Jewish novels that explore lives shattered and rebuilt: Moriel Rothman-Zecher’s ‘Before All the World’ and Dani Shapiro’s ‘Signal Fires’

Before All the World by Moriel Rothman-Zecher (‎Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Ikh gleyb nit az di gantze velt iz kheyshekh: I do not believe that all the world is darkness. This is the central refrain at the heart of Moriel Rothman-Zecher’s thought-provoking novel.

Before All the World is told from the perspectives of Leyb and Gittl, two Jews from the “dustvillage” of Zatelsk, and of Charles, a gay non-Jewish African-American with a surprising command of Yiddish.

Leyb and Gittl’s lives are forever bonded when they become the sole survivors of a horrific massacre in their home village. Years later, by chance the two both find themselves in “Philadelphiye,” still haunted by the pogrom and destruction of their families. Together, and with Charles, they struggle to find light in life, and puzzle over how to build a better future.

This refreshingly original work, in many ways owing to Rothman-Zecher’s experimental prose. The novel’s main conceit is that it is presented as a translation into English of Gittl’s memoirs by Charles. In his “translation” he preserves an admixture of Yiddish and English in both Leyb and Gittl’s voices.

By the same token, the novel becomes an interesting rumination on the fundamentally collaborative relationship between an author and her translator. Though this is Gittl’s story, it is equally imbued with the spirit of Charles, who often inserts himself into Gittl’s words through footnotes.

Another fascinating aspect of Rothman-Zecher’s poetic prose is Gittl’s inner monologues, which she imagines as conversations with her lost siblings as malokhim (angels). They act as a Greek chorus, commenting on the events of Gittl’s life, all the while affirming that she is not alone in this world.

The trauma which haunts both Jewish protagonists is symbolized as “The Forest” where the massacre took place. Their perception of reality and time is often mixed in with fantastical images of The Forest, pulling them back into that devastating moment even when they are far from Zatelsk. Long after The Forest, they still fear it.

Before All the World is an emotionally evocative exploration of the impossibility of escaping trauma, yet finding hope nevertheless when all seems destroyed.

Signal Fires by Dani Shapiro (Knopf)

An intimate look at the lives of two families living on Division Street—the Wilfs and the Shenkmans. It all begins when, on a fateful night in August 1985, siblings Sarah and Theo Wilf are involved in a horrific car crash claiming the life of a fellow teenaged passenger in their vehicle. Though the physical impact is immediate, the emotional effects deepen over time, taking root in their lives and changing the fabric of their family, even for their parents Benjamin and Mimi.

Fourteen years later, the Shenkmans move in across the street, and the two families’ lives over time become entangled in happy, sad, and bittersweet ways. Jumping through time, we see the lives of the families unfold, in 1970, 1985, 1999, 2010, 2014, and 2020 during the pandemic. Throughout, the impact of that long-ago car crash remains a constant.

Signal Fires makes for a heart-wrenching reading experience, but one in which readers are sure to find meaning. As Shapiro alternates the narration among the various Wilfs and Shenkmans, she develops unique and distinct voices for each character, all of whom have complex inner lives.

Though within their own families they struggle, so much love still permeates among the characters. Especially moving is the unexpected friendship that develops over the years between the aging patriarch Benjamin Wilf and the young astrophysics-obsessed Waldo Shenkman.

Signal Fires is the perfect book to answer how we can heal from the upheaval of the COVID pandemic—a time in which our own networks were suddenly whittled down to those who meant the most to us in our lives.