Silver–32nd Annual Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) Benjamin Franklin Awards, Audiobook: Fiction
In this magical realist novel set in 1920s Germany, a young Jewish woman inexplicably bonds with the Hindu god Ganesha.
Esther Grünspan is 17 when she first moves to Köln, Germany, from her hometown in Poland, where her fiance recently failed to show up to their wedding. She starts a new life in her new city as a talented seamstress. However, this life is withdrawn and lonely, as she barely interacts with anyone, although she’s avidly trying to learn how to speak German to achieve “business success.” Even with her own family members, who visit and send letters, Esther is cold and difficult to connect with. One day, while walking through the Rheinpark, she spots a wooden stand decorated with “vibrant, garish colors” and images unfamiliar to her. She becomes fixated with one image in particular—an “elephant-headed man.” The memory of this figure sticks with Esther, who begins to doubt if it was even real. She’s actually fixated on the Hindu god Ganesha, who has similarly bonded with Esther, as revealed through his own italicized narration, interspersed throughout the novel. Later, she navigates marriage and motherhood, but she never forgets her Rheinpark memory, and Ganesha watches out for her with wisdom and love. As years pass, anti-Semitism in the city becomes more rampant, and Esther begins to obsess over India. Her decision to travel to Ganesha’s home ultimately results in an emotional, enlightening revelation. Over the course of this debut novel, Teitelman paints an intensely beautiful world in which different cultures merge in surprising ways. Although it centers on what may seem like an odd pairing—a Jewish mortal and a Hindu god—the novel weaves the two characters together in a very natural way, as Esther, withdrawn from those around her, is shown to need Ganesha as a protective, loving companion. Teitelman’s deft execution as she explores this relationship is a major factor in why this unusual novel works so well. Throughout, her writing shows a finesse that’s as compelling as the story it presents, employing a lyrical prose style when focusing on Ganesha and a more decadent tone during Esther’s parts.
A rich and moving story about an unlikely pair.
Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB) – Piecework and Assembly: On Judith Teitelman’s “Guesthouse for Ganesha” by Marcie McCauley, March 14, 2020
EIGHTEEN YEARS IN the making — Judith Teitelman’s description of the “circuitous” route that her novel, Guesthouse for Ganesha, took toward publication makes it likely that this story was destined to be published now, at the precise moment that a divisive cultural milieu would most welcome its arrival. This romanticizing of the creative process suits a story in which words like “destiny,” “journey,” “vision,” and “consciousness” frequently resurface. A story in which a Hindu deity not only decorates the book (designed by Michael Kellner) but directly narrates part of it. A story prefaced by a Rumi verse (translated by Coleman Barks) and an explanation of the Hebrew alphabet’s second letter, which signifies that “the created world is meant to house the spiritual within it.”
Thirteenth-century poet Rumi is a popular choice for epigraphs. The Persian mystic’s words introduce novels by such accomplished writers as Orhan Pamuk and Khaled Hosseini, whose stories are often set in conflict-ridden landscapes, personal and political, and focus on the universal power of love. Teitelman’s choice of epigraph crystallizes her intention to explore archetypal themes — an ambitious choice for a debut novelist.
Guesthouse for Ganesha’s prologue immediately establishes the dual threads which weave this story. Readers meet Esther when she has a vision of Ganesha; each character’s consciousness is evident, Ganesha’s observations italicized to distinguish them from Esther’s experiences, and their perspectives alternate throughout the novel. Ganesha’s use of language is lyrical and fragmented, an abundance of ellipses with the text justified to look like long poems. His attention revolves around his relationship to Esther — her spiritual needs, readiness, and cookies. (With even a superficial search online, readers with no experience of Ganesha will learn of his penchant for sweets.) When someone in Esther’s life offers her a cookie, Ganesha warms to them, whether or not their generosity impresses Esther.
Esther is not easily impressed. Following the prologue, readers observe her arrival in Köln in 1922, her struggle to communicate in Yiddish exacerbated by her youthful inexperience and impatience. At 17 years old, she has left behind her large, poverty-stricken family in Przeworsk, Poland, and seeks work as a seamstress.
Seamstresses rival governesses for their prominence in historical fiction. The mechanism of their labor offers a convenient parallel to the kind of movements that one makes through life: following a pattern, ripping out mistakes, and rote repetition toward completion. When the stitching is accompanied by the idea of assembly — as in dressmaking or quilting — there are additional layers for a novelist to explore via the gradual accumulation of a lifetime’s decisions, pursuits, and disappointments.
Enduringly popular are the novels in which needlework is decorative, as with Tracy Chevalier’s embroiderers in A Single Thread (2019) and Whitney Otto’s quilters in How to Make an American Quilt (1991), or artistic, as in Elizabeth Berg’s The Art of Mending (2004). Other fictions afford the stitchers professional success and recognition, as with Jennifer Chiaverini’s Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker (2013) and Nicole Mary Kelby’s The Pink Suit (2014). The craft crosses geographic and cultural divides, as in the Brazilian setting of Frances de Pontes Peebles’s The Seamstress (2008) and the Moroccan setting of The Time in Between by María Dueñas (2009; translated by Daniel Hahn). Less common are the fictions which consider the daily grind of piecework, but even in these instances, a woman with a needle can explore the artistry alongside the craft, as with Celie in The Color Purple (1982), whose needlework leads to unexpected fulfillment against a backdrop of poverty.
Teitelman’s portrayal of Esther’s work sways from an accounting of the number of buttonholes sewn in a day to a list of specific stitches she employs in more creative assignments: “Split stitches. Line stitches. Chain stitches. Picot stitches. Herringbone, stem, and flat stitches. Bokhara couching. Knotting. Fishbone. Point de Russe. Double Leviathan. Mountmellick.” Esther’s steps and her breaths are occasionally described in relationship to her stitches (i.e., their even nature). At one point she observes the “seams” of her existence, and when stressed she turns to routine in the way that she turns to a sewing pattern, the way that another woman might turn to prayer. (Esther considers herself a cultural, rather than a religious, Jew.)
Although Esther begins with piecework, tedious and strenuous, she soon receives more interesting assignments. Perhaps this was a functional decision on the author’s part — even the classic 19th-century writers selected privileged observers and middle management, as in the English mill-workers’ stories by Elizabeth Gaskell, or Little Dorrit in Charles Dickens’s novel, rather than focusing on the industry’s subsistence workers. Perhaps readers are meant to interpret Esther’s successes as rewards bestowed via Ganesha’s interventions, as he is responsible for removing obstacles from people’s lives. She is competent, dependable, and fortunate, although she must relocate and establish new connections. And after she has obtained documents in the name of Etta Göttlieb, a German citizen, to obliterate Esther Grünspan from the official records, she works consistently.
Readers’ connection to this novel depends entirely on their relationship to Esther, as readers have access to Ganesha only through his relationship with her. For readers to wholly invest in Esther, her characterization has to be developed methodically and evenly, just like Esther’s stitches. Teitelman’s character development relies heavily on archetypal allusions and prioritizes romanticism over realism.
Readers learn early on that Esther left home after her fiancé left her at the altar, so her reason for being in the city is directly connected to her love and her loss. There are “pent-up tears” and “pages coated with tears and tear-stains,” even though Esther is described as having “an ever more indurate heart.” Descriptors abound (like “gossamer” and “diaphanous,” “perplexing” and “billowing”) and the vocabulary is uncommon. Word choices like “nigh” and “bleak,” “reminisce” and “smoulder” appear to be at odds with the jacket copy which suggests that Ganesha “chooses to highlight [Esther’s] story because he recognizes that it is everyone’s story,” whereas ordinary rather than elevated language would have emphasized Esther’s universality.
The romanticism is inherent in the story and evident in the use of language, and it also consumes other elements of the novel which could have been employed to build readers’ confidence in Esther’s story. It is relatable, for instance, to learn that Esther, new to Köln, finds comfort and familiarity in walking a regular route along and around the Rhine River at the heart of the city. Her solitude, more so her loneliness, is recognizable and she repeatedly executes this pattern: “Once established, her steps never varied, every evening the same […] six kilometers in total.”
Esther’s perspective can be more difficult to access because she is withdrawn, initially because she is coping with the loss of her fiancé and, as the years pass, because she is avoiding detection, as a Jewish woman increasingly at risk in a fascist society. A thorough and detail-oriented editing process would have captured the overuse of color palettes as shorthand for description in scene changes (when Esther doesn’t seem particularly aware of color, and perhaps rightly so, given the times she inhabits) and the repetition of pet words like “bitterness” and “exhaustion” (along with more than 10 instances in which Esther bites the inside of her right cheek). Experimentation with sentence or paragraph structure could, instead, have communicated fatigue, and better engaged readers’ sensory experience.
The ways in which Esther’s character veers from the stereotypical roles for women in this setting are interesting, however, and her dedication to self-realization is remarkable:
She had long forgotten — before this irrational war and hiding and running while standing still — her very self, her wants, her desires, her essence. Who she was at her core. So much of the last nearly two years had been spent fabricating a new reality, a new name, a new identity, and stories of a life she had never lived. Esther had become lost in the process. Like an ingredient in a cake mix folded into the batter where only the slightest hint of its presence remains.
She resists and refuses maternal responsibility in an era where this was uncommon. Which is even more curious because she eventually has children (to say more would spoil the plot). Where Guesthouse for Ganesha appears to be a novel preoccupied with universals, it feels like a very personal story. If readers have an ancestral Esther in their experience, they will be more likely to connect with this tale. This era of history is rich and compelling: readers follow Esther chronologically from 1922 through World War II. A creative work covering the Holocaust and all the chaos that characterizes that era requires deft handling. The decision to elaborate on a single devastating act, while summarizing other events, has broader repercussions. And Esther is extraordinarily fortunate in many ways, despite her social isolation:
It took little effort to be invisible. Even with a one-year-old who soon became a two-year-old. Even with people on practically every corner with the charge to find you, to grab you, to send you away, it was not so very difficult to maintain a cloak of insignificance. To continuously walk behind thick layers of indistinctiveness that softly melds you into the surroundings, so your coat becomes a doorway, shoes, merely cracks in the cobbled sidewalk; hat, a bird fluttering through the trees.
The concept of survival being effortless is seductive, but Esther’s experience of the war affords her unusual opportunities. Perhaps this highlights Esther’s resilience and determination. Perhaps it implies that had others made this kind of effort, they could have survived also.
In other instances, however, Teitelman’s use of irony is refreshing. At one point when Esther conceals her Jewish identity by adopting Catholicism, she faces censure from the community for her adopted religion; Protestantism is more acceptable, but the community is obviously unaware that she is a Jew. And although Esther has successfully repressed, for many years, her grief over her fiancé’s abandonment, eventually she is overwhelmed in the presence of another woman’s grief; the woman’s beloved is a Nazi, and his outlook is fiercely and regularly defended by the same woman. This kind of complexity makes Teitelman’s story even more provocative.
Readers who are drawn to stories about maintaining faith in challenging times, particularly those with religious views rooted in a pluralist approach to theism rather than any single system’s tenets, will find Esther’s epiphany moving. The relationship between the two strands of narrative, one human and one deity, invites readers to consider the relationship between the secular and sacred in their everyday lives. And the interstices in Teitelman’s narrative, where specific religious systems connect and collide, suggest a comforting movement toward harmony. Most importantly, Esther survives; hers is a hopeful tale.
The kind of story that Judith Teitelman was inspired to write, throughout those 18 years, is the kind of story that readers crave in the face of a resurgence of fascist and isolationist policies. Readers connect through story and, when that seems impossible, retreat into story: in this sense, narratives are survival tools for storytellers and audiences. Narratives which create a space for courage and resistance are vital and essential. And Esther’s insistence on being her whole and true self — “I must be who I am and only that” — is invigorating. A few more thorough edits over those 18 years would have clarified her story, but it’s still a story worth telling.
NRI Pulse – Author Judith Teitelman: ‘I have been particularly drawn to Ganesha’, by Veena Rao, June 7, 2019
Judith Teitelman is the author of the newly released novel, ‘Guesthouse for Ganesha’, a riveting story of lost love, survival and spiritual awakening.
In 1923, Esther Grünspan, a seventeen-year-old Jewish girl, arrives in Germany with a broken heart. Thus begins her twenty-two-year ordeal through the holocaust and World War II when she has to assume new identities to hide her Jewish heritage, and move often through Europe to stay alive.
Esther’s pragmatism, hardened heart and masterful tailoring skills are her assets through her travails. But unknown to her, Esther’s biggest asset is the protection of Lord Ganesha, as she moves from one dangerous situation to the other, until she reaches her final destination, India.
Written with great attention to detail, Teitelman breathes life into Esther’s story, deftly weaving Hindu beliefs with the history of the holocaust. One cannot help but root for the stony-hearted protagonist, whose story unfolds in the voice of Ganesha.
In this interview with NRI Pulse, Teitelman talks about the genesis of her novel, the making of Esther, and her own connection with Ganesha.
Guesthouse for Ganesha is an unusual Holocaust novel; although this mystical tale begins in 1920s Poland, it ends in 1940s India.
The story unfolds with Esther Grünspan, left alone under the chuppah by her great love. This betrayal transforms a hopeful girl into a cold woman. She rejects her family and heritage, denying her past as she relocates to Germany. Esther’s incredible sewing skills provide her with a new life. She barters her services to learn German and builds a business in her quest for self-preservation. One evening, Esther sees an incongruous looking shack selling samosas. She briefly speaks to the Indian owner and is inexplicably drawn to a picture of Ganesha, the Hindu elephant-headed deity. She feels unexpected warmth and peace during this encounter that will change her life forever.
In fact, Esther’s story is narrated by Ganesha, the god of new beginnings, success, wisdom, and Remover of Obstacles. Ganesha’s words are seen in various forms, including italicized poetry, commentary, and asides. The god sees every human as a guesthouse for the spirit and provides for their needs. Ganesha’s whispers and attentions intercede to save Esther time and again on her harrowing journey.
After Esther enters a loveless marriage to the cobbler and has three children, she watches, with her “bitterness swelling,” as seeds of hate and terror grow throughout the 1930s. Aided by her practical skills, Esther and her young son survive by hiding in plain sight as they move throughout Europe. The historical backdrop of World War II is vividly captured throughout their flight, and her survival is ensured as she senses a presence she doesn’t fully comprehend.
Judith Teitelman’s debut novel asks the reader to believe in the journey. The descriptive language moves the plot in compelling and imaginative ways. The intertwining of Esther’s life on the run and her eventual self-realization in India is narrated with compassion. From the dreamlike prologue to the final epilogue, this is a powerful and absorbing read — a novel written with love in the spirit of healing and renewal.
Poignant and lyrical, Guesthouse for Ganesha: A Novel by Judith Teitelman is a debut novel with strong spiritual underpinnings, a story narrated by a Hindu god that features a Jewish mortal on a journey through difficult and challenging historical time. Esther Grünspan arrives in Köln with “a hardened heart as her sole luggage.” Apart from the challenges in language, she is confronted with the social upheavals resulting from the war and has to hide her origins in order to survive the Holocaust. Thanks to her gift of tailoring, she can pass unnoticed. Accompanied by the Hindu god, Ganesha, she survives the complexities and the harshness of a world shattered by war and follows a trail that leads to India. What is it that keeps her safe and where does she find the hope to live, one day at a time?
Guesthouse for Ganesha is a huge literary success, from the skillful handling of plot elements to the meticulous weaving of historical elements into the story to the gorgeous prose. Judith Teitelman comes across as a great storyteller. The unusual pairing of a Hindu god and a Jewish woman creates a unique kind of interest for the reader and I enjoyed how the author allows popular Eastern beliefs and hints of the Jewish culture to come out in the narrative. The backdrop against which the story takes place is real and it reflects the social climates of a world waking up from the trauma of war — the insecurity, the sense of fear, and the protagonist’s search for a peaceful abode are themes that dominate the writing. There is a deeper meaning in the story, one that indicates that peace isn’t based on some human feeling, but is a spiritual gift.
The story of the strange union of a jilted, grieving teenager and Ganesha opens with a fervent dance with the elephant god which leads to Esther’s arrival in Germany, hardened and alone after her love, Tadeusz’s, public rejection of her at the alter.
Judith Teitelman writes with a lyrical, evocative hand from the start, drawing out Esther’s emotions, the wellspring of her newfound determination to forge a new life in a strange country, and her youthful ability to reconcile the pains of the recent past with an analytical determination to move forward: “In the only way anguish can be subdued, if not entirely vanquished, Esther never stopped moving during those first self-exiled months. She couldn’t. She could not allow herself to sit idle, not even for a few minutes, for if she did, memories of him, of them, of what was, would deluge her mind. Emotions that she now strained to destroy or deny ever existed would take over, and she would be rendered helpless, powerless, as she had been and as she promised herself she would never be again.”
She gains employment and lodging and begins to learn a new language, but the real darkness in her heart from foregoing love and community threatens to end everything until something changes on “…a bitter Friday twilight with the promise of snow four months after Esther’s arrival in this city.”
Intoxicating colors from a strange, makeshift stand grab her attention and lure her into a bizarre, captivating world overseen by an elephant-headed man who holds the ability to transcend time and space.
As Esther embarks on a dance through life with this strange deity, she must confront the rise of Nazism coupled with the responsibilities of motherhood which forces her, once again, to consider abandoning everything familiar to build a new conclusion to a story that is speeding towards inevitable, predictable disaster: “A scene must be shaped; a story must be developed; a tale must be told with the barest of information, as though this place, their lives, were part of a play, a scene in a production, and tonight were the culmination. The story’s sad but banal conclusion. No questions could be left to ponder; their whereabouts never questioned. It must appear as though everything—absolutely everything—had been left behind.”
Facing a dangerous future, Esther finds herself planning a different kind of journey: “This exit was different from the preceding two times, for in each of those instances, Esther had been running away from all things known and familiar: the first, to secure her soul; the second, to save her life. Now, she headed toward the indefinable, a place beyond description—an enigma of choice.”
Spiritual, socially astute, politically chilling, and psychologically gripping, Guesthouse for Ganesha is the kind of novel marketers hate and readers love because it challenges simple categorization. Its evocative descriptions, connections between Jewish experience and Hindu beliefs, and exploration of how Esther at first grasps her life with both hands to control it fully, only to find it slipping from her clasp with greater promise than she could have envisioned or created in her dreams, makes for a fully engrossing story that is hard to put down.
Neither a Holocaust story nor Hindu legend, Guesthouse for Ganesha blends elements of both with an exceptional attention to vivid detail and transformation that results in a thoroughly unexpected, delightful dance through life.
A poignant story of love, loss, and survival…
Set against the backdrop of the European Holocaust, Teitelman’s impressive book displays her penchant for revealing the darker side of the human heart. It is 1923 when seventeen-year-old Esther Grünspan arrives in Köln after a heartbreak and sets on to find a refuge against the world. A loveless marriage, three unwanted children, and a life of hardships fail to make her forget her dream of finding a sanctuary. Esther’s heartbreak casts a long shadow over the book’s major theme, in which Esther with her hardened heart is unable to form a bond with anyone. Seeing Esther navigate through the war-torn Europe using her cunning and shrewdness along with her masterful tailoring skills is pure pleasure. Her fortitude and relentless determination make her a worthy protagonist. The book presents both literal and metaphoric embodiments of Hinduism, as the Hindu God Ganesha accompanies Esther throughout her travails. A must read!
For people of faith, the idea of some kind of supernatural being keeping watch over you every day, I imagine to be both a comfort and a terror. Your needs, fears, and desires are under constant scrutiny. One day you will fail your god. But what if you are watched over without your knowledge? What if the god is of a faith and culture not your own? This is the intriguing starting point for Judith Teitelman’s Guesthouse for Ganesha.
When Esther Grünspan is abandoned by her fiancé on her wedding day in 1923, she flees her tight-knit Polish shtetl and travels to Köln, Germany, to make her heartbroken way in the world. Trained as a seamstress from childhood, she earns her living by her unrivaled skill with needle and thread. As she struggles to survive, to learn language and culture, she hardens her heart to love and friendship. She seems to want to be entirely unseen. Look at my work, her actions cry out, not at me.
A loveless marriage follows, then the Nazis. A network of good people move Esther from home to apartment to boarding house, from country to country. They provide false papers and sewing assignments, everything from simple hems to elaborate gowns. Sewing is both her refuge and livelihood.
Esther’s life expands and contracts across a backdrop of some of the greatest horrors of the 20th century; we see crimes against humanity play out in the life of one woman. Watching with us is the elephant-headed god Ganesha of the Hindu pantheon. She encounters him in park in Köln, but does not know him as a god. His role in her life as a remover of obstacles is invisible to her. She does not see him give a cookie to distract her fretful daughter so she can finish a gown for a wealthy socialite in time for a party. She does not see him turn a head at just the right moment or move a hand to sign a document that allows her to escape to safety.
Still, like so many gods and superheroes, Teitelman’s Ganesha is not omnipotent. He can soothe a querulous child and save a single life, but he cannot prevent the Holocaust.
In the aftermath of the war, the story of Guesthouse for Ganesha takes a startling turn to fantasy. So, too, did arts and literature abandon the limitations of realism in the post-war period. Esther walks away from a life that has both sustained and constrained her, opening herself to a Hindu god of letters and learning who has, she discovers, watched over her with love and compassion all along.
In 1923, Esther Grünspan settles in Köln from Poland. She has been jilted on her wedding day, and the betrayal of love she experiences will haunt her for 23 more years. During that time, her heart hardens as she survives with her superb seamstress skills. She has a life-changing experience in which she meets Ganesha, a Hindu god who has the body of a human but the head of an elephant. He speaks to her as she is mesmerized by his penetrating eyes. He walks with those in adversity and grief, moves them through obstacles, and promises peace when they are open to receiving it. But Esther, who later calls herself Etta, gets married to someone she mistakenly thinks will protect her, and has three children. She believes she is not capable of giving or receiving love. Then the time of the horrific Holocaust begins.
Etta does what she must, and they escape to other European countries. Teitelman depicts the years of loss and betrayal with straightforward honesty, bringing the reader into realization about what it means to be a true survivor. Flickers of memories and heart-stirring emotions fill these pages while Etta forges on with stony resolution. The negative effects on her children are suggested and may yet become reality. Eventually all of Etta’s family appear to her in her sleep, acknowledging the horrors of what they have endured. Etta finds a healing process once she enters India’s embrace through a man (really Ganesha). This is stunning historical fiction about a long journey from hellish darkness to divine light and peace, presented by a highly skilled writer.
“Four Gripping Plots to Capture Your Interest for Long Days at the Beach” BookTrib’s BookBites, June 5, 2019
Saturday, June 1, 2019
GUESTHOUSE FOR GANESHA; A Book Review
As you’ll discover on the first page of Judith Teitelman’s novel, Guesthouse for Ganesha, the guesthouse in the title alludes to the lovely Rumi poem whose first line is “This being human is a guesthouse.”
The poem is about our need to welcome all experience into our life, no matter whether good or bad, and to take what joy we can in the learning that it brings. Ganesha is, well… Ganesha, the every-popular Hindu god whose chief attribute–apart from a protruding belly–is his elephant nose. A protective deity of wisdom, success, and good luck, he is one of two narrator-protagonists of the novel, the other being Esther, a young Jewish woman surviving the Nazi years in Germany, who certainly needs all the good luck she can get.
Not hard to guess, then, that “Guesthouse” is part magical realism, part survival narrative. Our sympathy for Esther is hard-earned. Her heart is turned to stone while she is still virtually a girl by her abandonment, at the marriage chuppah, by the man to whom she has given her eternal love and trust, and she remains tormented by the memory of this indelible loss. She clings fiercely to her bitterness as she escapes her native Polish shtetl with nothing but her supernatural skill as a seamstress, which she parlays into a successful survival strategy. Teitelman allows this frozen woman a brief glimpse into her soul at an Indian food counter in Köln, where Ganesha appears to embrace her, unknowingly, in the warmth of his compassion.
Esther endures the early years of pre-war Nazi anti-Semitism in Köln, at first only vaguely, but increasingly aware of its poison spreading in the nation. Incapable of love, she enters into a loveless marriage. Has three children. Abandons them, dispatching two of them to safety via the well-known Kindertransport. Throughout, as war approaches and ensues, Teitelman compellingly evokes Esther’s growing predicament, her isolation with a baby son, and her desperate, always quick-witted efforts to survive a hostile environment, where the slightest error means the certainty of arrest and dispatch to what she by now knows will be the death sentence in the camps. With help from a team of conscience-stricken Germans, she keeps managing to escape, moving to Wupperthal, to Paris… and finally to refuge in Switzerland. It’s her grit and her impenetrable heart that save her. And Ganesha watches over constantly with concern, compassion, humor…
It’s only after the war, alone in the world, that Esther’s heart begins to melt. Drawn by the spiritual presence of what we know to be her protector, Ganesha, she heads for India and the possibility of redemption in a final scene where the tragedy of her compelling journey blossoms into full-blown magical realism. But this you’ll need to read for yourself. No spoilers. Suffice it to say that Teitelman leads her character into the furthest depths of the heart and soul she never knew she had. In the end, it’s all about being human.
By Ellen Shick
Judith Teitelman never intended to be a creative writer. Working for over three decades in the nonprofit sector, she authored and published many professional reports, articles, proposals and such. She has had a successful career and, thanks to a fabulous high school English teacher, Judith has become a darn good writer. She was content with her life and skills; writing a novel was not even on her radar. But, as Judith remarks, “Life takes you in directions you don’t imagine.”
In 2001, when a friend started a Saturday morning creative writing group, Judith had no interest in attending, but finally gave in, due to her friend’s fierce insistence. Much to Judith’s surprise, during four years of Saturday mornings, Guesthouse for Ganesha gradually emerged. Judith refers to herself as, “yet another accidental fiction writer.”
As she explains in her article, “18 Years But Who’s Counting,” her first novel, Guesthouse for Ganesha, took 18 years to reach publication. She says, “The book is not a memoir or autobiography at all. It is magical realism within the Jewish experience during the war and the Indian/Hindu perspective. It took 11 years to write and rewrite betwixt and between work, travel and everything else going on in my life. It took a year and seven months to find a literary agent, three-plus years to find a publisher and then a little over two years to publication.”
Judith is comforted by her belief that “time is illusory and ephemeral. An abstract concept not grounded in constructs or form something that has changed over history and geography.” She feels that her novel needed time to marinate, to evolve. It could not be rushed.
I highly recommend Judith’s beautifully crafted novel. Esther’s character is timeless, and like the rest of us, she strives to be herself. She does not want to be a mother or a wife; she is an independent spirit and wants to be free. Judith cleverly explores the balance between the harsh realities of WWII and the lithe-childlike essence of Ganesha. The title, Guesthouse for Ganesha, refers to the belief that the earth is just a guesthouse for our souls; our time here on this planet is fleeting. The book is about being human. It speaks to everyone who has ever been devastated by a love. In other words, this book will speak to anyone alive right now.
Judith and I enjoyed chatting about the joys and challenges of her journey.
During the Saturday morning writing groups, as Guesthouse for Ganesha began to emerge, what was the story you wanted to tell? What is the background for your story?
One of the key sparks for the novel took place in the mid-80s when my maternal grandmother passed away. She was a mean and nasty woman, not the warm loving bubby everyone talks about. She was extremely difficult. I’m first-generation American, and a huge part of my mothers’ family was lost during World War II. My primary family members now live in Berlin. During the funeral, my tante, my grandmother’s youngest sister, said, ‘You know why your grandmother was so difficult, don’t you?’ I thought is was because she lost her husband, she was uprooted; she had to figure out how her children would survive.
At the funeral, I learned that when my grandmother was 17, she was standing under the chuppah (bridal canopy) in the center of her village waiting for the love of her life, her betrothed. When she learned he had run off with the richest girl in their village, she was crushed.
I wish I had known that! Forget the war, forget Hitler; it was devastated love. It was being abandoned that really set her course in life and created her personality and temperament. It also made her a survivor. Whereas she survived, 90% of her family and friends did not survive the war. It gave me an understanding of her. I wish I had known that while she was alive. I thought that would make a great story.
The novel’s protagonist, Esther, is authentic and has a clear voice. She is a master tailor and furrier and a young woman with a broken heart. Early in the book, Esther experiences heart wrenching, devastated love, just like your grandmother. Was Esther based on your grandmother’s life? Part of Guesthouse for Ganesha is set in Nazi Germany during WWII. Are there connections to your family history?
My grandmother walked over the Alps and made it to Switzerland and survived the remainder of the war. She had to leave her children behind (with Christian people) for their safety. Like so many others, my mother was in Kindertransport when she was six. It was the Red Cross that finally reconnected them after the war. My mother was in England until she was 16. But truly she was only connected with her mother for three weeks – between six and 18. When my grandmother came to the U.S., she had only seen her daughter for three weeks. They were reunited in Chicago. My grandmother had a sister who moved to the U.S. between the first and second wars. No one in my family ever talked about the war. I had to do my own research and piece the story together.
In 2008, I spent seven weeks watching first person videos at the Shoah Foundation. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. One of the gifts was that I did not have to watch any testimony from anyone in a camp because no one in my novel went to a camp. I learned about people who survived through passing (as a gentile). That was a big part of how I understood what Esther’s environment was like. It was how I put Esther’s travels together.
Why did you choose Ganesha as the narrator instead of an omniscient narrator? Why does Ganesha care so much about Esther?
I have always been a fan of Genesha and drawn to his spirit. I love Southeast Asia [sic] and have traveled to 17 countries, so it feels like home to me. I felt it very important to have his voice of reason, clarity and world perspective in the book. Honestly, I don’t see my novel about being Jewish or Hindu; it is about being human. It’s about being devastated by love. We have all been dumped and have been deeply saddened by love not coming through the way we hoped. That is universal. Ganesha represents universitality. Esther and her story are really all of our stories.
Another thread in most Eastern cultures is the belief that the only thing we carry from life to life is love. Everything else falls away. We bring love with us from life to life.
Will there be a second novel?
I started another novel 4-5 years ago, mostly because I missed writing. It is titled Future Memories and is very different from Guesthouse for Ganesha. The story is about a big city girl and a small town southern boy, but it is mostly about memories. Why do things happen to us that are seemingly incidental while some momentous things leave our memory? One of the central themes is time. I find time fascinating. There will not be a Hindu god, but it will have magical realism.
I had the pleasure of meeting one of the authors for this month’s book edit – Judith Teitelman – nearly a year ago at a work event for my husband. Teitelman wrote Guesthouse for Ganesha (you have to read the review below and go get the book)…
She told me about the book then and I was quite intrigued. So it’s no surprised I was ecstatic when it finally came out this month. It’s such a fun and interesting take on a fairly familiar story. Just trust me on this one. And then follow it up with a little romance and, of course, a little fantasy!
If you’re looking for something a little familiar and a little unexpected, get your hands on Teitelman’s first book: Guesthouse for Ganesha. Through the story of Esther Grünspan, we follow a tale of World War II in Central Europe. Esther is a Jewish woman, escaping her home and her past. Dramatically left at the altar, she seeks to rebuild her life, leaving behind her most of her identity.
What weaves this tale together is Esther’s innate capacity for tailoring perfection – a skill which helps her save money and save herself. She’s able to rebuild her livelihood in every new city to which she moves. Things get complicated when Esther marries a man she doesn’t love and births him three children. She then finds herself surrounded by members of the Jewish community who refuse to see what’s happening just outside their homes.
When Nazi Germany begins implementing limitations on Jewish life, Esther has to decide what to do next. How will she save herself? What will she do with the children?
An independent woman, she believe she’s making all decisions on her own. But little does she know that Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu God, is guiding her along the way. Ganesha acts as narrator, interspersing the story with beliefs about the destruction of spirituality, a love for cookies, and a great desire to covertly guide Esther through these trying and terrible times. And only through Ganesha can we truly understand Esther.
What makes Guesthouse for Ganesha so unique is that it blurs the lines between so many genres. Somehow European history combines with spirituality, which seamlessly mixes with feminism and self-discovery. Esther is no ordinary woman. Ganesha is no ordinary partner. Why are the two connected and will it be enough to pull Esther through WWII and to a life of happiness?
Judith Teitelman comes to the blog with her debut offering – a story unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before.
Guesthouse for Ganesha
Esther is a Polish girl, determined to make more of her life than just be ‘the one left at the altar’, as her fiancé failed to show for their wedding. A bit hurt, plenty angry and certain that the changes she wants are not available in her hometown, she leaves for Germany and the city of Köln. Not without skills: she’s a seamstress of some talent, but not speaking the language, despite her skills, makes building a business and a life in a new place, away from family and all that is familiar isn’t easy. And while this may be a hugely daunting idea to contemplate, fraught with fears and worries of loneliness, Esther does never actually connect to the people she meets. Her relatives in the city, who all speak German and would be, in other circumstances, the logical people to help her improve her skills and offer her some sense of the familiar all find her removed and cold – not quite their cup of tea.
But, Esther is often in her own head, thinking about the next design, her hopes for a ‘place’ that feels like home, and wondering about the purpose of it all. A chance encounter in the park brings her face-to-face with the image of Ganesha – the elephant-headed man and god – an image she can’t forget, yet soon is wondering if her encounter was even real, or simply a dream. Strangely enough (and unaccountably magical) Ganesha also notices Esther, one who is searching for her place and trying to start a new beginning. For this is his métier – remover of obstacles, and provider of good fortune. But, this is Germany in the grip of the anti-Semitic, isolationist, post-war- angry regime, and increasingly the city is becoming less welcoming to Esther – simply because of her heritage. Soon, India becomes the focus of her obsessions – and off she travels to make yet another new start, in relative safety away from the Nazis.
Change, growth, hope for more and different, and many surprising revelations and a growing acceptance of who she is and her place in the world all come here. As does the gentle influence and loving ‘direction’ provided by Ganesha – as he also tells and shows us as his perspective appears throughout the book, from the first encounter onward. There is a sense of wonder, hope and survivor in this story, as the ‘righness’ of the connection between the Jewish woman and the Indian God becomes simply a story of friendship and reliance, each providing comfort, perspective, and a sense of security to the other in the challenges that occur. A wonderfully unique story that is wholly fresh and engaging, this debut novel provides everything I could want: entertainment, enlightenment, memorable characters and the clear descriptions that show we are far more alike than different, no matter where we come from.
“A parable, a prayer, a piece of magic realism, Judith Teitelman’s GUESTHOUSE FOR GANESHA begins with the (improbable; wondrous) visit of Ganesha, the Hindu elephant deity, to strife-torn 1920s Köln, setting us off on a journey of love, grief, understanding. A feat of (and feast for) the imagination, the novel unfolds in ways at once heartfelt, surprising, inevitable. You will not be sorry you accepted this invitation to voyage.”
—Howard A. Rodman, Past President, Writers Guild of America West; Screenwriter, Savage Grace, Joe Gould’s Secret; Novelist, Destiny Express; Professor, University of Southern California
“In GUESTHOUSE FOR GANESHA, Esther Grünspan embarks on a journey, leaving her native Poland to arrive in Germany in 1923. She does not know that her journey has only begun, a journey of the heart and the spirit, a journey not only across distances but across time. So too, the reader embarks on the journey through this vast and lyrical debut novel that will expand our view of the world, our consciousness and our compassion.”
—Terry Wolverton, author of Insurgent Muse: Life and Art at the Woman’s Building
“The story grabs me, Esther’s journey is compelling and beautifully told. I love that something feels withheld from her story, I’m drawn into her character, fascinated that she is ’emotionally hardening’ before my eyes. Yet there are these beautiful moments of her softening, succumbing, listening. I like the historical milieu, this eerie calm before the maelstrom of war, where an outsider can catalyze such irrational (and violent) race hatred. These pages are beautiful…it feels like Judith has breathed them into being.”
—Louise Steinman, author of The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation
“Judith Teitelman’s remarkable imagination produces the thrilling illusion of several layers of different lives. The way she honors her main character’s indifference to human contact and emotion and then poetically leads her to a redemption is an act of cosmic chutzpah.”
—Sasha Anawalt, author, educator, and director of arts journalism master’s programs at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
“Lyrical and moving, GUESTHOUSE FOR GANESHA weaves a story of daring and courage in a world rent mad by war and destruction.”
—Gary Phillips, editor of The Obama Inheritance: Fifteen Stories of Conspiracy Noir
“GUESTHOUSE FOR GANESHA by Judith Teitelman spins a mythic tale with a heart so big it takes two continents and four countries to hold the story of Esther Grünspan, a seamstress whose needlework is as pierced and perfect as the needles in her heart. Teitelman weaves a tale of a seventeen-year-old girl jilted at the wedding chuppah with such extraordinary tenderness and grace. The reader cannot help but rejoice in Esther’s beautiful, broken spirit and in the way Ganesha wraps her up in his caring love, gradually melting the ice that is her armor and awakening her spirit to live again decades later. Teitelman is a masterful storyteller who knows and loves her characters deeply, and Esther’s courageous rebirth captures a kind of universal longing in all of us to heal our broken hearts.”
—Kerry Madden-Lunsford, author, Director of Creative Writing at University of Alabama, Birmingham
“Have you ever read a book that begins with the great Indian elephant god, Ganesha, dancing through the night with a spunky young German woman? Judith Teitelman’s GUESTHOUSE FOR GANESHA is a truly original novel. I was immediately hooked by that image with its blend of magic realism and a down-to-earth heroine who must grapple with abandonment and her own capacity for fortitude, all under the compassionate gaze of Ganesha, observing and guiding her with his ‘surveillance of souls.’ Teitelman yokes holocausts—both historical and personal—to compassion and possibility, giving us the timeless writerly gift of immersing this reader—and I’m sure many others—in a journey of renewal both archetypal and unprecedented.”
—Janet Sternburg, author of The Writer on Her Work, Phantom Limb, White Matter; photographer of the monograph, “Overspilling World”
“This young woman’s journey through love, betrayal, dislocation, adaptation, terror and spiritual discovery is unlike anything I have read before. It is both heart-felt and unexpected.”
—Bill Stern, author, curator, Executive Director Museum of California Design