Off the Shelf: Sorrows and joys in old and new countries

There are some novels that are so distinctive that they’re difficult to describe. This was true of two recent books: “Before All the World” by Moriel Rothman-Zecher (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and “When the Angels Left the Old Country” by Sacha Lamb (Levine Querido). The former packed a powerful punch, making it one of the most impressive books I’ve read recently. The latter was delightful, surprising me into laughter, while still having serious moments. One has elements of magical realism, while the other contains moments of sheer fantasy. In both, the characters began their lives in Europe, but, for different reasons, moved to the United States. And, while I loved each novel, I know that – sigh – for a variety of reasons, they won’t appeal to everyone. Why the sigh? Because it’s hard not to grab my friends and say, “You must read these books!”

The premise of “Before All the World” is that it’s actually a novel written by one of its main characters, Gittl Khayles, and translated by another, Charles Patterson. Gittl tells not only the story of what happened to her native shtetl Zatelsk, but how she rescued a fellow villager, the teenage Loeb, and sent him to the United States. There Loeb meets Charles, an African American radical, at what would now be called a gay bar. However, in the early part of the 20th century, it went by no name because it was not only the Jewish community that frowned on homosexuality. The two men come together and are later joined by Gittl, who has been brought to the U.S. by a benefactor who was impressed with a poem she wrote. What they do with their lives forms the central plot of the novel. 

However, it’s not the details of the plot, but the work’s emotional look at discrimination – against Jews, gays and Blacks – that forms its heart and soul. What makes it difficult, but amazing, to read is its prose: a mixture of English and Yiddish, featuring periodic run-on sentences that force readers to concentrate on the meaning of – and behind – the words used. Words that are normally capitalized appear in lower case and the cadence offers a Yiddish slant. For example, when describing Zatelsk, Gittl writes, “Zatelsk, jewish for a mound of upground carp, jewish for an endless circle, jewish for the feeling of a jew’s being awaycast crust of blackbread in a vastish sea, when said jew has never seen the sea, nor would said jew ever awaycast a crust of bread into the neverseen sea unless it was smaller than an olive, what said jew had also never seen, and what this one, this particular crust of bread, was not.” The novel also shows the pain of survival: Gittl and Loeb are the soul survivors of a massacre, one that Rothman-Zecher enumerates in a painful, moving and heart-breaking 46-page chapter called “The List.” 

So, why did I love this novel? Perhaps because the author’s message – one shared by Gittl – is ultimately hopeful: the hope for a better world, because, in spite of everything that has happened to Gittl, she does not believe “all the world is darkness.” The connections and love she shares provide pockets of light. Although difficult to read and to describe, “Before All the World” took me on a wild, but ultimately wonderful, ride.

In contrast to the dark tone offered by “Before All the World,” “When the Angels Left the Old Country” is a lighter work, even as it also discusses difficult topics. In this case, the way that Jews emigrating from Europe were taken advantage of in their home countries and their new one. Two of its three main characters are unusual: Uriel, an angel, and Little Ash, a demon (whose full name is Ashmeda), have been studying together for centuries in a little synagogue in a shtetl that is so small it doesn’t have a name. Their study is disturbed when they learn Essie, the daughter of one of the men in the town, has gone missing after traveling to the United States. The two creatures decide to discover what happened to Essie, which ultimately means traveling to the U.S. On their way, they befriend Rose Cohen, who left her hometown heartbroken after her best friend married.

There are, of course, numerous obstacles on the way – everything from sea sickness to medical exams at Ellis Island to mob bosses and their hired goons. But while the plot is wonderful, it’s the relationship between Uriel and Little Ash that offers the most fun. The two are like a comedy team, either misunderstanding what the other says or misreading their own emotions. They have opposite impulses and feelings when dealing with humans. Take, for example, Yossel, who is trying to cheat them. Uriel sees the man’s “reasons for committing his crime, many of which were perfectly admirable. For instance, Yossel lived with a woman who was, according to her papers, his wife, and she and a woman identified by law as her sister had, from somewhere, acquired a parcel of children. Someone had to support those children, and at least one-third of the time, that someone was Yossel.” Little Ash, on the other hand, clearly sees the bad in Yossel; he loves “dealing with rogues and cheats,” because he knows how to manipulate them to do what he wants. In this case, though, both angel and demon want the same thing: to find out what happened to Essie – and Yossel may be able to tell them.

However, it’s not just the supernatural characters in “When the Angels Left the Old Country” who are engaging. I loved Rose’s spunk and her desire to create a new life for herself in the U.S. Even the minor characters – from the immigrants organizing strikes to the gangsters seeking to stop that action – add to the fun. While the novel also contains Yiddish, it offers a handy glossary at its end. Lovers of novels with a fantastical edge may add Uriel and Little Ash to their list of wonderful characters they’d like to read about again. They’ve certainly made mine.