Start with a cynical Holocaust survivor. Add a young boy trying to save his family; an old woman who was miraculously delivered from certain death at the hands of the Nazis some 65 years earlier; a spurned lover seeking vengeance; a husband and wife on the cusp of divorce; and early 20th-century Prague and 21st-century Los Angeles.
Tack on a generous supply of magic, love, hope and chutzpah and sprinkle in a dose of Orthodox Judaism, infidelity and homosexuality. Cover it all with a brutal sense of humor. The result is a delightful story. Well, actually two seemingly distinct, delightful stories.
It took some 85 pages for me to understand how first-time novelist Emanuel Bergmann was to weave the two stories together, which he accomplished in an elegant and fascinating manner. When a novelist begins two separate stories and then stitches them together, he or she usually merges them into one. But in The Trick, even after the consolidation, each narrative continued on its own path.
The first story features Moshe Goldenhirsch, a Jew who grows up in early 20th-century Prague, rebels against Jewish orthodoxy and his Orthodox father and runs away to join a circus, becoming a magician. Eventually, he goes undercover in Nazi Berlin, as the Iranian mentalist Zabbatini.
The protagonist in the second story is Max Cohn, a young boy in early 21st-century Los Angeles, who is trying to stop the impending divorce of his parents. The magician is no fan of children, Bergmann explains.
“Zabbatini couldn’t, for the life of him, imagine anyone voluntarily wanting to take a child,” he writes. “What would you do with it? You’d have to feed it and take it to the playground and all sorts of things.” Yet, ironically, he saves the life of a young girl who was on her way to be gassed by the Nazis and, in a sense, Max’s life as well.
Although riveting throughout, The Trick’s best moments take place in Germany, especially in 1930s Nazi Berlin. Bergmann was born in that country 45 years ago, which apparently underpins his understanding of Germans and their attitudes. For whatever reason, the book rings truest when he looks at Germans living in Hitler’s Third Reich.
In one earlier scene, the author vividly demonstrates that antisemitism in Germany did not begin with Hitler. Moshe catches up with the circus he is trying to join outside of Dresden. On his way, he stopped at an inn and was “adopted” by two drunken bricklayers. When they saw his kippa, they threw it into the fire.
“Moshe watched his yarmulke burn, feeling as if something in him was being devoured. ‘You are not a Jew anymore,’ proclaimed the first bricklayer. ‘Because Jews are shit. Now you are one of us.’ He raised his tankard. ‘Cheers.’... Timidly, Moshe raised his tankard as well. Perhaps it was better that he was not a Jew. After all, who wants to be shit?”
Later, the author explains Moshe’s success in living and working in Nazi Germany for so long a period without having his Jewish identity exposed.
“Berlin was a paradise for Zabbatini. After a long and dreary age of reason, the public had begun to turn once again to all things irrational,” he writes. “The city became a mecca of mysticism, a frolicking field for fortune-tellers and faith healers, hypnotists and hysterics alike. Looking back, Moshe was grateful that his father had made him learn Torah and the Talmud: he used his understanding of Hebrew, numerology and the Kabbala in a completely different way, turning ancient scripture into easily digestible psychological mumbo jumbo with an uplifting message.”
But it’s not only Germans whom the author understands. He has a good take on young American Jews, as well.
Max visits his father on the weekends, which means he has to put up with his grandmother, with whom his father is living. She is a survivor and always ready to tell her family about her experiences “in the Camps.”
“Max, too, had survived a camp, Camp Isaiah in Redondo Beach, where he had been forced to go on hikes and listen to counselors play Cat Stevens on the guitar. ‘Matzo ball soup for the soul,’ they called it. Grandma had made it clear that the Camps were even more unpleasant. They were ‘Death Camps,’ which, as it turned out, had absolutely nothing to do with Death Star in Star Wars. ‘They brought us there to be killed,’ she said simply and wiped a stain off the counter. This information, Max felt, cast a cold chill on an otherwise pleasant summer day.”
You probably won’t be tempted to stop reading this book before you reach the end, but if you are, resist the temptation. You will be rewarded with a beautiful death scene. Halavai aleinu – that this should be the way all of us go. This is a wonderful, inspiring book. Don’t miss it. Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available online.