The Secret Jewish History of Harry Potter

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Photo by Artem Maltsev on Unsplash

(Below are some impressionistic thoughts not based on any recent or detailed reading of either the books or the films.)

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has been criticized for “its complete lack of sexual identity, gender and religious diversity” given that all of the “main characters are all white, Christian, cisgender and heterosexual.” What is more, it has an echt-English setting, drawing heavily upon its elite public boarding school culture that are overwhelmingly white.

Nevertheless, Jewish undertones in “Harry Potter” are abundant. Consequently, if you Google around, he’s been read in terms of Judaism, the Bible, Kabbalah, and Jewish history.

One rabbi argues that Harry is a metaphor for Jewish life: The evil wizard Lord Voldemort is slavery in Egypt, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Holocaust rolled into one. Another suggests that one can learn valuable lessons about the Holocaust from reading the books and watching the films.

Academics have got in on the act, too, arguing that “Harry Potter seems to follow a kabbalistic path of spiritual development.”

That’s because all sorts of mythologies and religions underpin the series but also because Potter is a blank, a floating signifier onto which we can project our own image.

Harry Potter’s backstory resembles that of Superman, himself based on Moses. His parents are killed and he is orphaned. Homeless, he is rescued and sent to live with his Muggle aunt and uncle. But rather than being raised in Pharoah’s palace or rural Kansas, he is domiciled in a cupboard under the stairs in suburban anonymity where his whitebread aunt and uncle seek to hide him, embarrassed by his Otherness.

Like most Jewish men, he is indeliby marked, with a scar burned onto his forehead.

Harry realizes his difference but just does not know where it comes from. In this sense, he resembles the “Hidden Jews,” or conversos, those Jews whose descendants were forced to convert to escape the Inquisition.

He also echoes Daniel Bell’s observation of the young Jew who is “helpless,” recognizing his distance from the Jewish culture from which he came and the Gentile culture into which he cannot enter. In this respect, Jewishness equals wizardry and muggledom is Gentility. Such a Jew wears a “double set of glasses” — did this characterization, I wonder, influence Rowling in any way?

Judaism, Jewish history, and the Bible is full of magic, divination, witches, golems and the like so it’s not a stretch to connect Jewishness to the world of wizardry.

Like Superman, his given names are bland, mundane, and ordinary. The sort of names a Jew wishing to hide his identity might choose. And like Clark Kent, as Sean Alexander has pointed out, he is bookish, bespectacled, and awkward around girls.

At the same time, the name “Potter” carries biblical connotations. In Jeremiah 18, God is compared to a Potter.

Harry is a mensch, championing the oppressed and the underdog (elves, giants, and the like). He is a model of self-sacrifice often putting himself in harm’s way to protect others.

Harry is also a messianic figure, there to save the world from the forces of evil and darkness which he does in a final, apocalyptic battle. He performs tikkun olam, ultimately saving the world, becoming a messianic figure.

Harry opposes a fascistic death-worshipping cult, led by a dictatorial ruler, who wishes to cleanse his race of any impurities. His followers use the racalist, eugenicist language of the Nazis. They inflict death and suffering. As Jenny Singer wrote in The Forward, “Rowling’s books borrow tremendously from the experience of Jews and other targeted groups in the Holocaust.” This metaphor has been seen by plenty of others who have observed traces of the Second World War in the franchise.

One of more the unfortunate ways that the series resembles Nazism, though, is the representation of the goblins of Gringotts. These bankers — a profession historically associated with Jews.  are hooked-nosed and swarthy, obsessed with gold and secrey. They have been criticized for replicating anti-Jewish tropes.

On the positive side, Rowling has admitted that at least one student (she implies that there may be others), Anthony Goldstein, was Jewish. Some believe that the Black family may also be Jewish given how it is a typical Jewish last name.

In the spin-off series, “Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them,”  sisters Tina and Queenie Goldstein have a starring roles. The Goldstein sisters were confirmed by Rowling to be distantly related to Harry Potter’s Jewish classmate Anthony Goldstein. They are joined by Jacob Kowalski who is played by Jewish actor Dan Fogler. Some see a clear parallel between 1920s xenophobia and nativism in the first two parts of the spin-offs. 

In the movie adaptations, Harry is played by Jewish actor, Daniel Radcliffe, whose casting gives us the possibility of reading him as Jewish. He is joined other Jewish actors, namely by Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy, Miriam Margolyes as Professor Pomona Sprout, Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange, and Zoë Wanamaker as Madame Hooch.

By this token, though, the casting of Radcliffe as Harry and Isaacs and Bonham Carter as Malfoy and Lestrange respectively complicates any simplistic readings as Potter as Jewish versus the Nazi-like Death Eaters.

 

 

 

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