Imagine Neil Gaiman meets Fiddler on the Roof. Or Sherlock Holmes meets Fivel Goes West. Neither comparison is exactly accurate, but they do help paint a picture of When The Angels Left the Old Country–a sweeping, engrossing tale that follows two mystical creatures, an angel and a demon, as they journey to America from their small shtetl in the early twentieth century.
The pair makes the journey for two reasons: our mischievous but lovable demon, Little Ash, is losing all the young shtetl-dwellers as they immigrate to America, seeking opportunity and freedom; and he is afraid that he will be discovered in this ever-shrinking shtetl. But to get the Angel on board, he wraps this selfish desire in an altruistic one: Essie, a resident of the shtetl who recently left for America, hasn’t written back to her father in some time, and the family is worried. Little Ash proposes that they journey to find and help her, and off they go to the New World.
The Angel and Little Ash have been friends for literal ages, sitting in the back corner of their synagogue and arguing about the Talmud. Theirs is a love that is as mystical as it is grounded; as they make their way to America, they struggle with jealousy, miscommunication, and loneliness, only to discover the depths of their mutual love and affection.
Their journey to America is rife with ghosts, lost souls, and something even more pedestrian and thus more terrifying: humans with power and evil intentions. As they travel from Warsaw through Ellis Island, all the way to Hester Street, Little Ash and the Angel are tested in many ways – they must decide whom to trust, how to hide who they are, and, finally, how to find and help Essie and the many overworked immigrant Jews living on the Lower East Side.
This novel by Sacha Lamb is both an action-packed adventure filled with dybbuks, mystery, and murder, and also a sweet story of two beings discovering their place in each other’s lives. It is simultaneously a story of a woman who is trying to figure out her identity, and of the lengths we will go to make sure our friends, family, and community thrive in a hostile world. In the end, we will hope that we, too, have a little demon and angel, sitting in the back of the synagogue, ready to help us in a time of crisis or need. And who knows? They might be arguing there already, just waiting to be of service.
When the Angels Left the Old Country is a phenomenal story that explores gender identity and sexual orientation while showcasing the power of community and the journey one must take to truly know themself.
Evie Saphire-Bernstein is the program director of Jewish Book Council. She graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a B.A. in English and a minor in Jewish Studies. Before joining the Jewish Book Council team in 2015, she spent a year and a half working within the Conservative Movement as the Network Liaison for the Schechter Day School Network. She is a recent transplant to New York City, after living in Chicago for most of her life. In her spare time, Evie is a writer and blogger.