Tag Archives: personal

Jews, Otaku, and People of the Book

I’m Jewish. You could probably tell due to my penchant for using words like “shtick.” Even if I hadn’t mentioned it before on this blog, which I’m pretty sure I have, this would be one of those reveals that surprises no one.

What’s odd is, I don’t really believe in the Old Testament. I believe that parts of it are historical (or at least based on real historical events, the facts of which have become distorted through time); I believe that some Biblical stories have good morals, and I believe the entire thing has value as a piece of literature. But if you were to ask me, point-blank, “Do you believe in the Torah?” the answer would have to be no.

And yet, if I don’t believe the Torah, doesn’t that mean I’m not a Jew, pretty much by definition? If you want to be pedantic about it, I’m a Jewish-born person with non-Jewish beliefs, I think. However, many Jews, if not most, are like me: people who self-identify as Jews, but don’t take the Torah literally, or even think about the Torah much in particular. How does that work? How do you have a group of increasingly secular people who still cling to a religious label, and cling to it with no small amount of pride?

I think the answer lies in the fact that the base concept of Judaism is the idea of a People of the Book, and what that means when you really break it down. If you really love one Book, chances are you’re going to want more than one. You’re going to write books about the one Book, then commentaries on the books about the Book, then eventually other books entirely. And the more you get into all these different books, the less importance the original Book has to you.

Really, a religion of People of the Book is self-annihilating, because once they become People of BOOKS, PLURAL, they’re not the same people anymore. The irony of Jewish history is that people were trying so hard to kill a religion with built-in obsolescence. It’s like, guys, stop trying so hard to kill the Jews. You’re just expediting the production of stuff like Maus, where People of the Book become People of the Comic Book, and then the whole thing goes topsy-turvy and we don’t know who’s who anymore.

Wow, I may have reached a new level of twisted logic; asking the people of Earth stop killing Jews not because it’s wrong, but because it creates literary confusion.

Anyway, this has relevance to the sciences, where a lot of the people who came up with all the great stuff about physics that tells us about how the universe actually works were Jews. It’s primarily the people who are supposed to value the Book of Genesis most who have told us all the reasons why the Book of Genesis is a fairy tale that makes no sense.

Where am I going with this, other than Judaism is weird and I too am weird? Well, I think that the core idea of being a People of the Book is something that may have started with Judaism, but now extends far beyond. To me, the enthusiasm for the likes of Star Trek, X-Men, anime, etc. is the new version of being a Person of the Book; having tremendous enthusiasm for one text, a text that is parts fictive and parts real. Nerd arguments are the new Talmudic Commentary. They say that the great Rabbis go to the Academy on High after they die, where they can argue about Torah for all eternity in heaven; I wonder if the same thing is true of TV Tropes. Anyway, Jews could cease to exist tomorrow (don’t get too excited, alt-righters), and our culture would still be deeply embedded with the legacy of Judaism.

Now, I have a certain amount of respect for Orthodox Jews; I mean, if you’re going to live by the Bible, do it, don’t half-ass it because you want to go to the movies on Saturday and shrimp happen to be delicious. Commit to it, own it, the way the Orthodox have. However, I don’t feel much kinship with Orthodox Jews; we may have common ancestors, but that’s about the extent of the connection. I feel more of a connection with the people arguing about whether or not Avatar: The Last Airbender counts as an anime than I do with “my people.” In fact, anywhere people are arguing about the minutia of a book, or any piece of art really, that’s where I feel like I’ve found “my people.”

To bring this back to Otaku, I’m not saying that Otaku are Jews, really; more that they are a step on the same continuum. The Japanese are a different kind of People of the Book, starting with The Tale of Genji, the world’s first proper novel. After World War II, Japan reinvented itself partially based on manga, on a book of a different nature. For the Japanese, the key foundational document isn’t the Torah, but Tezuka’s Astro Boy. Oversimplification? Of course, but talking about any topic this huge is going to require that.

But think of Comic Market. Hundreds of thousands of people, sweltering in the summer and shivering in the winter, standing in line for hours because they want to get a book (doujin) that’s based on another book (manga) that’s all ultimately based on something Osamu Tezuka and his friends drew in the 1950s, after a cataclysm. If you don’t see a parallel with religion here, well, I don’t know quite how else to put it to you.

I guess all this is a roundabout way of saying that I feel close to Otaku because I recognize fellow People of the Book, which has long ceased being defined by religion; Most of the passionate People of the Book are not Jews, do not need to be Jews for any reason. That’s why I didn’t feel like I had to marry a Jew; I married someone who loved the same things I loved. I’m not religious, but I am in the sense that I am the natural evolution of a people who believed the things they believed very passionately, and maybe that makes the question of whether or not I’m religious a non-issue; I’m not religious, but religion created me. Maybe God did too, but I’m not talking about God right now.

This is why whenever your typical smug internet atheist talks about religion being stupid, or how it makes no sense that the Red Sea would actually split in two, blah blah blah, I have to file that under the category of “not even wrong.” Like sure, that whole part about stoning people to death for not following the Sabbath is pretty dumb and self-defeating and I think even the most Orthodox Jews can admit that now, but that’s not why religion is important in this day and age.  There’s a reason why, even though I believe in the Big Bang Theory (the actual theory, not the sitcom, although the sitcom is okay) and not the Garden of Eden that I still call myself a Jew instead of, say, a science-believing person. I don’t see a conflict there, because being a Person of the Book was always going to include science eventually.

I don’t know, maybe this post is just hilariously offensive not only to Jews, but to everyone who likes Star Trek and Yowamusha Pedal alike. I’m not a good judge of what’s offensive anymore, if I ever was. It’s just me trying to explain my world view, which is that while I feel my Otaku and more general geek interests are entirely consistent with my Jewish background, I don’t feel like these interests are in any way limited to people of Jewish lineage. The idea of a People of the Book may have started with Judaism…or maybe with some other people that history has forgotten, who knows (and I’ve heard some provocative things about the Zoroastrians.) But the concept has spread far beyond a small and insulated group of people, far beyond DNA, and now exists out in the wild.

Synagogues are nice, and the art is beautiful, but wherever people are arguing about anime or Battlestar Galactica on the internet, that’s where I feel “my people” truly are. Someday, I may succeed in getting this to make sense to someone other than myself; I sense that day is not today.

My First Comic Book Store Experience

There’s been some talk lately about how comic stores have been “historically” unwelcoming of women. Normally I would post the tweet of a person who said this, but whenever I do that sort of thing, I get a few of their friends yelling at me that I’m “being mean” for continuing a dialogue that was started in a public forum, and I don’t want people yelling at me today, so whatever. In any case, the idea that “women are made uncomfortable in comic stores” is something of an old chestnut in the realm of geek-shaming, so it really doesn’t matter who happened to say it today.

This idea is completely at odds with my own experience, which doesn’t mean anything in and of itself; Just because I had, and continue to have, mostly good experiences in comic stores does not mean that all women necessarily do, and vice versa. In fact, my one, anecdotal story really doesn’t have any value, other than the fact that it’s my personal story, and I don’t feel like I’ve seen a lot of that. How many times have you seen a woman say “This is what happened the first time I went into a comic store?”, and talk about what actually happened? It could just be me, but I never see those stories; it’s always seems to be taken as an article of faith that “comic stores are creepy, amirite?”

So here’s one story of what happened when one woman, or young girl in this case, went into a comic book store for the first time, just for posterity.

*************************************************************************

I was 11 years old, and I was obsessed with X-Men. The Saturday Morning cartoon wasn’t enough to sate my mutant cravings, so I decided it was time to seek out these strange things I’d heard of called “comic books.” I think I had been dimly aware that comics existed for a while, but it wasn’t until X-Men that I suddenly felt a need to know more.

My mom went with me to a comic book/toy store in a local shopping center. Standing behind the counter was a petite, 30-something brunette lady with a friendly smile; thinking back, she probably looked close to the way I do now, only I doubt my smile is as warm. A little nervous, I asked if they had any X-Men comics, and she cheerfully recommended several titles to me, and answered some of my questions, which I don’t remember, but I know I had some.

My mom, never one to miss an opportunity to make things awkward, asked “Is it unusual for a girl to like comics?” The lady laughed and said that some of the store’s regular customers were women who worked at Grumman nearby (this was before they merged with Northrup and became Northrup Grumman– hahahah DATING MYSELF HERE), and women reading comics was not uncommon anymore, if it ever was. My Mom was mollified, I walked out with some issues of X-Men Adventures, and everyone was happy.

The brunette woman who had been there that day co-owned the shop with her husband, and on return visits, it was usually the husband that was there. The sight of him didn’t fill me with the same warm-and-friendly feeling that his wife did, but he was still perfectly nice and was happy to answer any of my questions about comics. So began a period where, on Saturdays, my Mom would drop a friend and I off at the shopping center, with $10 to pay for lunch. If I had any money left after lunch, I went and bought comics. Amusingly, I thought I was supposed to give the change from lunch back to my Mom, so I used to hide my comics in my room like they were stolen booty. I only found out later that my Mom didn’t actually care that I was spending maybe $4 a week on comics, which was an amazing relief at the time.

This store was my first exposure to back issue bins, which were kind of overwhelming and a little bit scary at the time; the whole comics world seemed so huge, and I had maybe $3.50 from my Mom on alternate weekends, and it just seemed like I would never know all of this extensive comic lore that cool people knew. Nevertheless, I found it interesting flipping through those stacks and stacks of comics, imagining the day when I could get a job and buy them all. One day, I happened to find this issue:

SHE’S BACK, BITCHES!!!!

I was entranced. My favorite character, Rogue, fighting some kind of terrifying zombie creature? OMG so cool! I kept looking for stories about Rogue, and I always seemed to end up with issues about Jubilee finding herself, or some crap.  I wanted to find out how Rogue was going to get out of this jam so badly, and the fact that the cover art was kind of scary and grizzly only made it more appealing; it felt like reading this comic would be an initiation into a fascinating, dangerous adult world.

Sadly, the back issue was marked up to $8, which put it out of my price range. I remember begging my Mom to let me buy it, who said something like “Wait until you’re making $20 bucks a weekend babysitting, then you can buy expensive comics.” Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait that long– I don’t remember exactly, but I think I scrounged up some birthday money or something to buy Uncanny X-Men #269. I think the issue had been marked up too high (even during the speculator boom), but I will say that I got my money’s worth out of it; I copied practically every Jim Lee illustration in the entire comic. When I expressed interest in drawing comics, the guy at the store special-ordered How to Draw Comics The Marvel Way for me, which I devoured. I never really did learn to draw comics The Marvel Way, but I did learn how much I loved drawing.

Unfortunately, this was during the ’90s speculator boom, and barely a year after I’d first started buying comics, the crash came. A huge number of comic stores closed, including my store. I went on to frequent other stores over the years, all staffed by guys who were always encouraging my interest in comics without crossing the line into being patronizing…which, looking back on it now, is a pretty difficult balance to hold. I’m amazed I happened to luck into several people who could do that.

I’ve really only had one “bad” experience in a comic book store, and it was kind of questionable whether it had anything to do with me. At one store in Buffalo, the guy at the register seemed kind of dismissive of me when I was buying my comics, but he didn’t say or do anything specific, so for all I know, he could have just been in a bad mood that day (and to be fair, virtually no one in Buffalo is in a good mood, with good reason. Try living in Buffalo, you’ll see what I mean.)

I’ve drifted in and out of buying American comics since then, largely because I lost interest in X-Men and other titles I used to love (which is a topic for another day.) Lately though, I’ve started reading some comics again, and my local store is pretty cool. They have a big kids section, and I’ve gotten some children’s books for my daughter there, as well as gifts for other people’s kids. Plus, the owner is a family man, so he’s understanding on those occasions when I’ve had to come into the store toting a stroller with a cranky toddler. Sometimes his kids hang out in the store, reading My Little Pony and generally being adorable.

So…yeah. If comic stores have “historically” been hostile to women, this was a period in history I never experienced. I’m not saying it never happened, and there aren’t women who had legitimately bad experiences. The Simpson’s Comic Book Guy may be a stereotype, but it was inspired by something; some people like that surely exist. I’m not trying to invalidate anyone else’s experience.

What I am saying, is this: please don’t erase me from comics history. Please don’t pretend like all girls and women faced animosity when entering so-called “geek spaces”, when it’s simply not true. It’s unfair to the genuinely nice men and women who ran most of the stores I frequented, and it’s unfair to me as an individual. If I say “I’ve always had a good time in comic stores,” because it happens to be true, I shouldn’t be accused of lying, or other nefarious intent.

Is my comic store story any more important than anyone else’s? No. But it isn’t any less important, either.

On Disgaea and Giving Birth

One night, my water broke while I was watching my husband play Disgaea 5. At the time, he was playing a map that involved killing dozens of versions of the same character, Asagi, in order to level up his units. I don’t know what Ms. Asagi could have possibly done to deserve this, but apparently killing her indefinitely is the best way to level up your characters in Disgaea 5, until they have stats higher than the number of protons in the universe. I can’t be sure, because while I had my own save in D5 as well, I was not yet up to the Asagi-genocide portion.

We do this a lot lately.  I sit on the couch and sip tea while Wilson plays through games, and only if I really like them do I bother to do an entire playthrough myself. Maybe this makes me less of a gamer, but it’s a pretty relaxing way to spend the odd weeknight. Besides, this way I get to make snide comments about the game without being distracted by the chore of actually having to play it. Wilson is kind enough to pretend my contributions are witty; this may be why I am currently having his children. Continue reading On Disgaea and Giving Birth