A stunning debut novel of enormous scope and beauty, A Day of Small Beginnings tells the timeless story of the Leiber family; of the secrets that break them, the love that binds them, and the town that is both their curse and their redemption.
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Jewish Book Council
Author Tour 2007
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inaugural pick by Spertus Institute, Chicago, Illinois
Featured selection of numerous book clubs,
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A Soulful Link to a Family and Faith
by Laurel Maury
A Day of Small Beginnings, Lisa Pearl Rosenbaum's breathtaking debut, is a love story - between a ghost and a Jewish family whose patriarch fled Poland for America..."
An Eastern European 'Exodus'
by Irina Reyn
"I think our ghosts are everywhere, all the time," a young Polish man tells a visiting American Jew in Lisa Pearl Rosenbaum's deeply heartfelt first novel..."
Help from Dead Brings Faith Back to Jewish Family
by Christine Thomas
"...The amalgam of place, solid characters, mystery and the mundane, anchored by the weight of history and religion, results in a formidable story that convincingly argues that "the past does not leave us. And we do not leave the past."
"This brilliant debut novel opens in 1906 in the small Polish town of Zokof,...Filled with folklore, ritual, mysticism, scholarship, and good storytelling, this book of three generations of a Jewish family is one to savor. Recommended for all libraries."
"...She packs a lot of history, recent and otherwise, into this luminous tale, as well as joy in the arts and in prayer."
"...Part Everything is Illuminated, part The Mercy of Thin Air, this intelligent and ultimately poignant debut will keep you flipping pages long after you should be in bed. We should all have a guardian spirit like Freidl - funny, unforgettable, and determined not to let us forget where we come from."
In the mid-1990's, I went to Poland with my Polish Jewish in-laws. They had not returned to their hometown of Zwolen since the war and wanted to show it to their children. The trip convinced me that no matter how much research you do about a place, it is never quite as you imagined it.
Within minutes of our arrival in Zwolen, 80 year old Aunt Betty recognized one of her Polish neighbors on the street. The two woman hadn’t seen each other in 50 years. Considering the difficult history of Poles and Jews in the town, I had no idea how they would react to one another. To my surprise, they were utterly joyous. But as they walked hand in hand towards Betty's old house, I was equally struck by the cold stares of other townspeople who, we would learn, were wondering why we'd come.
Later, we were invited into the house of a stranger - a man who had taken it upon himself to be the keeper of Jewish things, in a town where there were no longer any Jews. He showed us prayer books, mezuzahs and, from his attic, a piece of a woman’s gravestone. This was particularly moving because we had just visited Zwolen’s Jewish cemetery - a forest marked by a few paths and a lamp post, but no gravestones. The crows there cawed so loudly from the trees it was hard to believe they weren’t ghosts. I took many pictures of this man's house, the town, and its people and later included these details in my novel.
As we left Zwolen that day, the opening sentence of A Day of Small Beginnings came to me. It was the voice of a character I hadn’t known before our visit. She didn't have a name, yet, but she said, When I went to my rest in 1905, I was eighty-three and childless, aggravated that life was done with me and that I was done with life.
Here are some photographs from our trip. They include many many details you will find in the novel.
Why is Freidl so susceptible to Itzik’s cries for mercy that her soul would be released from its resting place?
How is Freidl ultimately changed by the lives and experiences of the Leibers?
How does Freidl’s childlessness affect her life? Her death?
What is the significance of being childless in the Bible? Does it relate to this story?
“Every blade of grass has its own guardian star in the firmament which strikes it and commands it to grow!” Discuss the significance of this saying throughout the story.
Consider its importance to each of the main characters.
What does it mean to you?
Lisa Pearl Rosenbaum suggests that the loss of family history is a uniquely American experience. Do you agree that there is a disconnect between the Old World and the New?
If so, how do the different generations of the Leiber family experience this disconnection?
What was your reaction to Ellen’s dance?
How does it enable Freidl to return to her grave?
Rosenbaum raises difficult issues throughout her novel (cultural, religious, political, historical). Did any of these issues make you uncomfortable?
Did you reach any new conclusions or understandings of these issues?
Does the book celebrate or criticize Jewish culture?
What about Polish culture?
Consider family traditions, economic and political structures, the arts, language, food, religious beliefs. Where do you find overlap in the two cultures and where do you find collision?
Nathan, Freidl, and Rafael disagree about Itzik’s relationship to religion and his loyalty to socialism. Itzik is called “the Faithless” and “the Socialist.” By the end of the novel how would you finish the phrase “Itzik the__________?”
Freidl describes Itzik as the Wicked Son from the Passover Haggadah - The one who knows the Four Questions he’s supposed to ask…but who doesn’t want to hear the answers because he wants to keep his distance from Jewishness.” Does the author suggest other parallels to the Passover exodus tale in this story? Examples?
“If we become kindred to our fellow Poles, stop calling ourselves the chosen people, and insulting them with our kosher eating, they’ll stop hating us for being different.” How does the concept of Jewish chosen-ness play into the story?
Do you agree or disagree with the book’s assertions?