MANHATTAN, FEBRUARY 1900
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.