Off the Shelf: Saints, a living house, ghosts and fantastical moments

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Saints, demons and other mythical creatures

When one describes a novel as containing “everything but the kitchen sink,” it’s usually not meant in a positive way. In the case of “The Hidden Saint” by Mark Levenson (Level Best Books/New Arc), that phrase should read “everything and the kitchen sink,” which, in this case, is a compliment. Levenson manages to include an amazing range of creatures from Jewish mythology and not only write a convincing story, but an engrossing and dramatic one.

In the 18th century, the belief in imps and demons was common. After all, the rabbis in the Talmud offered suggestions on how one could protect oneself from these creatures. Men about to wed were especially in danger from Lilith, a demon who was described in midrash as the biblical Adam’s first wife. It’s no surprise, then, that wedding celebrations in the novel go awry due to the interference of supernatural forces. Unfortunately for Rabbi Adam, not only are his new son and daughter-in-law affected by this evil, but his two other children. To save them from these forces, he must enlist a golem and one of the lamed vavniks (the 36 righteous people without which the world could not exist) to help him fight the evil that seeks to destroy the world. He must also right a wrong he committed years ago – one that changed more than the course of his own life. Underlying the story is the more everyday – but just as affective – tale of Rabbi Adam and his wife, Sarah, whose marriage has long been devoid of emotional connection. Although Sarah plays a lesser role in the action, she plays a large emotional one.

While “The Hidden Saint” is a fantasy steeped in Jewish lore and learning, it also offers universal lessons about humanity. When talking about the difficult tasks they face, Adam and the lamed vavnik discuss whether anyone could become one of the righteous 36. Adam notes that “knowing right from wrong can’t be that hard.” The lamed vavnik answers, “Knowing what’s right is easy. Doing what’s right, when it takes compassion, or courage, or faith... well, that’s the hard part. But it’s not beyond anyone, Rabbi Adam, remember that.” This moving work will rank high on any listing of Jewish fantasy.

A sentient house on chicken legs

Novels can take you by surprise. For example, “Thistlefoot” by GennaRose Nethercott, seems at first glance to be nothing more than an interesting Jewish fantasy focusing on two siblings with special powers. By the end of the work, however, it offered a powerful, moving look at Jewish history. 

The siblings are Bellatine and Isaac Yagas, who used to help with their parents’ puppet theater when they were young. Isaac has been wandering aimlessly across the country since he left home as a teenager. For reasons that are revealed later in the novel, Bellatine works as a woodworker/carpenter. The two have not seen each other since Isaac deserted her without a note, something Bellatine greatly resents. They are brought together when they receive a joint inheritance from their late great-great-grandmother, which has been delivered after a required 70 year waiting period. The inheritance – Thistlefoot, a house that is aware of its surroundings and walks on very large chicken legs – is completely unexpected. Bellatine immediately falls in love with the house, which Isaac is willing to give to her if she will tour the country with the puppets their parents used when they were children so he can raise enough money to pay off a debt. Against her better judgment, Bellatine agrees. But there is more to the house than they realize: someone wants to destroy it; while searching for Thistlefoot, he spreads chaos and death in his wake. The siblings, with a few companions they acquire in their travels, must not only discover the true nature of the person they call the Longshadow Man, but why he wants to destroy Thistlefoot. 

The story is told through three points of view: Bellatine, Isaac and Thistlefoot. The house offers numerous variations on how she came to be before revealing the true and devastating reason behind her existence. This reality not only explains the siblings’ powers, but what they need to do to become emotionally whole. Some of the concluding scenes are awe inspiring and will move readers to tears as they reveal the dark history of European Jewry.
Magic and music

It’s not uncommon for parents and children to disagree about the direction a child’s life should take. It’s also not uncommon for immigrants to the United States to prefer that their child seek financial security, rather than pursue an artistic pathway. While 16-year-old Ilana Lopez, who is biracial and Jewish, can appreciate why her parents feel this way, she wants to pursue a musical career because playing the violin makes her feel alive. In “The Ghosts of Rose Hill” by R. M. Romero (Peach Tree Teen) Ilana’s parents have sent her to Prague to spend the summer with her father’s sister, a poor artist. Ilana is supposed to spend her days studying to better her grades on college admission tests and is not even allowed to bring her violin with her.

Her Aunt Zofie supports Ilana’s desire to be an artist, but Ilana feels she can’t defy her parents. However, she finds it difficult to study and wanders up the hill behind her aunt’s cottage, where she finds a Jewish cemetery. Determined to cut back the branches and rid the gravestones of the ivy and moss covering them, she works regularly in the cemetery. There she meets Daniel, a ghost, whom she befriends. But there is more to Daniel’s story than she at first expects, including a relationship with the mysterious Rudolf Wassermann, whose plays the violin on the streets of Prague and offers to lend Ilana his wonderful instrument. Ilana is drawn into Wassermann’s web as she and Daniel become closer, but there are forces that could destroy her life if she’s not careful.

“The Ghosts of Rose Hill” is written in prose poetry, which is easy to read and fits the mood of the story. The adjective that first came to mind was lovely, although there is grit underlying Ilana’s reactions. The author does an excellent job mixing religion and ghosts, along with showing how Ilana becomes brave enough to embrace what she wants in life. While the novel is aimed at teens, adults who enjoy fantasy will also find much to enjoy.

Fantastical short stories

Short story collections are often hit and miss. However, the range of my reactions to “Burning Girls and Other Stories” by Veronica Schanoes (A Tor Doherty Associates Books) surprised me. While I found some of the stories wonderful, others were puzzling and difficult to appreciate. Reviewing my reactions made me realize that I enjoyed the stories that featured more plot and character development. The ones that didn’t appeal were more fantastical fables, although all the stories are well written.

All the tales contain elements of fantasy, although the more developed stories are grounded in the real horrors humans face in this world. For example, “Among the Thorns” is a wonderful story of revenge that speaks to how Jews were unfairly treated in the 16th century. Its ending is deeply satisfying. “Phosphorus,” which features Irish characters living in 19th century London, shows how the poor – particularly women – were treated as disposable. Although it contains no Jewish characters, it has a Jewish sensibility. “Emma Goldman Takes Tea with the Baba Yaga” also features that sensibility. The story takes place after Goldman has been expelled from the U.S. and is living in the U.S.S.R. Goldman is disappointed in Soviet communism, but the question becomes whether she is willing to give up on trying to change the world.

The final story, the award-winning story “Burning Girls,” is worth the price of the book. Two sisters emigrate to the United States because their mother foresees their deaths if they remain in Europe. Deborah, the narrator, and her pampered sister, Shayna, first find work in the garment district. However, Deborah learned medicine and magic from her grandmother while still in Europe and soon establishes a network of women who seek her medical help for themselves and their children. Shayna, however, is satisfied with her job and hopes to become a sample maker. But trouble enters their home and what at first seems to be an answer becomes... that’s for readers to discover at the end of this powerful work.

Other readers may find the less plotted stories of interest. “How to Bring Someone Back from the Dead,” “Alice: A Fantasia” and “Lost in the Supermarket” left me puzzled, although that might have been because of the age difference between me and the author. The story “Rats” made more sense, but only because I was able to guess (I hope correctly since the author only gives clues) the real life people on which it was based.

But what stands out in all these stories is how Schanoes uses fairy tales to comment on real life. When doing so, she manages to combine fantasy and harsh reality to create something new. While readers may not agree on which stories are the best, most will find ones to appreciate.