What’s so Jewish about Netflix’s ‘Shadow and Bone’?

Based on a fantasy series by Jewish author Leigh Bardugo, the show’s world is inspired by a time and place that looms large over Ashkenazic Jewish history.

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David Appleby/Netflix

A.R. VISH, SPECIAL FROM ALMA

This story originally appeared on Alma.com

Shadow and Bone,” the latest sprawling, book-to-film fantasy adaptation to hit Netflix, is a lot of things. It is epic! It is swoony! It is twisty! It has a goat!

It is also distinctly Jewish, though it might not appear so on first glance.

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Adapted from the novels by Jerusalem-born, Jewish American author Leigh Bardugo, “Shadow and Bone” is set in Ravka, a sprawling country inspired by 19th century Russia. The series revolves around Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), an orphan who possesses the power to harness sunlight and may just be the one prophesized to vanquish the monster-filled darkness that’s ravaged large swaths of the Ravkan landscape for hundreds of years.

Notably, “Shadow and Bone” is one of the few breakout fantasy series to come from a Jewish author. While Bardugo is far from the only Jewish author currently writing fantasy, she is among the few to achieve the kind of mainstream commercial success that leads to Netflix adaptations and bestseller lists. After all, much of modern genre fantasy is decidedly Christian. The canon texts relied heavily on Christian metaphor and world-building — and antisemitic allegory to boot.

Not only is Bardugo writing in a genre whose biggest players consistently fail Jews, but her world-building is situated in a historical context that looms large over much of Ashkenazic Jewish history. As Bardugo put it in a 2012 interview with the Atlantic, there is “a kind of fundamental alienation of reading Russian history as a Jew.” That alienation is probably best characterized by the two competing visions of Tsarist Russia that broadly exist in Western pop culture: the one defined by wintry aesthetics, folklore, grand palaces and tragic nobility, and the one defined by Anatevka. It’s Tolstoy’s Russia versus Sholem Aleichem’s. “Anastasia” versus “An American Tail.” While these extremes do not encompass the totality of Russian history, they dominate the kinds of stories that get told.

At first glance, one might be inclined to put “Shadow and Bone” in league with the likes of “Anastasia,” a story chiefly interested in the aesthetics and the “fairy tale” of Russia. For one, the bulk of the action of the show takes place in grand palaces, not shtetls. The show is filled with beautiful clothes, court intrigue and folklore. The Grisha — the practitioners of magic or “the Small Science” at the center of the narrative — seem to be a kind of magical nobility within Ravka, not poor milkmen and meager mice. Also, religious plurality doesn’t really exist in Ravka. It is a society with a single religion, built around worship of Saints in ways that borrow from pre-Christian paganism and Eastern Orthodoxy. While some have drawn parallels between the Suli, the stateless, persecuted, semi-nomadic people who live predominantly within Ravka’s borders, to Jews, the more obvious parallel to the Suli, based on language, religious belief and cultural aesthetics, are the Romani.

But to stop at the aesthetics would ignore the way “Shadow and Bone” incorporates a distinctly Jewish lens into its vision of who the Grisha are and what their service in the Ravkan army signifies.

Bardugo has said as much. In that same interview with the Atlantic, she stated that to her, the Grisha “represent the Jewish brain trust that developed before World War II and after World War II in the US. They’re these very talented people that were drawn from all over the world and cast out of places, persecuted, put to death, put in camps. So they all ended up in this one place, and for better or for worse—I think for better—they developed weapons and became a kind of brainy fighting force for the Allied Powers.” For Bardugo, what’s Jewish about the story is the way that the Grisha are at once persecuted within and beyond the borders of Ravka, but within the Second Army are the country’s greatest asset.

The role the draft plays in the Grishaverse is also distinctly Jewish. For while the Grisha train in a palace, they are ultimately part of Ravka’s wider conscription scheme, where large swaths of its people are drafted at young ages for a long career of military service.

In 19th-century Russia, conscription laws mandated that each estate within the empire provide a fixed number of soldiers to satisfy the draft, with a term of service of 25 years. Beginning with the reign of Tsar Nicholas I, this policy was extended to Jewish communities, with the aim of pressuring them to assimilate and convert to Christianity. To accomplish this, the initial policy was to draft Jews much younger than their non-Jewish counterparts. While non-Jews were only conscripted at the age of 18, Jews could be conscripted as young as 12 and were chosen in ways that left deep scars in communities even after the practice was abandoned.

Such is the philosophy that underlies conscription in Ravka. While ordinary people are drafted into Ravka’s First Army as older teenagers on the cusp of adulthood, the Grisha are conscripted young. In a series of flashbacks, it is established in “Shadow and Bone” that Alina’s great fear as a child was the periodic visits by army officials, who would come to whisk away children who showed signs of magical prowess. That the Grisha grow into their powers and come of age within the Second Army deeply shapes their loyalties to their General Kirigan (played by Jewish actor Ben Barnes). Ultimately, the Second Army exists to mold these individuals who ordinary Ravkans loathe and regard with suspicion into loyal royal assets, a system with dire implications as the narrative progresses.

Ultimately, what makes “Shadow and Bone” such an accomplishment is the way it carefully balances historical metaphor and aesthetics. It does not revert to the tired tropes of what Jewish history can represent in a fantasy world, nor does it abandon that history because it is painful and inconvenient. In finding that perfect balance, “Shadow and Bone” makes for smart, compelling television. Watch it this week, if you haven’t already. You’ll thank me later.