This Day in Jewish History

1993: A Warrior, Sci-fi Writer and Orthodox Jew Dies

Though by the time he died, Avram Davidson, inventor of 'magical realism', had yanked the yarmulke and warmed to Shinto.

Avram Davidson,around 1970. Shown with flatly combed hair and bushy, full beard, untied tie and open-necked button shirt.
Courtesy of the Avram Davidson Society

On May 8, 1993, the writer Avram Davidson died, at the age of 70. Davidson is generally classified as a fantasy and science-fiction author, but he experimented with too many different themes and genres during a lengthy writing career to be so easily pegged. As his friend and colleague sci-fi writer Robert Silverberg wrote in the foreword to a 1998 anthology of Davidson's stories, he possessed “an utter indifference to commercial publishing values that encouraged him to follow his artistic star wherever it led.” As a consequence, perhaps, Davidson often struggled to make ends meet, and could be personally difficult as well. Late in his life, he had a spell living in a Veterans Administration home for the indigent.

Nearly every colleague and friend who eulogized Davidson after his passing described him as “rabbinical” in appearance. That is probably because he had a thick, long beard through most of his life, but also because he was the rare Orthodox Jew in a circle of sci-fi writers, many of whom were Jewish, but few of whom were religiously observant.

Belligerently bearded in the Navy

Avram James Davidson was born on April 23, 1923, in the Hog Hill section of Yonkers, north of New York City. His father was Harry Davidson and his mother the former Lillian Adler. Avram attended public schools, and as a teenager was the founder of the Yonkers Science Fiction League.

Although he studied briefly at New York University, and also took courses at Yeshiva University and at Pierce College, he never completed a college degree.

Davidson joined the U.S. Navy in 1942, and served as a hospital corpsman, first with that corps and later with the Marines, during World War II. He saw service in Florida, the South Pacific and in China, before his discharge in 1946. He would later write that he boasted “the only beard licensed by the First Marine Division,” and it is said that he went to lengths to eat only kosher food during those years.

On his way back to the United States, Davidson traveled extensively, including a lengthy stay in Israel, where he volunteered as a medic during the 1948 War of Independence.

According to one account of his life, when he returned to the U.S. after the war, it was to study agriculture – at Pierce College – before heading back to Israel to work as a shepherd.

The first publications to carry Davidson’s articles (and poetry) were Jewish – first Orthodox Jewish Life magazine, in 1949, and then, in 1952, in Commentary, under the name A.A. Davidson. Two years later, his first popular fiction, a short story called “My Boyfriend’s Name Is Jello,” was published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. (A decade later he would serve as editor of that journal.)

Over the next four decades, Davidson published more than 200 stories, and 19 novels.

"Or All The Seas with Oysters" by Avram Davidson, narrated by Darren Marlar (preview) YouTube

Magical realism

Many of his eulogists noted that he was writing in the style of magical realism before that term had been invented. There was a trilogy of novels about the Roman poet Virgil, reimagined as “Vergil Magus,” a master of the dark arts in an alternate-history ancient Rome; a six-story fantasy series about the character Jack Limekiller, who lived in a country he called "British Hidalgo" – based on British Honduras/Belize, where the author lived for several years in the 1960s; and another set about a character called Dr. Englebert Eszterhazy, whom he placed in a made-up, 19th-century empire in the Balkans.

Davidson married Grania Kaiman in 1962. They had a son together, named Ethan, and also collaborated on several books. Even after they divorced, they remained in sufficiently good relations that Avram lived for a number of years in the same household with her, Ethan, and her second husband.

Around the time he finished volume one of the Vergil series, Davidson began to study Tenrikyo, a modern offshoot of the Japanese Shinto religion. He became serious enough about it that he spent time in Japan, learned Japanese – and reportedly removed the yarmulke from his head.

In his final years, having suffered a series of strokes, Davidson became increasingly irascible, and moved frequently before ending up in Washington State. He died in his small apartment in Bremerton, Washington.