So two renews ago, I checked out The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker from my public library and I’m absolutely smitten with this debut (I’m also uber jealous of the author’s talent, but I digress). I rarely read adult fiction, mainly because as a YA writer, I’m mostly interested in reading YA books. But sometimes an amazing book comes along that checks all the boxes. Historical fiction. Supernatural creatures. Jewish folklore. 1899 NYC. Immigrants! And I just have to read it.
It’s 1899, and a female Golem, a supernatural creature made of clay, arrives on the shores of New York City. Widowed and with no master to guide her, the Golem is lost. She can speak any language and can read people’s thoughts, but she cannot blend into the throng of immigrants. Not without help. At the same time in New York, a Jinni appears in a tinsmith shop. He is released from a flask with no clothes and no protection until the kindly Syrian shop owner offers him a job and helps him navigate the city. Despite the kindness of benefactors, the Golem and the Jinni can’t shake their otherworldliness. In a random meeting, they discover a connection and they quickly become friends. Together, they explore the city and ponder their futures. Because what can two immortal creatures do for eternity? Not much more than the mundane, it seems. But, there is someone lurking, someone who can wield power and destroy them. Life becomes pretty precious when you can lose it.
The Golem and the Jinni is the book I wish I had written. It’s imaginative, character-driven and compelling. Wecker combines both Jewish and Middle Eastern folklore and sets the story in the richly-detailed Lower East Side.
I’m particularly drawn to this story because my family (both sides) comes from the Lower East Side. My grandma grew up in a railroad apartment on Avenue B and my grandpa grew up in a tenement on Avenue D. My paternal great-grandparents lived somewhere over too when they arrived from Odessa, Ukraine. My roots and my history are in New York. In fact, just yesterday, I asked my grandparents if they knew the word ‘Golem.’ My grandma did not, but my grandpa not only knew the word, he knew the Yiddish pronunciation. It sounded something like “Gurlem.” He added this soft ‘r’ into the word. I couldn’t recreate the pronunciation if I tried. However, his mother taught him that a Golem was an evil being. He didn’t know about the stories of creatures made of clay. Still, he knew the word and remembered his mother telling him about them (pretty good recall for an 86-year-old man). And I got to hear a brief tidbit of family history.
Whether you were Polish or Ukrainian, if you were Jewish, you spoke Yiddish. It was a unifying language; a language that connected Ashkenazi Jews from all over Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, the only Yiddish words I know are the few I’ve learned from my grandparents and those that have popped up into our vernacular. You know…putz, schvitz, shlepp. (On a side note: if you’re interested in the Yiddish language, check out this book — Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books by Aaron Lansky.) Unfortunately, Yiddish is a dying language and my generation will probably never know it.
That’s why books like The Golem and the Jinni are special to me. Stories like this remind me of my personal connection to the immigrant experience that I don’t think about enough. Because had my great-grandparents not arrived at Ellis Island from Odessa in the early 20th century and toiled away in a tenement, I wouldn’t be here luxuriously writing a blog post and drinking a cup of coffee — my life eons easier than theirs ever was. And that’s meaningful to me.
So, dear readers, what books have you read that are truly memorable? Books that have reminded you of a connection to your family? your heritage? your past? Or books that you just can’t shake? I hope you’ll comment below.