After finishing this lovely and lyrical book on Saturday afternoon, I continued holding it for a while, reluctant to let it go, to put it down on the bedside table, wanting to stay wrapped in the translucent veil of the story just a little longer.
Here are the bare bones of the plot. A golem and a jinni find themselves in turn-of-the-century New York. To fit in, the golem becomes a baker. The jinni becomes a tinsmith.
But oh, there’s so much more. This book, by Helene Wecker, is like a fable, a new folktale.
Once upon a time, in Jewish communities sprinkled throughout Eastern Europe, men studied Talmud and ran businesses, and women washed and scrubbed and cooked and marketed and sewed and raised children. In fact, you could say that a woman was no better than a golem; bound to one master, expected to be submissive in nature, doomed to repeat the same dreary tasks again and again until she died-and was returned to the earth.
And then, beginning in the 1880s, Jews started emigrating to America. Where, with a little luck, a person could be anything she chose to be, if she worked hard enough.
So, yes, Chava is a golem, made from clay, who has lost her master. But she doesn’t like freedom. Independence means having to make decisions, having to lead her own life. Her greatest wish is to appear normal, and her greatest terror is being discovered for what she truly is. She must constantly fight the desire to help everyone she meets, people whose needs batter her and intrude upon her thoughts, wherever she goes. Incidentally, this describes pretty much every woman I’ve ever met.
Like Chava, Ahmad the jinni is not quite human; he’s made of fire, literally and figuratively. When he emerges from the copper flask that contains him, he has no idea how he was trapped there, or for how long. He’s fairly certain that it involved a wizard, but his memory of the actual event is blanked out. Ahmad becomes an artisan, a metalworker in Little Syria. By day, he repairs pots with Arbeely, the immigrant who accidentally freed him. By night, the jinni roams the streets of Manhattan, occasionally trysting with Sophia Winston, a vaguely unhappy heiress, who, like the golem, is doomed to live out a dull, predictable existence. Sophia is a gilded bird in a gilded cage, like the little sculptures Ahmad makes to amuse himself.
It took me a while to figure him out, but when I did, it hit me with blinding force. Ahmad is every artist who ever left a sad past behind him and traveled somewhere far away to create a new life – a life in New York, where you can be anyone you want to be.
Delicately, like one of the jinni’s filigreed designs or the golem’s braided challahs, Wecker weaves the threads of her story, finally bringing Chava and Ahmad together. Though they are temperamental opposites-the golem is all about caution and practicality, Ahmad is drawn to the element of risk-to their surprise, they find they need and complement each other.
To be fair, I should mention that this book landed in my heart with a surprising thump of familiarity. Both of these people are me, the artist and the nice Jewish girl. Little Syria, on Washington Street, was my old stomping grounds; when I lived downtown, my favorite breakfast place was Florent, on Ganesvoort Street.
I want to tell you more, but it wouldn’t be fair. Let’s just say that this is a book about desire, and about sublimating those desires. About art, and the art of creation. About love, about responsibility, about overcoming tragedy, and about learning to live with the things you’ve done. A book of fire and earth.