The Incan­des­cent Threads

By – October 31, 2022

Richard Zim­ler con­tin­ues the Sephardic Cycle series with this sto­ry of the last sur­viv­ing mem­bers of the Zarco fam­i­ly. Dur­ing World War II, a kind, brave piano teacher hides young Ben­jamin, AKA Ben­ni — while the child’s cousin, Shelly, is forced into a ghet­to in Poland. Ben­ni set­tles in Mon­tre­al before end­ing up in New York, where he rais­es a fam­i­ly. The death of his wife dev­as­tates him, and he turns to the study of kab­bal­ah to under­stand life’s mysteries.

Shelly is in many ways Benni’s oppo­site. An extro­vert­ed bisex­u­al man, he pur­sues many rela­tion­ships for both plea­sure and escape. When he begins a rela­tion­ship with a trou­bled Cana­di­an sol­dier who lib­er­at­ed Bergen-Belsen, his out­look changes. The young sol­dier, he finds, might have a con­nec­tion to one of the cousins’ lost fam­i­ly members.

Fol­low­ing the family’s his­to­ry through war, love, and loss, these six beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten, non­lin­ear chap­ters lead the read­er back and forth in time from Poland to New York, Boston, and Mon­tre­al. They tell the incan­des­cent sto­ry of the deep bonds that help Ben­ni and Shelly sur­vive the trau­ma of war. Their chil­dren and grand­chil­dren pre­serve these bonds as they learn about the ones who came before.

Bar­bara M. Bibel is a librar­i­an at the Oak­land Pub­lic Library in Oak­land, CA; and at Con­gre­ga­tion Netiv­ot Shalom, Berke­ley, CA.

Discussion Questions

The Incan­des­cent Threads tells the sto­ry of two cousins who sur­vived the Shoah, Ben­ni, and Shelly. Described through the eyes of those clos­est to them — their part­ners and their chil­dren, liv­ing in mod­ern-day New York and Boston— we learn about Ben­ni’s flash­backs to the Holo­caust years of his child­hood, his being hid­den in Poland by a kind­ly piano teacher, his reunion with Shelly after the war, and his sub­se­quent obses­sion with find­ing mean­ing through Kab­bal­ah. Shelly finds his direc­tion after the Shoah through the pur­suit of phys­i­cal plea­sure and the savor­ing of life. 

Zim­ler gives us a win­dow through which to watch the cousins move for­ward after the Shoah, raise fam­i­lies, and age togeth­er. Ulti­mate­ly, their sto­ry is about love and redemption.