What do an eleven year old Irish-American alter boy, a thirty-something year old Czech rabbi, a Golem, Jackie Robinson, a gang of street toughs, Brooklyn, New York and the Kaballah have to do with snow in August? It’s a nine month long story that begins and ends with a snow storm.
Drawing on his own childhood experience, author Pete Hamill begins his riveting tale in December 1947, as eleven year old Irish-American-Catholic Michael Devlin battles the unusually severe snowstorm burying his Brooklyn, New York neighborhood to make it to church in time to serve as alter boy at Saturday morning Mass.
His route takes him past the mysterious local synagogue, where he is enticed to momentarily ignore his culturally induced caution and interrupt his journey by Rabbi Judah Hirsch, who needs him to come inside and turn on a light – work forbidden observant Jews on the Sabbath. So begins an unlikely friendship between the Prague-born Rabbi and the Brooklyn-born half-orphaned Michael in a post-war neighborhood seething with religious and racial strife.
Curiosity and the greedy urgings of his friends—who believe a rumor of hidden treasure—convince Michael to return the following Saturday to offer his services as a Shabbos goy, a Christian servant who performs small proscribed services for an observant Jew on the Sabbath. Hirsch and Michael agree to trade language lessons and soon become fast friends. The Rabbi teaches Michael Yiddish and entertains the already fanciful child with stories of Prague and the legend of the Golem. In return, Michael teaches the Rabbi English and explains baseball and the controversy surrounding Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
But neighborhood bigotry turns to violence against the few remaining neighborhood Jews by local street thugs who terrorize Michael into silence after he witnesses a near-fatal assault on a Jewish shopkeeper. The violence continues against Michael himself, his mother and, later, Rabbi Hirsch. Desperate for justice, Michael turns to the legend of the Golem and the magic of the Kaballah for redress.
If there’s such a genre as historical fantasy, Pete Hamill’s SNOW IN AUGUST fits comfortably into it. Hamill conjures superheroes and fairy tales while he contrasts the prejudices of post war America with the understanding and friendship forged by pure hearts and mutual need. It’s no surprise which side comes off looking better. In the process, the reader is treated to a realistic view of mid-20th Century life in what we now call the “inner city”.
SNOW IN AUGUST by Pete Hamill entertains and educates while telling a satisfying tale of the triumph of Good over Evil. And what about the snow in August? You’ll have to ask the Golem about that.
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editor's note: All reviews are the sole opinion of the author. They are not an endorsement by Page & Spine. -NKW