Many years have passed since Oliver Levin -- a bestselling mystery writer and a lifetime sufferer from blocked emotions -- has given any thought to his parents, Holocaust survivors who committed suicide. But now, after years of uninterrupted literary output, Oliver Levin finds himself blocked as a writer, too. Oliver's fourteen-year-old daughter, Ariel, sets out to free her father from his demons by summoning the ghosts of his parents, but, along the way, the ghosts of Primo Levi, Jerzy Kosinski, and Paul Celan, among others, also materialize in this novel of moral philosophy and unforgettable enchantment.
About the Author
Thane Rosenbaum teaches courses in human rights, legal humanities, and law and literature at Fordham Law School. He is also an award-winning novelist (The Golems of Gotham, Second Hand Smoke, and Elijah Visible). His essays appear frequently in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and other national publications. He lives in New York City with his daughter, Basia Tess.
Read an Excerpt
He was called to the torah, and beforereciting the blessing he reached into his tallis bag, removed the silencer, aimed it at his temple, and pulled the trigger. A Jewish brain shot out from his head and splattered all over the unscrolled sheepskin as though the synagogue had just hosted its first animal sacrifice.
“Lothar!” Rabbi Vered screamed.
Too late. The bullet traveled through the skull at a speed much faster than sound, then lodged itself inside the cantor's pulpit. Within an hour a Miami police detective would dig into the pierced mahogany, retrieve the shell, dust for prints, and search for clues. But there were none. Lothar Levin gave no prior warning that he would take his life in this way. He left no note; the bullet wasn't talking either.
“Huh,” the cop, perplexed, said, long after everything had settled down. He held the bullet in the air, picking up the light from a lantern that was poised in front of the Ark. “Never seen this kind of caliber before.” The detective squinted. “Who's got the piece?”
Cantor Feldman, still shaken by what had nearly been a ricochet assassination, pinched the gun at the bottom of its handle, making the barrel go limp as it pointed down toward the floor. He then walked it over stiff-arm and handed it to the detective. No one in the synagogue that day, other than the detective, ever wanted to see that gun again.
It wasn't just the sight of the suicide that had unnerved them all. The sound was equally horrible. This experience taught them that the acoustics in the synagogue, which hadlong been known for elevating the talents of their amateur choir, also had the effect of amplifying a muzzled gunshot. Instead of silence the congregants heard a wail of agony that sounded like a shofar still attached to the ram's head. There was unmuted outrage in the air. And the smoke, which should have vaporized within seconds of leaving the barrel, instead lingered over the bima like dark clouds refusing to downpour.
But there was more to it than that; Lothar was only half the story. The fallout from the murder died down just when another commotion was beginning to take shape elsewhere. Shouts and stuttering gasps swelled throughout the sanctuary in the way crowds settle into shock. Everyone seemed to be moving in yawning slow motion as the horror of what they had all just witnessed started to sink in: Murder in a synagogue. But not just murder. It was self-murder, an unritualized, bloody suicide, a cardinal sin for Jews, even among the non-Orthodox. And there wasn't only one casualty, either.
Slowly all eyes shifted to the middle row of the sanctuary, the aisle seat, where Lothar Levin's wife, Rose, usually sat. Her husband had just blown his brains out, in front of the Ark, with the Torah open and God presumably watching. And there she was, dead too, slumped over her lap, eyes closed, the cyanide tablet having already dissolved under her tongue. The coroner would later estimate the time of her death to have coincided roughly with Lothar's more extreme, and violent, end. A dead tie between husband and wife.
A Shabbos suicide pact is not exactly what God had in mind for his day of rest. But Lothar and Rose were Holocaust survivors; God would have no say in this matter. He had become irrelevant, a lameduck divinity, a sham for a savior, a mere caricature of a god who cared. That's the price you pay for arriving late at Auschwitz, or in his case, not at all; you forfeit all future rights to an opinion. Yes, it's true: The taking of a human life is a sin in the eyes of God. But this was a God who had already blinded himself. It mattered little to the Levins whether he approved of what they had done under his watch, and that's why they showed no fear in taking the liberty of poking God's eyes out one last time.
And what about sin? Well, nobody took that seriously anymore either. Another house speciality of Auschwitz. The Nazis had given new meaning to sin, raising the ante on atrocity, showing the world the deluxe model. Original sin seemed puny, and frankly unoriginal, by comparison. Zyklon B was now the ultimate forbidden fruit. Faster-acting, easier on the stomach. All Eve would have had to do was get Adam to inhale, then say Kaddish.
Survivors had the right to do whatever they wanted with their lives. They had earned at least that much. They could live with abandon, or they could simply choose to abandon. The old rules didn't apply, as much as they didn't apply to anyone anymore. That's because the Third Reich had killed off all the old biblical commandments, wiped the tablets clean; the Golden Calf had been the right religion all along. Mankind was left to finish out the century without any moral landmarks and signposts, forced to thrash and stumble about in a new world empty of faith, kindness, and love. And yet, when it all became too much, there were still places of worship that one could turn to -- if not for spiritual salvation, then at least as an ideal location for a mercy killing.
Who knows if that's what Lothar and Rose Levin were thinking on that sultry Saturday morning back in October 1980. They had silenced themselves with a riddle that no one was qualified to answer. Why survive the camps only to later commit suicide -- together, in concert, without any explanation? Paradoxically they had turned their survival skills -- the very life source that had defeated the Nazis -- against themselves.
The Miami Herald placed the story on the front page of the Sunday paper: HOLOCAUST SURVIVORS SUCCEED IN SHUL SUICIDE. Newspapers across the country carried the story as well...
The Golems of Gotham. Copyright © by Thane Rosenbaum. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Reading Group Guide
In 1580 the Rabbi Lowe of Prague created a monster out of clay in the shape of a man but with no soul -- a golem -- to protect the city's Jews from persecution. The creature began to take on a life of its own, at first aiding the citizens and then, intoxicated by rage and power, overtaking them. Eventually the golem was disabled by its creator.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Thane Rosenbaum's latest book is both entertaining, and at the same time, both serious and thought provoking, exploring themes that should interest Jewish and gentile readers. This novel grabbed my attention and held it from beginning to end. Every character is fully developed and interesting. Rosenbaum makes the excitement and many flavors of one my favorite neighborhoods, New York's Upper West Side, clear to those who have never experienced the joy of visiting or hanging out there. And reading a (slightly) disguised version of one of its most famous synagogues is a joy. I'm delighted that Rosenbaum has lived up to the promise of his two earlier works, which I also highly recommend.
Ya needed my help, I suppose.