A Jewish woman’s ghost in Poland tries to influence three generations of a family of nonbelievers as debut novelist Rosenbaum tackles major themes of Jewish identity and belief in God.
In 1905, 83-year-old Friedl Alterman’s soul awakens in the village of Zokof’s Jewish cemetery when young Itzik Lieber hugs her gravestone while hiding from a Polish mob after an act of heroism. Although Itzik has what she considers the soul of a raw potato, Friedl’s spirit protects him and guides him to Warsaw and into the care of a young socialist who gets Itzik safely to America. Friedl then waits in a blue void until 1991, when Itzik’s son Nathan, a constitutional scholar who knows little of his father’s early life and disdains his father’s anti-intellectual socialism, attends a seminar in Poland. Shocked at the country’s widespread anti-Semitism, he visits Zokof and meets Rafael, Zokof’s last surviving Jew. Raphael, whom Friedl also protects, tells him Itzik’s story, but despite dreamlike visits from Friedl herself, Nathan returns to America with his soul only half-cooked because he cannot accept his belief in God. A year later, after Nathan’s sudden, fatal heart attack, his daughter Ellen, a choreographer, accepts a three-month dance project in Krakow. She too is jolted by the anti-Semitism she finds. She also meets and falls in love with Marek, a Polish Catholic drawn to Jewish music. When Friedl’s spirit visits, Ellen is far more receptive than Nathan. She and Marek help Rafael re-establish the Jewish cemetery, while through dance, Ellen finds a way to release Friedl’s spirit, and perhaps her own.
Rosenbaum’s first 50 pages, told in the voice of the ghost of Friedl, are full of beauty, energy and wisdom. But the later sections suffer from a more pedestrian narrative that borders on doctrinaire.