Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Book review: A Day of Small Beginnings

A Day of Small Beginnings by Lisa Pearl Rosenbaum is a lovely meditation on religion, prejudice, and change. Spanning three generations and major world events, this work of approachable prose will make you think and touch your heart.

In 1906, the childless widow Friedl Alterman is but a year in her grave in the small town of Zokof, Poland. One night she is disturbed when a boy of 14 comes crashing into the cemetery. It is Itzak Lieber, known as "the Faithless One" because he refused help from the synagogue when his father left his family. Awakened, Friedl listens and hears something unexpected -- Itzak praying with all his heart and soul for God to help him, his arms wrapped around her gravestone.

Friedl thinks God is answering her own prayers in finally giving her a child to watch over, and her soul flies from its resting place. Desperate to help Itzak, she leaves the cemetery and sees it blocked to her return. She follows him as he runs and helps him as much as she can, but when he moves beyond her sight, she is banished.

Itzak escapes to America and changes his name to Isaac. He marries, has children. His son Nathan, who changes his last name to Linden, becomes a constitutional scholar and has a daughter, Ellen, who is a dancer and choreographer. Both Nathan and Ellen are raised as atheists and know nothing of Isaac's past. They each get professional invitations to Poland, where they encounter Friedl and Rafael, a man who has dedicated his life to helping Friedl find peace.

This remarkable novel addresses the Holocaust without taking it on directly. Rosenbaum concentrates on the surrounding cultural climate in Poland, both before and long after the World Wars. Anti-semitism sets the story in motion, and the characters reactions to it form the major action of the book.

It is also a story of American Jews discovering and reclaiming their religious inheritance. In reaction to his horrible experiences, Isaac gave up on religion and kept his family from learning their ancestry. Nathan, a generation removed, experienced an American brand of anti-semitism growing up in Brooklyn, and really cannot embrace his heritage. Ellen, two generations removed, is curious about Judaism and open to learning how to pray, whatever that means.

Talk of God is prevalent in the book, but nobody every hears from God directly, not even Friedl. The characters are left to deduce His will from their experiences. Nathan, the academic, is particularly interested in Raphael's understanding of God. Through his relationship with Friedl, Raphael returned to living and worshiping as a Jew, when the temptation had been to curse God in despair and never follow religious practices again.

For a book about such weighty subjects, it is a sweet and easy read. The writing has a lightness about it that is very inviting, and one can't help rooting for Friedl from the start. While the ending is telegraphed, I was still surprised by the form the it took. This book has many profound things to say, and I am still thinking about them. I am particularly taken with Raphael's relationship with God.

There is no need to shy away from this book despite its serious themes. A Day of Small Beginnings is just that -- a small beginning toward healing some of the worst hurts of the twentieth century. May the world take notice.

Cross-posted Blogcritics.

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