Foundation series

Isaac Asimov’s epic “Foundation” series is now a TV show. His Jewish life was complicated. | Arts and Features

This Friday, after a pandemic delay, Apple TV+ will debut “Foundation,” the first-ever screen adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s award-winning sci-fi book series. First announced in 2018 and produced in association with Skydance Television, the TV show is one of Apple’s most expensive and ambitious productions to date.

The series, which follows a mathematician struggling to convince a galactic federation that their society is on the verge of collapse, mixes the anxieties of the 1940s and 1950s, when the source material was originally written, with modern global concerns. like climate change.

It was co-created by Josh Friedman and David S. Goyer. Friedman identifies as Jewish, while showrunner Goyer, the son of a Jewish mother, wrote and directed the 2009 dybbuk-themed horror film “The Unborn.”

But what about Asimov himself, a biochemist at Boston University and one of the most influential science fiction writers of all time? This is a much more complicated question.

Isaac Asimov was born in Russia in 1920 and his family emigrated to the United States when he was 3 years old. He had Jewish parents who were raised Orthodox themselves, and they raised him in Brooklyn. However, Asimov turned to more humanistic beliefs from an early age and, as an adult, identified vocally with atheism until his death in 1992.

So, on the one hand, Asimov has become one of the most prominent atheists in pop culture; and on the other, he was open and proud of his Jewish heritage.

The author addressed his beliefs and background in his 1994 posthumous memoir, “I, Asimov”, stating that his father, “despite all his upbringing as an Orthodox Jew, was not Orthodox at heart”. While acknowledging that he and his father never discussed such matters, he speculated that his father, having been “raised under Tsarist tyranny, under which Jews were frequently brutalized”, had “become a revolutionary in his heart”.

Asimov did not do a bar mitzvah, which he attributes to his parents’ choice to raise him without religion and not, as some suspect, “an act of rebellion against orthodox parents”. However, he says, he “became interested” in the Bible as he grew older, though he eventually realized he preferred the type of fictional books that would one day make him famous: “Science- fiction and scientific books taught me their version. of the universe and I was not ready to accept the Genesis Creation story or the various miracles described throughout the book.

Having the first name “Isaac” in the 21st century is not necessarily a sure sign that a person is Jewish. But in Asimov’s day, that was almost always the case. And although Asimov has sometimes been pressured to change his name for professional reasons, he has always kept his first name.

“I would not allow any of my stories to appear except under the name Isaac Asimov,” he wrote. “I think I helped break the convention of forcing writers to have no-salt, low-fat names. In particular, I made it a bit more possible for writers to be openly Jewish in the world of popular fiction.

Asimov is one of the most prolific authors in history, having authored or co-authored over 500 books in his lifetime. And he explored Jewish liturgy in books such as “Words in Genesis” (1962) and “Words from the Exodus” (1963). Most of his literary work, however, did not touch on Judaism.

His memoirs also take issue with an academic critic who in 1989 accused Asimov of using “more themes in his work that derive from Christianity than from Judaism”.

“It’s unfair,” Asimov wrote. “I explained that I was not brought up in the Jewish tradition. I know very little about the specifics of Judaism…I am a free American and it is not necessary that, because my grandparents were Orthodox, I have to write about Jewish themes. He went on to write that Isaac Bashevis Singer “writes on Jewish themes because he wants [while] I don’t write on it because I don’t want to.

“I’m sick of being told, periodically, by Jews, that I’m not Jewish enough,” he wrote.

Asimov also devoted a chapter of his memoirs to anti-Semitism. He noted that his family has never suffered from pogroms or other acts of overt anti-Semitic terror, either in Russia or the United States, and that anti-Semitism has never hindered his personal success. But he found it “difficult to bear… the feeling of insecurity, even of terror, because of what was happening in the world”, especially at the time of the Holocaust. He also told the story of a public argument he once had with Elie Wiesel, in which Wiesel said he did not trust scientists and engineers, because of their role in the Holocaust. .

As for Israel and Zionism, Asimov was somewhat skeptical. In his last book “Asimov Laughs Again”, published at the time of his death, Asimov said he had never visited Israel and had no plans to do so, although he attributed this in part to his habit of not traveling much.

“I remember how it was in 1948 when Israel was established and all my Jewish friends were thrilled, not me,” he wrote. “I said: what do we do? We settle in a ghetto, in a small corner of a vast Muslim sea. Muslims will never forget or forgive, and Israel, as long as it exists, will be besieged. They laughed at me, but I was right.

Isaac Asimov died in New York in April 1992, aged 72. His family revealed years later that he contracted HIV from a blood transfusion following heart surgery nearly a decade earlier, which partly led to his death.

Asimov did not have a Jewish funeral, or a funeral at all – he was cremated. But at a later memorial service, fellow author Kurt Vonnegut said that ‘Isaac is in heaven now’, later joking that ‘it was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience. of humanists. jn