Thank you to Edelweiss/Levine Querido for a copy of When the Angels Left the Old Country.

Summary

Uriel the angel and Little Ash (short for Ashmedai) are the only two supernatural creatures in their shtetl (which is so tiny, it doesn’t have a name other than Shtetl). The angel and the demon have been studying together for centuries, but pogroms and the search for a new life have drawn all the young people from their village to America. When one of those young emigrants goes missing, Uriel and Little Ash set off to find her.

Along the way, the angel and demon encounter humans in need of their help, including Rose Cohen, whose best friend (and the love of her life) has abandoned her to marry a man, and Malke Shulman, whose father died mysteriously on his way to America.

But there are obstacles ahead of them as difficult as what they’ve left behind. Medical exams (and demons) at Ellis Island. Corrupt officials, cruel mob bosses, murderers, poverty. The streets are far from paved with gold. — from the publisher. 

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Study buddies

This book, y’all — THIS BOOK. Perhaps it’s where I am in my life — currently studying Judaism, preparing for conversion — but Sacha Lamb’s When the Angels Left the Old Country is everything. This novel perfectly shows how art can tell the truth better than reality. Its fantasy elements allow Lamb to play with history and intersectionality where nonfiction wouldn’t have. Fictionalizing reality doesn’t erase complexities but instead distills its beauty and bitterness. 

Have you ever come across something at precisely the time you need it? That’s When the Angels Left the Old Country for me. Because I’m queer, I’ve been struggling with feeling outside some conversations within this religion I love, this religion I chose. Reading about Uriel, an angel whose pronouns are it/its/itself, no matter what it looks like or what its documents say, fed something in my soul. That Uriel is basically OTP with its study partner, Little Ash, a demon? Well … it’s very in keeping with Jewish theology and queerness.

All of Uriel’s journey is. If you ever wanted to understand the profundity of free will, pick up this book. 

When you know, you don’t know

This book is very Jewish. In the obvious ways and at the very core of what it has to say about life. When the Angels Left the Old Country is (purposely?) a little esoteric, down to the syntax. There is a glossary, but even with that, I’m not sure I’d’ve gotten as much out of it six months ago. I can’t wait to reread it a year from now, five years from now. 

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That isn’t to dissuade people who aren’t Jewish or not aware of Ashkenazi culture and folklore from reading When the Angels Left the Old Country. No, I want everyone and their brother to read it. But embrace the unfamiliarity, the not knowing. That’s how it is. 

Should you read it?

Without a shred of doubt.

When the Angels Left the Old Country is thought-provoking, swoony and fun all at once. Its sweeping fantasy narrative makes a momentous time in Jewish (and world) history come alive. I don’t know if most people understand interesting as a compliment, but that is how I mean it; this novel is immensely interesting and intellectual. Often, heady works can become slogs to get through; this tale never does. 

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Even with all this effusive praise, I haven’t begun to scratch the surface of how much I love When the Angels Left the Old Country or just how fantastic a book it is. I was thrilled to be able to recommend it to my peers in my Introduction to Judaism class and now to y’all. 

When the Angels Left the Old Country is out on October 18, 2022. Pick up a copy at your local indie bookstore or library. 📚🔯😈

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