One of the things that amazed me the most in researching for LADY LAZARUS was to discover that angels, witches, protective amulets, and wonderworking are actually all ancient components of Jewish belief. I had always imagined witches as Christian and certainly not respectable characters as portrayed in traditional Christian thought (though I have always been sympathetic to witches in medieval Christian cultures as the underdogs!), and the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer notwithstanding, I thought magical creatures were more a part of Jewish folk legend than a part of the mainstream Jewish tradition.
I was surprised and delighted to learn that witches, demons, prophecies, and works of wonder are to be found all over the Hebrew Bible and Midrash (rabbinical stories and inquiries related to the Biblical narrative) as well as the Jewish mystical texts of the Kabbalah. And the lines between prayer and wonderworking, angel and demon, and “good” magic vs. sorcery are amazingly blurred.
In order to tell the story of a magical Budapest in the summer of 1939 I had to discover a celestial counterforce that was strong enough to prevail against the very real, monstrous evil my family faced during the war.
To my mother’s family in Budapest, a connection to the inner, spiritual world was a very real lifesaver, something they could use to give them an edge in their battle to survive. It has been a revelation for me to find that this magic, this belief in angels and benign works of wonder, is a deep and intrinsic element within Jewish liturgy itself.
Magda Lazarus, the protagonist in LADY LAZARUS, is not just a witch but a *Jewish* witch — her magic is rooted within Judaic traditions and folk magic, not Christian or pagan ones. After talking with a number of different people about this book, I’ve come to realize that this tradition is one that has been obscured over the years, for whatever reasons.
This little post is the first of a series on Jewish mysticism and magic. I’ll share my research and ideas with you, and also point you towards some terrific resources out there should you wish to learn more.
Next week: the Witch of Ein Dor!
update: upon re-reading this, I realize that I could have expressed the above better. Witches are not Christian creations, of course! — the pagan roots of witchcraft reach way back before Christianity. I mean that I understood traditional Christian conceptions of witchcraft as, generally speaking, negative and in opposition to Christianity. Sorry for pushing send too fast! :)
Some initial resources to check out:
A Gathering of Angels by Morris B. Margolies
Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism by Rabbi Geoffrey W. Dennis: a fascinating blog
you can also get the Rabbi’s Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism