One Night with Lilith,” Martin Golan’s second novel (Adelaide Books, 2019), explores relationships, longing, and the search for religious fulfillment in an age of disbelief. The characters have a deeply Jewish sensibility in a secular suburban manner, and generations of men grapple with the mystical figure of Lilith, who in midrashic lore is cast as a demon and temptress.
The main character is Rob Lerner, a wealthy business owner who lives with his wife, Amy, in an historic Montclair home with a large wraparound porch. Rob is on a quest for religion, seeking a portal to his own Judaism, studying with chasidic rabbis, and reading voraciously, particularly about the character of Lilith. His father Sol is a Holocaust survivor whose experiences are shared with the reader, but who chooses not to share them with his son. “Feh, who needs to know” is the refrain Rob recalls from both his parents. Secrets are part of the fabric of this novel.
Golan will hold several readings at local synagogues and bookstores, beginning Feb. 23 at Bnai Keshet in Montclair, where he is a member, featuring a conversation with the congregation’s own Rabbi Ariann Weitzman.
The author doesn’t try to suppress his genuine excitement about discussing the book with people who are interested, since he spent a decade writing it. He describes the contrast of “all that time sitting alone in a room, you know, without any certainty that anybody will ever read a word of it.” So even if the book keeps people up at night, it means it’s had an impact and he’s delighted. “It’s one of the odd things about being a writer. It’s like, people can say to you something like, ‘I read your book and I haven’t slept,’ and I’m just, ‘Oh, thank you!’ Or they say, ‘I’m miserable. I can’t talk to people. I just cry all the time.’ ‘Oh, thank you!’”
While he doesn’t necessarily want people to argue with their spouses all the time, as Rob and Amy often do, he said, “I want the reader to go on that journey with me, to really care about the characters, at Sol’s death to be deeply moved, and to laugh at some parts of it — to recognize themselves and their friends.”
At its core, Golan’s book captures how relationships work and how they misfire, all at once. For example, Rob loves Amy, but sometimes it’s for things she does not love about herself, like her laugh. “She tried not to laugh, but did,” the book reads. “She hated that laugh; it was her mother’s giggle. It would come out unbidden when she was nervous, like now, trying to be flirty and cool and joke about sex. She’d clam up and emit that obnoxious Shirley Geller laugh.
“Rob, hearing the laugh, had another urge to kiss her. It went right through him, the way she spontaneously giggled, girlish and unguarded. Her laugh was one of his favorite things about her.”
Often, accompanying the deft dialogue is an inner monologue offered in italics, a revealing subtext.
So for example, as Amy and Rob are dating and starting to fall in love, Golan writes, “She had to have the warmth of Rob’s bed that night, and he took her in, and she fell in love with the gentleness of his puppy dog eyes.
“Keep remembering. Let Rob finish. Don’t let him see how weird you are.”
In a recent Sunday afternoon conversation with NJJN at the dining room table of his Verona home, Golan acknowledged his fascination with relationships. In a speedy patter that reflects his Queens upbringing, he said, “It’s like the most interesting complicated thing in the world — forget wars and revolutions and everything else — but just what happens between a man and a woman … that whole intimacy thing, how you manage it.”
In “One Night with Lilith,” intimacy is overlaid with the myth of Lilith — the way men see women. Lilith, Adam’s first wife, has been described in the Zohar, in Isaiah, and in other texts as the foil to the feminine side of God, the wife of Satan, even a she-demon who dared to speak God’s secret name out loud.
But in this novel, Golan demystifies her. He blows up the traditional understanding of Lilith as anything more than just a woman who’s tired, having been wronged.
Initially, in the novel, “Rob Lerner saw Lilith as the other side of all women, the dark side that men can never fathom yet desperately desire … Rob imagined this as a wild, chaotic fling with a woman who wanted only to please you, a fantasy woman made real.”
When they first meet, he sees Amy as Lilith. In everything she does, he reflects on her transformation into the mythical being.
But over time, he realizes she is just a woman.
It’s something Amy already knows. She has grown used to the way men look at her. She understands her power to attract the male gaze, even seeks it, but she really would just like to find a place to rest. At one point, trying to extract herself from the mystical aura Rob has imbued her with, she tells him, “I’m not Lilith … I’m just [ITAL]me[ITAL].”
For Golan, Lilith represents the male gaze. “You know, we men, we love everything about [a woman] — how she dresses in front of the mirror, her earrings, this and that,” he said.
But he pointed out that it doesn’t work in reverse. “Women don’t really find us all that interesting, [although] they love us, they live with us, and have our babies,” he said. “I think men find women much more fascinating than women find men.”
Golan listens carefully when he talks with people, catching a turn of phrase, asking a follow-up question. Maybe that’s because he worked as a journalist, retiring from Reuters after 27 years in 2013. But creative writing has always come naturally to him, he said. Even in the simplest situations, his mind always conjures some alternate fictional reality. He described how once, getting into his car with his wife, he noticed an antique car from the 1920s parked nearby. He described thinking, “What if I went like this,” pressing the key fob, “and the other doors opened, you know? And I said, ‘Let’s get in the car,’ and we got in the car, and we look down, and we’re wearing clothing from the 1920s, and we start driving, and the cops pull us over and there’s bootleg whiskey in the back…” And by then, he laughed, he might have missed his exit.
His imagination is always on. By contrast, he said that journalism, hewing exactly to the truth, was more difficult for him, though it paid the bills.
Golan, who’s attached to Judaism although he doesn’t believe in God, acknowledged that the character of Rob Lerner is partially autobiographical, particularly in the search to understand spirituality. But unlike the seeker Rob, Golan found a home at Bnai Keshet Reconstructionist Synagogue, where he has been a member for over 25 years and served in a leadership capacity; he also takes comfort in Jewish rituals like having Shabbat dinner at home with family. While he attends services, he acknowledged, he can’t really figure out the prayer piece for himself, though he is constantly moved by that ability in others.
Like Rob, he raised a family in a beautiful old Montclair home with a wraparound porch, though he and his wife downsized about 10 years ago to their current home in Verona. Their Montclair house, however, never burned to the ground, as Rob’s and Amy’s does in the novel’s opening. (Fire, and worlds disappearing, are also recurring themes in the novel.) Happily, Golan describes his own marriage to his wife Marian as one that is, if not perfect, far better than the tumultuous marriage that Rob and Amy have.
He thinks seriously about the act of creating a novel and describes the power to invent worlds and people with the scratch of a pen. It helps him understand the power of God creating the world with words. “God says, ‘Let there be light,’” said Golan. “He doesn’t clap his hands. He doesn’t say any magical incantation. He just says, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”
And Golan seems awestruck considering that his books are born the same way. “I just dream up all these words … a whole world happens in your mind.”
If you go:
Martin Golan has the following confirmed speaking engagements:
Feb. 23, 5 p.m.: Bnai Keshet Reconstructionist Synagogue, Montclair
March 22, 5 p.m.: Watchung Booksellers, Montclair
April 4, 10:30 a.m.: Congregation Shomrei Emunah, Montclair
April 5, 4 p.m.: [words] Bookstore, Maplewood