Thane Rosenbaum, an acclaimed author, law professor and political commentator, delivered a lecture and read from his novel “Golems of Gotham” Tuesday night in Academic Building A room G008.
In addition to authoring several novels and non-fiction books, Rosenbaum is the John Whelan Distinguished Lecturer in Law at Fordham Law School and the director of Fordham Law School’s Forum on Law, Culture & Society. He has also published articles and essays in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.
Rosenbaum’s talk was billed as the “2011 Passie Hinden Burch/Vivian Cohen Burch Lecture on Holocaust Literature.”
Paul-William Burch, an adjunct lecturer in Judaic Studies and a research assistant professor in the School of Education, organized the lecture through the Judaic studies department. He has brought Holocaust scholars, writers and survivors to speak on campus each semester for the past eight years.
Burch invited Rosenbaum, whose parents were Holocaust survivors and whose fiction works have dealt with, as Rosenbaum describes it, the “post-Holocaust universe,” to speak on campus in conjunction with a class he is teaching this fall, JUST385A: “Literary Responses to the Holocaust.”
Prior to his public lecture and book reading, Rosenbaum met with Burch’s class Tuesday afternoon to discuss “Golems of Gotham” and answer their questions.
“Golems of Gotham” is the third novel in a trilogy that deals with the literal and psychological consequences of the Holocaust on characters who are members of the so-called “Second Generation,” or the children of Holocaust survivors.
“Rosenbaum emphatically rejects the label ‘Holocaust writer,'” Burch said while introducing Rosenbaum at the public lecture. “For him, only those who witnessed it can represent the Holocaust, and even then its representation is fraught with problems.”
“Golems” is set in modern-day Manhattan. In it, Rosenbaum imagines that a Kabbalah experiment gone awry revives from the dead spectral versions of six famous, real-life authors who were all themselves Holocaust survivors who later committed suicide, such as Primo Levi and Paul Celan. These golems of the title rid Manhattan of things associated with the Holocaust, from tattoos to barbed wire, striped uniforms and smoke.
Rosenbaum said that items belonging to the “iconography of the Holocaust” forever bear this association, which people should not forget.
“The Holocaust is so large — its magnitude, its shadow is so broad — that we don’t want it to be confused with other things,” he said. “Tattoos can mean numbered arms, they can’t mean ‘Billy loves Madonna’ … Stripes can only mean prisoners’ uniforms, they can’t mean the New York Yankees … [Such modern-day meanings] trivialize something that was much larger and much more horrific as if it were a banality.”
He characterized “Golems of Gotham” as ultimately “a novel of repair.”
He said that a few critics, particularly biographical scholars of the deceased authors named in “Golems of Gotham,” had given him negative feedback about his decision to turn the writers into ghost characters in his book, but that overall such feedback was less than he feared.
“Jerzy Kosinski’s wife was really pissed off when she heard that I was doing this,” Rosenbaum said. “As it turned out, eight months after the book came out, she called me and told me she loved it.”
He said he also received encouragement to go ahead with the concept for his novel from Elie Wiesel, who is perhaps the best-known survivor of the Holocaust and an internationally-renowned author of dozens of books.
“I’m very good friends with Elie Wiesel, and I went to see him … just to see how he felt,” he said. “He actually was very encouraging, and one of the ghosts in the story was Piotr Rawicz, who was one of [Wiesel’s] best friends.”
Rosenbaum said after the event that his next novel, “The Stranger Within Sarah Stein,” will be published in March of next year, and that while it will be aimed at young adults, the story will touch upon post-Holocaust as well as post-Sept. 11 themes.
“I don’t think I can get away from dealing with the Holocaust,” Rosenbaum said. “Somehow I’m drawn to loss and atrocity. Always in the backstories of my work are the shadows of this epochal mystery, this black hole we cannot understand.”
Grace Roselle, a senior majoring in English who is enrolled in Burch’s course, said after the lecture that she perceived that Rosenbaum “doesn’t want to be put in a box,” in the sense of literary interpretations of his work.
“He’s not what I expected. He is a very laid-back and humble guy,” Roselle said.