Saturday, June 1, 2019


As you'll discover on the first page of Judith Teitelman's novel, Guesthouse for Ganesha, the guesthouse in the title alludes to the lovely Rumi poem whose first line is "This being human is a guesthouse."
The poem is about our need to welcome all experience into our life, no matter whether good or bad, and to take what joy we can in the learning that it brings. Ganesha is, well... Ganesha, the every-popular Hindu god whose chief attribute--apart from a protruding belly--is his elephant nose. A protective deity of wisdom, success, and good luck, he is one of two narrator-protagonists of the novel, the other being Esther, a young Jewish woman surviving the Nazi years in Germany, who certainly needs all the good luck she can get.

Not hard to guess, then, that "Guesthouse" is part magical realism, part survival narrative. Our sympathy for Esther is hard-earned. Her heart is turned to stone while she is still virtually a girl by her abandonment, at the marriage chuppah, by the man to whom she has given her eternal love and trust, and she remains tormented by the memory of this indelible loss. She clings fiercely to her bitterness as she escapes her native Polish shtetl with nothing but her supernatural skill as a seamstress, which she parlays into a successful survival strategy. Teitelman allows this frozen woman a brief glimpse into her soul at an Indian food counter in Köln, where Ganesha appears to embrace her, unknowingly, in the warmth of his compassion.

Esther endures the early years of pre-war Nazi anti-Semitism in Köln, at first only vaguely, but increasingly aware of its poison spreading in the nation. Incapable of love, she enters into a loveless marriage. Has three children. Abandons them, dispatching two of them to safety via the well-known Kindertransport. Throughout, as war approaches and ensues, Teitelman compellingly evokes Esther's growing predicament, her isolation with a baby son, and her desperate, always quick-witted efforts to survive a hostile environment, where the slightest error means the certainty of arrest and dispatch to what she by now knows will be the death sentence in the camps. With help from a team of conscience-stricken Germans, she keeps managing to escape, moving to Wupperthal, to Paris... and finally to refuge in Switzerland. It's her grit and her impenetrable heart that save her. And Ganesha watches over constantly with concern, compassion, humor...

It's only after the war, alone in the world, that Esther's heart begins to melt. Drawn by the spiritual presence of what we know to be her protector, Ganesha, she heads for India and the possibility of redemption in a final scene where the tragedy of her compelling journey blossoms into full-blown magical realism. But this you'll need to read for yourself. No spoilers. Suffice it to say that Teitelman leads her character into the furthest depths of the heart and soul she never knew she had. In the end, it's all about being human.

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