Before All the World: A Novel
An NPR Best Book of the Year
A mesmerizing, inventive story of three souls in 1930s Philadelphia seizing new life while haunted by the old.
I do not believe that all the world is darkness.
In the swirl of Philadelphia at the end of Prohibition, Leyb meets Charles. They are at a former speakeasy called Cricket’s, a bar that welcomes, as Charles says in his secondhand Yiddish, feygeles. Leyb is startled; fourteen years in amerike has taught him that his native tongue is not known beyond his people. And yet here is suave Charles—fingers stained with ink, an easy manner with the barkeep—a Black man from the Seventh Ward, a fellow traveler of Red Emma’s, speaking Jewish to a young man he will come to call Lion.
Lion is haunted by memories of life before, in Zatelsk, where everyone in his village, everyone except the ten non-Jews, a young poet named Gittl, and Leyb himself, was taken to the forest and killed.
Then, miraculously, Gittl is in Philadelphia, too, thanks to a poem she wrote and the intervention of a shadowy character known only as the Baroness of Philadelphia. And surrounding Gittl are malokhim, the spirits of her siblings.
Flowing and churning and seething with a glorious surge of language, carried along by questions of survival and hope and the possibility of a better world, Moriel Rothman-Zecher’s Before All the World lays bare the impossibility of escaping trauma, the necessity of believing in a better way ahead, and the power that comes from our responsibility to the future. It asks, in the voices of its angels, the most essential question: What do you intend to do before all the world?
Moriel Rothman-Zecher is a Jerusalem-born novelist and poet. His first novel, Sadness Is a White Bird, was a finalist for a Dayton Literary Peace Prize and a National Jewish Book Award, won an Ohioana Book Award, and was long-listed for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. His poetry and essays have been published in Barrelhouse, Colorado Review, The Common, The New York Times, The Paris Review Daily, and ZYZZYVA, and he is the recipient of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 honor, two MacDowell Fellowships, and Yiddishkayt’s Wallis Annenberg Helix Fellowship.