Reviewed by Jonathan Dobrer, author and authority on International Relations, Middle Eastern Politics, Comparative Religion and Islam. Dobrer teaches at AJU and taught at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, is a sought after speaker and contributes to the Op-Ed page of the Los Angeles Daily News.
I grew up in a literary family. My aunts and uncle were all writers and published many books and scholarly articles. I myself am a writer- with four published books to my credit (and maybe one to my shame). I have taught classes and conducted discussions for more than a decade centering on Jewish literature. This is not bragging but simply presenting my bona fides for asserting that A Day of Small Beginnings is one of the most compelling, literary and yet accessible novels I have read- Jewish or secular.
With traces of Sholem Aleichem’s mysticism and Isabelle Allende’s magical realism interwoven with contemporary narrative, we go on a journey through time and recapitulate the great physical and spiritual issues of 20th century Judaism. But this is neither abstract nor dry. This is a very human story, a very personal story. It is the story of a particular family: a father who escapes Poland and comes to America; his secular son who returns briefly; and a granddaughter who, whether consciously seeking or not, searches to reconcile her religious roots, her secular upbringing and the immense pain of the 20th century. This is her story, but it is also our story.
The writing is beautiful and poetic without ever being precious or seeming self-conscious. This in itself is more than an accomplishment; it is a gift- a rare gift that Ms. Rosenbaum has in abundance.
The book opens with a paragraph too good only to allude to. I have to share it:
“When I went to my rest in 1905 I was eighty-three and childless, aggravated that life was done with me and I was done with life. I turned my face from the Angel of Death and recited the Psalm of David: ‘What do you gain from my blood if I go down in the Pit? Can the dust praise You?’ If God’s answer was punishment for my sins or praise for my good deed, I cannot say.”
Notice that when we meet Freidl, our first narrator, she is already dead. Such, however, is her koyach, that this does not stop her from being an important and active actor in this drama. This is, in many ways, symbolic of the role the past, our history, plays in our own lives and journeys. The past is never totally gone nor dead. It acts in us. We hear its whispers, and even when we try to ignore it or deny it, nonetheless, it is there patiently waiting to be heard. Or in Freidl’s case, maybe not so patiently.
In the beginning we follow Itzik as he flees Poland and comes to America. Out of fear of being found, he changes his name, but as Freidl fears, this makes it hard for him to find himself. It takes a small step- “a small beginning” for Nathan to begin to hear the voices of our collective past and start a return that is not completed (it is never completed in a single life or even generation) but carried to a hopeful place by Nathan’s daughter Ellen.
Ellen returns to work in Poland, to bring her artistic skills and sensibilities as an American and a Jew. In the process she meets Poles of good will, apprehends recent history in its unforgettable and unspeakable horror and meets a haunting, and in some ways, haunted figure tending the cemetery and bearing witness to the ghosts of our European- and specifically Polish- past. He is a saving remnant and a torchbearer passing our heritage on from generation to generation- even when a generation has been, in some ways, skipped.
Throughout this remarkable book, stones play an iconic role. From the gravestone over Freidl that moves physically and spiritually through the story, we encounter rough stones, jagged, sharp and smooth stones. They are all literally, and literarily, touchstones carrying messages, metaphors and stories. As we put them together, the puzzles of the past may not be solved, but we begin to see patterns in our history, our lives and our spiritual journeys.
One generation may, in the words of Koheleth “cast away stones.” Ms. Rosenbaum helps us “gather stones together.”