A Day of Small Beginnings

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Overview

Poland, 1906: on a cold spring night, in the small Jewish cemetery of Zokof, Friedl Alterman is wakened from death. On the ground above her crouches Itzik Leiber, a reclusive, unbelieving fourteen-year-old whose fatal mistake has spurred the town's angry residents to violence. The childless Friedl rises to guide him to safety - only to find she cannot go back to her grave. Now Friedl is trapped in that thin world between life and death, her brash decision binding her forever to Itzik and his family: she is fated ...

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A Day of Small Beginnings

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Overview

Poland, 1906: on a cold spring night, in the small Jewish cemetery of Zokof, Friedl Alterman is wakened from death. On the ground above her crouches Itzik Leiber, a reclusive, unbelieving fourteen-year-old whose fatal mistake has spurred the town's angry residents to violence. The childless Friedl rises to guide him to safety - only to find she cannot go back to her grave. Now Friedl is trapped in that thin world between life and death, her brash decision binding her forever to Itzik and his family: she is fated to be forever restless, and he, forever haunted by the ghosts of his past. "Years later, after Itzik himself has gone to his grave, his son, Nathan, knows nothing of his bitter father's childhood. When he begrudgingly goes to Poland on business, Nathan decides on a whim to visit his ancestral town. There, in Zokof, he meets the mysterious Rafael, the town's last remaining Jew, who promises to pass on all the things Itzik had failed to teach his son - about Zokof, about his faith, and about himself." "And yet, like the generation before him, Nathan keeps what he learns hidden inside himself. With the family legacy in danger of being lost, Friedl's restless spirit guides Itzik's precocious granddaughter, Ellen, on a journey of her own to Zokof, where only Friedl can help Ellen unlock the mysteries of her family's past - and only Ellen can help Friedl break her agonizing enslavement."—BOOK JACKET.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Review from Discover Great New Writers
In 1906, the spirit of Freidl Alterman rests uncomfortably in a small Jewish cemetery in Poland. In life, she was childless and disappointed in marriage; in death, her restless soul wanders without solace. Meanwhile, young Itzik Leiber, pursued by an angry mob for the accidental death of a Polish peasant, is running for his life. Desperate for help, he throws himself on Freidl's grave and prays for God's protection. At last, Freidl thinks, a child! And she rises from the earth to guide the boy to safety. But even Freidl knows Itzik's life will never be the same. Fearing retribution from the mob, he flees to America.

Decades after his escape, Itzik refuses to acknowledge his old memories. But after his death, his son, Nathan, and his granddaughter, Ellen, make their own journeys to Poland. Back in the old country, Freidl leads them to Itzik's birthplace, where they meet the town's sole surviving Jew. Only here, Freidl believes, can the Leiber family piece together the richness of a legacy that was very nearly lost, and only this, she knows, will bring her the peace she so deserves.

Spanning generations and continents to reveal a family's -- and a country's -- history, A Day of Small Beginnings immerses readers in a vivid, lyrical world and introduces a clear, graceful, and important voice in modern literature. (Holiday 2006 Selection)
Publishers Weekly
Rosenbaum's debut sets The Lovely Bones to strains of Fiddler on the Roof. In rural Zokof, Poland, in 1906, young Itzik Leiber protects three small Jewish boys from a beating, resulting in the accidental death of a menacing Polish peasant. Itzik hides in a Jewish cemetery where he unknowingly draws the soul of Friedl Alterman who died the previous year at 83. Friedl, childless in life, protects Itzik as he flees Zokof for Warsaw, then America. Fast forward 86 years as Itzik's son, Nathan Linden (name change), a scholar of international law, is a guest of the Polish government. He is drawn to his father's hometown (via a still-protective Friedl), and there he comes upon Rafael Bergson, "the last Jew in Zokof," who forces Nathan to confront his ambiguous feelings about religion and begs him to help restore Friedl's spirit through prayer and ritual. But it may be up to Ellen, Nathan's free-spirited choreographer daughter, to come to Poland to liberate Friedl's soul. Friedl's voice retreats after the early chapters, and Rosenbaum handles the shifts in voice, time and place smoothly. She packs a lot of Jewish history, recent and otherwise, into this luminous tale, as well as joy in the arts and in prayer. (Nov.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This brilliant debut novel opens in 1906 in the small Polish town of Zokof, where Itzik Leiber, a 14-year-old Jewish boy, comes to the rescue of three Jewish children being whipped by a Polish peasant. In the melee, the peasant's horse falls, killing its owner. Terrified, Itzik hides in the cemetery, prays for protection, and accidentally breaks the gravestone of Freidl Alterman, who arises as a spirit to guide him. After a Polish pogrom on the 5000 Jews of Zokof, Itzik becomes a Socialist and escapes to America. In 1991, after Itzik's death, his grown son, Nathan Linden, goes to Poland to help with a Polish constitution and eventually meets Raphael Bergson, the last remaining Jew of Zokov. Through Raphael and the spirit of Freidl, Nathan learns of his heritage, but it is left to Nathan's daughter, Ellen, a choreographer on a dance commission in Poland, to learn what happened to Itzik and set the parts of Freidl's gravestone right again. Filled with folklore, ritual, mysticism, scholarship, and good storytelling, this book of three generations of a Jewish family is one to savor. Recommended for all libraries. Molly Abramowitz, Silver Spring, MD Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A Jewish woman's ghost in Poland tries to influence three generations of a family of nonbelievers as debut novelist Rosenbaum tackles major themes of Jewish identity and belief in God. In 1905, 83-year-old Friedl Alterman's soul awakens in the village of Zokof's Jewish cemetery when young Itzik Lieber hugs her gravestone while hiding from a Polish mob after an act of heroism. Although Itzik has what she considers the soul of a raw potato, Friedl's spirit protects him and guides him to Warsaw and into the care of a young socialist who gets Itzik safely to America. Friedl then waits in a blue void until 1991, when Itzik's son Nathan, a constitutional scholar who knows little of his father's early life and disdains his father's anti-intellectual socialism, attends a seminar in Poland. Shocked at the country's widespread anti-Semitism, he visits Zokof and meets Rafael, Zokof's last surviving Jew. Raphael, whom Friedl also protects, tells him Itzik's story, but despite dreamlike visits from Friedl herself, Nathan returns to America with his soul only half-cooked because he cannot accept his belief in God. A year later, after Nathan's sudden, fatal heart attack, his daughter Ellen, a choreographer, accepts a three-month dance project in Krakow. She too is jolted by the anti-Semitism she finds. She also meets and falls in love with Marek, a Polish Catholic drawn to Jewish music. When Friedl's spirit visits, Ellen is far more receptive than Nathan. She and Marek help Rafael re-establish the Jewish cemetery, while through dance, Ellen finds a way to release Friedl's spirit, and perhaps her own. Rosenbaum's first 50 pages, told in the voice of the ghost of Friedl, are full of beauty, energy andwisdom. But the later sections suffer from a more pedestrian narrative that borders on doctrinaire.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780316014519
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • Publication date: 11/3/2006
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 1,431,052
  • Product dimensions: 6.25 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.12 (d)

Read an Excerpt

1

WHEN I WENT TO MY REST IN 1905 I WAS EIGHTY-THREE AND childless, aggravated that life was done with me and that I was done with life. I turned my face from the Angel of Death and recited the Psalm of David: What do You gain by my blood if I go down to the Pit? Can the dust praise You? If God's answer was punishment for my sins or praise for my good deeds, I cannot say.

Understand, I did not call Itzik Leiber to my grave that spring night when my return to the living began. The boy had already jumped the wall of our cemetery, our House of the Living, as we call it. He was down on all fours, like an animal, looking for a place to hide. What's this? I thought.

Sleep, Freidl, sleep, I told myself. An old woman like you is entitled. What did I need with trouble? I was a year in the grave. My stone was newly laid, still unsettled in the earth. I had no visitors. In death, as in life, people kept their distance. In our town, a childless woman's place was on the outside.

And yet, from the hundreds of gravestones that could have hidden him that night, Itzik Leiber chose mine. His knees, his toes dug into the earth above me. His fingers scraped at the bird with open wings engraved on the dome of my stone. He panted and he pushed against the indentations of my inscription like an insistent child at an empty breast. Freidl Alterman, Dutiful Wife, it read there, as if this explained the marriage.

Itzik Leiber's small, skinny body smelled of fear's sweat and the staleness of hunger. But through his fingers his soul called out to me. Plain as a potato, his soul.

From the outside, he didn't look like much either. A poor boy, maybe a year past his Bar Mitzvah. He had a head the shape of an egg, the wide end on top. And kinky brown hair, twisted up like a nest. His cap was so frayed the color couldn't be described. But under the brim, the boy had a pair of eyes that could have made a younger woman blush - big, sad ovals, and eyelashes like feathers.

I remembered him, of course. In a town like ours no one was a complete stranger. Itzik the Faithless One, they called him. Faithless? I can tell you Itzik wasn't faithless that night, not when he whispered against my gravestone, his voice thin as a thread, "Help me! Please, God, help me!"

God should answer him, I thought. A child's tears reach the heavens. Listen to the boy and leave me to my rest, I prayed. But God had other ideas. Rest would not return to me. Itzik wrapped his arms around my stone, his body curled there like a helpless newborn. How could I ignore him? I wanted to cradle the petrified child, to make him safe.

In life I liked to say, God will provide. But who could imagine He would wait until after I was gone to the dead to provide me with a child? Such a joker is God.

A night wind gathered like a flock of birds around our cemetery wall and swept through the thick confusion of graves. The soft soil began to pound above me with the heavy tread of men. They were so near I could feel their boots making waves in the earth. What had he done, this Itzik of mine, to incite the Poles to come out so late at night?

Raising myself, I saw torches in their hands, murder on their faces. The faint whiff of alcohol floated over our neighbors like a demon. You never know what a Pole will do. One minute he's ready to kill you, the next he's offering to sell you apples, smiling, ingratiating, like nothing's happened. There were as many Poles in our town as there were Jews. But we never counted them among us, and they never counted us among them.

Itzik whimpered. He gripped my stone with a frenzied, furious fear. His eyes rolled toward heaven. Make them go away, he prayed. In the moonlight, his breath formed sharp white puffs that disappeared in the shadows of the gravestones.

I prayed too. God help him, I said. Give the boy's poor soul a chance to cook, to become a man.

What else could I do for him? I knew I was no dybbuk that could invade the world of the living. I had made my journey to Gehenna already and eaten salt as punishment for my pride. About this, all I can say is that at least for me it was short, not like for the worst sinners, who stay in that place eleven months, God forbid. After my time there, I returned to Zokof's cemetery to sleep with my earthly body and to wait for Judgment Day.

Itzik pulled at my gravestone so hard it fell over at his feet and broke in two. Who could have imagined that a boy's clumsiness would stir me so?

My soul tugged and beat at me. Gevalt, how it struggled to tear itself from death's sleep. Such a sensation - frightening and wonderful - the feel of it pushing upward, freeing itself from the bony cavity once softly bound by my breasts.

I asked God, Is this life or am I again in Gehenna? I never heard of such a state as I was in. But fear was not in me. When my soul was finally released from my resting place, I hung like a candle-lit wedding canopy over Itzik's unsuspecting head. In my white linen shroud, my feet bound with ribbons, I felt lovely as a bride and as proud and exhausted as a mother who had just given birth.

A tree near Moishe Sagansky's grave gave a snap. So new was I to being among the living again, I could not be certain who did this, me or God. The Poles stopped to listen; then one of them looked in my direction and began to holler, "A Jew spirit's out!" They took off. Just like that. Such a blessing that the Poles of Zokof were scared of dead Jews. If only they were so scared of live Jews, maybe we'd have had less trouble with them.

My Itzik, terrified boy, lay stiffly on the ground until silence returned. He crawled to Ruchelle Cohen's tall stone, and without so much as a glance at the carved floral candelabras engraved there, he swiped a pebble that had been placed on top by one of her children. With the loving care of a son, he laid it on top of my fallen stone, respecting my memory. Regret at my childlessness passed through me again. When Itzik rose, unsteady as a toddler, I could not help being moved by him. He held out his arms and unrolled his clenched fists. Grass fell from his fingers.

I shook with pain and thanks to God for this boy, delivered late, but maybe not too late. A child, at last. Oh, the joy I felt! My heart! He had gathered grass for me. I swept close around him, ready to receive his prayer for the redemption of my soul. I waited for the words: May her soul sprout from this place as grass sprouts from the earth. I waited, pregnant with expectation.

What came instead was a sharp, thin cry, quickly stifled, and the insult of his foot kicking apart the little mound of blades he'd dropped on my grave.

Copyright © 2006 by Lisa Pearl Rosenbaum

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 2, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Engrossing!

    What a great read! Original, captivating and touching, all in the same breath! Following history from 1906 to the present, exploring the spiritual issues of the time, and how we make choices in how we deal with all of that in our personal lives and loves, is woven into this original and innovative story. Looking forward to more from this author!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 13, 2007

    Great for book clubs

    This is a wonderfully layered and satisfying novel which is sure to be a hit with book groups. My group's discussion lasted for several hours. Like in so many great book club selections, the stories and themes in 'A Day of Small Beginnings' may stay with you for quite a while.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 14, 2006

    My kind of story

    Lisa Pearl Rosenbaum's debut novel is a wonder, in which she expertly interweaves characters and plot lines, taking us on a journey from Europe to America and back again. On the way, she tackles the big topics, such as how does one connect to his or her past, how does one balance the spiritual and the intellectual in the modern world, and how does one learn to embrace an almost-unknown heritage, forgive, and move on. The novel is about courage, assimilation, reconciliation, and the healing power of the arts. As I read the story of Itzik, Nathan, and Ellen, all influenced by the magical spirit of Freidl, I was led to examine my own relationship with my ancestors, my religion, and my creativity. It's hard to imagine that a book about being Jewish in the last century could be so positive and hopeful. That Rosenbaum accomplishes this is a masterful achievement.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 22, 2006

    Exquisite!

    I enjoyed this book immensely! A bag of mixed themes including Judaism, anti-Semitism, religions, past vs. present, family relations, traditions, and so much more all exemplified in a unique writing style. An important read. A special book for those rare readers!

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

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    a reviewer

    In 1906 Zokof, Poland, in 1906, Itzik Leiber intercedes in the assault of three small Jewish boys, but his intervention leads to the death of a peasant. Frightened as protecting Jews is not an acceptable defense, Itzik hides in a Jewish cemetery. There the spirit and soul of Friedl Alterman, who died last year at eighty-tree years old, enters the frightened lad. Friedl protects and guides Itzik as he flees his hometown planning to vanish in Warsaw before he escapes to the United States. --- Eighty-six years later, Itzik's son, recognized international law expert, Professor Nathan Linden, who anglicized his last name, has come to Poland as a guest of the government. Obsessed (by still protective Friedl), he detours from his itinerary to visit his father¿s hometown. There he meets the last Jew residing in Zokof, Rafael Bergson, who pleads with the agnostic Nathan to use prayer to release Friedl¿s soul so she can move on. However, he seems to make no progress leaving it to his choreographer daughter Ellen, to accomplish the deliverance --- Using a paranormal element to foster the link between the old and new world and amid three generations of Jews, Lisa Pearl Rosenbaum tells a terrific tale of Jewish life especially during the twentieth century mostly in America. The changes from Itzik to his granddaughter are astonishing as she is so assimilated in American life while he is a refugee with one major foot in Europe and a smaller toehold in the United States. Fans will appreciate this enjoyable, clever and insightful tale. --- Harriet Klausner

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