NEW YORK — While many authors subscribe to the axiom “write what you know,” author Amy Gottlieb’s maxim might very well be “write what you don’t know, but want to know more about.”
In her debut novel “The Beautiful Possible” Gottlieb explores the boundaries of desire, doubt, love, marriage, and faith. Spanning 70 years, the novel transports readers from Berlin to Jerusalem, from New York City to California. Infused with Talmudic concepts, the book is also a commentary of sorts on the Song of Songs, the poets Tagore and Whitman, as well as Hasidic and Hindu wisdom.
“There was one main inspiration behind the book. I always begin with something I want to explore. I was interested in the idea of how a story gets passed down from generation to generation after a trauma,” Gottlieb, 58, said.
The story opens in November 1938. Nazis smash through the apartment of Walter Westhaus and murder his lover and his father. Walter flees Berlin for Bombay, and after four years studying in an ashram, arrives at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City garbed in Indian clothing. He quickly attracts the attention of Sol Kerem, a rabbinical student. Sol’s fiancé Rosalie falls for Walter and the two dive into a short-lived affair. After it ends Walter heads west and becomes a noted religion professor at University of California, Berkeley.
Meanwhile, Sol and Rosalie marry and start a synagogue in the fictional suburban town of Briar Wood, New York. Over time, feeling increasingly uninspired, Sol slides toward depression. For her part, Rosalie feels unfulfilled, both spiritually and in her day-to-day life. At Sol’s urging, she flies to California to find Walter and see if he will help Sol. Once again the three find their lives tightly braided together.
Gottlieb spent more than 10 years writing “The Beautiful Possible.” She squeezed in writing while juggling her full-time job and raising her children. Sometimes she started writing as early as 4 a.m. and sometimes weeks and months passed when she didn’t write at all.
“A decade gave me a really long time for the ideas and the characters to percolate in my imagination,” said Gottlieb, who lives in New York with her husband and two sons.
The character of Walter Westhaus was partially inspired by German Jews who fled the Nazis and made their way to India. While Gottlieb researched this little-known aspect of World War II, she came across a now out-of-print book that detailed the story of Alex Aronson, who spent several years in Santiniketan, at the Tagore Ashram. This helped further flesh out Walter’s character.
“I knew that he [Walter] was secular, I knew that he was a free spirit, and I knew that he was a man between worlds,” Gottlieb said.
As for the mystical Madame Sylvie whom the three main characters meet in Jerusalem, she is based on the Jerusalem kabbalist Colette Aboulker-Muscat.
However in Gottlieb’s novel, places, like people, become characters in their own right. The synagogue in Briar Wood, Jerusalem of the late 1960s, and Mexico of the late 1990s all allowed Gottlieb to play with color, sound, and scent. Readers see how the subdued colors of the suburb seem to flatten out Sol and Rosalie, while the colors of Jerusalem and Mexico infuse the characters with life and light.
Echoes of Gottlieb’s own life appear in the book.
‘I always begin with something I want to explore’
In the 1950s, Gottlieb’s parents bought a house in East Meadow, Long Island, with the help of the GI Bill; her father had survived the Battle of the Bulge and time as a POW in Germany. On Long Israel, because there wasn’t a synagogue they could walk to, Gottlieb’s parents and some neighbors started one.
“Our little neighborhood of East Meadow had a lot of people like my parents, first generation, post-War Jews raising families in the suburbs. They weren’t necessarily very observant, but living a traditional Jewish life was very important to them,” she said.
Just like Sol and Rosalie, the synagogue started under a green tent and then moved to a split-level house. Like Rosalie, Gottlieb could hear the Kol Nidre service from her porch.
By the time Gottlieb started Hebrew school, the synagogue had moved into a brick building. She recalls practicing first kisses in the synagogue bathroom, trying cigarettes in the stairwell and spying on neighbors in the sanctuary.
Over time, Gottlieb felt herself outgrowing synagogue life.
“I wanted to become a writer and the provincial Judaism of my childhood couldn’t compete with my literary aspirations. I was eager to explore the world, far beyond the boundaries of what I already knew,” Gottlieb said.
She went off to Clark University where she double majored in English and Geography. While there she discovered Virginia Woolf and Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred years of Solitude.”
In 1982 Gottlieb arrived in New York City, fresh from earning an MA in comparative literature from the University of Chicago. She moved into a one-room studio apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Though she had but a single electric pan (there was no kitchen in the apartment) she described it as a magical time.
“I was a fairly young writer and it didn’t feel hard. I was able to live on a shoestring budget. I liked the bohemianism of it,” she said.
Gottlieb started to publish her work. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Lilith, Puerto del Sol, Other Voices, Storyscape, Zeek, The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish Poetry, and elsewhere.
In the course of writing “The Beautiful Possible” Gottlieb delved into the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, the writings of the “Ishbitzer Rebbe” Mordecai Yosef of Ishbitz, the work of Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, as well as numerous other esoteric texts and sacred writings.
This eclectic amalgam of inspirations lends an extraordinary air of magic and allure to “The Beautiful Possible,” inviting the reader to push their imagination to the limit and explore unthought-of possibilities — a brief glimpse of the truly mystical.
“With each new layer of discovery, 10 more unfolded,” Gottlieb said. “It was as if a treasure chest opened.”