Off the Shelf: Angels, alternative worlds and Jewish themes

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The best part of reading novels based on Jewish fantasy and folklore is the wide range of material offered. If you add real-life settings (well, at least, for parts of the book), then you create the elements for some of my favorite genre reading. What is particularly fun is that the two novels featured in this review – “The Book of Paradise” by Itzik Manger, translated from the Yiddish by Robert Adler Peckerar (Puskin Press Classics) and “The Pomegranate Gate” by Ariel Kaplan (Erewhon Books/Kensington Publishing Company) – were initially published 80 years apart. How lucky it is that books like “The Book of Paradise” are still available when new works like “The Pomegranate Gate” are appearing – a phenomenon that shows how Jewish fantasy is flourishing in contemporary times.

“The Book of Paradise” was initially serialized in a Warsaw newspaper before being published in book format in 1939, when its author was living as a stateless person in Paris. Although Manger survived the war, he never wrote another novel. His narrator, Samuel Abba, is a young angel who is forced to leave heaven so his soul can be placed in a human body. However, Samuel plays a trick on the angel bringing him to earth: he manages to avoid having his memory of heaven erased. That means this newly born infant can speak and does so at great length, telling his parents, the town’s rabbi and two other members of his community stories about heaven – that is, when he is not being fed by his mother or napping like any other child.

Heaven is actually divided into three parts: there is the Jewish one, of course, filled with rabbis and characters from the Bible, who don’t act much better than they did on earth. There is also a Gentile heaven (for Christians) and a Turkish one (for Muslims). The angels and humans from each do not mingle. In fact, the borders between their heavens are carefully guarded and very difficult to cross. The angels, at least in Samuel’s heaven, are no saints, either: they drink, fight and cheat. In fact, they seem remarkably human. 

The novel is really a satire on human behavior and it does an excellent job showing its characters’ faults and foibles. At first, the work had no plot other than Samuel Abba being born and his discourses about his heavenly adventures with his good friend Little Pisser (yes, that really is his name), but, just when I was wondering if the satire – which was very funny – would be enough to sustain the novel, a plot did develop. The Behemoth – a humongous beast mentioned in the Book of Job – is being fattened so that after the messiah comes the righteous will be able to feast on his flesh. The beast escapes from the Jewish heaven to the Gentile one, where he is punished for crossing the border without permission. The righteous members of the Jewish heaven are very upset and worried the Behemoth will not be available when the time comes for their feast. Samuel Abba and Little Pisser are picked to travel to the Gentile heaven and bring the Behemoth back once his punishment is over.

“The Book of Paradise” serves as a commentary on the society of its time, although readers don’t need to know about 1930s Poland in order to appreciate the satire because humans today closely resemble those about whom Manger writes. Lovers of Jewish folklore will enjoy seeing how the author brings biblical and rabbinic writings to life, although with his own special touch. In the introduction to the book published in 1939, Manger wrote that this was to be the first book in a trilogy: he planned to write “The Book of the Earth” and “The Book of the World of Chaos.” It’s readers’ loss that those works never appeared.

While the plot of “The Book of Paradise” has no connection to a specific historical event, “The Pomegranate Gate,” the first work in “The Mirror Realm Cycle” trilogy, takes place during the Spanish Inquisition. It focuses on two characters: Toba Peres, who is so weak that she can’t run or shout. Instead she spends her days reading and listening to her grandfather teach. Naftaly is so unsuccessful as a tailor that he wonders if he’ll ever be able to make a living. Even worse, he frequently has strange dreams and is known to fall into a trance-like state – two things his father forbids him to speak about. 

When the Queen demands every Jew in her kingdom convert or emigrate, Toba and Naftaly leave with their families in the hope of finding a safe place to live. Although they are not supposed to bring anything of value with them, Toba hides an amulet she’s never taken off – an amulet given to her by her grandmother for protection. Naftaly also hides something: a book his father said must never leave his possession, but which is never to be opened.

When Toba stumbles through a pomegranate gate to the magical world of the Maziks, she begins to understand her true nature. Naftaly realizes the people in his dream-world are real: they are Maziks, connected to the world where Toba now finds herself. Can Naftaly – with the help of Toba’s grandmother and another fellow traveler – save Toba? Will Toba finally open herself to her true nature? And while doing so, can they save both worlds from an insidious plot that might destroy them?
This very short plot summary does not do justice to the complex and absorbing action in the novel’s almost 550 pages – pages that flew by. In addition its two main characters, the work’s many minor characters – and there are many of them – are as well drawn and interesting as its two major characters. Although the multi-page character list at the start of the book might frighten readers, it’s easy to follow the plot and learn which characters belong to which world; there is also a glossary at the end for unfamiliar Jewish terms. 

What also makes “The Pomegranate Gate” stand out is that Kaplan leavens her story with some laugh-out-loud humor. Plus, it’s wonderful to read a work that offers a Sephardic slant to its fantasy. The fantasy elements, which borrow from Jewish folklore, are extremely well done, as are Kaplan’s own fantasy inventions. Its ending surprised, startled and left me wishing the second book was already available. According to the bookstores, volume two is due out in October. I can’t wait to find out what happens.