A man and a boy exit­ed the Third Avenue Ele­vat­ed and walked west­ward along 67th Street, into the wind.

It was a frigid, blus­tery morn­ing, and the weath­er had dri­ven most of the city indoors. Those few who remained on the side­walks stared at the man and boy as they passed, for they were an unusu­al sight in this Upper East Side neigh­bor­hood, with their long dark coats and broad- brimmed hats, their side-curls bob­bing above their scarves. At Lex­ing­ton, the man paced back and forth, squint­ing at the build­ings, until at last the boy found what they were look­ing for: a nar­row door labeled Benev­o­lent Hebrew Aid Soci­ety. Behind the door was a flight of stairs, at the top of which was anoth­er door, the twin of the first. The man hes­i­tat­ed, then straight­ened his back and knocked.

Foot­steps — and the door swung open, reveal­ing a thin-haired man in rim­less spec­ta­cles and a trim Amer­i­can suit.

If cir­cum­stances had been oth­er­wise, the vis­i­tor might have intro­duced him­self as Rab­bi Lev Altschul of the Forsyth Street Syn­a­gogue, and the boy at his side as the son of a con­gre­gant, employed for the after­noon as a trans­la­tor. The man in the suit, whose name was Fleis­chman, might’ve thanked the rab­bi for com­ing so far, in such dis­mal weath­er. Then the two might have dis­cussed the task that had brought them togeth­er: the dis­burse­ment of the pri­vate library of one Rab­bi Avram Mey­er, recent­ly deceased. Mr. Fleis­chman would’ve explained that the late Rab­bi Meyer’s nephew had cho­sen the Benev­o­lent Hebrew Aid Soci­ety because they spe­cial­ized in book dona­tions — but that once the Rabbi’s col­lec­tion had arrived, and crate after crate of Tal­mu­dic eso­ter­i­ca was unloaded into their office, it had become clear that, in this case, they would need to sum­mon a specialist.

In response, Rab­bi Altschul might’ve out­lined, with some­thing approach­ing mod­esty, his own qual­i­fi­ca­tions: that he was known among his peers for his Tal­mu­dic schol­ar­ship, and had spent his entire life, first in Lithua­nia and then New York, sur­round­ed by books such as these. He would’ve reas­sured Mr. Fleis­chman that the Benev­o­lent Hebrew Aid Soci­ety had made the right choice, and that under his stew­ard­ship, Rab­bi Meyer’s books would all find new and appro­pri­ate homes.

But none of this came to pass. Instead the two men faced each oth­er bale­ful­ly over the thresh­old, each star­ing in clear dis­taste at the top of the other’s head: the one garbed in Ortho­dox hat and side-curls, and the oth­er, in the Reform man­ner, as bare as a Gentile’s.

Then, with­out a word, Fleis­chman stepped to one side, and Altschul saw the enor­mous library table beyond, its scarred wood­en top buried beneath stacks and rows and pyra­mids of books.

Rab­bi Altschul’s sigh was that of a bride­groom catch­ing a glimpse of his beloved.

At last Fleis­chman broke the silence and deliv­ered his instruc­tions. The rab­bi, he said, must sort the books into groups, based on whichev­er cri­te­ria he felt appro­pri­ate. Each group would then be sent to the syn­a­gogue of Altschul’s choice. The boy trans­lat­ed these instruc­tions in a ner­vous, whis­per­ing Yid­dish; the rab­bi grunt­ed and, with­out a word, went to the table and began his examinations.

Thus dis­missed, Fleis­chman retreat­ed to a near­by desk, picked up a news­pa­per, and pre­tend­ed to read it while sur­rep­ti­tious­ly watch­ing his guest. The boy, too, watched the rab­bi — for Lev Altschul was a com­mand­ing fig­ure, and a man of some mys­tery, even to his own con­gre­ga­tion. He was a wid­ow­er, his young wife Malke hav­ing died from a fever after child­birth — and yet the loss seemed to have changed him lit­tle. All had expect­ed him to remar­ry, if only to pro­vide a moth­er for the baby, a daugh­ter he’d named Krein­del; but the year of mourn­ing had long since come and gone, and still he showed no inter­est in find­ing a bride.

With­out a word, Fleis­chman stepped to one side, and Altschul saw the enor­mous library table beyond, its scarred wood­en top buried beneath stacks and rows and pyra­mids of books.

The truth was that Lev Altschul was a man with lit­tle patience for world­ly con­sid­er­a­tions. He’d mar­ried Malke in order to ful­fill the com­mand to be fruit­ful and mul­ti­ply, and because she, too, had come from a respect­ed rab­bini­cal fam­i­ly, which he’d thought would dis­pose her to the role of a rabbi’s wife. But the unfor­tu­nate Malke had been com­plete­ly unsuit­ed to the task. A mouse of a woman, she’d cringed at her husband’s every utter­ance, and had lived in even greater ter­ror of his con­gre­gants — espe­cial­ly the women, whom she’d sus­pect­ed, quite right­ly, of mock­ing her behind her back. Altschul had hoped that moth­er­hood might strength­en his bride, but the preg­nan­cy had turned her even paler and more queru­lous than before; and at the end, she’d seemed to embrace the killing fever with a cer­tain gloomy relief. The entire expe­ri­ence had been so off-putting that, hav­ing ful­filled the com­mand­ment once, Altschul had no inten­tion of doing so again. To solve the prob­lem of a moth­er for lit­tle Krein­del, he now paid an assort­ment of young moth­ers in their ten­e­ment to look after her — one of whom had just arrived for the squirm­ing girl when he received the request from the Benev­o­lent Hebrew Aid Soci­ety that morn­ing, ask­ing for his help.

He’d near­ly reject­ed the let­ter out of hand. In Lev Altschul’s mind, the Reform move­ment and their uptown char­i­ties were an ene­my sec­ond only to the Russ­ian Tsar. He held a spe­cial con­tempt for their set­tle­ment work­ers: young Ger­man Jew­ess­es who knocked on ten­e­ment doors, offer­ing the ladies who answered free milk and eggs if they agreed to endure a lec­ture on mod­ern hygiene and nutri­tion. You’re in Amer­i­ca now, their refrain went. You must learn to cook prop­er­ly. Lev had instruct­ed Malke that no set­tle­ment woman was ever to set foot in their apart­ment, that he’d rather starve than accept the worm that dan­gled from their hook. And now that Malke was dead, he was even wari­er than before: for all knew that the set­tle­ment women were also agents of the Asy­lum for Orphaned Hebrews, the gigan­tic Reform orphan­age uptown that stole poor Ortho­dox chil­dren into its bow­els and made them for­get their fam­i­lies, their Yid­dish, and their tra­di­tions. In short, he was as like­ly to ven­ture inside a serpent’s pit as spend an after­noon at the Benev­o­lent Hebrew Aid Soci­ety — but in the end, the lure of an aban­doned Tal­mu­dic library had worked its mag­ic, and the rab­bi had reluc­tant­ly agreed.

Now, as Altschul walked up and down the book-lined table, the char­ac­ter of the late Rab­bi Mey­er began to take shape in his mind. The books them­selves were well thumbed and well cared for, the library of a true schol­ar. The titles, how­ev­er, told him that Meyer’s the­ol­o­gy had been far more mys­ti­cal than his own, even edg­ing toward anath­e­ma. In fact, if the two had ever encoun­tered each oth­er in life, Altschul might’ve had harsh words for him. But stand­ing in this cold and alien office, with the dead man’s pre­cious library laid out like the grub­by con­tents of a bookmonger’s cart, Altschul felt only a deep and sym­pa­thet­ic grief. In this room, he and Mey­er were broth­ers. He’d over­look their dif­fer­ences, and dis­burse the man’s lega­cy as best he could.

He began to sort the books into piles, while the boy wait­ed near­by in ner­vous bore­dom, and Fleis­chman turned each page of his news­pa­per with a rat­tle and a snap. Altschul wished the man would stop mak­ing so much noise; it seemed a delib­er­ate insult—

He paused, his hand upon a book that was con­sid­er­ably old­er and more worn than its neigh­bors. Only shreds of leather were left cling­ing to the boards; the spine, too, had flaked away, reveal­ing nar­row bun­dles of pages bound with fray­ing catgut. Care­ful­ly Altschul opened it — and his frown deep­ened as he turned the pages, skim­ming for­mu­lae, dia­grams, pages of close-writ­ten Hebrew. He could bare­ly read most of it, but the frag­ments he under­stood told of the­o­ries and exper­i­ments and the sorts of abil­i­ties that, should the tales be believed, were for­bid­den to all but the holi­est sages. What, in the name of God, had Mey­er been doing with a book like this?

He closed the cov­er, his hands trem­bling with unease — and now he saw that the next book in the stack was just as worn and ancient-seem­ing as the first. And so was the next book, and the next. Five in all he found, five books of secret knowl­edge that most schol­ars thought had van­ished into leg­end. These were sacred objects. He should’ve prayed and fast­ed before even touch­ing them. And now here they were, in Amer­i­ca — in a Reform char­i­ty office, of all places!

Heart pound­ing, he care­ful­ly moved the books to one side, away from their neigh­bors. Then, as though noth­ing had hap­pened, he went on to the next, bless­ed­ly ordi­nary vol­ume. He imag­ined he could feel his hands tin­gling, as though the for­bid­den writ­ings had leached through the tat­tered cov­ers and into his skin.

It had grown dark by the time all the books were sort­ed. At last Altschul sum­moned the boy and then trav­eled down the table, the boy trans­lat­ing his instruc­tions while Fleis­chman grim­ly wrote them down. These books — Altschul out­lined with his hands one large group of stacks — were to be giv­en to Rab­bi Teit­el­baum at Con­gre­ga­tion Kol Yis­roel, at Hes­ter Street. These books — anoth­er swath of small tow­ers— must go to Mari­ampol Syn­a­gogue, on East Broadway.

And these,” the boy said as Altschul ges­tured to the final, soli­tary stack of decrepit-look­ing vol­umes, must be sent to Rab­bi Chaim Grodzin­s­ki, the Rav of Vilna.”

Fleischman’s pen hov­ered above the paper. I’m sor­ry, who?” Rab­bi Chaim Grodz — ”

Yes, yes, but Vil­na? In Lithua­nia?”

Man and boy explained to Fleis­chman that the Rav was the chief rab­bi of Vil­na, and a holy and impor­tant per­son­age. In return, Fleis­chman informed them that the man could be Eli­jah the Tish­bite for all he cared—Lithua­nia, for heaven’s sake! Did they think he had a pet Roth­schild to pay for the ship­ping? No, the books would have to join their brethren in one of the oth­er stacks, or else Altschul must deal with them himself.

The rab­bi stared at him in silent anger, and then back at the tat­tered relics. With­out anoth­er word he snatched up the books and stalked out the door and down to the street, the boy fol­low­ing behind.

That night, when the boy’s moth­er asked her son what had sent their rab­bi uptown, he described for her the char­i­ty office, and the count­less books, and the man who’d turned his news­pa­per pages with a rat­tle and a snap. But he made no men­tion of the books that Rab­bi Altschul had car­ried home on the Ele­vat­ed. He didn’t want to remem­ber how the rabbi’s eyes had gleamed with a ter­ri­ble fas­ci­na­tion as he’d gazed at them, how he’d neglect­ed to stand for their stop until the boy tapped him on the shoul­der. The boy had nev­er liked Rab­bi Altschul, not quite— but until that day, he’d nev­er been afraid of him.

Rab­bi Altschul did not send the books to the Vil­na Rav.

Instead, he wrapped them in a prayer-shawl, placed the bun­dle inside an old wood­en suit­case, and pushed the suit­case beneath his bed, far out of reach. Then he resumed the usu­al course of his life: syn­a­gogue, prayer, and study. Months passed, and not once did Rab­bi Altschul touch the books, even though they tempt­ed him great­ly. Nei­ther did he make inquiries into the cir­cum­stances of Rab­bi Meyer’s death — although he couldn’t help won­der­ing if the books had played some role in it. He imag­ined how it might’ve hap­pened: the excit­ed dis­cov­ery, the heed­less blun­der­ing through their pages, an attempt at some spell thor­ough­ly beyond Meyer’s abil­i­ties — and then, the inevitable consequence.

His intu­ition was cor­rect, to a point. The books had indeed has­tened Rab­bi Meyer’s death, slow­ly drain­ing his strength as he stud­ied them — not out of a naive, hubris­tic desire for their knowl­edge, but in an attempt to con­trol a dan­ger­ous crea­ture, one that Rab­bi Mey­er had dis­cov­ered and shel­tered and grown to care for. The crea­ture was a golem, a liv­ing being sculpt­ed from clay and ani­mat­ed by holy mag­ic. This par­tic­u­lar golem had been made in the form of a human woman — one who was some­what tall and awk­ward, but oth­er­wise entire­ly ordi­nary to all appear­ances. The golem’s name was Cha­va Levy. She worked at Radzin’s Bak­ery at the cor­ner of Allen and Delancey, not sev­en blocks from Altschul’s own syn­a­gogue. To her col­leagues, she was inde­fati­ga­ble Cha­va, who could braid an entire tray of chal­lahs in under two min­utes, and who some­times seemed to reach for what­ev­er a cus­tomer want­ed before they’d even asked. To her land­la­dy at her Eldridge Street board­ing­house, she was a qui­et, steady ten­ant, and an expert seam­stress who spent her nights per­form­ing repairs and alter­ations for pen­nies apiece. She was so quick with these tasks that her admir­ing clients some­times asked, Cha­va, when do you find time to sleep? The truth, of course, was that she nev­er need­ed to.

Check back on Fri­day, May 28, to read the sec­ond half of chap­ter 1!

The Golem and the Jin­ni was award­ed the Mythopoe­ic Award, the VCU Cabell Award, and the Har­ald U. Rib­alow Prize, and was nom­i­nat­ed for a Neb­u­la and World Fan­ta­sy Awards. Her work has appeared in Joy­land, Cata­ma­ran, and in the anthol­o­gy The Djinn Falls in Love and Oth­er Sto­ries. She lives in the San Fran­cis­co Bay area with her family.