The first time Sheldon Teitelbaum came across a science fiction book was as a sixth grader at a Talmud Torah in Montreal, Canada. A book with red bindings about a subversive school on Mars jumped out at him from among the books on the library’s shelves.
He wasn’t allowed to borrow the book, which was reserved for seventh graders and older, but that was the moment when the seeds of curiosity about sci-fi were planted in him. Today, some 50 years later, Teitelbaum has just published his second English-language anthology of Israeli sci-fi stories, which was launched at the recent ICon Festival, a science-fiction and fantasy fan convention.
“I begged the librarian to let me borrow the book by Robert Heinlein, but she wouldn’t let me,” he recalls. “As we all know, if you want to get a kid really excited about something, all you have to do is tell them they can’t have it. I didn’t even know what science fiction was at the time, but I knew that I liked it. I knew so little about it that when I looked for books in the library, I got confused between Second World War literature about American soldiers and sci-fi because of the helmets they wore—I thought they were space helmets,” he laughs.
The 1960s, when Teitelbaum discovered the sci-fi genre, were when science fiction was in its second wave: The books were deeper and more complex, touching on a broader range of subject matter, with authors such as Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick reaching new levels of writing. But at that time, the genre was still considered low-brow and underground, so much so that its enthusiasts had to smuggle magazines home and read them by torchlight under a blanket. After the Heinlein book had shone a light for him at the Talmud Torah, he found further works that aroused his curiosity at his grandfather’s synagogue.
“I opened up a drawer and found a whole stack of sci-fi magazines. I took the lot of them and every time I came to the synagogue I would go off to the library, open the bag and read the magazines. That was the time that a lot of the great sci-fi writers were making their breakthrough. I read them and thought I was being reborn—in a synagogue full of old people of all places. God smiled at me,” he recalls with enormous pleasure.
Stuck in a never-ending present
More Zion’s Fiction: Wondrous Tales from the Israeli ImagiNation is the second volume of an anthology of Israeli science fiction stories in English edited by Teitelbaum and his partner in the project, Emmanuel Lottem. The title contains a play on words with “Zion’s fiction,” which sounds like “science fiction.”
The idea for the first anthology, published in 2018, came after seeing a wave of similar anthologies published in English with science fiction stories from various countries: Russia, China, Spain, Portugal and even seven different anthologies from the Philippines. That was the spark for publishing the anthology and the play on words in the title that came to him in a flash of imagination got his juices flowing.
As an enthusiast of the genre, Teitelbaum found that the connection between Israel and science fiction was much deeper than we might first think: “The State of Israel is the only country established under the influence of two wonderful and imaginative works of science fiction—The Bible, and a science fiction novel written by Theodor Herzl, Altneuland. Herzl’s book was heavily influenced by Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, which was written in the 19th century as a proto-socialist utopian science fiction novel. Herzl’s novel had such a great impact on Jewish society that it led to the establishment of a political movement and the founding of a state. That was Herzl’s goal, and he used science fiction to make it come true.”
To make his own dream come true, Teitelbaum turned to Lottem, one of the founders of the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy and a well-known translator in the field. The two met some 30 years ago when they were both part of the editorial staff of the journal Fantasy 2000. The two hadn’t been in touch since then, but Teitelbaum knew that Lottem was the right partner for the project.
The first anthology was published in 2018 and included translations into English of stories from prominent Israeli writers, such as Gail Hareven, Savyon Liebrecht, Shimon Adaf, Nava Semel, Keren Landsman and others. The cover image is of the Herzl, the seer of the state, looking out over planet Earth from a spaceship, in the same pose as the iconic image of him looking out over the balcony of the Hotel de Trois Rois, in Basel, Switzerland during the Fifth Zionist Congress in 1901.
The anthology was well received around the world and was even translated into Japanese, gaining enthusiastic reviews that labeled the anthology a masterpiece.
As for what is unique about Israeli science fiction, he says: “Surprisingly, there is very little “hard science fiction.” There aren’t many stories about galactic empires or space journeys into the distant future, which are known as “space operas.” The Israeli imagination doesn’t sail far beyond land. There is no game of dimensions and time as one sees in the United States or Britain, two countries that influence writers across the world. Something about the tensions in the Israeli situation narrows the imagination. Elana Gomel calls this situation “limbotopia,” a feeling of being stuck in a never-ending present. Classic science fiction deals with the exceptional, be it utopia or dystopia, and it creates an alternative reality.
“The Israeli situation has created a paralysis of historical imagination so that one can no longer think of an alternative. Israeli science fiction is a lot darker, deals more with death, and in comparison with other places, it deals a lot more with suicidal tendencies and suicides.”
No time for dreaming
In their breathtaking forwards to the two anthologies, the editors expand on Israeli history and the development of science fiction in the country. They don’t skip a single major event in Israel’s history, and they tie the history of local science fiction to points in time such as the Holocaust, the 1967 Six-Day War and the Lebanon wars.
They begin their examination of the science fiction phenomenon in biblical times. The cover image of the second volume is of the prophet Elijah, who, instead of ascending to the heavens in a whirlwind, is observing a spaceship touching down on earth.
Why is Israeli science fiction so rooted to earth? That is a question that deeply troubles the editors. The answer they offer is to be found in the difference between dream and reality: Imagination plays a major role at the stage of vision when a science fiction book is written to establish a state. But from the moment it has been established, it has to be maintained on a daily basis. There is a need for ongoing hard labor to keep the dream alive, and thus there is no time for dreaming, only for the realization of dreams. It is only in Israel’s later and more established years that the sci-fi genre has taken off in the young country.
Teitelbaum notes that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is something else that is absent from the genre in Hebrew. “The Israeli authors don’t write about the ‘elephant in the room’—the Palestinians and other Arabs. Most of them produce very personal, quotidian, non-political writing. Some of the authors write about issues such as personal identity, lifestyles and social recognition. Readers who are not familiar with the genre often believe that it is a male genre, but this is not true, not in the world at large, and certainly not in Israel, where half of the writers are women.”
Teitelbaum is no stranger to life in Israel. Instead of donating money to the state, as most Canadian Jews do, he preferred to contribute and to serve.
When he was 18, he decided to make aliyah by himself and joined the Israel Defense Forces.
“In Montreal, we were a community of religious and secular Jews.,” he recounts. “I was sent to my grandfather’s shul to pray, but after my bar mitzvah, I rebelled and left everything. That life was really dull for me. It was a synagogue full of old people with no kids. I didn’t really understand, and I didn’t like the fact that my family lived a secular life and sent me off to be their religious Jew. Every year representatives from the Jewish federations of Canada would come to the synagogue and ask for donations for Israel. People would donate thousands of dollars, and even tens of thousands of dollars, to Israel. It was all a big show off; I didn’t like it. I swore I would never allow myself to be in a situation where I was being asked for donations for Israel, so I decided to contribute my time. I made aliyah and joined the army. I planned to serve for a year-and-a-half … but in the end, I spent five years in the Nahal Brigade, ending up as an education officer.”
Teitelbaum fought in the Lebanon War in 1982 and went on to study political science. He worked as a reporter for The Jerusalem Post for four years and then left for California, as he saw no future as a journalist in Israel.
“The irony is that I was sent from California to be a military correspondent in Lebanon,” he says, laughing bitterly. “I’m married to an Israeli; all my children speak fluent Hebrew. Every year, they go to summer camp in Israel. Tel Aviv is their backyard. Israeli TV is switched on in our house 24 hours a day.”
A decade after the closure of Fantasy 2000, which was published for only six years, from 1978 to 1984, Lottem co-founded the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy, serving as its chairman. His main occupation over the past 40 years has been translation, and he has translated hundreds of books in that time.
Lottem explains how the society came to be established: “We knew that there were science fiction fans in Israel. Since the 1970s, quite a few science fiction titles had been translated; I translated a few of them. The people were there, we just had to get them together and form an association. In the end, though, the society was formed thanks to a lady from the British Council, which promotes British culture around the world. By chance, she was also a science fiction fan. On a trip home one time, she met Brian Aldiss, a well-known science fiction author. She asked why he had never been to Israel and he replied: ‘Because I was never invited.’ She invited him to Israel and so we had to set up an association, so that we would have something to do with Aldiss. Indeed, he was the one to inaugurate the society’s activities.”
The society remains active to this day and runs two major conventions: The ICon Festival and the Olamot Convention, which takes place at Passover. The events are held during school holidays so that children can also participate, and are a highlight for fans of the genre, with lectures, role-play games and more. The society also publishes a journal of speculative fiction called Once Upon a Future.
The association between government institutions and science fiction turns out to be a recurring motif in Lottem’s life. In 1976, before turning to a career in translation, he worked for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, at the Research and Planning Center. Surprisingly, his work there turned out to be critical for his translation of the American science fiction author Frank Herbert’s cult novel, Dune.
“The Center was established following the findings of the Agranat Committee in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. One of its findings was that there was a need for a civilian body parallel to Military Intelligence that would have access to intelligence materials and provide a non-military perspective,” says Lottem who joined the Foreign Ministry after completing a doctorate at the London School of Economics.
“The Foreign Ministry has a reputation as being very suited, but it was more like a miniature university campus—excited young people, full of ideas. We would sit in the cafeteria during our morning break and somehow the topic of science fiction would come up. It turned out that a lot of the employees liked the genre and that made me really happy. At the time, I also started to translate books to make some extra money. I worked for Am Oved [publishers], which had just started publishing a series of science fiction books. I said to them that I wanted to translate sci-fi, but they just said, ‘Forget about it. Sci-fi is for kids. A serious guy like you shouldn’t be doing stuff like that.’ That was the attitude towards science fiction back then and it still is.”
One day, when he was at the Foreign Ministry, he received a call from Am Oved proposing that he translate Dune.
“I agreed straight off,” he says. “I had read the book three times in English so obviously I was happy. I went down to the cafeteria and told the guys. Everybody was really excited about it. They all helped me out, everyone took on a translation mission. For example, there is a character in Dune who quotes figures from The Bible, so you have to identify the verses and find the original using a concordance in English and Hebrew.
“Somebody who would go on to become an ambassador in the Far East and was an expert in classical Arabic took upon himself to handle the Arabic side of the book,” he says. “After every chapter that I translated, they would go over it and make comments, and even the secretaries helped out by printing it for us. It was great.”
That was how the Foreign Ministry made its considerable contribution to the development of science fiction in Israel.
Teitelbaum and Lottem are now working on a third volume.
“My dream is to give a push to the whole crew of science fiction writers,” says Teitelbaum. “They are working in a bubble. I think they deserve a lot broader attention and not the condescending attitude they have received from Hebrew literary critics, who traditionally have ridiculed science fiction.”
For Israeli writers, the support they have received from the two editors and their efforts to promote the genre around the world have been no less than a redemption.
“I didn’t understand just how important what we have done is for the authors, until one of them told me that we are heroes for them. I just stood there in shock,” says Teitelbaum. “I’m not a hero; I just really love science fiction.”
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.