"ADay of Small Beginnings," Lisa Pearl Rosenbaum's breathtaking debut, is a love story -- between a ghost and a Jewish family whose patriarch fled Poland for America.
The ghost is the soul of Freidl Alterman, a childless woman, who died in 1905 at age 83 and is disturbed soon after her death when young Itzik Leiber takes refuge in the Jewish graveyard in the fictional Polish town of Zokof.
He is fleeing a mob after accidentally playing a part in the death of a Pole who was horse-whipping Jewish children. Itzik holds onto Freidl's gravestone so hard that it falls over and breaks in two, and her spirit flies free. The newly born ghost aids Itzik as he flees to Warsaw, then loses him as he immigrates to America, all the while grieving that this boy with a soul like "an uncooked potato" will never cook into something better.
When Freidl finds her way back to the graveyard, she is stopped by "a dome of criss-crossed gray hewn blocks." She recalls the words from Lamentations: "He has blocked my way with cut stones." She must do something to get back to her resting place, something concerning Itzik and his family, but it is not clear what. Seemingly unable to follow him to the United States, she is trapped in a vast blue space, an "empty eternity where her soul is bound in suffering." She is freed from her blue prison when Itzik's secular, American-born son, Professor Nathan Linden, and Nathan's daughter, Ellen, a dancer, each visit Poland. Freidl tries to lead them back to Judaism, or God, or simply their past -- even Freidl isn't sure. This beautiful novel moves from folklore through sadness to joy.
Freidl comes to Nathan and Ellen through dreams, and through Raphael Bergson, the last Jew in Zokof to have seen and been comforted by Freidl for decades. As a ghost, Freidl is compelling in that she is deeply loving, deeply wise but also deeply confused. She knows Torah, tunes and stories but doesn't have the answers. The living haunt her more than she haunts them.
It's the magical realism of Freidl's love that feels real, as traces of her meddling become apparent. Nathan is her opposite: He doesn't want to be haunted, preferring the meaty substance of his subject, constitutional law. Yet when he visits Poland to give a lecture, his wanderings in Warsaw are stunningly dreamlike.
Nathan blunders into a synagogue, is recognized as a Jew by a man who looks exactly like his father and is asked to join the group so they'll have the 10 men necessary for the minyan needed to conduct communal prayer.
Reality -- where Nathan's Polish colleague, Professor Zalusky, speaks of "man's dark impulses," and where Jews were driven from Poland as late as the 1960s -- seems the strange dream.
Much of the story hinges on Bergson. All around him, Poles have taken the houses that once belonged to their Jewish neighbors. Bergson is one of the children Itzik saved and feels compelled to help Freidl in her quest to guide Itzik's family. Bergson fights to take care of the graveyard, listens to Freidl's stories and preserves the tunes she teaches him. "I am the leader of a community of one," he says.
When Ellen arrives in Warsaw on a grant to choreograph a dance, she finds wisps of anti-Semitism. One night, she falls asleep reading about old rumors that Jews had desecrated the Eucharist, and Freidl comes to her, dressed in her old plaid blanket.
Freidl says that, even with her poor eyesight, she can recognize a shayna maidel, a beautiful girl. "A lot of narrishkeit [nonsense] the goyim have said about us ... shayna, better you should fill your head with the words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, than your heart with such anger ... you should put your anger in your pocket and take it out only when you need it." With Ellen, Freidl succeeds in a way that she does not with Itzik or Nathan.
If there's a flaw in the book, it's that it doesn't really describe how or why Ellen is able to free Freidl while Itzik and Nathan fail. She brings Freidl's favorite tune to her dances, but the revelation that sets the ghost free seems to be Freidl's own, and seems to concern love, and the ghost's belated acceptance of her own lot in life.
Many novels wonder over anti-Semitism in Europe, but few do so without becoming mired in darkness. Rosenbaum's book is one of joy. The beauty is in its talk, the talk between the ghost and the living, the conversations the living have among themselves and the way the story winds about and turns out not to be about history but to be about love, after all.
Laurel Maury writes reviews for a number of publications.