When the Angels Left the Old Country 

By – October 21, 2022

Imag­ine Neil Gaiman meets Fid­dler on the Roof. Or Sher­lock Holmes meets Fiv­el Goes West. Nei­ther com­par­i­son is exact­ly accu­rate, but they do help paint a pic­ture of When The Angels Left the Old Coun­try–a sweep­ing, engross­ing tale that fol­lows two mys­ti­cal crea­tures, an angel and a demon, as they jour­ney to Amer­i­ca from their small shtetl in the ear­ly twen­ti­eth century.

The pair makes the jour­ney for two rea­sons: our mis­chie­vous but lov­able demon, Lit­tle Ash, is los­ing all the young shtetl-dwellers as they immi­grate to Amer­i­ca, seek­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty and free­dom; and he is afraid that he will be dis­cov­ered in this ever-shrink­ing shtetl. But to get the Angel on board, he wraps this self­ish desire in an altru­is­tic one: Essie, a res­i­dent of the shtetl who recent­ly left for Amer­i­ca, hasn’t writ­ten back to her father in some time, and the fam­i­ly is wor­ried. Lit­tle Ash pro­pos­es that they jour­ney to find and help her, and off they go to the New World.

The Angel and Lit­tle Ash have been friends for lit­er­al ages, sit­ting in the back cor­ner of their syn­a­gogue and argu­ing about the Tal­mud. Theirs is a love that is as mys­ti­cal as it is ground­ed; as they make their way to Amer­i­ca, they strug­gle with jeal­ousy, mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and lone­li­ness, only to dis­cov­er the depths of their mutu­al love and affection.

Their jour­ney to Amer­i­ca is rife with ghosts, lost souls, and some­thing even more pedes­tri­an and thus more ter­ri­fy­ing: humans with pow­er and evil inten­tions. As they trav­el from War­saw through Ellis Island, all the way to Hes­ter Street, Lit­tle Ash and the Angel are test­ed in many ways – they must decide whom to trust, how to hide who they are, and, final­ly, how to find and help Essie and the many over­worked immi­grant Jews liv­ing on the Low­er East Side.

This nov­el by Sacha Lamb is both an action-packed adven­ture filled with dyb­buks, mys­tery, and mur­der, and also a sweet sto­ry of two beings dis­cov­er­ing their place in each other’s lives. It is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly a sto­ry of a woman who is try­ing to fig­ure out her iden­ti­ty, and of the lengths we will go to make sure our friends, fam­i­ly, and com­mu­ni­ty thrive in a hos­tile world. In the end, we will hope that we, too, have a lit­tle demon and angel, sit­ting in the back of the syn­a­gogue, ready to help us in a time of cri­sis or need. And who knows? They might be argu­ing there already, just wait­ing to be of service.

When the Angels Left the Old Coun­try is a phe­nom­e­nal sto­ry that explores gen­der iden­ti­ty and sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion while show­cas­ing the pow­er of com­mu­ni­ty and the jour­ney one must take to tru­ly know themself.

Evie Saphire-Bern­stein is the pro­gram direc­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil. She grad­u­at­ed from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go with a B.A. in Eng­lish and a minor in Jew­ish Stud­ies. Before join­ing the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil team in 2015, she spent a year and a half work­ing with­in the Con­ser­v­a­tive Move­ment as the Net­work Liai­son for the Schechter Day School Net­work. She is a recent trans­plant to New York City, after liv­ing in Chica­go for most of her life. In her spare time, Evie is a writer and blogger.

Discussion Questions

The Angel and minor demon Lit­tle Ash have been chevrusas in their tiny shtetl’s syn­a­gogue for ages. When a girl who emi­grat­ed from their shtetl goes miss­ing, the duo decide to fol­low her to Amer­i­ca. Mean­while, six­teen-year-old Rose, bro­ken-heart­ed after her best friend choos­es to mar­ry a man instead of jour­ney­ing to Amer­i­ca with her, chan­nels her betray­al into anger and fierce deter­mi­na­tion. When surly Rose meets imp­ish Ash and the earnest Angel on their way to Amer­i­ca, she quick­ly falls in with the odd cou­ple, cre­at­ing an irre­sistible trio who are deter­mined to sur­vive no mat­ter the obstacles.

Lamb’s debut pays homage to the greats of Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture while cre­at­ing some­thing whol­ly new, queer­ing the Ashke­nazi Ellis Island immi­gra­tion sto­ry and breath­ing fresh life into clas­sic com­ing-of-age themes. Each protagonist’s unique jour­ney with their gen­der iden­ti­ty, inter­per­son­al rela­tion­ships, and sense of self pro­vides queer rep­re­sen­ta­tion pre­vi­ous­ly unseen in Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture for teens.

Breath­tak­ing­ly ten­der, fun­ny, and ground­ed, Lamb’s sweep­ing fab­u­list tale is a fierce­ly hope­ful tes­ta­ment to the neces­si­ty of care and the pow­er of self-dis­cov­ery. A stun­ning achieve­ment, When the Angels Left the Old Coun­try is a vital addi­tion to the canon of Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture for teens.