Spoiler Alert! This post is full of things that never happened, might happen, should have happened, and did happen in the Mortal Instruments books and movie.
I’m neither vampire nor slayer nor shadowhunter. I’m not even an expert. I mean, The Count (Seasame Street) was a childhood favorite, I’ve spent a lot of time with Buffy, and I happily watched Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead as I received one of my 35+ blood transfusions. But I can’t stomach True Blood and have not read or seen most of the current vampire phenomenon. I know this much: a vampire should not sparkle in the sun.
I am also Jewish. With that and my amateur vampire identifying skills, despite Rabbi David Wolpe’s assurance that “[v]ampires are not Jews,” I knew from the start that in Cassandra Clare’s first book of the Mortal Instruments Series City of Bones, the character Simon Lewis is Jewish.
How did I know? Well, in the book, right away Clare makes a point to tell us his mother is Jewish. (By the way, I love that she’s not a neurotic, horrible Jewish mother. She’s a perfectly ordinary and reasonably reliable parent not unlike my own.) I always enjoy a well-written young adult fantasy novel, but give me a great Jewish character and we’re talking commitment. Later we watch Simon become a vampire. Case closed.
But in the movie, although Simon (Robert Sheehan) is still his dark-haired, brown-eyed, stereotypical nerdy self in contrast with blond, suave and emotionally limited Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower) his Jewish identity goes unmentioned. His mother is nowhere to be found and neither are any other references such as his question about what freaks out Jewish vampires, “Silver stars of David? Chopped liver? Checks for 18 dollars?”
Actually, Simon has two Jewish mothers: His fictional mother and his author.
On Tumblr Clare wrote:
“Vampires in literature are surrounded by a panoply of Christian iconography. Crosses. Holy water. . . . . if your religion isn’t Christianity . . . you cannot quite relate.” “. . . I had literally never read a book with a Jewish vampire in it and I wanted there to be one.”
Simon is Jewish, wrote Clare, “because of all the characters, he is the most like me, and I am Jewish. . . . The general assumption is that I am Christian because the general default assumption, from my Western readers, is that everyone is.”
The best I have to say about the movie is that most of it isn’t terrible. However, among other things it downplays Simon’s Jewishness to the point where even a Jewish viewer who hasn’t read the books would never know he’s Jewish.
Maybe that doesn’t matter. Simon is just one character. Maybe the rest of the Mortal Instruments written fantasy world is still old-school predominantly mainstream familiar motifs like crosses and holy water.
It’s not religious Judaism, but unlike the movie in the books Jewish superstitions and mythology run throughout.
The world in the books is based on the Sefer Raziel HaMalach – the book of Raziel the Angel and a verse from Genesis. Louis Ginzberg and Henrietta Szold wrote in Legends of the Jews that in Raziel’s story he came to Adam with a book in his hand and says he will teach him the contents of the sacred book. The book is “out of which all things worth knowing can be learnt” including how to call upon the angels.
The movie mentions the angel Raziel but leaves out the connections with ancient Jewish text. And in explaining where the shadowhunters originated the movie does mention in passing that they are also called the Nephilim, but leaves out any explanation of what the Nephilim are including the words on page 78 of City of Bones quoting Genesis 6:4, that mysterious verse that claims “(t)he Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also after that, when the sons of God came unto the daughters of men, and they bore children to them; the same were mighty men that were of old, the men of renown.”
In City of Bones on page 87 we learn that shadowhunters Jace and Alec are parabatai – a pair of warriors who fight together and are closer than brothers. We are told in Clockwork Prince on page 92 the ritual that bonds them comes from an “old tale” of Jonathan and David. The very words of the parabatai oath are from the words Ruth speaks to Naomi and appear in Clockwork Princess on page 326 “entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee, for wither thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge.” There are also references to the Song of Songs, Solomon, Joshua’s sword, and more.
Unlike the movie, the book is a distinctly modern rendering of Jewish fantasy. Ancient Babylonia had tales of Lilith and her daughters who feasted on men, women, and newborns. In some texts, Lilith left Adam to become to queen of the demons, refusing to be Adam’s subordinate. The Hebrew words aluka – leech – and motetz dam – blood sucker appear in Jewish stories from medieval Rhineland in which Lilith is also able to transform herself into an animal. In an early 18th-century text in a dialogue between the prophet Elijah and Lilith she has come to drink blood, suck bones, and eat flesh. Amulets used to hang from children’s cradles to protect them from her. Of course, it’s not all ancient; many of us still wear Jewish symbols or have accessories in our homes to ward off the “evil eye.”
I recommend the books, the movie wasn’t as horrible as I expected it to be, and, since they’ll be making more of them, to Rabbi Wolpe’s chagrin maybe we’ll get our mainstream Jewish vampire yet.