An NPR Best Book of the Year
A mesmerizing, inventive story of three souls in 1930s Philadelphia seizing new life while haunted by the old.
I do not believe that all the world is darkness.
In the swirl of Philadelphia at the end of Prohibition, Leyb meets Charles. They are at a former speakeasy called Cricket’s, a bar that welcomes, as Charles says in his secondhand Yiddish, feygeles. Leyb is startled; fourteen years in amerike has taught him that his native tongue is not known beyond his people. And yet here is suave Charles—fingers stained with ink, an easy manner with the barkeep—a Black man from the Seventh Ward, a fellow traveler of Red Emma’s, speaking Jewish to a young man he will come to call Lion.
Lion is haunted by memories of life before, in Zatelsk, where everyone in his village, everyone except the ten non-Jews, a young poet named Gittl, and Leyb himself, was taken to the forest and killed.
Then, miraculously, Gittl is in Philadelphia, too, thanks to a poem she wrote and the intervention of a shadowy character known only as the Baroness of Philadelphia. And surrounding Gittl are malokhim, the spirits of her siblings.
Flowing and churning and seething with a glorious surge of language, carried along by questions of survival and hope and the possibility of a better world, Moriel Rothman-Zecher’s Before All the World lays bare the impossibility of escaping trauma, the necessity of believing in a better way ahead, and the power that comes from our responsibility to the future. It asks, in the voices of its angels, the most essential question: What do you intend to do before all the world?
About the Author
Moriel Rothman-Zecher is a Jerusalem-born novelist and poet. His first novel, Sadness Is a White Bird, was a finalist for a Dayton Literary Peace Prize and a National Jewish Book Award, won an Ohioana Book Award, and was long-listed for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. His poetry and essays have been published in Barrelhouse, Colorado Review, The Common, The New York Times, The Paris Review Daily, and ZYZZYVA, and he is the recipient of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 honor, two MacDowell Fellowships, and Yiddishkayt’s Wallis Annenberg Helix Fellowship.
“In startling language filled with the flavor of Yiddish’s combination words, [Before All the World] moves forward and back and forward again in a dreamlike trance that acknowledges how the worst suffering exists side by side with the tender beauty of memory, friendship, words and the silences of recognition.”
—Ilana Masad, NPR
“Before All the World is poetry as it should be: deliberate while feeling casual, a game with words that is at once playful and deadly serious (sometimes by turns, sometimes truly simultaneously) . . . It swallowed me up, and then all at once, a word or a phrase would reach me like a bolt of lightning, charring and electrifying me all through”
—Jo Niederhoff, Seattle Book Review
“Resembles something by Joyce or Samuel Beckett . . . A highly original and powerful tale told in defiance of the world’s darkness.”
—Stephanie Cross, The Daily Mail
“Boldly imagined . . . Before All the World may be set in the 1930s, but it feels as though it is outside of time . . . Rothman-Zecher has uncovered something extraordinary: trauma itself is a kind of translation. It’s a recreation of events that becomes more removed as time goes on, and language is our only guide.”
—Mara Sandroff, Newcity Lit
“This voice is so distinctive—and so winning—that, after I finished the novel, it seemed a bit like the voice of an old friend: one that I missed, one that could make me happy as soon as I heard it again.”
—Alec Gewirtz, The Nearness
“Moriel Rothman-Zecher reads like a queer Jewish James Joyce . . . Before All the World tells a gorgeous and important story about loss and diaspora and queerness and love.”
—Rena J. Mosteirin, Enthusiasms
“Rothman-Zecher has given us a history lesson disguised as a set of love stories. . . . Hope somehow emerges from trauma. Love is possible and in a variety of forms.”
—Anna Beresin, Evolve
“Before All the World leaves you breathless . . . [Rothman-Zecher] has found a way to teach us how to find out what is most important about ourselves by losing himself in this novel of ingenious daring imagination and allowing us to accompany him on his ride. It is a masterful accomplishment that remains with the reader long after finishing this brilliant work.”
—Elaine Margolin, Women in Judaism
“Packed a powerful punch . . . One of the most impressive books I’ve read recently . . . Before All the World took me on a wild, but ultimately wonderful ride.”
—Rachel Esserman, The Reporter
“[Before All the World] offers readers characters who defy the binaries of western colonialism, characters who defy the borders of established language, who are both mourning and joyful, who are willing to question what they have to offer, what they will do as they live their lives before all the world.”
—Jessica Thomas, The Yellow Springs News
“An emotionally evocative exploration of the impossibility of escaping trauma, yet finding hope nevertheless when all seems destroyed.”
—Hannah Srour-Zackon, The Canadian Jewish News
“Dazzling . . . Every sense is engaged by the novel’s precise, inventive language . . . [Readers] may see, hear, and smell the sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hopeful world portrayed.”
“At its core, Before All the World considers one essential question: what does it mean to remember the past while still imagining the future? . . . Its most striking accomplishment is its invitation to the reader to become a part of the novel’s chorus. What will you do, it asks, now that you’ve read this story?”
—Adina Applebaum, Jewish Book Council
“Original, daring, experimental, moving, poignant, engaging . . . With shades of Tony Kushner and Cynthia Ozick . . . Before All the World understands how our worlds are made by words, and in the altering of the latter we may as yet redeem the former.”
—Ed Simon, The Millions, “Most Anticipated Books of 2022”
“Rich and engrossing . . . A powerful story, brilliantly told.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“A one-of-a-kind creation.”
“Before All the World is beautiful and original. It is also strange, arresting, high-risk. Very quickly this novel starts to work on the mind, making itself felt in complex and powerful and visionary ways, led by the rhythm in the language and the urge to make that language new.”
—Colm Tóibín, author of The Magician
“Evocative, inventive, vivid, and strange, Before All the World is a mesmeric, enrapturing read.”
—Eimear McBride, author of Strange Hotel
“Before All the World startles and swirls, and makes fresh the experience of language itself. It has it all: a gripping story, an original structure, and a tender, ghostly glow.”
—Justin Torres, author of We the Animals
“Before All the World is a song about survival and a refusal to be erased. Daringly crafted and poetically told, this novel is a celebration of Moriel Rothman-Zecher’s extraordinary talent, compassion, and love for humanity. To read Before All the World is to abandon all of our expectations and privileges so that the torch of curiosity and the beauty of words can lead us to unexpected places, where we can see ourselves in those whom we might have considered the Other.”
—Nguyen Phan Que Mai, author of The Mountains Sing
“A ride as breathtaking as it is gratifying, Moriel Rothman-Zecher’s Before All the World deftly explores the relationship between three broken people: two pogrom refugees persecuted in their homeland by virtue of religion who cross an ocean to cross paths with a man persecuted in his own homeland by virtue of race. With tragicomic adroitness, Rothman Zecher’s meticulous prose is full of delicious humor and irony, a glorious Yidenglish tapestry confirming that the world is indeed not all darkness.”
—Kia Corthron, author of Moon and the Mars
“Before All The World is astonishing, spellbinding and poetic. It is a groundbreaking and awe-inspiring song of resilience, memory, identity and love. I can’t recall the last time I was so mesmerized by a work. The way the reader is carried by its characters, transported by its language, enveloped by its many worlds is stunningly beautiful. Simply, it’s a masterpiece—one of those rare books that upon reaching its last words you immediately need to start reading again!”
—Ariana Neumann, author of When Time Stopped
“One of the most stylistically bold punches in the guts I've read.”
—Bram Presser, author of The Book of Dirt, on Twitter