Unlike much of the world, I didn’t read the full Harry Potter series until I was in high school. I tried reading the first two books in elementary school, but I put them down until we read the first book in ninth grade English. To say that reading these books changed my life is completely accurate.
However, just because something is so influential and so widely known doesn’t mean it’s free of criticism. In fact, nothing should be free of criticism. A world without criticism is dangerous, and this extends to children’s books.
Literature that influences children at young ages, such as Harry Potter, needs to have certain standards. One of these standards is representation, a topic I’ve discussed in regards to Tony-winning Broadway musical The Band’s Visit as well as television in general. Now, it’s time to talk representation in one of the most popular book series of all time.
When reading J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, its complete lack of sexual identity, gender and religious diversity is glaringly obvious. The main characters are all white, Christian, cisgender and heterosexual. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having characters who fit these descriptors in your books. However, when nearly all your primary characters in an entire series fit these descriptors, it needs to be called out.
I could go on and on about how white and straight these books are, but that’s not what my blog is supposed to be about. I’m here to talk about the fact that J.K. Rowling’s lack of religious representation in Harry Potter is egregious and, frankly, offensive.
Christmas is mentioned in every single Harry Potter book, and is often a significant part of the story. In contrast, Jewish holidays are never once mentioned, let alone holidays of other faiths. As an aspiring young adult book author, I don’t understand why it would have been so difficult for Rowling to include a line or two in any Harry Potter book about Jewish Hogwarts students lighting a menorah in the Great Hall.
That noted, lighting a menorah is the bare minimum of what Rowling could have, and should have, included in regard to non-Christian holidays. At the beginning of the school year there could have been apples and honey or challah on the table for Rosh Hashanah. A professor could have cancelled class on Yom Kippur, leaving Harry and his friends to spend that time studying in the Gryffindor common room instead. There are infinite possibilities, and yet we’re left with Christmas and only Christmas. From just the books, we wouldn’t be able to tell that any other holiday, besides Easter, existed.
The easiest way to see the lack of representation in the series may be its over-significance on Christmas, but it’s not the only way. The lack of character descriptors and their respective significance in the storylines shows yet another.
It wasn’t until December 2014, seven and a half years after the last Harry Potter book was published, that J.K. Rowling was finally asked about Jewish characters at Hogwarts. To this, she tweeted plainly: “Anthony Goldstein, Ravenclaw, Jewish wizard.”
.@benjaminroffman Anthony Goldstein, Ravenclaw, Jewish wizard.
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) December 16, 2014
Without further prompting, she clarified:
OK, let me clarify that! Anthony isn't the first Jewish student, nor is he the only one. I just have reasons for knowing most about him!
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) December 17, 2014
Having trouble remembering who Anthony Goldstein is? I don’t blame you. According to Rowling herself, Anthony was one of the original forty first years she created. Still, you don’t find out about him until the fifth book in the series when he becomes a Ravenclaw prefect and participates in Dumbledore’s Army. Any other information you learn about him either comes from Rowling’s Twitter account years after the final book’s publishing date, subsequent video games or random assumptions not based on facts. This is to say, nowhere in the books do we learn of Anthony’s Jewish heritage. He is simply not important enough for his religion to be discussed.
In my opinion, having even one non-Christian minor character in this series would have been enough, although still criticism-worthy. However, only including one Jewish character with no indication of his religion other than his name, and no mention whatsoever until book five, is perplexing to me. I don’t think we should have to look to other sources outside of these books to learn about Jewish and other non-Christian characters in the Wizarding World. I sincerely wish Rowling had taken that into account while plotting out and writing her books. And I always appreciate it in other writers.