I blasted through this book mostly in a single night. It is not only incredibly well written, but also a very fun read that is maddeningly hard to put down. The characters are rich and extremely memorable and the plot never wavers even when there are multiple subplots to intertwine, but let’s back up a bit.
“When the Angels Left the Old Country” is a queer, Jewish mystery steeped in the supernatural. An angel and a demon living as chevrusas (Torah study partners) in a tiny shtetl in Poland are drawn to America to find the daughter of one of the townsfolk who has stopped writing letters home. On the way they encounter spirits of all sorts, goyish demons, and a variety of humans both helpful and decidedly not.
It is also a story about identity in all aspects, such as gender and sexuality (what gender is an angel?), what it means to be an immigrant, and differing approaches to Judaism—after all, the synagogue of the nameless shtetl is not the synagogue of upper Manhattan. One of my favorite sub-plots was the angel, Uriel, grappling with its sense of self. An ephemeral being, what does it mean for the angel when it must take on a single identity to travel to America and blend into the human world. As someone who has spent a lot of time grappling with myself and my various identities, I latched onto Uriel not unlike the spirit of the rebbe (which is another fascinating subplot about ibburs and dybbuks).
There is also a fantastic layering of religions, they all exist—most notably shown in there being demons from other religions too. Something that exhausts me about Christian-centric approaches to the supernatural is that they tend to assume that the Christian mythology is the Real Accurate One. I adored seeing the way “Angels” allowed these different cultures to exist at once, even though we only see them to a limited extent due to the limits of our point-of-view characters.
While “Angels” is a deeply Jewish book, it is in no way limited to a Jewish readership. At its heart it is a story about being a stranger in a strange land and finding people you can be yourself with, feelings that resonate across marginalized and immigrant communities. For those unfamiliar with Yiddish, Hebrew and other Jewish terminology there is a helpful glossary in the back of the book,
which I myself referred to several times because my Hebrew is limited and my Yiddish is worse. If I were to offer a single sentence pitch comparing it to other media, I would say it’s a bit of “An American Tail” meets “Good Omens” with the Jewishness and queerness cranked up to 11.
If you like the sound of those things together, you will certainly like this book. You can pick up “When the Angels Let the Old Country” from a variety of places. I got mine through Bookshop.
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