become a model for other cultures, races and creeds, too. If we can demonstrate a way to fill our own narrative vacuum, maybe others who face discrimination and hatred can learn to do the same for themselves.

Dispelling darkness can start with one match. It doesn’t have to end there. More matches add to the flame. More light dispels more darkness. You can’t imagine a monster in the dark when there is no dark. I would be remiss if I wrote all of this without sharing a link to the Maggid Magazine Kickstarter page. I invite you to follow the campaign, share it with your friends and when we launch on July 21, contribute what you can. And regardless of whether you contribute to, share or even just ignore the crowdfunding page, I beg you to tell more stories. Tell your stories – the ones we don’t get in movies or on TV. Tell your stories like the fate of the world depends on it. Because it does.


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