Excerpt from new book that’s ‘Game of Thrones’ meets ‘Fiddler on the Roof’


Jordan Palmer, Chief Digital Content Officer

There is a joke in Hollywood, that the reason we see so many remakes, and sequels, is that no one there has any original ideas anymore. Originality is rare, and hard to achieve. The same could be said for the genre of fantasy.  Where does an author begin in creating a fantasy world that is original? In the case of “The Hidden Saint,” by Mark Levenson, the inspiration for his world is a mix of his longtime interest in fantasy literature, as well as his fascination with Jewish folklore.

“When people think of Jewish folklore, they think of the Golem, but there is so much more. A truly rich tapestry out there,” said Levenson. “So, wouldn’t be great to build a world where all of this stuff exists? From the Shamir up to the immortals in the city of Luz. What if we took this world, and created a story set in it.”

That is exactly what Levenson has done. He built his new world on the foundation of reality, but where most fantasy is based on Christian or Pagan myth, he draws from over 3,500 years of Jewish folklore.

The result

“Game of Thrones” meets “Fiddler on the Roof” is what you’re going to get when you read “The Hidden Saint.” It’s a fantasy that takes readers to a world they’ve never entered before: a world in which the vast sweep of Jewish myth and magic is completely real.

Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

This is a world not just of golems and dybbuks, but also of demons and reincarnated spirits, a city of immortals, vegetable monsters (yes, they’re a thing), imps, and much more—including the hidden saint of the title, whose fate may determine the fate of the planet. But this extraordinary place is merely the backdrop for the story of the very human people who live in it. It’s a story about a couple’s quest to save their children, about a marriage’s fall and rise, and about the intersection of free will and fate in a world that yearns for justice.

The Hidden Saint is the story of Adam: a rabbi, husband, and father living in 18th-century Poland. His son’s wedding becomes a day of horror when his children are abducted by Lilith, Queen of Demons. To save them, Adam is joined by a golem pained by the burden of living among, but always apart from, humans. He’s goaded and mentored by an elderly, wisecracking housekeeper who is secretly one of the 36 hidden saints, or Lamed-Vavniks, upon whom the fate of the world depends. And he’s both challenged and ultimately blessed by his wife, Sarah, who leads him to a garden called Eden. Their adventure is told from the perspectives of Adam, Sarah and the golem, and is the first in a projected series.

About the Author

Mark Levenson may be the world’s only Orthodox-Jewish-novelist-puppeteer-journalist-magician.

His novel, The Hidden Saint is the culmination of his more than 20 years of engagement with Jewish folklore. His Jewish-themed fantasy writing has won honors from The National Foundation for Jewish Culture and American Jewish University.

Levenson adapted The Return of the Golem and The Wise Men of Chelm for the stage, and S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk for actors and puppets. His Jewish-themed short fiction credits include Mystery Weekly MagazineKindle Kzine, and Ami Magazine. He also blogs about Jewish fantasy for The Times of Israel.

Levenson began his career as a reporter for The Miami Herald and Dun’s Review. He has written for New York MagazineThe Philadelphia InquirerThe Forward, The Jewish Week, the Associated Press, and others. Levenson’s family tree includes a magician-grandmother, “Lightfingers Ida,” and a great-great-uncle who was a Russian circus strongman. Levenson was graduated from Cornell University. He and his family live in Westchester County, New York.

Chapter 1:

Miropol, Tzardom of Russia, in the year 5505 of the Hebrew calendar, corresponding to the year 1745 of the common era.

The boy raced across the heath to see his bride. Overhead, thousands of sprites, each no bigger than a bee, caught the moonlight with their wings, sending streaks of gold across the darkness. As he ran, words of the Sages came unbidden to challenge him: If three travel together at night, the evil spirit does not appear. If two together, the spirit appears but does not attack. If one alone, the spirit attacks.

He was one person alone at night.

Still, for six whole days, he hadn’t seen Rachel, not even a glimpse. Everyone knew it was bad luck to see the bride in the seven days before the wedding, and Adam was nothing if not cautious. But on this night, his desire to see Rachel was an unquenchable fire against which caution had no chance. After being chaperoned—no, dogged—by his parents the past few days, the freedom of the night and the thrill of the cool wind against his face were exhilarating and helped to drive away his fears. No harm would come to him, he told himself, surely not tonight.

The enforced separation of this week—a separation from Rachel longer than any he could recall in his seventeen years—had been an ache on Adam’s soul. He couldn’t remember a time without Rachel and, for all practical purposes, there had been none. As children, they had played together in the courtyard of the synagogue during services, around each family’s weekly Sabbath table, and in the meadows that ringed the village, until they reached adolescence, the age at which tradition isolated boys from girls, and their largely separate lives began in earnest. Still, they had found their ways.

When Adam was called to the reader’s table or to the Holy Ark itself during Sabbath services, he would gaze up at the women’s balcony and, no matter how crowded it was, see only her face. Adam and Rachel continued to trade glances and smiles during chance encounters at the smithy’s, or at the well, or on busy village roads during market days. Once, when Adam was bringing food and firewood to the Widow Baile—in secret, so as not to embarrass her—he glimpsed Rachel through the snowy trees, likewise engaged in a clandestine act of kindness. Soulmates, he thought then. Once, at the leaven bonfire before Passover, a particularly malevolent imp had dislodged an ember that shot like an arrow to Rachel’s dress, setting it aflame. Almost before she could realize the danger, Adam had dashed to her side and smothered the fire with his jacket. He had made a silent promise then that he would never allow her to come to harm.

So, when their parents announced that the children would be wed, it merely confirmed what Adam had already known: Rachel was his predestined bride. The teaching of the Sages was true: Forty days before a mother conceives, the angels call out: “This one will be married to that one.”

His “that one” was Rachel.

Adam tripped, scattering his reverie like dust and sending his tall, thin frame to the ground with a painful thud. As he lay there on barren earth, his shoulder aching, his nose suddenly prickled. What was that smell? Something both sour and sweet. Imps? Had an imp been having its fun by tripping him? He knew that wherever a sin had been committed, an imp was born. Much had happened on the heath about which no one spoke. Imps were a distinct possibility.

I should have waited; the wedding is tomorrow, after all, Adam thought as he picked himself up. He brushed bits of leaves and dirt from his black coat and breeches and replaced his cap over his mop of curly black hair.

He scanned the lifeless, sandy earth, which was relieved here and there only by patches of rough grasses and low shrubs—and rocks, some as big as a shed. And then he saw it: about twenty feet away, small against the ground, the slimy green skin that flashed in the moonlight. The imp, no bigger than a mouse, dusted itself off and stood up, its harlequin-hued cape flapping in the breeze. Adam glowered at the creature and prepared to go after it; he had caught imps before and this one didn’t look particularly tough. Then he noticed its stub of a tail where a long, snake-like appendage, useful for keeping an imp upright, should have been, evidence no doubt of a past encounter the imp was lucky to have survived. Tonight, the imp probably had lost its balance and fallen before Adam tripped over it.

The imp’s gaze was locked on Adam, its black eyes sparkling like diamonds.

Adam sighed. “Go on,” he said with a wave of his hand. “Get out of here and don’t trouble me again.”

“Thank you, boy,” the imp called out in a high, raspy voice that Adam strained to hear. It started to turn away, then looked back at Adam. “The heath at night is no place for a human. Take care!” And then, with the uncertain, jerky motion of a pull toy across an uneven floor, the imp limped off, slipped into a crack between two rocks, and was gone.

Adam stared at the spot where the creature had gone to ground. Imps could be great trouble, but he supposed they too had their place in the Almighty’s creation, although he’d be dashed if he knew what it was.

He ran on, past a copse of ancient oaks. One path led to another and, a few minutes later, he came to the village of Miropol. Adam crept without a sound past the market square and the modest timber-and-plank houses with their steeply gabled roofs, passing a cowshed here and a chicken coop there, praying that none of the animals would awaken and then awaken their owners. The last thing he needed was to be discovered seeking out his bride.

A glimpse, just a glimpse, was all he wanted. The village’s main road took him to a two-story house with covered porches on both floors. During the day it looked inviting enough; now, with the windows shuttered against the night and all that it held, the house looked cold and forbidding. Adam stared up at Rachel’s window. How could he get her attention—without getting the attention of anyone else? He hadn’t thought of that while running across the heath. Perhaps a light tap on the window…

He picked up a pebble the size of a pea and threw it upward. It hit the shutters with the tiniest ping and bounced into the night. He squinted; did the shutters part? No, just wishful thinking. He threw another stone, this one the size of a grape. It hit with a louder bang than Adam had anticipated. He flinched, then crouched behind some bushes. He could just imagine Rachel’s father responding to the noise with his musket. Better to give up, go home.

And then the shutters slowly opened.

Adam gazed up. His recklessness had been rewarded. Rachel leaned out slightly over the windowsill, her honey-colored hair framing the long, alert face that sat above her elegant neck like a jewel on a pedestal. By the light of her candle, Adam could see her eyes sparkle as she looked out into the night. She spied Adam and those eyes widened. Was it surprise—or disapproval? Adam felt a blush creeping up his neck and he stood awkwardly, staring up at her. She thought him foolish, maybe even improper, in having violated tradition by coming to her on this night. He had made a mistake. He shouldn’t have come.

He opened his mouth to call to her, as if uttering her name might make things right, but she put a finger to her lips warning him not to. Her lips now parted in a sweet smile and Adam wondered how he could have thought she’d disapprove. No, she didn’t think him foolish at all. Not a word passed between them but, in that mutual gaze, each saw the other’s promise of eternity.

Adam grinned, a smile so broad he almost lacked the teeth for it. He’d gotten what he’d come for.

He quickly retraced his steps to the heath. As soon as he had passed the last houses on the way out of the village, he began to whistle, a loud, clear clarion call to the heavens. He always whistled when he was happy or excited, and now he was both. He knew it was foolish beyond measure to draw attention to oneself at this time, in this place, but tonight he was invincible. He had seen his Rachel and tomorrow they would be wed. Adam scanned the vista carefully for any sign of lurking imps and ran all the way home.

Early the next morning, Adam and his father took their cart to the village, to the synagogue, for morning prayers. As they rode, Adam slipped his hand into his pocket. He fingered the small wooden flute he’d carved for Rachel. He would give it to her that afternoon, after the wedding ceremony, in the seclusion room, when they would spend their first moments alone together as man and wife. Maybe she would play a tune and he would whistle in accompaniment. Rachel seemed to enjoy his whistling; she always came to hear him when he was attracting a crowd to his father’s booth on market days.

He might even sing a song to her, something from Psalms:

Tremble and do not sin; commune with your own heart upon your bed and be still.

No, he shook his head, not quite right for a wedding day. Maybe:

Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea-monsters and all depths; fire and hail, snow and vapor, stormy wind…

No, he grimaced, definitely not right. Perhaps something from the Song of Songs. One of King Solomon’s verses floated through his head:

Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair.

Thine eyes are as doves behind thy veil.

He blushed so hard he could feel the heat rising through his face. He could never sing that to Rachel. All these years, he had never even flirted with her, and now he would start serenading her? Maybe Rachel would laugh at him. No, there wasn’t a cruel bone in her body. Still, he could imagine her stifling a laugh in an attempt to be kind. Agh, he could be such an oaf at times. Clumsy too. He squirmed on the rough wooden bench. It struck him how little he knew about women, and what he knew about his mother was hardly of use.

The wooden plank on which he sat slapped him as the cart lurched over a rut in the road. He looked at his father, who was concentrating on the path and murmuring now and again to the horse.

“Papa,” he began.

His father glanced at him. “Yes, Adam?” He turned back to the horse. “There is something on your mind?”

“Oh… nothing.” He pulled on the wisps of black hair that had recently made a home on his chin.

His father cast him a discerning look. “I too was nervous on the day I wed your mother,” his father said, his voice managing to be both gentle and gruff at the same time. “It’s the way of bridegrooms.”

Adam nodded and again fingered his incipient beard.

At the synagogue, Adam mumbled the familiar words of prayer unthinkingly along with the other worshippers, until absolute quiet settled suddenly on the men as they began the silent recital of the eighteen benedictions. Adam stared at the prayer book in his hands, the black words on the white page swimming before him. Why was he worrying about what he’d sing to Rachel? Singing was the least of his troubles. The seclusion room was where he would be alone, truly alone, with Rachel for the first time. They would touch. Would they kiss? Would they do more than that? He didn’t know. If not there, then certainly that night. He felt queasy. What if he hurt his bride? What if he inadvertently committed a sin? He groaned to himself.

After the service, as he wrapped and put away his phylacteries, the villagers smiled and offered their blessings. Adam nodded as though he heard them. On the ride home, his father again concentrated on the path and on the horse. Adam sat utterly quiet. When they reached the farmhouse, his mother had his father’s breakfast of bread and porridge waiting. For Adam, she had only an apologetic smile; he would fast today, this most holy of holy days for him, his personal Day of Atonement, when all his sins would be forgiven. Fasting was just as well to Adam; he had no stomach for food.

Later, when his mother called to him that it was time to get ready, he washed by the basin in his room, then donned his black satin caftan and broad-brimmed black hat. He entered the parlor and saw his father waiting for him, the older man’s attire identical to his own, except for the sable trim on his collar, sleeves, and brim. His mother came in from the kitchen in her emerald-green dress, her hem skipping against the floor. She poked a few exposed strands of hair under her green and white head scarf, then reached up to touch her son’s face. She stepped back, admired his transformation from boy to bridegroom, and beamed.

“What a man you are!”

Adam flushed. A man? More likely still a boy, a boy who knew nothing.

She patted the ivory brooch near her collar as though confirming its presence and then the three of them set off for the synagogue, travelling along the road that skirted the heath. It was longer than crossing the heath itself, but the only way possible in the cart. When they were halfway there, Adam felt his pockets, first routinely, then in dismay—the ring! He’d forgotten the plain, thin brass band which he had purchased for a ruble from the smith three days before. He searched his pockets again and all he came up with was the little flute.

He called to his father, who pulled sharply on the reins, bringing the cart to a sudden stop.

“What do you mean you forgot the ring?” his mother asked, alarm in her eyes.

“So we’ll go back for it,” said his father, beginning to coax the horse to turn around in the narrow road.

“No,” said his mother sharply. “If we return to the house, we’ll all be terribly late.” Her hand pulled nervously on her brooch. “Everyone will wonder what happened. I’ll go to the village; you two go back to the house.”

Adam looked from one parent to the other, his heart sinking. His mother couldn’t drive the cart alone and, if his father drove alone, his mother would never manage the walk in time. He drew in his breath, afraid to propose the only solution.

“Better that you two should take the cart and go to the village to explain,” he said. “I’ll run back to the house, get the ring, and take the shortcut over the heath.”

“You can’t be alone today. You’re a bridegroom. It’s bad luck,” his mother blurted, her thin face alive with her fear.

His father shook his head slowly. “I don’t like it either.” His mother started nodding, until he continued: “But I suppose it’s the only practical way.”

Yes, he would be careful and quick. Yes, he would be fine. Yes, they should leave him now, before any more time passed. Reluctantly, his parents set off in the cart toward Miropol. Adam, alone, ran back toward the house.

By all calculations, it should have taken Adam less than an hour to get the ring and arrive at the synagogue. But he didn’t appear after an hour, nor after an hour and a half, nor after two. Enough was enough for Rachel’s father. The delay was unprecedented: A groom who doesn’t appear at his own wedding! Some grew fearful, others increasingly vexed. Adam’s mother sat by herself and moaned, clutching the brooch at her throat as she saw the future slipping away. Several men were dispatched by wagon to find Adam and bring him to the synagogue. His father’s concern for his son mixed with a growing sense of embarrassment. This would not soon be forgotten by the community. How could his son do this to Rachel, to the village, to his parents?

By the time the villagers reached the house, it was empty—and vandalized, with heirlooms smashed, furniture overturned, holy books thrown from their shelves. The men looked among the debris for an unconscious or wounded Adam but didn’t find him. A search was organized immediately. It lasted for days but the people of Miropol might have saved their trouble. Adam was not to be found anywhere around the house, on the heath, in the woods, nor anywhere else in or around the village.

Days became weeks, became months, became years. They never saw him again.