The Golems of Gotham: A Novel

The Golems of Gotham: A Novel

by Thane Rosenbaum

Paperback(First Perennial Edition)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060959456
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/21/2003
Series: Harper Perennial
Edition description: First Perennial Edition
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 846,089
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.86(d)

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

Chapter One

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.

Based on ancient kabbalistic practices, the legend of the Golem reappeared in many versions, and may have inspired Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, as well as other modern-day "horror" stories. In The Golems of Gotham, Thane Rosenbaum has woven the legend of the Golem into a mystical, comedic, and deeply thoughtful novel set in contemporary Manhatten -- a ghost story of the highest caliber that delivers its own haunting message of horror and of humanity's power to create and destroy. It is the eve of the new millennium. In New York City's Upper West Side, in a brownstone on Edgar Allan Poe Street, a teenage girl performs an ancient ceremony using a hunk of river mud, an old violin, candles and a picture of the tattoos on the arms of her dead grandparents, Lothar and Rose Levin. Ariel's purpose is to bring her grandparents -- Holocaust survivors who committed suicide before she was born -- back to life, and in doing so, to rescue Oliver, her father, a famous but now blocked mystery writer, from demons of his own.

Ariel's scheme works better than she could have imagined. Not only do her grandparents materialize, they are accompanied by a group of other ghosts -- among them the legendary Primo Levi, Jerzy Kosinski, Jean Amery, and Paul Celan -- writers who committed suicide after having survivedNazi concentration camps. Together these golems turn Ariel's house on Edgar Allan Poe Street into a museum of gruesome Holocaust images and artifacts, complete with blood running down the walls and relics of a sixteenth-century synagogue in the attic. The entire neighborhood gets treated to an assortment of post-Holocaust ideas and life lessons.

Like the monster created by Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein, the golems that Ariel creates surpass their creator's expectations. They frolic about the city, carping on the trappings of modern Jewish-American culture, and on the many ways Jews and others have trivialized the Holocaust and diluted its memory. Like family members bickering at the dining room table, the Golems debate the purpose of their return to earth, reviewing their lives and deaths, and ruminating on what they lost. They go to work on Oliver, filling his house and stirring his imagination with gruesome visions that not only vanquish his writer's block, but also give way to an unstoppable literary outpour. And they wreak dangerous havoc on New York City, filling its streets, buildings, bridges, and skies with reminders that the potential for evil is still with us, even as memories of the Shoah slip farther into our unconscious.

Eventually the Golems realize that they have gone too far just as Oliver has gone too far in simulating their fateful experiences in writing his new novel. Perhaps he is the one who has actually created them? Order is restored in Manhattan and the Golems gather at Oliver's table for a Passover seder. As they go through the ancient rituals, the Golems make provocative suggestions for updating the holiday's observances. They ask questions for which there are no answers, even now. But in his novel Rosenbaum shows that these questions demand our attention nonetheless. Filled with relevance and immediacy, they make a connection between religion and reality, tradition and moral compromise, and between horror and its intersection with everyday life. Rosenbaum encourages all of us -- not just Jews -- to remember that the horrors of the Holocaust extended way beyond the act itself because spiritual and moral damage continued on throughout the century and only memory itself is a possible antedote.

Questions for Discussion

  • In the novel's riveting first scene, Lothar Levin shoots himself in the head while standing at the bima of his Miami synagogue. His wife, Rose, dies simultaneously in the sanctuary after taking cyanide. Why did the couple choose to commit suicide during a temple service? How are the details of their deaths -- the location, the methods, etc. -- significant to the story?

  • In the same scene, Rosenbaum reflects on what may have been in Rose's and Lothar's minds before they killed themselves: God, he suggests, "had become irrelevant, a lame-duck divinity, a sham for a savior, a mere caricature of a god who cared." (p. 3) How, if at all, might their sentiments have changed after their return to earth as golems? What "proof" does Rosenbaum give for God's concern or indifference to us?

  • A lighthouse on the Hudson River figures largely in the book -- as the place where Ariel finds the clay to create the Golems, as the setting for Oliver's wedding, and later, his attempted suicide. How does the story of the lighthouse, which Oliver used to read to Ariel when she was very young, tie into its role in the novel? What does Ariel mean when she thinks, "I'm a lot like the lighthouse. All kids are really tiny lighthouses trying to rescue their parents"?

  • Ariel comments that "Some family histories are so big, the future can't overshadow the past. The climax and crescendo has already happened, and nothing will ever rate as large again. The Holocaust is that way with us." (p. 42) Can you think of any major events that have impacted future generations of your own family? How has the Holocaust affected your life? What about the events of September 11?

  • Oliver, an orphan, never knew the reasons for his parents' suicide. Likewise, Ariel doesn't know why her mother left her and Oliver. What are some of the long-term effects on children whose parents have willingly disappeared from their lives? How does such abandonment affect the relationships they form as adults?

  • The ghosts of Primo Levi and Jean Amery represent two opposing views of humanity. In the story, Levi is a "life-affirming optimist," while Amery asserts that faith in humanity could never again be recaptured. How does Rosenbaum use his novel as a forum to examine these divergent views? Where do you fall in the spectrum?

  • What do you think of the fantasy element of Rosenbaum's book? What is the effect of the author's juxtaposing ghosts, images of the Holocaust Jewish mysticism and renewal, and medieval Jewish history onto the bustling streets of a modern city?

  • How does Rosenbaum use comedy in the novel? Does the Golems' squabbling, their comic actions, and the slapstick detract from the book's more somber themes -- or enhance them?

  • Was Ariel's experiment with the Golems successful? Did they go too far in their efforts to remind the world about the Holocaust and how had the world failed them yet again? What made them decide that they had accomplished their task?

  • What role does Tanya Green play in the novel? She herself admits that she can't instruct Ariel on the violin. What can she teach her? What does she offer Oliver?

  • On page 149 Rosenbaum writes, "In the modern world the family cannot be sheltered, cannot save itself from itself, from dissolution and divorce and, in the extreme cases, annihilation. The family is a highly vulnerable entity, always in a perpetual state of code blue, too listless to fight back, and too fragile to resuscitate." Do you agree with this assessment of modern life? What steps does this book suggest we take to strengthen all families, not just Jewish ones?

  • How does this novel comment on the lives and works of writers, musicians, and other artists? Is it an artist's duty to confront horrible truths, even if those truths lead him or her to suicide? As a writer, how do you think Oliver will compare to Levi, Kosinski, Celan and others mentioned in the novel?

  • Early in the novel, Jean Amery spurns the phrase, "Never again," which he calls the "best slogan ever written," but also as trivial and ineffective. At the end of the novel, he reminds Oliver, "Never forget . . . which isn't the same thing as shouting Never Again!" What does he mean by this? Can words change history? Can you give examples of ways that slogans have been used to encourage or discourage certain kinds of behavior? Are they effective?

  • Various characters in the novel decry modern society for trivializing, diluting, and forgetting about the Holocaust. Do you agree with this assessment? If so, what can we do to assure that the Holocaust is not forgotten -- and not repeated?

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    Golems of Gotham 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    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.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Ya needed my help, I suppose.