Family’s spirit breathes life into fanciful Golem and Jinni

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A turn-of-century golem — loosely defined in Jewish folklore as an animated being brought to life from inanimate materials — isn’t exactly a protagonist that comes to mind when discussing contemporary fiction.

But in “The Golem and the Jinni,” the debut novel from Bay Area writer Helene Wecker, the title characters seem anything but old-fashioned.

Weaving together family stories, traditional fables from two cultures and historical fact, Wecker brings her fantastical creatures to life against the rich backdrop of New York City at the start of the 20th century. A dynamic supporting cast of characters helps the golem and jinni (a traditional spelling of the American “genie”) navigate the difficulties of being human.

Wecker, 37, says the book grew out of her work as an MFA student in the creative writing program at Columbia University when she was writing stories based on her family and her husband’s family.

Wecker is an Ashkenazi Jew whose father moved to the United States from Austria as a child; her maternal grandparents narrowly escaped Germany at the start of World War II. Her husband is Arab American — his Syrian father emigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s, after marrying his American mother. 

“It had always interested me how similar our family stories were in many ways — the ways my family and his had come to America, the emotional and psychic fallout of being an immigrant in the United States,” says Wecker, who moved to the Bay Area in 2006 and lives in Pleasanton with her husband and 1-year-old daughter. “I was working on these short stories that were adaptations of our family stories, but something just wasn’t clicking. I was too close to the material.”

A friend, knowing Wecker’s affinity for fantasy and sci-fi culture (“She knew I was a total geek”), suggested she try adding a fantastical element. Wecker experimented by turning her “Jewish girl and Arab boy” characters into a golem and a jinni, respectively. That did the trick: The project “became less and less about me and my husband and our families, and it really started to grow into its own thing,” she says.

The golem, who takes the name Chava, was formed out of clay in Poland by an elderly man who studies the “dark arts” of the Kabbalah. When the man she was created to marry dies at sea, she is left on her own as the ship docks in New York. The jinni is a man made of fire, trapped in a flask by a Bedouin wizard until he is accidentally released by a Syrian tinsmith in Manhattan. He comes to be known as Ahmad.

Helene Wecker

It’s a fable that requires surprisingly little suspension of disbelief, in part because of Wecker’s attention to detail and meticulous research. Using Columbia’s libraries, the New York Public Library and newspaper archives as resources, she created a vibrant setting for her characters, mainly in the Jewish immigrant community of the Lower East Side and the Arab immigrant community in Lower Manhattan known as “Little Syria.” Wecker researched train timetables to determine how long it would take her characters to traverse the city; she studied architectural records to accurately describe how the city skyline looked in a given year.

Along the way, Wecker learned a lot about her heritage and that of her husband — for example, the majority of immigrants from regions that now make up Syria and Lebanon were Arab Christians. And she was stunned by some of the bigotry present in news coverage from the early 20th century.

“That was one thing that definitely kept striking me in my research: The New York Times could say something just incredibly racist, sexist, offensive in so many ways … and no one batted an eye,” she says. “Go back 100 years, and that almost seems to be the standard.”

Though Wecker is eagerly anticipating readers’ responses to the book, she says she’s already received feedback that means a great deal to her: positive reviews from family members on both sides.

“In the end, I found that I had pretty much said everything I had wanted to in my short stories about language, culture, immigration,” she says. “And it’s been a real comfort and source of strength that both sides of my family have been so supportive about that.”

Helene Wecker will appear in conversation with comedian Nato Green at 7 p.m. Monday, April 29 at Stage Werx Theatre, 446 Valencia St., S.F. $15. She has several book talks scheduled in the Bay Area over the next two weeks; to see the schedule, visit www.helenewecker.com.

“The Golem and the Jinni: A Novel”  by Helene Wecker (HarperCollins, 485 pages, $26.99)

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.