HOLY SHIT, PEOPLE, THERE ARE THREE JEWISH CHARACTERS IN THAT FANTASTIC BEASTS MOVIE.
I came out of the movie confident that Tina and Queenie were Jewish because GOLDSTEIN (obviously anyone with the last name Goldstein is supposed to be Jewish) but less certain about Jacob Kowalski, despite the final scene’s establishing shot on Orchard Street, which was only slightly less subtle than showing him putting on a tallis. I realized on reflection that I just couldn’t believe that someone would put three—THREE—Jewish characters in a movie about wizards for no reason. The characters didn’t do anything particularly Jewish. The fact that they were Jewish wasn’t ever a plot point. The movie had nothing to do with being Jewish. We had two Jewish wizards plus a delightful Jewish muggle just because.
When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time looking for Jewish characters. Here’s what I found:
- Lots of Jewish characters being murdered by Cossacks.
- Lots of Jewish characters being murdered by Nazis (or in the more cheerful books, narrowly escaping being murdered by Nazis).
- A moderate number of Jewish characters who had recently immigrated to the U.S. after losing their family to Cossacks or Nazis.
- A small number of Jewish characters who were being bullied or persecuted by random anti-Semites at contemporary American high schools.
- The All-of-a-Kind Family series by Sydney Taylor. (I loved these books and literally imagined them as my actual Grandaddy’s real family.)
- Judy Blume books.
You’ll note the heavy presence of HORRIFYING MURDER and the complete absence of WIZARDS AND FANTASTIC MAGICAL CREATURES. The only books I found where Jewish characters just showed up for no obvious reason were the ones by Judy Blume. This despite reading a number of books by Jewish fantasy writer and new Damon Knight SFWA Grand Master, Jane Yolen. Admittedly, Jane Yolen is ridiculously prolific, and it is entirely possible I missed a book that had both Jews and dragons in it. She did give us a fantasy novel where a Jewish girl time-travels, but she time-travels to a freaking Nazi Death Camp so NEVER MIND.
It’s ironic that I found such a bounty of casual representation in this movie given that one of the controversies surrounding its release was the way they portray New York City as basically 100% white. New York City was quite a bit whiter back in 1926 than it is now. Manhattan was 5% black in 1920, 12% in 1930, but 5% is not 0% and as far as I spotted there was not a single black muggle in the entire movie. (There were two black Witches with speaking parts and there’s a brief scene where the International Confederation has descended on New York and that’s appropriately diverse, but come on.) Also, the LGBT representation was exactly what you’d expect from someone who outed one of her characters in a speech (years after killing him off tragically) by noting that the one romantic relationship he ever had involved Wizard Hitler.
I’m not going to defend J.K. Rowling’s white NYC or her cultural appropriation or even the utterly whacked idea that the U.S. would have one wizarding school for all of North America. Look, even if you set aside the issue of scale and assume that American wizards have no inherent objection to shipping their middle-schoolers off to a school with 50,000 students total, I’m sorry, starting in 1861 at the absolute latest there would have been a second wizarding school, probably based in, oh, I don’t know, Georgia, and her failure to grasp that is just one of the many ways in which she reveals a fundamental cluelessness about how the U.S. is even put together. I’m certainly not going to defend the plot, which is kind of a mess. I’m just going to say, HOLY SHIT GUYS, THERE ARE JEWS IN THIS MOVIE.
There’s also a character in the autism spectrum — at least, that’s how I read Newt, who has difficulty with social skills, deep social awkwardness, and consistently avoids all eye contact. Newt is basically Wizard Temple Grandin. Rumors suggest that in a later movie he’s going to marry Tina Goldstein, and we know he had a kid at some point, as Luna married his grandson Rolf. With a Jewish mother, his kids were Jewish, and another Jewish writer covering this movie suggested we all imagine Luna lighting Hanukkah candles this year, which is a delightful image. Even more delightful: speculating on what sort of improvements Luna might bring to the game of dreidl (let’s face it, practically anything is an improvement), what recipes she might try for hamentaschen filling, and what sorts of interesting readings Jewish Wizards and Witches add to their Seder on the first night of Passover.
And of course those details aren’t there (not in the books, not in the movie) for the same reason the take on American wizarding culture was such a mess: J.K. Rowling doesn’t seem to think things all the way through. You get shiny details (a strudel that assembles itself in the air, a magical kleptomaniac platypus) and delightful characters (my favorite was Queenie Goldstein, the heroine’s blonde bombshell mind-reading sister) and you’re not supposed to think about all the unanswered questions, like how on earth did these secrecy-obsessed American wizards deal with the issue of Muggle-born magical children born to slaves in the American south?
But in the end, my childhood self would have taken it without complaint. JEWS WITH WANDS. Jews with wands making strudel and reading people’s minds. Jews with wands working as Aurors and getting fired for standing up for justice! Jewish characters who are in a movie with no Nazis (unless you count wizard Hitler, and maybe we should.)