Guest­house for Gane­sha: A Novel

By – June 11, 2019

Guest­house for Gane­sha is an unusu­al Holo­caust nov­el; although this mys­ti­cal tale begins in 1920s Poland, it ends in 1940s India.

The sto­ry unfolds with Esther Grünspan, left alone under the chup­pah by her great love. This betray­al trans­forms a hope­ful girl into a cold woman. She rejects her fam­i­ly and her­itage, deny­ing her past as she relo­cates to Ger­many. Esther’s incred­i­ble sewing skills pro­vide her with a new life. She barters her ser­vices to learn Ger­man and builds a busi­ness in her quest for self-preser­va­tion. One evening, Esther sees an incon­gru­ous look­ing shack sell­ing samosas. She briefly speaks to the Indi­an own­er and is inex­plic­a­bly drawn to a pic­ture of Gane­sha, the Hin­du ele­phant-head­ed deity. She feels unex­pect­ed warmth and peace dur­ing this encounter that will change her life forever.

In fact, Esther’s sto­ry is nar­rat­ed by Gane­sha, the god of new begin­nings, suc­cess, wis­dom, and Remover of Obsta­cles. Ganesha’s words are seen in var­i­ous forms, includ­ing ital­i­cized poet­ry, com­men­tary, and asides. The god sees every human as a guest­house for the spir­it and pro­vides for their needs. Ganesha’s whis­pers and atten­tions inter­cede to save Esther time and again on her har­row­ing journey.

After Esther enters a love­less mar­riage to the cob­bler and has three chil­dren, she watch­es, with her bit­ter­ness swelling,” as seeds of hate and ter­ror grow through­out the 1930s. Aid­ed by her prac­ti­cal skills, Esther and her young son sur­vive by hid­ing in plain sight as they move through­out Europe. The his­tor­i­cal back­drop of World War II is vivid­ly cap­tured through­out their flight, and her sur­vival is ensured as she sens­es a pres­ence she doesn’t ful­ly comprehend.

Judith Teitelman’s debut nov­el asks the read­er to believe in the jour­ney. The descrip­tive lan­guage moves the plot in com­pelling and imag­i­na­tive ways. The inter­twin­ing of Esther’s life on the run and her even­tu­al self-real­iza­tion in India is nar­rat­ed with com­pas­sion. From the dream­like pro­logue to the final epi­logue, this is a pow­er­ful and absorb­ing read — a nov­el writ­ten with love in the spir­it of heal­ing and renewal.

Reni­ta Last is a mem­ber of the Nas­sau Region of Hadassah’s Exec­u­tive Board. She has coor­di­nat­ed the Film Forum Series for the Region and served as Pro­gram­ming and Health Coor­di­na­tors and as a mem­ber of the Advo­ca­cy Committee.

She has vol­un­teered as a docent at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty teach­ing the all- impor­tant lessons of the Holo­caust and tol­er­ance. A retired teacher of the Gift­ed and Tal­ent­ed, she loves par­tic­i­pat­ing in book clubs and writ­ing projects.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Judith Teitelman

  1. The nov­el begins with, first, a descrip­tion of the Hebrew let­ter Bet,” fol­lowed by the Rumi poem The Guest House.” How do these inform the sto­ry? Did they pro­vide you with a greater under­stand­ing of the sto­ry and its unfolding?
  2. What was your ini­tial reac­tion to the sto­ry? Were you imme­di­ate­ly drawn in or did it take some time for you to get into it? Why? And did your feel­ings change from the begin­ning to the mid­dle and to the end? Please describe.
  3. What feel­ings did this book evoke for you? And why?
  4. Did Esther’s expe­ri­ences res­onate with you? If so, how? If not, why? In what ways might her sto­ry be your story?
  5. Did you learn some­thing you didn’t know before? And, if so, were you com­pelled to research fur­ther on a par­tic­u­lar top­ic or top­ics, out­side of the book?
  6. Did the nov­el change your opin­ion or per­spec­tive about any­thing? In what ways? Did the sto­ry sur­prise you? Frus­trate you? Inspire you?
  7. How was read­ing this nov­el dif­fer­ent from read­ing oth­er nov­els of Jew­ish sur­vival against dif­fi­cult to impos­si­ble odds? And how did you feel about the author’s inte­gra­tion of the Hin­du God Gane­sha and his world views and perspectives?
  8. What scene(s) res­onat­ed most with you in either pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive way(s)? Why?
  9. What was your favorite quote and/​or pas­sage? Why?
  10. What’s the sig­nif­i­cance of the title for you?
  11. If you had the chance to ask the author one ques­tion, what would it be?
  12. What do you think was the author’s pur­pose in writ­ing this book? What idea(s) was she try­ing to get across?