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All the Hidden Jewish Students at Hogwarts

Right before winter break, there was a small backlash against JK Rowling online.  She was answering a fan’s question, and she stated that there had been a Jewish student at Hogwarts all along, even though there was nothing marking him as Jewish in any of the books:

I was always okay with there being a dearth of Jews at Hogwarts, just as I was okay with every other group not represented in the books. I mean, would it have been nice if every person on earth could find someone to identify with at Hogwarts because they saw their own life experience reflected back? Of course. But I enjoyed Middle Earth even with its absence of Jews and Narnia which couldn’t have gotten less Jewish if you tried (hello, Aslan?).  If you create a great world, I’m going to enjoy said world, even if I don’t see myself reflected in it.

But.

What I can’t accept is going backwards in time and stating things that are clearly not in the text.  At no point is Anthony Goldstein identified as Jewish.  At no point are we told that Anthony Goldstein needed off for the High Holidays.  Or that he couldn’t partake in the meal and had the elves prepare him a kosher option.  He isn’t munching on a piece of matzah during the final spring DA meeting.  He doesn’t even have a Bar Mitzvah in Book Three.

If Rowling had kept it non-specific, I could have nodded and rolled with it.  If she had said, “don’t worry; there have been Jewish students at Hogwarts,” I would have said, “oh, okay, maybe there weren’t any during Harry’s time, but I can accept the idea that there were Jewish students there before and after.”  I think that type of statement can be particularly helpful for parents who have children struggling with the idea that there would be no place for them at Hogwarts.

But if she didn’t take the time to write it (and I don’t think she should have taken the time to write it; this wasn’t Anthony Goldstein’s story), she doesn’t get to claim it after the fact.  She can’t suddenly start sticking labels on everyone in the book, insisting that this person was really a vegetarian and this person was blind and this person was gay despite providing no evidence within the text.  She wrote the book she wrote, and now she needs to own that.  And I mean that in the nicest way: she wrote some  wonderful books.  Don’t undo it by shoving things into the pages that aren’t there.

I am bothered that she’s telling us that Anthony Goldstein is Jewish now, because if he is, she has written someone who is so deeply assimilated that there is no evidence of his culture left.  Which makes me think — since she is the author — that she sees the best kind of Jew as one who doesn’t admit he is Jewish at all.  It makes me think that she sees the best kind of Jew as the kind that could pass as Christian.  Perhaps not fair, and I think this is definitely a case of ignorance and not hostility.  Which is to say that I am not bothered by her not knowing about Judaism; I’m only bothered by her getting Judaism so incredibly wrong.

Though perhaps this Twitter exchange has opened Rowling’s eyes and made her realize that if she wants diverse characters in her books (if that is important to her, since she is the author and gets to make choices for her books), she needs to write diverse characters into her books.  They don’t need to always be in the foreground, but the details need to be there.

You know that I hold the Harry Potter series as sacred, and they will always have a place in our house.  I love them and I never needed a Jewish character to love them.  I don’t mind follow up details that better explain relationships or situations in the book as she did with the Draco Malfoy passage on Pottermore.  But it’s too late to go backwards and insist things were there that never made it into the books.

Totally off-topic reminder that tomorrow is #MicroblogMonday, so get writing.

19 comments

1 Rachel { 01.25.15 at 8:40 am }

Hmm this is thought provoking. To be honest, I agree that she should have said ‘yes there have been Jewish students’ rather than making one up but at the same time I think she, being the author, is within her rights to say whether there is more to a characters story than what we read. It doesn’t mean anyone has to buy it or agree. I know there were lots of groups misrepresented or not represented at all. I agree it was more ignorance rather than intolerance. Look at the Patils… Clearly Indian in name (and in actor for the movie) but virtually no other reference to that. Its like she kind of understands so she is throwing in an Indian outfit for the ball and that’s good enough.

I guess that’s part of the trick with writing a novel with multicultural characters… Proper research and portrayal of the characters cultural background.

Its still one of my most favourite series though! Great post Mel!

2 Working mom of two { 01.25.15 at 10:11 am }

Ok I’ve only seen the movies and haven’t read the books. But I don’t recall any character being identified as belonging to any religion. Did I miss something? I don’t view the stories as lacking diversity of religion if religion wasn’t even a thing in them.

3 Mel { 01.25.15 at 10:13 am }

Well, Christianity was definitely represented in the school. And while some Christians will claim that Christmas isn’t a Christian holiday, the name of the holiday literally means “mass for Christ.” So…

They celebrated Christmas in every single book, in a huge way. And they celebrated Easter in some of the books. As well as all the movies. No other religion was mentioned beyond Christianity, which definitely played a front-and-center role.

And I should add that I expect Christianity to feature in the book since it is the dominant religion in England. Jews are such a small portion of the population, as we are in America. So in both countries, we roll with the majority, accepting that our religion won’t be represented (except through a Christian lens, such as inflating the importance of Chanukkah). And I’m okay with that UNTIL people start claiming that they’re more diverse, accepting, and understanding than they actually are.

4 Mel { 01.25.15 at 10:50 am }

I feel the same way about Rowling claiming there were GLBT students, even going so far as to create a badge about how no one should be in the closet. (http://www.out.com/entertainment/popnography/2014/12/18/hogwarts-has-gay-students-says-jk-rowling).

HER unmentioned GLBT students were closeted! Never once in the novel do we hear about two boys snogging each other. Or bringing a member of the same sex to a dance. Or someone dating another person who is of the same sex. If we go based on what was presented in the text, even deep in the background, there were no uncloseted GLBT students at Hogwarts.

5 Working mom of two { 01.25.15 at 11:26 am }

Ok that makes sense. Not being Christian or ever having read the bible I don’t pick up on that stuff although duh Easter and Xmas I would notice that but I dont remember it. And I def don’t remember any gblt so that is bizarre to claim it now.

6 Mel { 01.25.15 at 11:29 am }

I may be a nerd who has memorized all the books hence why I remember every Christmas and Easter celebration. 🙂

7 Working mom of two { 01.25.15 at 11:35 am }

So OT but this reminds me of something that happened in high school. 30 yrs later it still makes me mad. My English teacher gave us a test where we had to say what a poem was about (how stupid is that?). Well the poem in question was supposed to be about judgment day. Having not read the bible I obv didn’t catch that. When I complained my teacher said something like everyone knows about that. I’m impressed my teenage self spoke up but if I could go back I’d at least file a complaint. Separation of church and state!

8 Mel { 01.25.15 at 11:39 am }

YES! My AP English exam senior year had a question dissecting a poem called “Christmas Tree.” The only Christmas tree I had seen at that point in my life was in a shopping mall. I couldn’t write the essay because I didn’t understand the questions or the significance of any of the objects mentioned in the poem. I asked the proctor what I should do and she sort of shrugged and said she didn’t know. I mean, what do you do when the test is written to the majority culture but you’re not part of the majority culture? We see this bias every year with the SATs, though how can they fix them not knowing the scope of knowledge the student brings to the exam?

That’s just one of the reasons why I’m against the level of importance placed on these standardized tests (vs. exams that cover material discussed in the class).

9 jjiraffe { 01.25.15 at 12:40 pm }

I always bought Anthony Goldstein being a Jewish wizard, and maybe it’s just because I lived in England for a while. The Jews we knew were more assimilated than in many ways here – friends didn’t take off the high holidays. My experience also was there was much more anti-semitism in England – it’s linked to anti-Israel sentiment. So maybe that leads to people being more low-key about their faith? Obviously I can’t speak for the Jews of England, but just explaining why I bought Rowling’s depiction of Anthony Goldstein.

10 Betty m { 01.25.15 at 2:10 pm }

I think anyone English would have thought Anthony Goldstein was Jewish by dint of his name alone which would be regarded as a Jewish one. Secular Jews are also very common particularly in my bit of North London which is known as a Jewish area and it isn’t at all unusual for people not to keep kosher or celebrate holidays in any religious sense whilst considering themselves in every sense as Jewish as the Hasidic Jews of Stamford Hill. In that sense it wouldn’t be odd for the character not to have ever been snacking on matzah etc just like the Indian characters aren’t going off to the mosque or temple or whatever. Not sure I’d necessarily agree with JJgiraffe’s assessment of the level of English anti-semitism – it is certainly not a given here that someone who disagrees with the current govt in Israel is automatically an anti-Semite. Although it is true that some people use one as an excuse for the other.

11 Jen { 01.25.15 at 3:28 pm }

Such an interesting discussion – I remember feeling a bit like this when JKR said Dumbledore was gay. First I thought it was a bit odd not to have even hinted it. Then I thought it was great that there was nothing to contradict it and why should she be explicit – it was readers’ own assumptions that no characters were gay. I also read that she wrote heaps of backstory for every character. For almost everyone she only put in the books a fraction of what she knew about them e.g. all of Dean Thomas’s history about the true story of what happened to his father – she wrote this then couldn’t squeeze it in. Or didn’t put things in because she knew them but they didn’t end up fitting the story she was telling. I don’t think this justifies the casualness of ‘retrospectively’ assigning characteristics for which the book gave no clues. But I can believe that she genuinely planned all along these attributes, just didn’t mention it.

12 Mel { 01.25.15 at 3:38 pm }

The only difference with the Dumbledore reveal is that it deeper explained what was already in the book. So you saw his relationship with Grindewald, and then you discover that it had layers that were obviously there if you look at the scene but weren’t stated at the time. I’m okay with that sort of retroactive detail. Especially since nothing else in the text contradicts that fact.

But it would be really odd if she were to say, “of course there were blind teachers at Hogwarts! Dumbledore was actually blind.”

What? we would say. Nothing in the text indicates that he is blind. It’s her right to retroactively reveal that fact, but it calls into question why that wasn’t made clear if it was truly a fact she had in mind as she wrote the book.

And it would be more off-putting if we were only told that Dumbledore was blind because she was called out on her lack of blind characters by an organization for the blind. Which is akin to how she presented the idea of Jewish students in the book: someone called her out on the lack of diversity in religion, and she told us one of the characters was Jewish who was never revealed to be Jewish prior to that moment.

And that, to me, is a cheap way of revealing information.

Though, really, I probably wouldn’t have been rubbed the wrong way if she had explained that she always wanted to include it but didn’t have space, a la Dean. Of course there are details that don’t make it into a book, and she has taken a lot of care with a character like Dean that she doesn’t bring to a character like Anthony. With Anthony, it’s a throwaway label, slapped on a bit character in order to fulfill a quota. With Dean, the details revealed tell us more about him as a person. With Dean, we have him referencing his father in the first book. With Anthony, we never have him referencing his heritage or anything about his heritage.

13 Queenie { 01.25.15 at 10:10 pm }

Interesting post. I haven’t followed this Twitter debate at all. But, I sort of take this whole debate another way. I have long been under the impression from Rowling’s previous statements that she had written up giant backstories about all/many of the characters that never made their way into the book, so when she pulls “facts” out like this, I generally assume that’s where she gets them from. I don’t remember a character called Anthony Goldstein, but if there was one, my assumption would be that he was such a minor player that we know nothing about him at all, let alone his religion. Except for the Christmas scenes, she didn’t really go into anyone’s religion, but I always thought lots of religions were represented at Hogwarts (just not focused on). I didn’t take the Patil sisters to be Christian, for example. It doesn’t feel to me like she’s making things up after the fact, or that she was ignorant when writing–but rather, that she knows much more about her characters than she ever found space for in the book, and that she recognized that not every character element moves the plot along.

14 andy { 01.26.15 at 10:12 am }

Interesting… I never gave any thought to any of the characters religion, or that there were no gay characters. Like you, I read the book for the story and the setting and not to see myself reflected back in it.

15 Ann Z { 01.26.15 at 10:16 am }

I’m with Queenie, I have always gotten the impression that Rowling has a huge set of details and back story on a whole lot of the characters that never really showed up in the story. I do understand the annoyance at feeling like she’s pulling out facts about characters retrospectively, especially if there’s not a lot backing it up. Would it change your perspective if she had a notebook filled with facts and details and background and deleted scenes about a whole lot of characters including talking more about Anthony being Jewish? Or would that make it worse?

16 Mel { 01.26.15 at 10:29 am }

It wouldn’t make it better or wose. Of course every author has thousands of details that don’t end up in their books. But once they don’t end up in the book, they cease to exist. For instance, in my last book, there was a woman named Claire. She was chopped out entirely in an edit. I couldn’t claim there was a person named Claire in the book who clearly wasn’t there just because I once thought about putting her in.

17 Ann Z { 01.26.15 at 11:02 am }

Hmm, I think for me, those stories and details in the author’s head (or notebook) feel more real, at least, they do if the author is still publishing stories. But that may well be because I’m not an author.

18 deathstar { 01.26.15 at 12:50 pm }

My comment has nothing to do with Harry Potter, but did you happen to see the acceptance speech of Viola Davis at the SAG awards?
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/25/viola-davis-sag-awards-speech_n_6543780.html?ncid=fcbklnkushpmg00000024

In it, she mentions she tells her daughter a bed time story and her daughter asks her to put her in the story. In a way, we all want to be represented in the books we read and the stories we see in the media (and not just as the villians). We just have to write our own stories.

19 Alexicographer { 01.26.15 at 3:46 pm }

Wait, what? I’m not the Harry Potter expert you are, I didn’t see the tweets, and I do know that Hogwarts gets decked out for (and subsequently closes) for Christmas. But I guess to the extent I thought about it at all, I figured the wizards were observing the pagan portions of what comprise Muggle Christmas celebrations. I mean, how could Wizards be Christian (of Jewish, or Hindu, or …)? Seems like they’re tapped into an entirely different (and rather better) spirit world, to me, and I’ d much rather think of it that way. In that (my!) context, it makes sense for English wizards to observe rituals captured later by Christians, celebrations that (like the protection afforded to Harry by residing with the Dursleys) presumably predate Christianity. I’d imagine wizards in other parts of the world observe other similarly ancient practices, just as Beauxbatons and Durmstrang are different from Hogwarts. Hmmm…

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