Sheldon Teitelbaum at the 2018 ICon Festival in Tel Aviv. (Photo/Roni Sofer)
Sheldon Teitelbaum at the 2018 ICon Festival in Tel Aviv. (Photo/Roni Sofer)

‘Zion’s Fiction’: Meet the great compiler of Israeli sci-fi

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Sheldon Teitelbaum is one of the founders of Israel’s growing literary science fiction scene. As a former editor of the magazine Fantasia 2000, he spread news of the genre through the early fan community of Israel. He’s also written for broader science fiction journals including “Locus” and “Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction,” and is a contributor to the authoritative second and third (online) editions of “The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction,” as well as to “Encyclopaedia Judaica.”

Today he lives in Los Angeles and, together with Emanuel Lottem of Tel Aviv, is publishing the second-ever compilation of Israeli science fiction and fantasy translated into English. Their first volume, 2018’s “Zion’s Fiction: A Treasury of Israeli Speculative Literature,” was well-received. Volume two, “More Zion’s Fiction: Wondrous Tales from the Israeli ImagiNation,” comes out this month.

J.: Why does this series need to exist?

Sheldon Teitelbaum: During the last two decades, a cohort of maybe 30 Israeli writers emerged. Some, like Gail Hareven and the late Nava Semel, hailed from the front ranks of the Israeli mainstream. Others came out of the fan community. “Zion’s Fiction” lifts the lid off a seldom-seen wellspring of imagination, offering a glimpse into the underside of the Israeli psyche. I also think the books make for the mother of all bar mitzvah — and, given that about half our writers are female, bat mitzvah — presents.

You were on the editorial board of Fantasia 2000 (1978-1984). What was it like launching an entire genre and recruiting the public as readers and writers?

I can’t take credit for launching the genre. Fantasia 2000 was the brainchild of Aharon and Tzipi Hauptman and Eli Tene, then students at Tel Aviv University. It was a glossy monthly loosely fashioned after the American magazine Omni. The intent was to acquaint the Israeli reader with contemporary speculative literature. But the magazine, the second most expensive on the racks at that time, also took on the role of hothouse for indigenous writers. The results, in that regard, were mixed. Fantasia published some serviceable stories, but mainly it provided a venue within which aspiring genre writers could learn their craft.

What makes Israeli science fiction unique? Has the genre changed much?

There seemed to be an aversion — there still is — to what we’d call hard science fiction. With exceptions, like the London-based writer Lavie Tidhar, Israeli writers range closer to the ground, thematically, than their North American counterparts. Israeli writers remain largely averse to sweeping, unfettered flights of the imagination. Their stories tend to be deeply personal. They do not, as a rule, address the vagaries of Israel’s existential situation, what Israelis euphemistically refer to as “the situation.”

What we have noticed is that the work is dark. Many of the writers, perhaps befitting the outlook of many Israeli millennials, seem to be unusually death-obsessed. Israel ranks 14th in the world in terms of overall happiness, and its rates of suicide are comparatively low. But in Israeli science fiction/fantasy, as, ironically, in the wider field of Hebrew literature, hopelessness and disillusionment are rampant, and suicide as a narrative strategy is not off-limits.

Which American science fiction and fantasy do you find is the biggest in Israel?

It’s a pretty eclectic scene. I was surprised, for instance, to learn that Anne Leckie’s “Imperial Radch” series of space operas, which Emanuel translated, was immensely popular. Her Hugo-winning 2013 novel “Ancillary Justice” depicted a nearly genderless universe — you could not, as a rule, determine whether a character was male or female, or for that matter, AI-based. The trick for Emanuel was that Hebrew is one of the most gendered languages on the planet. How do you maintain the conceit when the characters speak in thoroughly gendered voices? No mean feat. But he pulled it off.

Goodness, that does add complications. And what’s fandom like today?

The community supports an annual convention and various yearly symposia. There is a surprising number of local academics doing significant work in the field of Science Fiction Studies. Anyone attending the ICon Festival [an annual science fiction and fantasy festival held in Israel] will notice that the fan community tends to skew extremely young. The cosplay is wild.

I can only imagine. Did publishing the first volume help you connect more with the science fiction community?

When I attended the first book launch at the ICon Festival during Sukkot of 2018, one of the writers published in the first volume said, “I don’t think you guys understand that you’ve done something heroic.” I was gobsmacked. The fact is that many of these writers have since found American publishers. They are the real heroes of this story.

I noticed some of these stories are set in Israel — really love letters to cities and neighborhoods — while others are in space or fantasylands. How do you choose definitively Israeli stories? 

We tried to strike a balance between stories with recognizably Israeli themes and characters and others that did not. The bottom line was whether we liked them and thought them worthy of publication.

Who are your favorite authors? And who are you reading now? 

The most recent novels I’ve read are Stan Robinson’s “The Ministry of the Future,” David Ebenbach’s “How to Mars,” Marissa Levien’s “The World Gives Way” and Matthew Fitzsimmon’s “Constance.” On the docket… oy.

Valerie Estelle Frankel

Valerie Estelle Frankel teaches at Mission College in Santa Clara and San Jose City College. She is the author of over 80 books, including “Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy Through 1945: Immigrants in the Golden Age.”