Philip Klass died earlier this month. Who, you might ask, was Philip Klass? Go ahead. I'll wait. Those who already know can skip to the next paragraph, where I'll say some stuff you won't have heard, unless you've met me at a party. As for the rest of you: Philip Klass was none other than the fantastic writer of satirical science fiction whose pen name was William Tenn. Still no bells ringing? Well, while Philip Klass has died, lucky for you his nom de plume William Tenn never will. I urge you to run, not walk, to the nearest independent bookstore and purchase all three NESFA Press collections that together make up his complete SF stories plus a volume of essays and interviews. Again, I'll wait. Back? Good. Let's continue.
You may wonder why I'm writing an obituary for a man I met only twice, and who'd pretty much stopped writing science fiction by the time I was three years old. Well, it pretty much hinges on the "pretty much" part. In 1974, a new story of his appeared in an anthology of Jewish science fiction called Wandering Stars (Jack Dann, ed.). Yes, you read that right: a whole book of Jewish science fiction stories. What mishigas was that? Well, it was a thing of beauty. Or at least, it was a thing of interest.
I didn't discover it until many years later, when I was in college. But discover it I did, and it changed my life.
First, it showed me that such a thing existed as Jewish science fiction stories. I already knew that Jewish SF writers existed, Isaac Asimov being the most prominent, though they never seemed to write about Jews. But Jewish SF stories? What rapture! Until I found this book it simply hadn't occurred to me it was even possible. I've since gone on to write science fiction and fantasy. Some of it's been published, including work with Jewish content.
Another way it changed my life was by introducing me to the William Tenn story, "On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi." How did a simple story change my life? Klass himself described the the piece as "Sholem Aleichem in space." Never heard of Sholem Aleichem either? It's another pen name, used by a Yiddish-speaking writer decades before Klass became Tenn. Think Fiddler on the Roof. They based the play on his stories.
From Klass's description we might think it a wry humor piece, meant mainly to entertain, with a satirical subtext on both Jewish life and man's inhumanity to man, the latter in the form of anti-Semitism. Pretty much that's what it is, with aliens. I do not believe Klass intended to change anyone's life with it. We can't hold him accountable for such things. But in this case I want to give him credit, because the piece had a such positive effect on my own life.
I became a Zionist.
Oy! The sound you just heard was a bunch of readers clicking to a new page. Let me assure those who remain that I will not now dive into the shark-infested waters of political discourse. This is not meant as a political essay. While I can't talk about Klass without mentioning the far-too-loaded Z-word, I shall avoid the specifics of all current politics. I have my opinions, of course, but I won't divulge them here, nor will I respond with them to the slings and arrows of outrageous comments (or even outraged ones). Rather I'll try, as skillfully as possible, to chart us a swift course between Skylla and Charybdis, one that will lead us back to Philip Klass. That's why you're with me this far, and I aim not to disappoint.
"On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi" posits a future without the state of Israel. Quite literally, aliens have landed and declared the place off-limits to Jews. Klass writes about it thus:
We've all seen, in the last century or two, how some creatures from the star Vega have adopted an Earth-type religion.... They won't let Jews into the land of Israel, they maneuver against us, they persecute us. Are these ordinary aliens, then? Certainly not! They may look nonhuman, like crazy giant oysters, but they definitely have to be put into the category of goyische aliens.
I don't know Klass's political views. Probably he did this for literary reasons. I never asked him, but I imagine him in his study, banging away at his typewriter (this was the 1970s, after all). I don't know what model he used, but I picture the tough old manual kind, on which he'd honed his finger muscles to near-Kryptonian strength through page after page of astounding stories. In my vision he types the wonderfully evocative title of this work, then pauses. "How?" he asks the empty room -- empty only of other people, mind you; I imagine it full of paperbacks, magazines, and maybe a volume or two of Talmud (or Twain) -- "How can I evoke that perfect blend of cynical humor and pride in small things found in Sholem Aleichem's work? The lot of the Jews has improved so much in recent years." Then a lightbulb appears, shining above his head like Thomas Edison's halo, and he says, "I know! I'll take away Israel!"
And so he did. I'm sure he had no trouble envisioning a world without the modern state of Israel. Born in 1920, he lived in that world for twenty-eight years. I, who grew up accepting Israel as a given, taking it for granted even, found myself for the first time wondering what life would be like if it vanished. For nearly two thousand years, the Jews in diaspora had no refuge, no stronghold, no home to fall back to in times of anti-Semitism. I realized that without Israel, such a tragic state of affairs would eventually recur.
So I became a Zionist, which I know means different things to different people. I first learned that "Zionist" was a hot-butten word at a peace rally, where a man with no sense of irony physically attacked me simply for labeling myself as such. So let me clarify: I don't mean with this word many of the things you might think. I mean simply that I see the modern state of Israel as necessary for the continued well-being of worldwide Jewry. Or put another way, Israel is a particular instance of a universal truth: people without power live at the mercy of those with power, and statehood sets limits on powerlessness. Do I want Israel to be a good and just society? Of course I do. Do I want its government to treat all people with respect, both those with and without power of their own? Naturally. But this story widened my perspective, opening me up to the changes of history. For the first time I saw what might happen if my people lost the protection of Israel's presence.
This social understanding led me to a love affair with the whole Middle East. (Again, I hope to minimize politics in this essay. My love spans nations and millennia.) I've visited Israel twice so far, as well as neighboring Jordan. I've made friends for life. I've met long-lost cousins. I'm a richer person for the travel. With his smart little story, Klass planted in me the seed of this future growth.
That's how it affected me then, when I was young enough that new concepts bombarded me on a near-daily basis. I don't expect it to affect anyone else that way, but even if it won't change your life, you should still read it. Why? you might ask.
Because it's a cracking good yarn, sad and funny, tragic and uplifting. Plus there's the aliens.
As if that weren't enough, Klass creates and sustains the narrative voice of Milchik the TV repairman so well, it's also great for reading out loud. You should try it. Read it to your partner, your kids, your friends. Go to a park and read it to the pigeons. I bet they'll forgo the breadcrumbs of other patrons long enough to take in the aural feast that is this story. I read it to my wife, who hates being read to, and I held her interest the whole time. How? I stuck as closely as I could to the way Klass read it at Worldcon, the one where I first met him. He did a great job. Luckily, you can still hear how he read it on WNYC.
But getting back to that Worldcon, I met Klass the way one often meets authors at conventions: I reached the head of the autograph line. We chatted for just a few moments, but as he signed my copy of Wandering Stars, I told him in my case his story had more than entertained. I'd learned to appreciate Israel, becoming a Zionist. He smiled, and I caught a momentary look of wonder. He seemed pleased by the ripples from a pebble thrown all those years ago.
And that's how I'll always remember him.