Coincidentally, in Poland
A Day of Small Beginnings (Little, Brown, $24.99) by Lisa Pearl Rosenbaum is an intergenerational saga which takes the reader back and forth from Poland to America to Poland again, on the wings of a lost soul. The story begins in Poland in 1906, when a young Jewish boy, Itzik Leiber, defends a group of Jewish children from a violent Polish peasant. Fleeing the angry townspeople of Zokof, he takes refuge in the town’s cemetery, where the spirit of a childless and incongruously scholarly woman, Freidl, becomes his protector, sending him to America. Freidl finds she cannot return to her grave, and is doomed to wander with the evolving story of Itzik and his family.
A generation later, Itzik is dead in a cemetery in Queens, after a life spent actively disavowing his Judaism in the manner of the wicked son in the Passover story. His son, Nathan Linden, has Americanized both his name and his life, shedding all aspects of Judaism. By coincidence (the book argues, explicitly and implicitly, that nothing that transpires within it is truly coincidence), Linden is invited to Poland to give a lecture, and — again by coincidence — decides on a lark to travel to Zokof, the town that was once his father’s home. Knowing nothing of his family’s history, the erudite Harvard legal scholar is transformed into the simple son by his introduction to Rafael Bergson, Zokof’s one remaining Jew. Bergson has links to Linden’s past, his present with Freidl (who haunts Linden’s dreams), and, years later, his future, when Ellen Linden, Nathan’s daughter, comes to Poland on a choreography fellowship. Ellen, who is patently the child who does not even know how to ask, is the one in whom the lessons of the past come to fruition.
Rosenbaum writes with affection for her characters, but the plot of her novel is not without holes. The ardent belief that anything ostensibly coincidental is, in actuality, the gestures of an inscrutable fate, or beshert, is more compelling in life than it is in a novel, where it can seem to be simply a contrivance of the author. Additionally, Freidl’s resolution seems somehow incomplete, which seems an injustice, given how much the reader has invested in her generations of trans- Atlantic journeys. But, as the book would have it, perhaps that is how stories end: not with a denouement, but with a series of small beginnings.
Jordana Horn is a lawyer and journalist at work on her first novel.