Everything Is Borrowed
New Door Books
Philadelphia architect Nicholas Moscowitz, the protagonist of Nathaniel Popkin’s new novel, is at a crossroads. Having landed a major commission that could lead to a heightened profile for his two-person firm, the recently divorced 45-year-old finds himself unable to work. Instead, he’s increasingly drawn to thoughts of the past — his own past as a college student in West Philadelphia and the more remote past of a Jewish 19th-century anarchist.
Avoiding the developer who hired him to design an apartment building in Queen Village, Moscowitz spends his days at the library, researching the neighborhood’s Jewish history. In particular, he is fascinated by the story of the similarly named Julius Moskowitz, an actual historical figure, who was physically attacked by synagogue congregants in 1889 after doing business at a grain stand across from their shul on Yom Kippur. As Nicholas’ obsession with this other Moskowitz grows, his memories of a pivotal college year, when he met his first love, intrude further.
The book is filled with Rothian dual narratives. There’s the architect Moscowitz and the anarchist Moskowitz. There’s his employee Nadia and his college love Eva, who Moscowitz repeatedly conflates. There’s the character Popkin, a poet, and the writer Popkin. Most of all, there’s Philadelphia then and Philadelphia now.
This emphasis on the city’s past is not surprising from Popkin, who has made a career out of plunging the depths of Philadelphia history. His real-life preoccupations about preservation and memory work their way into the book’s plot. The destruction of the religious iconography on the former B’nai Reuben synagogue on South Sixth Street, for instance, which took place in 2014 and was covered by Hidden City Daily, is replicated in the book as an event that nettles Moscowitz, who is anxious about legacy.
Popkin’s eye for detail leads to many resonant vignettes of Philly in the summer, like the bus driver who wears a rolled-up white towel on the back of his neck, or the parking-lot attendant’s shack with its “cheap desk fan” that “rocks back and forth, letting out a tiny wail each time it turns.” The author’s sense of sound is acute. In the library, he writes, “my chair against the polished floor lets out a trumpet note, slashing the silence of the reading room.”
For readers interested in the city’s Jewish history, the book is a goldmine. We sit with Moscowitz as he pores over internet archives and microfilm, and finds plentiful details of late-19th-century immigrant Jewish experience. Incremental discoveries reveal the little-known history of Jewish anarchists who were imprisoned on false charges, which leads to further excavation of the history of Moyamensing Prison.
The deeper Moscowitz gets, the more the anarchist narrative acquires novelistic detail, as Moscowitz loses track of what’s history and what’s invented. “Distant history seems to weigh more,” Moscowitz thinks, “but it’s harder to reconstruct.” He keeps trying, though, at the same time he avoids his tasks as an architect, one of the few careers that specializes in immortality.
Moscowitz’s struggle is, in many ways, Popkin’s own. “Things happen in place,” Moscowitz thinks. “Does the place remember? I have to remind it of what it doesn’t remember.”
With this deeply researched book, as with all his Philadelphia projects, Popkin the writer does what Moscowitz the architect cannot: He reminds us. (Disclosure: Liz Spikol is cited in Popkin’s acknowledgments.)