An asymptote is a line that approaches a given curve but never touches it. On a graph, the mathematical concept looks like two functions moving closer toward one another but never quite meeting or intersecting.
For the past five years, Jewish author Moriel Rothman-Zecher has had something of an asymptotic relationship with his grandmother. In 2017, Rothman-Zecher, 33, began writing “Before All the World” — his sophomore novel loosely based on his hidden family history — within months of his grandmother’s death. In July, he moved from Dayton, Ohio to West Philadelphia, just 20 blocks from where his grandmother and her sister grew up on Cobbs Creek Parkway.
Rothman-Zecher is interested in both the malleability and precision of time, a seeming contradiction that he has woven through “Before All the World,” published Oct. 11 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The novel is grounded in history, but is fiction; it’s based on real people and places Rothman-Zecher wants to honor, though he admits that at least one of the stories he based the book on could have been apocrypha.
The Jerusalem-born author’s deep curiosity about his Jewish roots and connection to the places his family lived — Israel, Ohio, Pennsylvania — are a common theme in his writing. His 2018 debut novel “Sadness is a White Bird” was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award and earned Rothman-Zecher recognition on the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” list. Rothman-Zecher teaches poetry and fiction at the University of the Arts.
“I’m primarily a novelist; I’m primarily a storyteller, and I’ve turned now — for the last seven or eight years — mostly to fiction, in order to tell the truth through making things up,” he said. “What I’m most drawn to is the truth of the story in its kind of narrow sense, in its kind of spiritual sense, and not necessarily its factual sense.”
“Before All the World” is set in Prohibition-era Philadelphia in a time when the word “pogrom” refers to both the violence against Jews in Eastern Europe and the violence against Black people in America.
Leyb, a Jewish man, finds himself in the city after escaping from the Eastern European village of Zatelsk, where most of the residents were taken to a nearby forest and killed. At Crickets, a speakeasy serving a mostly gay clientele, Leyb meets Charles, a Black man from Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward, becoming fascinated with Charles’ ability to speak Yiddish, a language Leyb has previously only thought to be spoken by Jews.
Miraculously, Leyb also reunites with Gittl, the other Jewish survivor of the Zatelsk pogrom. The story of unlikely survival of the three protagonists asks both the characters and the readers to imagine a better world.
Though Zatelsk, Crickets and Charles’ apartment addresses are fictional locales, their coming together is loosely based on real events.
Rothman-Zecher, who attends Kol Tzedek, grew up very close with his grandparents, but following the death of his grandmother, he uncovered parts of her life that were once hidden.
“We had really extensive, deep conversations about a lot of things. But also in my early adulthood, I realized that there were some subjects that had been totally off-limits,” Rothman-Zecher said. “Specifically, growing up, I had thought that my grandmother had one sister, Beatrice, who lived in Center City for her whole life, and we would visit her regularly. I think when I was in my late teenage years, maybe early 20s, I realized that my grandma had actually had two sisters.”
Rothman-Zecher’s grandmother’s younger sister Leonore Steinberg had a child with a Black man in the 1940s. Shortly after the child’s birth, Steinberg was sent to a psychiatric hospital, where she lived for the rest of her life. The institution adopted her child. Rothman-Zecher is unsure whether the child was adopted for nefarious reasons or whether Leonore was institutionalized because her relationship with a Black man was pathologized.
Rothman-Zecher also drew on a story his grandfather once told him about his experience at a speakeasy-turned-gay bar, though Rothman-Zecher isn’t entirely sure he remembered the story correctly.
As he tries his best to extract the spiritual truth from his family’s stories, Rothman-Zecher has observed a transformation in his relationship with them.
“Writing the book, researching the book and living in the book and moving around the book was this opportunity to be in conversation with people who weren’t alive anymore,” he said. “It has been a special feeling, to feel the presence of my family members, both literal and literary, as the book goes out into the world.”