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An Eastern European ‘Exodus’

A Day of Small Beginnings
By Lisa Pearl Rosenbaum
Little, Brown and Company, 384 pages, $24.99.

‘I think our ghosts are everywhere, all the time,” a young Polish man tells a visiting American Jew in Lisa Pearl Rosenbaum’s deeply heartfelt first novel. “The past does not leave us. And we do not leave the past.” “A Day of Small Beginnings” loosely revisits the story of Exodus through the lives of three generations of Polish Americans, and tells of the ghost who longs to reunite them with their Jewish identities. But the novel’s destination is less a concrete place than an internal state — a spiritual spark, lodged within us, that can be ignited by returning to and confronting a very unfinished past.

In the small Polish town of Zokof in 1905, 14-year-old Itzik Leiber comes upon a Polish peasant on his wagon whipping a group of Jewish children. Like Moses, who is awakened to his Jewish identity by a compulsion to protect a Hebrew from a beating by an Egyptian, Itzik accidentally kills the Polish peasant in his effort to save the children. Realizing that a Jew killing a Pole will lead to deadly retribution, Itzik hides in a nearby cemetery. Clawing at a gravestone in fear, the young boy stirs the recently deceased spirit of Friedl Alterman, a learned widow whose unhappy marriage and childless state filled her life with regret. In Itzik, Friedl sees the child she never had, an opportunity to perpetuate the Jewish faith and to redeem herself before God. When Itzik flees Zokof for America — crossing an ocean that the ghost is unable to traverse — Friedl understands that both she and Itzik have been exiled, perhaps forever.

More than 80 years later, Itzik’s son, Nathan Linden, a Harvard law professor, finds himself giving a lecture in Poland. We learn that once Itzik landed in the United States, he turned away from Jewish practice, embracing communism and raising his son to hold organized religion in contempt. Despite Nathan’s ambivalence about his own identity, just a single night in Warsaw reveals to Nathan that “a Jew knows he has reason to fear man’s dark impulses.”

Nathan learns firsthand what we have been discovering from recent books that have reconfigured our understanding of 20th-century Polish-Jewish relations, including Jan Gross’s “Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland” (Princeton University Press, 2001) and his recent “Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz” (Princeton University Press). As Nathan wanders through a city without Jews, whose Polish population mythologizes, denies or unabashedly despises Jewish people, he is visited by Friedl’s spirit in the night. Little by little, the sheltered American is pulled to know more about his tight-lipped father’s past.

Rosenbaum deftly captures present-day Poland, a nation still grappling with the revelations of its own brutal role in the extermination of Jews in the Holocaust and immediately during its aftermath. She touches on all the disorienting experiences an American Jew encounters on an initial visit to Poland: the porcelain figurines of Orthodox Jews huddling over sacks of gold (casually sold in shops and by street peddlers); the insulting graffiti of Stars of David scrawled on walls; the eerie emptiness of synagogues, whose upkeep is funded by American Jewry but whose congregations can barely scrape together enough Jews for a minyan; the unfamiliar, disturbing sensation of being the object of hostility or curiosity.

Nathan makes his way to Zokof, where he encounters its last remaining Jew, Rafael Bergson. Rafael, who has established a dialogue with Friedl’s spirit since Itzik left Poland, tells Nathan his father’s story, wrenching open a heart previously closed to religion. An American secular Jew, Nathan changed his name to sound less Jewish, and he “always regarded his Jewish identity as having almost no weight or texture at all, something that could be stuffed into his back pocket, like a handkerchief, and pulled out at will for meals of lox and bagels or for the Passover Seder.” However, while standing over Friedl’s grave, Nathan “understood the power of prayer, that it linked the man and his community and tunneled deep into his hidden self. He understood how even a Jewish socialist could not resist it, could not forget that despite everything he was a Jew first, even if he could not admit it to his son.” As a parting gift, Rafael offers Nathan the only portion of Friedl’s tombstone not desecrated by local Poles. Like Moses, who smashed the tablets inscribed by God when he glimpsed the idol-worshipping Israelites dancing before the golden calf, Rafael attempts to rescue the gravestone in an effort to restore the meaning of what it is to be a Jew.

But this allegorical version of the Moses story cannot be completed until Nathan’s daughter, a dance choreographer, arrives in the land of her grandfather. Ellen’s open-hearted curiosity about Judaism makes her the ideal candidate for laying Friedl, along with her family’s history, to rest. She realizes “that there was something impoverished about the atheist worldview with which she’d been raised,” but can her religious awakening redeem her grandfather’s “uncooked soul”? Ellen teams up with a Polish klezmer musician named Marek to restore the sanctity of Friedl’s resting place; through the depiction of a collaboration (and romance) between these two young people, Rosenbaum instills some hope for future Polish-Jewish dialogue.

The book is divided into three parts — the individual stories of Itzik, Nathan and Ellen — but it is Friedl’s ghost that provides the connecting thread. At times sensitive and protective, at others saucy and intrusive, Friedl’s restlessness becomes our own. As a literary device, Friedl is crucial; her presence animates the static, sometimes pedantic scenes between Nathan and Rafael and, later, between Ellen and Rafael. Friedl may not be a subtle metaphor for Poland’s haunted history, or even particularly likable as a character, but she is the only link between past and present. When our grandparents die before telling us the story of who they are, we must increasingly turn to ghosts that we hope will guide us back toward some sense of identity, or perhaps even faith.

“There is only one way for martyred peoples to care about each other,” Marek says. “Here, in the spaces between words, where there is God.” In the spaces between the words of “A Day of Small Beginnings,” we find moments of genuine warmth and profound compassion. By forcing us to look inward, the novel reaches its own kind of Promised Land.

Irina Reyn is a frequent contributor to the Forward. Her book criticism also appears in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Moscow Times and other publications.

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