Tag Archives: Goblins

Debunking the Harry Potter Anti-Semitism Myth

By Stephen Richer

There’s no shortage of theories connecting Judaism and Harry Potter.  Entire books have been written on Potter philosophy and Torah wisdom (see Moment’s interview with Dov Krulwich), and some commentators have posited that its magicians—chosen people  misunderstood by others—are essentially Jewish.  Yet, others also a postulate a rather unfortunate perspective that J.K. Rowling and her Harry Potter series are guilty of perpetuating an anti-Semitic slur: underhandedly equating the book’s loathsome goblins with Jews.

The goblin-as-Jew allegation deserves assessment, partly because anti-Semitism is so serious, but also because if the complaint is true, millions of Jews, including yours truly, could not continue to happily reread and rewatch one of the greatest stories ever told.

The theory—as put forth by one its leading proponents Matt Zeitlin—is pretty simple:

The goblins, especially as depicted in the movies, are universally hooked nosed, short, unattractive, and green. …Professor Binns’ soporific History of Magic lectures tell tales of centuries of goblin oppression, segregation, mistrust, bad relations, exclusion, and revolts.  Sound like any European ethnic minority you know?  That’s right, Rowlings’ depiction of goblins reflects the type of stereotypes that are more fitting for Russia in the late 19th century or a second rate Gazan newspaper.

As further evidence, Zeitlin offers a side-by-side comparison of an anti-Semitic cartoon with the Warner Brothers’ rendition of a Rowling’s goblin:

Once the goblin-Jew connection is made, it’s easy to prove a dislike for Jews.  After all, Rowling’s distaste for goblins is quite evident.  Rubeus Hagrid – a character inclined to see the good in all people and creatures – warns Harry about goblins in the first 100 pages of the seven book series: “They’re goblins Harry. Clever as they come, goblins, but not the most friendly of beasts.” Deathly Hallows portrays goblins as impassionate neutrals in a fundamentally moral war who ironically play something of a Switzerland banking for the Nazis (Gringotts goblins).  In Goblet of Fire, goblins are more concerned with their money than the terrorization of innocents (World Cup Dark Mark raid).  And, as judged by the only goblin we really get to know in detail – Griphook – goblins are untrustworthy.

This line of reasoning seems compelling, but to foist it on Rowling and the Potter series seems unjust.  For one, Rowling does a great deal of borrowing in her stories.  She followed established conventions, endowing her dragons with fiery breath and wings, giving her trolls dim wit and powerful clubs, and her goblins with short stature, hooked noses, and greedy manipulation—archetypes that existed well before Rowling ever put pen to paper.  Perhaps Rowling drew her goblin based on the goblins in the Nineteenth Century poem “Goblin Market,” in which goblins lure and trick with “evil gifts.”  Or consider JRR Tolkein’s goblin—“A foul creature…slightly smaller, sometimes hunched over or appearing to walk and run with limps.”  Or just look up goblin in the dictionary and you find a definition that largely resembles Rowling’s creatures.  Perhaps the goblin character has its origins in anti-Semitism, but Rowling can hardly be convicted of unjust commentary for using a now-familiar Western literary character.

Additionally, the debate over whether the goblin character has its roots in anti-Semitism is wholly unaligned with Rowling’s professed views on Jews. In 2004, Rowling visited a Holocaust Museum and compared the hated “mudblood” and “half-blood” terms used in Harry Potter with the anti-Semitic propaganda of the Nazis: “If you think this is far-fetched, look at some of the real charts the Nazis used to show what constituted Aryan or Jewish blood.”  Rowling has also gone on record saying that her evil character—Lord Voldemort—is modeled in part off of Hitler.  Both comments won her comments of praise from Jewish organizations.

Then there are the movies—in which Rowling played an active oversight roll.  The actor that plays Harry Potter, Daniel Radcliffe has a Jewish mother, and the film company that produces the movies, Warner Brothers, owes its start to Hirsz, Abraham, Szmul, and Itzhak Wonskolaser (later changed to Warner).

In the eyes of this aspiring Gryffindor, we Jews can enjoy—without misgiving—the latest, and final, Harry Potter movie.

Kosher for Halloween

By Daniel Kieval

It’s Halloween in the suburbs. For a couple of weeks, already, the neighborhood decorations have been out in full force: pumpkins, black cats, spiders, ghosts. Then there are the houses that hold nothing back, turning lawns into graveyards complete with tombstones, skeletons, and back-from-the-dead monsters, such as mummies and zombies.

With kids and parents across the country designing costumes, planning parties, and fortifying candy supplies, Halloween may seem an unlikely time to start pondering Judaism.  After all, the chaos of the fall holidays has passed, and Jews are supposed to be enjoying a well-deserved break, not starting in on more holidays. Yet, surrounded as we are by the Halloween culture, it may be worthwhile to ask the question: Does Halloween’s glorification of blood and gore, of demons and the living dead have any relation to Jewish values? Can Jews learn from zombies?

Jewish tradition has its fair share of monsters, spirits, and dead bodies coming to life. Folktales are one classic source. Stories tell of the giant clay Golem who saved the Jews of Prague; the young bride possessed by a malicious spirit known as the Dybbuk; and departed ancestors popping out of their graves in Tevye’s dream in Fiddler on the Roof. The Talmud, too, contains references to the dark and supernatural – one striking passage tells us that one can see demons by burning a part of a black cat and rubbing the ashes in one’s eye, while anotherwarns that the demon Shabiri will strike blind anyone who drinks water at night. Even the Amidah prayer, recited daily by Jews for centuries, contains a wish for the resurrection of the dead, t’chiyat ha-meitim, that some associate with the coming of the Messiah.

So yes, in our written tradition we’ve got spirits, we’ve got monsters, we’ve got dead bodies coming to life. But in our day-to-day practice we have a concept called kavod ha-met, respect and care for the dead. It is for kavod ha-met that Jews do not display a dead body before burial, nor do we cremate or embalm them (sorry, mummies). In fact, Jewish tradition considers caring for a dead body the greatest deed one can perform, since there is no way for the recipient to return the favor. Those who engage in this practice are called the chevra kadisha, the holy community. Halloween associates dead things with gore, decay, and terror. The chevra kadisha clean, purify, and dress the body and then sit with it until it can be buried. Where Halloween wants to make us feel repulsed by the dead, Jewish ritual seeks to bring us close to them in loving care.

Perhaps, then, the more worthwhile question is: Can zombies learn from Jews? Halloween can be an occasion to think about our own relationship to death. Is it something creepy, disgusting and scary, something that we avoid except in the context of horror movies and media violence? Or is it a natural, if difficult, part of existence, something that reminds us to glorify life and appreciate what we have while we have it? Judaism reminds us that it’s not wrong to enjoy a good monster story on occasion, but it also reminds us that in real life dead people are not monsters, and may even be pathways to holiness.