The Golem and the Jinni
by Helene Wecker
Harper Collins: 2013
The Rise of Abraham Cahan
The Golem and The Jinni arrived at my door just in time for Halloween, and I was excited for a timely foray into the spirit world.
I knew a little about golems, the creatures from Jewish folklore. My understanding was that golems are not unlike Frankenstein. They are created out of clay, breathed to life by some kabbalistic verses, and then they are supposed to defend a certain Jewish community during a time of crisis. But the golem in this novel turned out to be a friendly golem, which was kind of boring. * The jinni seemed to have a bit more of a mischievous side, but not much. The golem, later named Chava, was created to be a wife for a poor schmuck; the jinni, Ahmad, was trapped by an evil wizard. By a few accidents of fate, the two spirits find themselves alone and adrift in New York City in 1899. They each find a few sympathetic persons of their respective cultural ethnicities – Jewish and Maronite Christian Syrian – who take them in. The golem and jinni, in turn, each try to help those persons as best they can in various ways, but they often wreak unintentional havoc because of their unfamiliarity with the ways of
muggles humans. This unfamiliarity ties into what I thought was a major problem of the book. Chava and Ahmad, as spirit creatures, are described as being either beyond or without normal human feeling, both physical and emotional. And since they are also friendly and mostly only dangerous to themselves, I couldn’t get invested in any of the characters and the novel just plodded on. The spirit creatures couldn’t really fall in love, and they wouldn’t really hurt anyone, and the human characters weren’t falling in love or hurting each other either, so the plot ended up pretty vague and thin.
I wonder if perhaps Wecker was more interested in creating a sort of cultural yin-yang symbolized by the Syrian jinni and the Jewish golem. First, the yin: Golem is a girl. Jinni is a boy. Golem cannot function without serving a master. Jinni craves freedom and independence; worst thing possible is to be contained or chained. Golem’s people are Jewish; Jinni’s people are Maronite Christian. Now, the yang: Both the aforementioned Jews and Christian Syrians are recent immigrant communities in turn of the century New York. They work in artisanal trades (baking for her, metalwork for him). A friendly old rabbi takes care of the golem; a friendly old doctor takes care of the jinni. Wecker gives us both a Jewish character and a Syrian character who doubt the existence of God, though they both similarly remain devoted to their cultural background. Towards the very end of the book, the wicked wizard (who enslaved the jinni) and the golem’s evil creator wrestle with each other, perhaps symbolizing a struggle between Arab and Jewish cultures.
The novel would seem to be a paean to the idea that we are really more similar than we are different. If even the folkloric spirit world can get along, then why can’t we? Would that it were that easy. The barest hint of difficulty, in all 484 pages, is given in just one scant paragraph, and then Wecker quickly moves on:
“Arbeely was not a political minded man, and what prejudices he harbored were mostly mild and abstract; but the thought of the Jinni causing trouble in a Jewish neighborhood made him fearful. Mount Lebanon’s Turkish overlords had long made a game of pitting its Christian and Jewish populations against each other, forcing them to compete for Muslim favor. The disagreements had at times turned bloody and edged into riot, fanned by accusations of Christian blood in Jewish bread – a claim that always struck Arbeely as ridiculous on its face, though he knew many were willing to believe it.”
I assumed Wecker is referring to the Damascus Blood Libel of 1840, which, besides a little rioting, included the arrest, torture, and death of several Syrian Jews. Jews in both Europe and American considered it a very big deal, and how a book about Syrians and Jews in America in the latter half of the 19th century could contain barely a mention of this event is beyond me.
It is good to celebrate commonalities, but the differences are also important. One doesn’t have to leave the Lower East Side to find a powerful articulation of this idea. In his new book, The Rise of Abraham Cahan, Seth Lipsky tells of how Cahan found his way from the ideals of socialist universalism to celebrating the particulars of Jewish identity. Abraham Cahan was the founder and long-time editor of the Forvarts, the premier American Yiddish newspaper. The Forvarts still exists today as the English Forward, thanks in large part to Lipsky himself, who oversaw this transformation. Though there are already several biographies of Cahan, Lipsky’s has all the hallmarks of what I’ve come to expect from Nextbook press: short, quick, and very good, both on its own and as an introduction to a larger topic.
The title refers to Cahan’s own novel, The Rise of David Levinsky, which was hailed by Mencken and other literary notables as a great American work. Lipsky is not the first to see parallels in the novel and Cahan’s own life. Cahan came to the United States in 1882. He had already been involved with Russian socialist organizations, and in America he quickly fell in with the socialist labor movements that aimed to help Jewish immigrants in sweatshops and other similar trades. Yet over the years, and especially after he became aware of the evils of Soviet Communism, Cahan came to see the value in the American capitalist system that had allowed him to become a wealthy, powerful man by his own hard work. Though he never disavowed socialism, he changed the way he sang its praises. Lipsky details how the “tension between Cahan’s universalist, radical self and his Jewish self” was a driving force throughout his life. For a number of years, the Forvarts acted as an official supporter and advocate of several socialist movements, including the Ladies Garment Workers Union. But after a visit to Europe in 1923, Cahan famously proclaimed that “Russia has at present less freedom than it had in the earliest days of Romanov rule…The world has never yet seen such despotism.”
As Cahan moved away from total devotion to socialism, so too he found a way to articulate his reinvigorated Jewish identity:
“…in the first days of Russian nihilism…a Jew didn’t dare reveal a special affinity for Jews, but that was not a contradiction. Then a person’s own mother was no better than a stranger…it has long been acknowledged that even the greatest revolutionaries’ souls are not made of iron, and that his mother is dearer to him than your mother. Today, if you demand of a Jewish socialist that a pogrom in Kishinev should not interest him more than a pogrom against the Armenians, it would sound like one of those exclusionary laws from which Jews are used to suffering. Yes, we can confess that our mother is closer to us than a stranger. We can confess that Jews are, naturally, closer to us than other people.”
Perhaps, in studying the history of the Lower East Side, Wecker might have come across something on Abraham Cahan or the Forvarts. It’s too bad that her novel seems more in the spirit of Cahan’s early socialist utopian ideals than his later, more nuanced position. The Golem and the Jinni contains many wonderful odes to New York, as the two creatures fly across the city and its boroughs, from Castle Gardens to the Bowery and throughout numerous parks. I certainly believe that there are, in fact, many many cultural similarities between not only immigrant experiences in American but also between middle eastern cultures, including that of the Jews and Syrians. But even as I can’t really believe in a happy, friendly golem or a jinni, neither can I believe that the differences are that easy elided.
* I mean, there is definitely the possibility of really scary, creepy stuff in Judaism/Jewish culture:
But Wecker’s golem doesn’t really have any spook, which I found disappointing.