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InterviewJewish author's marriage to Muslim impetus for fantasy tale

After long hiatus, author Helene Wecker resurrects fans’ beloved Golem and Jinni

With a mix of old and new characters, ‘The Hidden Palace’ advances the duo’s magic, heartbreak and love into early 20th century New York and Middle East

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Helene Wecker (Sheldon Wecker)
Helene Wecker (Sheldon Wecker)

Eight years after they first bewitched us, Ahmad the jinni and Chava the golem are finally back.

To the delight of fans of 2013’s bestselling historical fantasy “The Golem and The Jinni,” author Helene Wecker has penned a sequel titled, “The Hidden Palace.” Picking up where the first installment left off at the waning of 19th century, the new page turner spans the first 15 years of the 20th century. Although the Jewish Golem and Arabian Jinni themselves never age, time nonetheless ticks on and they must adapt to the quickly modernizing and tumultuous age.

In a recent conversation with The Times of Israel from her home in northern California, Wecker acknowledged her fans’ long wait for the sequel.

“The first book’s reception was wonderful and everything I could have hoped for. To be honest, it was a little overwhelming, and daunting to be given the opportunity to write another book,” Wecker said.

“I knew I had to hit the bar I had already set. Maybe I psyched myself out. It took so long to write this book because I couldn’t phone it in,” she said.

“The Golem and The Jinni” was about two mythical creatures from different historical eras, parts of the world and ethnic traditions 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. (The author’s Jewish identity and her husband’s Syrian Muslim descent inspired the original notion of a golem and jinni meeting.)

‘The Hidden Palace’ by Helene Wecker (Harper)

In “The Hidden Palace” Ahmad and Chava become further enmeshed in the human world, especially with regard to their careers. Talented baker Chava changes her name to Charlotte and enrolls at Teacher’s College in Upper Manhattan to earn a degree in home economics pedagogy. The Jinni and his Christian Syrian metal smithing partner purchase a large Lower East Side building to expand their business.

Made of different stuff (quite literally—the Golem from earth and the Jinni from fire), they take these changes in opposite directions. While Chava finds comfort in the workaday routine of humans, Ahmad ends up railing against and ultimately retreating from it.

Equally important, Wecker, 45, advances the personal relationship between these protagonists.

“These two creatures need to learn to live with each other and have a romantic relationship. I wanted to explore this and do justice to the characters, treating them like real people,” she said.

And as with most real-life romantic couples, it’s anything but smooth sailing.

Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York, Amsterdam Avenue between 136th and 138th Streets,1893. (Unknown, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Wecker said she knew from the get-go that she wanted to introduce two new supernatural characters to this new book: a golem and a jinni from more traditional molds. She was interested in contrasting these typical fantastical creatures to the more human-like and acculturated Ahmad and Chava.

To do this, the author brings back old supporting characters and introduces new ones. She acquaints readers with a wily and free jinniyeh (female jinni) by creating a major plot line involving Sophia Winston, the wealthy young woman who had an ill-advised tryst with the Jinni in the first book. This encounter inadvertently left her terribly ill, unable to ever feel warm.

Penn Station 1935-1938 (Berenice Abbott, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

It is on Sophia’s years-long quest throughout the Middle East in search of a cure for her condition that she encounters the jinniyeh. Sophia makes a Faustian bargain with the jinniyeh, agreeing to bring her back with her to New York to find Ahmad the jinni in return for the jinniyeh’s giving Sophia the antidote to her suffering.

“I was really glad to make Sophia a larger character,” said Wecker, who used Sophia’s journeys as a way of introducing historical characters like T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and explorer, diplomat and archeologist Gertrude Bell.

People at New York’s 26th Street pier morgue walk by rows of open coffins, attempting to identify victims of the Triangle fire, March 1911. (Kheel Center via Wikimedia Commons)

To bring Chava face to face with a more standard golem (think of Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague’s man of clay created to defend the local Jewish community against antisemitic attacks), Wecker introduces Kreindel, a girl living in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York in Upper Manhattan. The highly intelligent and independent-thinking Kreindel had helped her rabbi father build the new golem in their Lower East Side tenement. When her father dies in a fire, the golem becomes Kreindel’s protector, living in the basement of the orphanage—which also happens to be where Chava works as a teacher.

“Kreindel is one of my favorite characters. She is so unwilling to be bent or pressured into someone she is not,” Wecker said.

April 5, 1911 Demonstration of protest and mourning for Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of March 25, 1911
(The U.S. National Archives via Wikimedia Commons)

Another new character, Toby, the haunted son of Chava’s old friend Anna is instrumental in driving the second half of the novel forward. His work as a Western Union telegram bicycle delivery boy had Wecker diving into research on the tragedy of children and teenagers doing such dangerous work on the congested early 20th century New York streets.

Wecker’s extensive research is evident throughout “The Hidden Palace,” whose characters are placed smack in the middle of key historical events of the period, both in the Middle East and America.

Sophia Winston’s mother survives the Titanic, but her father and brother go down with the ship. The Jinni, an artist with metals, repeatedly visits the then-brand new original Pennsylvania Station to marvel at its captivating glass, steel and stone design. The devastating March 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire also figures prominently in the book.

The New York Times front-page feature showing some prominent individuals who survived the sinking of the RMS Titanic.
(The New York Times, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

“How could I write a book set in New York in 1911 and not include the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire?” the author said.

Wecker was able to partially base the parts of the book taking part in Syria on her own visit there in 2007, before the civil war. She went to the country to attend her husband’s sister’s wedding.

Just as with “The Golem and The Jinni,” the ending of the 480-page “The Hidden Palace” leaves itself open to a follow-up.

Will this be a trilogy?

“Yeah, I’ll do it. I’ll write the third book. There’s still so much to explore with these characters,” Wecker said.

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