Today I read an article that had been sitting on desk for awhile, entitled "Why No Jewish Narnias?" It was written by a professor of Jewish Studies named Michael Weingrad in the Jewish Review of Books. Professor Weingrad wonders why there are so many fantasy books with Christian roots, but really none that are rooted in Jewish myths, midrashim, or Torah tales.
I read the article when I had already been thinking about something that turns out to be connected. In Parashat Lech L'cha, as soon as Avram arrives in Canaan, there is a famine. So he goes down to Egypt, where he soon fears for his life. His wife Sarai is taken by the Pharaoh, who thinks she is Avram's sister. God strikes Egypt with plagues, and Pharaoh sends our heroes away loaded up with riches and back to Canaan.
Sound familiar? The midrash comments: ma'asay avot siman l'vanim -- The experiences of the ancestors are a sign for their descendents. Avram and Sarai go through what the Israelite people will go through down the road. When the Israelites find themselves enslaved later on, they will go with a story about it. Who knows if that is what helped sustain them, knowing that there was both a harrowing time and a comforting ending.
Children (and adults!) today are captivated by the stories of J. K. Rowling, C. S. Lewis, Rick Riordan. All draw on ancient and classic myths, whether Greek or Christian or Norse or what-have-you. Part of the allure are the blast-tailed scroots and pure fantasy. But these are just the clothing for something deeper. The really good fantasy series use the old mythic features to help kids think about basic questions of identity and the world. The authors translate or transpose the old stories somewhere easier for kids to get them -- the future, Hogwarts, Middle Earth, rather than ancient Greece or Jerusalem.
Jews do it the hard way, Professor Weingrad observes. Our stories are so rooted in the biblical places, and the biblical place has become a real place called Israel. So we tell the stories as they are and then explain them, or fashion legends that sneak modern questions into the old setting. That's usually how we go about translating the experiences of the ancestors into a sign for the descendents.
We could use a Jewish Harry Potter, though. If he was based on Avraham, his aunt and uncle would be shopkeepers who sell....what is the equivalent of idols today? He would receive a letter from someone inviting him to leave his home and take his rightful place as a hero in......? He would head out on a journey, and along the way gather friends who share his special powers and insights. Hmmm, maybe Harry is already Jewish!
I wish we had both ways of telling the stories. Using the familiar biblical settings, and some other way like the best children's fantasy. At some point we could let the kids in on what's happening, and explain how Harry Potter is really Avraham and Yosef and Moshe all wrapped together. Then perhaps they'll love the Torah even more, when they see it as the source of the stories they've always loved, that have helped them navigate the challenges and questions of their lives.