I love all kinds of books, but I tend to gravitate towards those that have a speculative bent. This is the reason I like novels so much, the form is entirely speculative, in the sense that all novelists are creating their characters and worlds from whole cloth. But within this effort, the opportunity for imaginative exploration is unlimited. From Phillip K. Dick creating a world in which the Germans won WWII, to the more historically based Czech society under Communism of the late sixties in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Dick’s world is entirely speculative while Kundera’s is based on memory and experience, but both are the inventions of the author.
Emily Barton is a writer who masterfully splits the difference. Barton's second novel Brookland, while wildly speculative, doesn’t feel that way. Brookland is the tale of three sisters in the late 18th century who run a gin mill, the eldest of whom goes on to design and build a bridge that spans the east river from Brookland to Manhattan decades before the current edifice we all know and love. Through Barton’s use of archaic English and dazzling verisimilitude you find yourself utterly convinced that this historical event happened.
The story spans the years and tracks the sisters relationships, the progress of the Bridge, and citizens of Brookland in the language of the period. History breathes in this book, and you find yourself transported as you move through time. When you do step back from it, the immense effort in research of detail becomes apparent and adds another level of pleasure to the experience.
When I receive a submission for The Hypothetical Library, I'm always amazed at how much can be drawn from a brief description. Barton's hypothetical entry—Golems! A Musical—arrived as a simple one page premise about the ascent (or descent) of a young Jewish man from the lower east side of 1920's Manhattan to the bright lights of Broadway, containing within it a whole structure based on duality: a boy and girl, the Yiddish theater and Broadway, being good and living the good life, hetero and homosexuality, orthodoxy and worldliness. And that's just the novel part of it. Barton doubles up again with a story inside the story, a play is embedded within the novel. Naturally this play also features doubling—two men who create two Golems to win the hearts of two girls—and examines the pairings of effort versus ease, the mystical and the earthly.
In that spirit I decided to do two parts for this hypothetical book: a book cover featuring the slightly kitschy, and hilarious Broadway approach for the novel, and a more somber period-style Yiddish theater poster of the play inside the novel, Di Goylemim.
With each submission to The Hypothetical Library I ask the authors, if possible, to approach other authors to provide an actual cover blurb for their hypothetical book, and this time I am very happy to say we have author Michael Chabon. He penned one of my personal favorites, The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, so I am very excited that he provided the well-deserved praise for Ms. Barton’s hypothetical book.
So with out further ado I give you Golems! A Musical/Di Goylemim.
Golems! A Musical—The hypothetical flap copy
Golems! A Musical—The hypothetical flap copy
But Shlomi dreams of more than just Raisl-darned socks and embroidered yarmulkes—he wants to be a player in that glittering Second Avenue world, not just a bootblack at its fringes. For years, he has climbed each night to his cramped room and worked on what he hopes will be his ticket out of the ghetto and into Raisl Gold’s heart: his great play, his masterpiece, Di Goylemim.
Di Goylemim tells the story of Mendele and Shimmel, two tailor’s apprentices who, bored with the mundanity of their day jobs, decide to make things more interesting—and with any luck lighten their workload—by fashioning a golem out of clay and old fabric scraps. Shlomi is ecstatic when his play captures the imagination of the urbane, up-and-coming producer Pinchas Meyer. But he despairs when, in Meyer’s hands, the script begins to change. Mendele and Shimmel become sassy, scarf-flipping Michael and Scott, the play becomes a musical—Golems!—and the show’s big numbers, “Saturday’s A Fine Day for Lighting A Fire” and “Boy Oh Boy That’s Bacon!,” have preview audiences all atwitter about how Golems! could easily make the leap from Second Avenue to Broadway.
Shlomi Berenfelt is on the verge of success, but at what cost? Do caviar and champagne lead inexorably to treyf, as Meyer’s script suggests? Will Pinchas lead him toward glowing reviews, financial rewards, and the love that dare not speak its name to its bubbe—but away from Torah and Raisl? Can he bear to have his name on the marquee of a play that features the dance number “A Friday Night, An Elevator, and You”?
In this gaslit spectacular of a novel, Emily Barton brings to life the Lower East Side in all its glory: pickle barrels stinking, kreplach frying, the theaters filled with raucus song, the boys more than a little feygele. Golems! A Musical is a humorous and tender look at how one man navigates the journey between his heritage and the sparkling new world in which he hopes to succeed. Above all, it is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.
The promotional quote—Michael Chabon
"The world of Second Avenue in its raucous heyday—frying onions, violins, greasepaint and ganefs--has been waiting for the hand of an enchanter to come and wake it from its long slumber. Now comes Emily Barton to write her magic inscription and bring that world wildly to life."
Di Goylemim Poster
As soon as I read Emily Bartons’s proposal for Golems! A Musical I knew I wanted to do a Yiddish Theater poster along with the book cover. The Yiddish Theater is fascinating history—An entire rich world quickly fading from memory, but kept alive by a very few. Yiddish is almost dead, only spoken with regularity by the Orthodox Hasidic community, and only peppers speech in English (Oy vey!), but it once lived throughout the world as a vibrant and expressive language.
The Yiddish Theater straddled worlds—on the one hand it lived in America as a way of reassuring recent jewish immigrants that their culture could remain in tact, but on the other, helped them to modernize and integrate. It was an art form that contained within itself, its own destruction. The posters of the time reflect that transition—starting early on completely in Yiddish, then a combination of English, and Yiddish, and then almost entirely in English. You can trace the life and death of the Yiddish theater through the posters over time.
Although Barton’s story takes place in the mid 1920’s, I’ve emulated what is probably a later style—more mid 1930’s, but I thought it would best reflect on the transitional nature of Shlomi Berenfelt’s dilema, just as his story reflects the transitional nature of Jewish culture of that time.
Since most, if not all of you, can’t read Yiddish (myself included) I’ve created an annotated pdf with the english translation of each of the Yiddish phrases—just click on the yellow word balloons and a text box will pop up with the english version. Download Di Goylemim_poster_final_5
About the translation
As I mentioned above I can’t read Yiddish, or Hebrew for that matter (I’m a shaygetz from central Ohio. What do I know from Yiddish—nu?). As a result I needed a lot of help for the poster, so I’m sending a very public thank you for the Mitzvah from my friends, and friends of friends: Michael Schreiber, David Yankelewitz, Masha Rudina, Julian Ribinik, and Rivka Lichtenstein (all the way from Israel, no less!). A very big Toda to one and all!
Emily Barton is the author of two novels, The Testament of Yves Gundron, which was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a San Francisco Chronicle Book of the Month, and received the Bard Fiction Prize, and Brookland which was also a New York Times Notable Book, and was chosen as one one of the twenty-five best 2006 works of fiction and poetry by the Los Angeles Times. She currently teaches at Yale, and soon at Columbia’s MFA program. She also writes essays, and book reviews, the most recent of which (yesterday) appeared in the Los Angeles Times, and can be seen here.
Emily recently was interviewed on WAMC’s outstanding show “The Roundtable” and she gave The Hypothetical Library a mention which made me blush, and leave the room when I listened.
You can visit her site for more information here.
Next: China Miéville