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The Golems of Gothamby Thane Rosenbaum
Synopses & Reviews
In 1580 the Rabbi Lowe of Prague created a monster out of clay in the shape of a man but with no soul — a golem — to protect the city's Jews from persecution. The creature began to take on a life of its own, at first aiding the citizens and then, intoxicated by rage and power, overtaking them. Eventually the golem was disabled by its creator.
Based on ancient kabbalistic practices, the legend of the Golem reappeared in many versions, and may have inspired Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein, as well as other modern-day "horror" stories. In "The Golems of Gotham," Thane Rosenbaum has woven the legend of the Golem into a mystical, comedic, and deeply thoughtful novel set in contemporary Manhatten — a ghost story of the highest caliber that delivers its own haunting message of horror and of humanity's power to create and destroy. It is the eve of the new millennium. In New York City's Upper West Side, in a brownstone on Edgar Allan Poe Street, a teenage girl performs an ancient ceremony using a hunk of river mud, an old violin, candles and a picture of the tattoos on the arms of her dead grandparents, Lothar and Rose Levin. Ariel's purpose is to bring her grandparents — Holocaust survivors who committed suicide before she was born — back to life, and in doing so, to rescue Oliver, her father, a famous but now blocked mystery writer, from demons of his own.
Ariel's scheme works better than she could have imagined. Not only do her grandparents materialize, they are accompanied by a group of other ghosts — among them the legendary Primo Levi, Jerzy Kosinski, Jean Amery, and Paul Celan — writers who committed suicide after having survived Nazi concentration camps.Together these golems turn Ariel's house on Edgar Allan Poe Street into a museum of gruesome Holocaust images and artifacts, complete with blood running down the walls and relics of a sixteenth-century synagogue in the attic. The entire neighborhood gets treated to an assortment of post-Holocaust ideas and life lessons.
Like the monster created by Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein, the golems that Ariel creates surpass their creator's expectations. They frolic about the city, carping on the trappings of modern Jewish-American culture, and on the many ways Jews and others have trivialized the Holocaust and diluted its memory. Like family members bickering at the dining room table, the Golems debate the purpose of their return to earth, reviewing their lives and deaths, and ruminating on what they lost. They go to work on Oliver, filling his house and stirring his imagination with gruesome visions that not only vanquish his writer's block, but also give way to an unstoppable literary outpour. And they wreak dangerous havoc on New York City, filling its streets, buildings, bridges, and skies with reminders that the potential for evil is still with us, even as memories of the Shoah slip farther into our unconscious.
Eventually the Golems realize that they have gone too far just as Oliver has gone too far in simulating their fateful experiences in writing his new novel. Perhaps he is the one who has actually created them? Order is restored in Manhattan and the Golems gather at Oliver's table for a Passover seder. As they go through the ancient rituals, the Golems make provocative suggestions for updating the holiday's observances. They ask questions for which there are no answers, evennow. But in his novel Rosenbaum shows that these questions demand our attention nonetheless. Filled with relevance and immediacy, they make a connection between religion and reality, tradition and moral compromise, and between horror and its intersection with everyday life. Rosenbaum encourages all of us — not just Jews — to remember that the horrors of the Holocaust extended way beyond the act itself because spiritual and moral damage continued on throughout the century and only memory itself is a possible antedote.
Questions for Discussion
"With this very accessible novel full of appealing characters, Rosenbaum — himself the child of Holocaust survivors — should help ensure that we never forget." Booklist
"In...The Golems of Gotham, Rosenbaum combines the strangeness of his early stories with the realism of his previous novel [Second Hand Smoke] to produce a book at once magical and natural....Rosenbaum is too wise and too fine a writer...to allow for sentimental solutions....Rosenbaum's novel is at once chilling and warm, rigorous and fanciful, savagely witty and profoundly reasoned. The Golems of Gotham charms as it frightens and moves us, and shows a novelist moving into the fullness of his imaginative capacity." Floyd Skloot, The San Francisco Chronicle
Many years have passed since Oliver Levin — a bestselling mystery writer and a lifetime sufferer from blocked emotions — has given any thought to his parents, Holocaust survivors who committed suicide. But now, after years of uninterrupted literary output, Oliver Levin finds himself blocked as a writer, too. Oliver's fourteen-year-old daughter, Ariel, sets out to free her father from his demons by summoning the ghosts of his parents, but, along the way, the ghosts of Primo Levi, Jerzy Kosinski, and Paul Celan, among others, also materialize in this novel of moral philosophy and unforgettable enchantment.
We call it justice—the assassination of Osama bin Laden, the incarceration of corrupt politicians or financiers like Rod Blagojevich and Bernard Madoff, and the climactic slaying of cinema-screen villains by superheroes. But could we not also call it revenge? We are told that revenge is uncivilized and immoral, an impulse that individuals and societies should actively repress and replace with the order and codes of courtroom justice. What, if anything, distinguishes punishment at the hands of the government from a victim’s individual desire for retribution? Are vengeance and justice really so very different? No, answers legal scholar and novelist Thane Rosenbaum in Payback: The Case for Revenge—revenge is, in fact, indistinguishable from justice.
Revenge, Rosenbaum argues, is not the problem. It is, in fact, a perfectly healthy emotion. Instead, the problem is the inadequacy of lawful outlets through which to express it. He mounts a case for legal systems to punish the guilty commensurate with their crimes as part of a societal moral duty to satisfy the needs of victims to feel avenged. Indeed, the legal system would better serve the public if it gave victims the sense that vengeance was being done on their behalf. Drawing on a wide range of support, from recent studies in behavioral psychology and neuroeconomics, to stories of vengeance and justice denied, to revenge practices from around the world, to the way in which revenge tales have permeated popular culture—including Hamlet, The Godfather, and Braveheart—Rosenbaum demonstrates that vengeance needs to be more openly and honestly discussed and lawfully practiced.
Fiercely argued and highly engaging, Payback is a provocative and eye-opening cultural tour of revenge and its rewards—from Shakespeare to The Sopranos. It liberates revenge from its social stigma and proves that vengeance is indeed ours, a perfectly human and acceptable response to moral injury. Rosenbaum deftly persuades us to reconsider a misunderstood subject and, along the way, reinvigorates the debate on the shape of justice in the modern world.
About the Author
Thane Rosenbaum is the author of Second Hand Smoke and Elijah Visible. He lives in New York City with his daughter, Basia Tess.
Table of Contents
1 Running away from Revenge
2 Just Deserts
3 The Emotions of Revenge
4 The Science of Mad
5 Why We Punish?
6 Other Cultures and Revenge
7 When Self-Help Is Permissible
8 Release Revenge
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