Reading Helene Wecker’s debut novel “The Golem and the Jinni” (Harper) is akin to embarking on a magic carpet journey in time to a place that resembles the roiling ethnic neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan circa 1900.
Here, newly arrived Eastern European Jews and Syrian Arab immigrants inhabit their own adjacent but separate enclaves and practice their different religions, all the while remaining mostly indifferent to one another, and almost entirely invisible to the rich folk who rarely venture south of their splendid uptown mansions.
But look more closely at the historically accurate street settings and tenements, and you’ll find you’re actually visiting a multi-cultural fairy tale, replete with the mystical folklore and supernatural beings born of diverse traditions.
This is a realm in which a Jewish Golem (a super-humanly strong human-like creature created by kabbalistic magic from mud to serve a master) and an Arabian Nights-like Jinni (a magic-wielding spirit made of flame that can take on human form) not only can exist but can coexist with each other. The Golem in question is female, fashioned by a shady kabbalistic conjurer named Yehudah Schaalman, to serve as the obedient wife of an unattractive businessman about to leave Eastern Europe for America. When her master dies suddenly as their ship is crossing the Atlantic, the young “widow” is left at the New York docks to find her own way in a perplexing world where she is an alien in every possible way.
By contrast, the Jinni arrives in New York via an elaborately decorated Arabian copper flask, used for storing olive oil, that has passed from one generation and homeland to another over several centuries, before reaching “Little Syria” in Lower Manhattan. Its other use — to store a jinni — is only discovered when the local tinsmith attempts to repair its dents, and out pops a fully grown man, naked except for an iron cuff, and lacking any memory as to how he came to be enslaved and bottled for close to a millennium.
The origins of these two characters are disparate, but in order to survive in the new world in which they find themselves, they must learn to adapt, accommodate, make the best of it. Within each of these creatures, we soon learn, exist equal amounts of enchantment and potential for destruction. Can they learn to tame and train their natures, as part of the cost of civilization? It’s a dilemma that sounds very human, except that they are not at all human — indeed, they must learn to pass as human — and therein lies the fun and the adventure of this well-wrought entertainment.
Outwardly, to most passers-by, the Golem and the Jinni appear to be fully grown adults in their 20s. But they are as clueless as a newborn baby to the world of humans Wecker is at her wittiest in describing these creatures as they begin to see, hear, smell, taste and feel physical sensations for the first time, while simultaneously struggling to make sense of, decode — and mimic — the anthropological complexities of human behavior. Thus, at first glimpse of the “gray-green woman standing in the middle of the water, holding a tablet and bearing aloft a torch” in New York Harbor, the Golem wonders, “was it another golem?”
Unlike human greenhorns, however, these newbies arrive bearing super-human powers. Both the Golem and the Jinni possess extraordinary speed and the ability to comprehend and speak any given language. Being made of flame and fire, the Jinni can light a cigarette with his fingertip, burn away ironwork fences that might bar his way, and weld and form artistic metal figures with his bare hands. For her part, the Golem is even stronger than Samson and has the capacity to read human minds.
Yet with these powers also come potentially fatal weaknesses. As a being made of flame, the Jinni can also be extinguished by water — and therefore he lives in fear of fountains, lakes, and ponds, not to mention the Atlantic Ocean. If provoked, the Golem is strong enough to batter and kill. And while mind reading can often help the Golem fake her way through social situations, she also feels assaulted by the non-stop thrum of other people’s internal wants, needs, desires, fears, wishes, and anxieties.
There is also the worry of discovery: not knowing human ways, the Golem and the Jinni could easily find themselves in situations where humans, not known for their tolerance, might misunderstand their presence and attempt to pre-emptively destroy them. Fortunately, each creature quickly finds a human protector to tutor them in the intricate ways of homo sapiens. Rabbi Meyer, a widowed scholar learned in Kabbalah, rescues the Golem from a dangerous mob, names her “Chava” (Hebrew for “life”) and helps her blend in sufficiently to land a job at a kosher bakery. For the Jinni, it is Arbeely, the tinsmith who, after unwittingly liberating him from the flask, dubs him “Ahmad” and employs him as his assistant.
Even so, neither mentor can control their protégés or ensure their safety, especially not at night — the hours when most of the city snoozes cozily in bed but when Chava and Ahmad, who have no need for sleep, escape boredom by wandering the streets. It is during these nighttime escapades that they first encounter each other, and before long they develop a mutual fascination based on the odd affinities they share as strange beings in a city of strangers. Their nocturnal forays through Central Park, the Bowery, Brooklyn, and other parts of New York provide the scenic backdrop to conversations laced with philosophy, ethics, even theology.
At times, these exchanges take on the earnest sound of late-night college dormitory discourses: How do you make sense of the world? What is free will? Can nurture re-shape our nature? Is there a God? Can you ever really know someone else? What is the responsibility we owe to one another? But their conversations also serve as a means of deepening each other’s understanding of ethics, menschlichkeit, and love. And even as the relationship between the Golem and the Jinni grows into affection and perhaps love, the conjurer Schaalman’s arrival in New York threatens to pull them apart.
It takes a skillful fabulist to successfully mix together the realistic and the fantastical, and Wecker casts a spell powerful enough to keep us reading, if not always believing, until the end. At times there is a distracting overlay of 21st-century sensibility in the interactions between characters, and Ahmad’s backstory from the Arabian desert of a thousand years ago feels drawn-out. Most troubling, the plot complications of the last third of the book can begin to border on melodrama.
Still, while Wecker’s portraits of Chava and Ahmad could have fallen easily into caricature, she has endowed them with quirky, distinctive personalities that engage us throughout. In the end, these flaws within the magical weave do not take away from the pleasures of the design as a whole. In her debut novel, Wecker has pulled off a trick as deft as any Jinni. ✹
Diane Cole, author of the memoir “After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges,” writes for The Wall Street Journal among other national publications and is a faculty member of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning.