CJE Book Review: The Golem and the Jinni

CJE Book Review: The Golem and the Jinni

By: Rachel Turniansky

small_golemand%20jinni.jpgI first heard about The Golem and the Jinni from a recommendation from some very lovely people who share my love of fantastical fiction. I later found out that this book was fairly popular, even garnering praise from one of my favorite authors, Deborah Harkness. What captured my interest, though, was how Helene Wecker dips into timeless tales from two cultures to weave a poignant message of similarity and difference.

The legend of the Golem is a classic one from Jewish folklore. You’ve never met a golem like Chava, though.  Like other golems, Chava is a creature brought to life from a lump of clay. Chava  was created by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in Kabbalistic magic; commissioned by Otto Rotfeld, an unattractive young man who thinks his fortunes will be better found if he leaves his Eastern European shtetle and starts fresh with a beautiful, intelligent, curious wife. Alas, Otto never realizes his dream, perishing along the voyage. He manages to utter the words that bring Chava to life, but leaves her alone to make her way in 1899 New York City.

She gains guidance from a kindly retired rabbi who gives her a name meaning, “life” with a spirit of hope, rather than irony. He tries to get her settled into a purposeful life while struggling to deal with the fact that she is a creature with dark origins and destructive potential.

At the same time, in New York’s Little Syria, Ahmad appears. He’s a jinni, a being of fire, born in the ancient Syrian desert. He is released from his former prison of an old copper flask by a tinsmith in his Lower Manhattan shop. Though Ahmad is released from the flask, he remains trapped in human form. Through Ahmad we get a totally different view of life during this time.

The two struggle to find their own way to create a life within the confines of the secrets they must keep. In time they meet. In the spirit of “takes one to know one” they realize that they are both other-worldly creatures and seek companionship that they can’t find with humans. These encounters and conversations bring depth to their relationship. Chava and Ahmed bring vastly different points of view and experiences to the friendship. What begins at extreme ends of the spectrum between free will and slavery results in a meeting of the minds and the search for balance. Chava learns to resist her nature to serve humans as she develops into a self-possessed member of society. Ahmed fights against the servitude that bound him during his long-standing confines and revels in as much freedom as he can while still maintaining his external disguise as a human.

Not only does the ever-present theme of strangers in a strange land play into their developing friendship, but their literally alien view of this world leads to content-rich discussions about cultural differences, morality and philosophical questions. They examine each issue in a way that shows that the human world is often more puzzling than the mythical worlds that the Golem and the Jinni come from. At one point, the Jinni declares "of all the creatures he'd ever encountered, be they made of flesh or fire, none was quite as exasperating as a human."

Readers will enjoy the budding relationship between Chava and Ahmed as well as the intriguing plot. But the true magic happens as Wecker uses the story telling tradition of two cultures to give us a well-illustrated view of the immigrant experience at the end of the 19th century. Two communities that outwardly seem vastly different both nurture their new arrivals as they struggle to get by, to make a better life and strive to leave behind some of the problems of the Old World. The two embody, in a way, the immigrant experience; coming to a new country, learning new ways, changing in order to fit in, coming to value what has been found, building a life; receiving new names.

I found it an interesting aside that Wecker is from a Jewish family and is married to an Arab-American. Weaving these two cultures into a compelling narrative seems to have something of a personal connection, which always makes for first-rate inspiration. Whatever the inspiration for The Golem and the Jinni, Wecker uses timeless tales to weave a timeless tale and does it well.

CJE is an agency funded by THE ASSOCIATED: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. www.associated.org