A marvelous and absorbing debut novel about a chance meeting between two supernatural creatures in turn-of-the-century immigrant New York.
Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay by a disgraced rabbi knowledgeable in the ways of dark Kabbalistic magic. She serves as the wife to a Polish merchant who dies at sea on the voyage to America. As the ship arrives in New York in 1899, Chava is unmoored and adrift until a rabbi on the Lower East Side recognizes her for the creature she is and takes her in.
Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire born in the ancient Syrian desert and trapped centuries ago in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard. Released by a Syrian tinsmith in a Manhattan shop, Ahmad appears in human form but is still not free. An iron band around his wrist binds him to the wizard and to the physical world.
Chava and Ahmad meet accidentally and become friends and soul mates despite their opposing natures. But when the golem’s violent nature overtakes her one evening, their bond is challenged. An even more powerful threat will emerge, however, and bring Chava and Ahmad together again, challenging their very existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice.
Compulsively readable, The Golem and the Jinni weaves strands of Yiddish and Middle Eastern literature, historical fiction and magical fable, in a wondrously inventive tale that is mesmerizing and unforgettable.
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The Golem and the Jinni
By Helene Wecker
HarperCollins PublishersCopyright © 2013 Helene Wecker
All rights reserved.
* 1 *
The Golem's life began in the hold of a steamship. The year was
1899; the ship was the Baltika, crossing from Danzig to New York.
The Golem's master, a man named Otto Rotfeld, had smuggled her
aboard in a crate and hidden her among the luggage.
Rotfeld was a Prussian Jew from Konin, a bustling town to the
south of Danzig. The only son of a well- to- do furniture maker, Rotfeld
had inherited the family business sooner than expected, on his parents'
untimely death from scarlet fever. But Rotfeld was an arrogant, feckless
sort of man, with no good sense to speak of; and before five years had
elapsed, the business lay before him in tatters.
Rotfeld stood in the ruins and took stock. He was thirty- three years
old. He wanted a wife, and he wanted to go to America.
The wife was the larger problem. On top of his arrogant disposi-
tion, Rotfeld was gangly and unattractive, and had a tendency to leer.
Women were disinclined to be alone with him. A few matchmakers had
approached him when he'd inherited, but their clients had been from
inferior families, and he'd turned them away. When it became clear to
all what kind of businessman he really was, the offers had disappeared
Rotfeld was arrogant, but he was also lonely. He'd had no real love
affairs. He passed worthy ladies on the street, and saw the distaste in
It wasn't very long before he thought to visit old Yehudah Schaal-
Stories abounded about Schaalman, all slightly different: that he was
a disgraced rabbi who'd been driven out of his congregation; that he'd been
possessed by a dybbuk and given supernatural powers; and even that he
was over a hundred years old and slept with demon- women. But all the
2 * HELENE WECKER
stories agreed on this: Schaalman liked to dabble in the more dangerous
of the Kabbalistic arts, and he was willing to offer his ser vices for a price.
Barren women had visited him in the dead of night and conceived soon
after. Peasant girls in search of men's affections bought Schaalman's bags of
powders, and then stirred them into their beloveds' beer.
But Rotfeld wanted no spells or love- potions. He had something else
He went to the old man's dilapidated shack, deep in the forest that
bordered Konin. The path to the front door was a half- trampled trail.
Greasy, yellowish smoke drifted from a chimney- pipe, the only sign of
habitation. The walls of the shack slouched toward a nearby ravine, in
which a stream trickled.
Rotfeld knocked on the door, and waited. After some minutes, he
heard a shuffling step. The door opened a hand's width, revealing a man
of perhaps seventy. He was bald, save for a fringe. His cheeks were deeply
furrowed above a tangled beard. He stared hard at Rotfeld, as though
daring him to speak.
“Are you Schaalman?” Rotfeld asked.
No answer, only the stare.
Rotfeld cleared his throat, nervous. “I want you to make me a golem
that can pass for human,” he said. “And I want it to be female.”
That broke the old man's silence. He laughed, a hard bark. “Boy,” he
said, “do you know what a golem is?”
“A person made of clay,” Rotfeld said, uncertain.
“Wrong. It's a beast of burden. A lumbering, unthinking slave.
Golems are built for protection and brute force, not for the pleasures of
Rotfeld reddened. “Are you saying you can't do it?”
“I'm telling you the idea is ridiculous. To make a golem that can
pass for human would be near impossible. For one thing, it would need
some amount of self- awareness, if only enough to converse. Not to men-
tion the body itself, with realistic joints, and musculature . . .”
The old man trailed off, staring past his visitor. He seemed to be
considering something. Abruptly he turned his back on Rotfeld and dis-
appeared into the gloom of the shack. Through the open door Rotfeld
THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI * 3
could see him shuffling carefully through a stack of papers. Then he
picked up an old leather- bound book and thumbed through it. His finger
ran down a page, and he peered at something written there. He looked
up at Rotfeld.
“Come back tomorrow,” he said.
Accordingly, Rotfeld knocked again the next day, and this time
Schaalman opened the door without pause. “How much can you pay?”
“Then it can be done?”
“Answer my question. The one will determine the other.”
Rotfeld named a figure. The old man snorted. “Half again, at the
“But I'll have barely anything left!”
“Consider it a bargain,” said Schaalman. “For isn't it written that
a virtuous woman is more precious than rubies? And her virtue”— he
grinned— “will be guaranteed!”
Rotfeld brought the money three days later, in a large valet case.
The edge of the nearby ravine was newly disfigured, a piece the length of
a man scooped away. An earth- stained spade leaned against a wall.
Schaalman opened the door with a distracted look, as though inter-
rupted at a crucial moment. Streaks of mud crusted his clothing and
daubed his beard. He saw the valet case and grabbed it from Rotfeld's
“Good,” he said. “Come back in a week.”
The door slammed shut again, but not before Rotfeld had caught a
glimpse inside the shack, of a dark figure laid out in pieces on a table— a
slender trunk, rough limbs, and one curled hand.
“What do you prefer in a woman?” Schaalman asked.
It was the following week, and this time Rotfeld had been allowed
inside. The shack was dominated by the table that Rotfeld had glimpsed
before, and the young man couldn't help sneaking glances at its burden: a
4 * HELENE WECKER
human- shaped form, draped with a
Excerpted from The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. Copyright © 2013 Helene Wecker. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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