Poland, 1906: on a cold spring night, in the small Jewish cemetery of Zokof, Friedl Alterman is wakened from death. On the ground above her crouches Itzik Leiber, a reclusive, unbelieving fourteen-year-old whose fatal mistake has spurred the town's angry residents to violence. The childless Friedl rises to guide him to safety -- only to find she cannot go back to her grave. Now Friedl is trapped in that thin world between life and death, her brash decision binding her forever to Itzik and his family: she is fated to be forever restless, and he, forever haunted by the ghosts of his past.
Years later, after Itzik himself has gone to his grave, his son, Nathan, knows nothing of his bitter father's childhood. When he begrudgingly goes to Poland on business, Nathan decides on a whim to visit his ancestral town. There, in Zokof, he meets the mysterious Rafael, the town's last remaining Jew, who promises to pass on all the things Itzik had failed to teach his son - about Zokof, about his faith, and about himself.
Rosenbaum's debut sets The Lovely Bones to strains of Fiddler on the Roof. In rural Zokof, Poland, in 1906, young Itzik Leiber protects three small Jewish boys from a beating, resulting in the accidental death of a menacing Polish peasant. Itzik hides in a Jewish cemetery where he unknowingly draws the soul of Friedl Alterman who died the previous year at 83. Friedl, childless in life, protects Itzik as he flees Zokof for Warsaw, then America. Fast forward 86 years as Itzik's son, Nathan Linden (name change), a scholar of international law, is a guest of the Polish government. He is drawn to his father's hometown (via a still-protective Friedl), and there he comes upon Rafael Bergson, "the last Jew in Zokof," who forces Nathan to confront his ambiguous feelings about religion and begs him to help restore Friedl's spirit through prayer and ritual. But it may be up to Ellen, Nathan's free-spirited choreographer daughter, to come to Poland to liberate Friedl's soul. Friedl's voice retreats after the early chapters, and Rosenbaum handles the shifts in voice, time and place smoothly. She packs a lot of Jewish history, recent and otherwise, into this luminous tale, as well as joy in the arts and in prayer.