The Golems of Gotham, a review

The Golems of Gotham, a novel by Thane Rosenbaum

I wrongly expected this book, with its focus on Holocaust remembrance, to make me cry. Given the vastness of its horror, the Holocaust is a subject that is difficult to think about without real and tangible grief. However, although this book did directly address issues of Holocaust remembrance, it did so with too cautious a hand to evoke such strong emotion.

Author Thane Rosenbaum is the son of Holocaust survivors, whose outspoken writing often demands authentic reflection. His perception of post-Holocaust work is born from his experience of what it feels like from the inside. He has openly criticized films such as Life is Beautiful, and museum exhibits of Holocaust inspired artwork, for trivializing atrocity. The danger in this, and he’s not the first or only one to say so, is that we may gradually diminish, accept, or forget the Holocaust, when instead we should continually remember its horribleness in full.

Given this initial familiarity with the man behind the book, I expected something pretty heavy. I expected incisive commentary, voiced through the characters’ actions, devoid of sentimentality. And, because the novel brings back to life, in golem or ghostly form, six real Holocaust survivors who were some of our most famous Holocaust writers, a strong reprimand for forgetting was also expected.

Having such expectations was my mistake, and I was surprised by the book, but pleasantly so. The Golems of Gotham is a fantasy novel (with a message), and as such, it offers us a warm, comical, and imaginative way of looking at and dealing with post-Holocaust complexities and questions regarding the possibility of faith in a world of inhumanity, the seeming necessity of suicide as a response to the witnessing of extreme suffering, and even modern Jewish identity.

The tale begins as two Holocaust survivors, Rose and Lothar Levin, take their own lives in their Miami synagogue one Saturday. Their suicides are shocking and inexplicable. These are Holocaust survivors after all – isn’t their greatest fulfillment found in simply being alive? They leave behind a son, college aged Oliver, whose story we pick up when he is a frustrated writer in middle age, raising fourteen-year-old daughter Ariel, alone.

Oliver and Ariel live in a brownstone on Edgar Allen Poe Street in New York City, or Gotham. Ariel recognizes Oliver’s brokenness, much attributable to the fact that the love of his life and Ariel’s mother Samantha, abandoned them twelve years earlier. What Oliver hasn’t allowed acknowledgement of is the pain caused by the deaths of his parents, and by the suffering that lies deep within him, from being a descendent of the Holocaust. Ariel feels the strong urge to fix her damaged parent, and sets out to do so with great energy and inspiration.

Ariel is the true star of this book, although the story is largely Oliver’s, and becomes everyone’s through the questions it directs towards us. She is an amazing but believable kid, with a big heart, wry wit, and enough naiveté to show her age. Her plan to save her father begins with a battered blue violin that she suddenly begins playing like a virtuoso one day, the story of a little red lighthouse, and some Hudson River clay. She determinedly sets out to resurrect her grandparents’ ghosts, by making a golem, a Jewish mythical being of rescue and retribution.

With a sincere but unguided attempt at Kabbalah, Ariel does more than make her golem and resurrect her grandparents’ ghosts. Along with them, thanks to raising a bit too much energy during her magical working and to a wild misuse of gematria, six Holocaust authors who also died through suicide come back to the world of the living.

These eight then inhabit the Levin home, and bring lessons and healing to both Oliver and Ariel, and renewed devotion to Jewish traditions in the neighborhoods of Manhattan. As The Golems of Gotham is a fantasy novel, Rosenbaum puts words into the mouths of Primo Levi, Jean Amery, Paul Celan, Piotr Rawicz, Jerzy Kosinski, and Tadeusz Borowski, that may never have been there otherwise, and has them romping through streets and subway tunnels, freely engaging in religious argument and political discussion. It is Rosenbaum’s imagining of these six famous authors that comes through here, but in bringing them back to life, even for a fictional moment, Rosenbaum reminds us of their lives, their deaths, and their legacies of work.

The book is fantastical. Tattoos disappear from bodies (unless they were numbers branded into flesh by Nazis), the stripes vanish from New York Yankees uniforms, and all smoke stops billowing from the city. Klezmer music finds a new following outside Zabar’s, people return to temple, and a Chanukah menorah upstages the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. All of this happens magically, and the people of the city delight in it.

And it is a delightful book. It is fun and funny, wonderfully written, and truly engaging. Rosenbaum expresses real insight, and asks important questions. But, even after realizing my expectations were likely unfair, I still wished to see something more. I felt, as I progressed further through the book, that Rosenbaum was holding back, that he owns a power much like Ariel’s, but he wouldn’t let his sing. Early in the book, we enter Oliver’s thoughts to hear,

“When art is pumping on all emotional cylinders, when it shakes itself loose from what the mind will believe, when it aspires not to copy but to reinvent, not to please but to disturb – to rub everyone the wrong way – the result can split your veins, crush your heart like a piece of fruit, make you gasp and breathe backwards.”

This is exciting! And though Oliver admits to not being an artist who can accomplish this, it is easy to see that Rosenbaum is, especially in many of the early passages. But where he lets go of his impassioned writing, he picks up with imprecise storytelling. He reinvents and sometimes disturbs, but does not draw that gasp.

Rosenbaum’s anger at injustice shines in Oliver’s introspections, and falters in the actions of his resurrected heroes. In reaction to an overheard conversation between mother and child at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., Oliver asks the reader, “When did indifference and amnesia begin to rule the world, or was it always this way?” This gently heated inquiry is pondered for another few paragraphs, but the book overall seems merely to suggest awareness, rather than insist on it.

Towards the end is another disappointment, in this book that is generally quite wonderful. Oliver is healed, and Ariel receives the gift of family, so for them, the golems of Gotham have served and provided. The ghosts themselves do not find true fulfillment, and this is one of the larger tragedies here, to resurrect such souls and not reward them with real answers, real peace, or real change. Author Elie Wiesel (who also shows up in this story) has said, in speaking of Primo Levi and Holocaust writers in general, “Like Kafka’s unfortunate messenger, he realizes that his message has been neither received nor transmitted. Or worse, it has been, and nothing has changed.” In The Golems of Gotham, Rosenbaum offers Levi and the others no evidence that anything has changed. His story is only a reminder to us; it is not a guarantee to them, that the world will be made different. So we view their lives for a while, dip into their collective pain, watch them behave recklessly, and send them off without any true recovery of their spirits.

What we recover from reading The Golems of Gotham, is an understanding of the importance of remembering the Holocaust, which means bringing it to our tables, offering apology to those who have suffered it – the survivors and their descendents, and respecting the experience as sacred. In this way, the real ghosts of the survivors might be honored, and in this way, Rosenbaum has succeeded in his story.

Originally published at Green Man Review

© Nellie Levine