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Helene Wecker: Four Surprising Things I Learned While Researching The Golem and the Jinni

My novel The Golem and the Jinni took me seven years to write, and I'd estimate that at least two of those years were spent just on research. As it turns out, if you're writing a historical fantasy set in late 19th-century New York City and centered around two different cultures, you might end up sitting in the library for a while.

Along the way I came across quite a few items that surprised me -- whether they should've or not -- and that proved that no matter how much I researched, I always had more to learn.

Here are a few of the more interesting tidbits I found:

 

1. Most of the Syrians who first immigrated to the United States were Christian, not Muslim.

Back in the late 19th century, what's now Lebanon was still part of Greater Syria, and ruled by the Ottoman Empire. Times were tough for Christian families in the Lebanon Valley. Because of the inheritance laws, many had only a small patch of land to farm on, not nearly enough to support themselves. Plus, a lot of young men were looking for ways to avoid conscription into the Imperial army. (You could buy your way out, but the price tag was usually prohibitive.) An Arab delegation came to the U.S. for the 1876 Centennial exhibition in Philadelphia, saw for themselves the business opportunities to be had, went home and spread the word. Soon the emigration was underway. Many got an extra push from American missionaries in Syria, who gave them letters of introduction written in English to their parishes back in the States.

2. Some Jewish bakers sell their bakeries during Passover, and then buy them back again.

This one kind of delighted me. I realized I had a problem: one of my main characters worked in a Jewish bakery. What would happen when Passover rolled around, the eight days a year when it's forbidden to eat leavened bread? I did a little research, and discovered this excellent solution. It seems that some Jewish bakery owners, rather than shut the business down and get rid of all their flour -- a very expensive prospect -- choose to "sell" the bakery to a non-Jew for the duration of the holiday. A contract is drawn up (overseen by a rabbi), a nominal sum is exchanged, and voila! The bakery is now exempt from the strictures of Jewish law. Then, at the end of Passover, the money is returned, and ownership reverts to the original owner. It's the sort of work-around that some folks like to look down on, but I think it's a great example of practicing one's faith as part of the wider world. Unfortunately, I couldn't use it in the book. I tried to work it in, but the explanation was far too bulky and complicated. Plus, a few of my test readers thought I'd made it up, and told me it sounded unrealistic!

3. It used to be you couldn't walk on the grass in Central Park.

Back when Central Park first opened in the late 1850s, the rules of conduct were much more stringent than today. Central Park had been built so that New Yorkers could get more fresh air and exercise, but to the park commissioners that meant genteel and well-behaved exercise, the kind that kept to clearly marked walkways and carriage paths. The park's expanses of meadow were meant to be looked at, not run upon. Boys could only play baseball if they brought a note from their principal. Large picnics were not allowed, which left out groups of more than a few people -- and in those days, that meant the Irish and Italians and other immigrant families who might've appreciated a nice picnic in the grass. For a while, the result was that the park's visitors were mostly upper-crust New Yorkers, with their nannies and expensive carriages. But then the middle class began to petition the Park commissioners for more access, and by the end of the 19th century, the rules had relaxed quite a bit.

4. Blatant racism, sexism, and classism used to be the norm in respected newspapers.

I kind of knew about this one, but it still caught me off guard, every single time. As a society we still have a very long ways to go, but if you want an object lesson in how far we've come -- at least in what's acceptable to say in print -- just check out any New York Times article from the late 1800s that has anything to do with women, immigrants, or the poor. For a good example, there's "New York's Syrian Quarter," an 1899 article profiling the then-new neighborhood of Little Syria. The writer spends an entire paragraph comparing the relative attractiveness of the Syrian women: first to those of other nationalities ("[T]here are, indeed, a number of amazingly pretty girls, prettier, one is tempted to assert, than those of any other foreign colony of New York"), and then to each other (the poorer women "have no beauty of either face or form," but the more prosperous merchants' wives "are attractive, and markedly.") Of the neighborhood newspapers he says, "Three newspapers thrive in the quarter, more remarkable even to the eye with their Arabic fonts of type that look like schoolboy pothooks than are the strange Yiddish news sheets of the Ghetto." You mean there are alphabets that don't look like English? How quaint! But how does anyone read them? A few paragraphs later, he's back to the ladies again, lamenting that the "better class" of women are forced to stay in at night, so that they can't "be viewed by every Syrian Tom and Dick." Maybe they're just trying to avoid the creepy Times reporter!

-- Helene Wecker

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