At first glance, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” seems like a movie made on a wild dare. It’s based on the fictional tome by magical zoologist Newt Scamander in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter universe. Some may remember the 128-page encyclopedia written by Rowling in 2001 along with Quidditch Through The Ages. So, how do you turn a phantasmagorical field guide on creatures of fantasy into a feature film? You hire the original author to write the screenplay, of course! And, not only do we get to delve back into the rich world Rowling built almost twenty years ago, but we also get a tantalizing look at the possibilities for Jewish wizards in the Harry Potter canon.
Upon second glance, “Fantastic Beasts” is, on the whole, everything a Potter fan could want and more. It’s a spin-off, taking place over half a century before young Harry’s saga begins, but it’s also its own (and forgive the pun here) unique beast. If you read the books, you’ll definitely appreciate the little winks and nods Rowling included in the script, but noticing them isn’t mandatory if you just want to escape into a world of whimsy for two hours. The lovable characters, the top-notch effects, a killer soundtrack, and the eponymous “beasts” are all worth the price of admission.Directed by David Yates – who helmed the last four Potter films – the movie tells the story of Mr. Scamander as he arrives in Manhattan circa 1926 with a cardboard suitcase, the staple of any immigrant of that time, full of magical animals that have cropped up in Rowling’s universe. (Murtlaps and Erumpents and Demiguises – OH MY!) Soon after his arrival, all hell breaks loose, and Scamander finds himself at odds with the No-Majs (the American term for Muggles) as well as The Magical Congress of the United States or MACUSA for short. It all leads him on a merry chase through the urban jungle of a beautifully actualized 1920s New York City – the likes of which we haven’t seen since Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong in 2005.
But it wasn’t Newt (played by Eddie Redmayne) that got me thinking. It was actually the American auror (dark wizard catcher) for the MACUSA, Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol).
Now the idea of Jews in the Harry Potter canon is nothing new. Rowling herself confirmed that there are Jewish wizards last year, using Anthony Goldstein of Ravenclaw as an example. (Tina Goldstein and Anthony Goldstein. Coincidence? I think not!)
While not overtly stated in the movie, I think it’s safe to assume that Tina and Queenie come from some kind of Jewish background given their surname. We don’t know much about their parents, who died of dragon pox when the girls were very young. Nevertheless, the movie’s time period (1926, the same year Voldemort is born) suggests that these sisters could be first-generation Americans from Jewish immigrant parents who came to New York from Europe in the late 1800s or early 1900s when waves of Jews fled the pogroms of Europe for the land of opportunity, the American dream. (What we do know for sure is that the sisters were schooled at the American equivalent of Hogwarts, Ilvermorny in Massachusetts. What, was there no wizarding yeshiva or seminary out there?)
In addition, Queenie’s love interest (and the incredible comic relief) is a No-Maj named Jacob Kowalski, a Polish last name often attributed to Jewish families. Moreover, Jacob is played by Jewish actor Dan Fogler. Is the movie trying to tell us something? Is Anthony Goldstein of Ravenclaw a descendant of Jacob and Queenie’s eventual marriage?
With this speculation about the Goldsteins’ Jewish lineage in mind, we can infer more about how Jewish identity might be explored in the wizarding world moving forward. It’s been stated that there will be four more sequels after “Fantastic Beasts,” and the storyline will end in 1945, presumably with the epic duel between Grindelwald and Dumbledore that won Dumbledore the Elder Wand.Think about it. If this series spans 1926 to 1945, we’ll also get to see the rise and fall of Nazi Germany. The “us” and “them” mentality that Adolph Hitler and his propaganda machine disseminated is already a running motif throughout the film. For instance, The Magical Congress of the United States imposes backwards laws on fraternizing and marrying No-Majs. Grindelwald considers wizards superior to Muggles and wants them to come out of hiding. There’s even the introduction of the New Salem Philanthropic Society or Second-Salemers, a fanatical group that fears magic and seeks to destroy those who practice it.
It’s all reminiscent of the Nuremberg Laws that stripped individuals of their rights, telling them where they could work, what they could learn, and who they could love. These, of course, led up to the Holocaust, which is where the significance of Tina and Queenie’s Jewish identity comes into play.
Maybe Grindelwald will serve as the magical “Hitler” equivalent for this franchise with Nurmengard serving as his Dachau. After all, his slogans, “for the greater good” and “work makes you free,” are harmless phrases until you put them into the grisly contexts for which they are most well known.
If these movies span World War II, will we get to see the persecution of European Jewry through the eyes of the wizarding world? If magic exists, what is the plight of Jewish wizards under Nazi rule? Will they be discriminately killed or will their powers be exploited to advance the conquest of fascism? (After all, Nazi persecution of individuals with supernatural powers is not a new concept in fiction. Just look at Magneto’s backstory in the X-Men comics and movies; he became a Nazi hunter after his liberation from Aushwitz.)
I want to see duels between magical members of the Allied and Axis forces during World War II. And what if kabbalah and Judaism’s rich history of mysticism plays a role? (Is kabbalah just like Kwikspell for Jewish squibs? Sorry, Madonna.)
The presence of Jews in the wizarding world also begs more difficult questions. If Jewish wizards do live among us during World War II, why did they not use magic to stop the mass genocide of six million people who could not defend themselves? Perhaps the easiest answer to that was said by the late Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour, “The trouble is, the other side can do magic too.”
Ultimately, the name Goldstein rang in my head long after the credits rolled. As Jews with magical abilities, Tina and Queenie may face double persecution, both from anti-Semitism and anti-magic sentiment among Muggles who fear what they cannot understand. As a result, their reactions to the rise of Nazi Germany and its policies could shed further light on the Jewish community within the wizarding world. I’m intrigued to see how and if these two worlds, Jewish religion and magic, coalesce in future installments.
Josh Weiss is a senior at Drexel University in Philadelphia, studying Communications with a concentration in Public Relations.