As far as getting a first novel published, Helene Wecker’s experience was almost a fairytale. With only one published short story to her name, she looked up an agent she once met years ago when she was in graduate school. The agent agreed to take her on, and within a short time, her imaginative work of folklore and fantasy sold at auction. It was as though some of the magic in Wecker’s book had rubbed off on her.
“I feel incredibly lucky. I really jumped over the paying my dues part,” Wecker tells The Times of Israel by phone from her home near San Francisco. Her debut, “The Golem and The Jinni,” a fast-paced adventure set in turn of the 20th century New York, may have taken Wecker seven years off and on to write, but it didn’t take long for it to gain positive reviews upon its publication last April.
Critics and the reading public alike have been captivated by Wecker’s creative narrative, which has two supernatural creatures from different historical eras and parts of the world arriving separately (the Golem by ship and the Jinni by copper flask) in New York in 1899. Eventually, the Golem from 19th century Poland and the Jinni from Ancient Syria accidentally meet one another. They bond and then separate after a terrifying incident, only to later reunite to fight a power bent on destroying them both.
While readers may be familiar with the mythic Golem of Jewish lore, a clay figure brought to life by Kabbalistic charms, it is unlikely they have ever encountered one quite like the one in this novel. This is because the Golem conjured by Wecker’s imagination is female, and her name is Chava.
“The Golem is traditionally sexless, yet we attribute to it male traits,” notes the author. “I had read about only one other female Golem. It was in “The Golem,” a story by Naomi Kritzer about two lesbians who build a Golem in Prague during WWII in the hopes that it will save them.”
‘I didn’t deliberately mean for it to be a feminist statement, but the turn of the century setting was rich ground’
“I didn’t deliberately mean for it to be a feminist statement, but the turn of the century setting was rich ground. It would have been hard for the Golem to have a female body,” she says, referring to the social conventions that existed a century ago that restricted women’s freedoms.
The welcome challenge for Wecker was to figure out how a supernatural being with superhuman strength could be true to her nature while still fitting in among the countless Jewish women immigrants living in the tenements of the Lower East Side.
Over in Little Syria, an immigrant Arab neighborhood that no longer exists in modern-day New York, the Jinni takes on the name of Ahmad and works as a metal smith. Like the Golem, he also grapples with what it means to live among humans, while concurrently trying to hide his true nature from them.
Although her novel’s two protagonists are drawn from myth, the idea for “The Golem and the Jinni” stems from Wecker’s real life. The 38-year-old Jewish author is married to an American man of Syrian descent whom she met in college. However, while most of the characters in Little Syria are Christian, Wecker’s husband’s family is of Muslim background.
“We’ve been together so long, it’s so woven in to the fabric of our marriage,” Wecker says about her and her husband’s different backgrounds. ”It’s continually a learning process, and communication is key. This is especially so as our daughter [born a few months before Wecker finished writing the book in early 2012] grows up and gets both of our heritages.”
While pursuing her MFA at Columbia University, the author tried to write realist-style short stories about the experiences of her family and those of her husband. “I noticed the similarity in both family’s immigration stories, the theme of being caught between two worlds,” she notes.
Wecker’s father was born in an Austrian displaced persons camp to Polish Holocaust survivor parents, who immigrated to the United States in the 1950s. Her mother’s parents were German Jewish refugees, who each made it out to the US separately before meeting and marrying.
The contemporary stories just didn’t seem to be working. “A friend in my MFA program knew that my heart has always been with fantasy and science fiction, and she asked me why I wasn’t writing in those styles,” Wecker recalls. The friend’s advice was like a light bulb switching on, and suddenly she realized that the Jewish girl in her stories had to become the Golem and the Arab boy had to turn in to the Jinni.
“But these characters seemed older, so it made sense to move the time period back, to set it at the turn of the century,” Wecker explains. “It had the feeling of an Old World tale, so it felt right to have it happen during the Syrian and Jewish immigration heyday.”
‘I was playing historical detail off fantasy, and it became a giant spinning wheel’
Once she made this decision, there was no holding Wecker back when it came to immersing herself in research of both Arab and Jewish folklore and the history of New York City. “I was playing historical detail off fantasy, and it became a giant spinning wheel. Things kept feeding off one another,” she reflects.
Wecker fleshes out “The Golem and The Jinni” with vivid and complex backstories for her supernatural protagonists. She also introduces a myriad of supporting characters — some benevolent and some quite the opposite. The Jinni’s world involves subplots involving café owner Maryam Faddoul, tinsmith Boutros Arbeely (the Jinni’s boss and later business partner), solitary ice cream maker Mahmoud Saleh (the sole Muslim Arab in the story), bombastic businessman Thomas Maloof, and young apprentice Matthew Mounsef.
The Jinni’s wanderings around Manhattan at night (neither he nor the Golem sleep) lead him uptown and into a tryst with an upper class socialite named Sophia Winston.
The Golems’ Jewish world is populated by the kind, elderly Rabbi Meyer who recognizes the Golem’s true nature and takes her under his protection, as well as the rabbi’s socialist nephew, social worker Michael Levy, who runs a sheltering house for newly arrived immigrant men and falls in love with the Golem – or rather, Chava. We also get to know Moe and Thea Radzin, the couple who own the Jewish bakery where the Golem works alongside a young woman named Anna Blumberg.
It’s when the mysterious Yehuda Schaalman, driven by ruthless ambition and esoteric wisdom, shows up in New York as Joseph Schall, that the past and the present collide and the action starts to really heat up.
Wecker is unapologetic about the unusual length of her debut novel. “The book was actually edited down twice. It was originally 100 pages longer,” she says of the nearly 500-page tome. She argues that without the elaborate backstories and fully rounded characters, “The Golem and the Jinni” would be merely superficial and symbolic. “It would amount to nothing more than a fairytale.”
Whatever the case, the book’s success is very real. The paperback edition is coming out in the US in January, and the book has been translated and published in a handful of other countries, with a Hebrew edition forthcoming. “I have an agent in Los Angeles, and we’ve even gotten some nibbles regarding film rights,” Wecker shares.
“It’s a dream come true.”