A Curable Romantic by Joseph Skibell introduces us to Jakob Sammelsohn, a lovesick oculist in turn-of-the century Vienna who chases romance and his own moral compass through friendships with three historic figures: Sigmund Freud, the founder of modern psychoanalysis; L.L. Zamenhoff, the idealist founder of the Esperanto language movement; and Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, who led the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto in prayer and died with them in the camps. But it is Sammelsohn’s ongoing relationship with Ita, the disabled wife he was compelled to marry but left behind in the shtetl, that propels his journey and thrusts him into a world he thought he’d also abandoned: that of Jewish mysticism, with its conspiring angels and dybukks, those haunting and haunted souls of the dead that sometimes possess the living.
The first-person narrative is remarkably performed by Jeff Woodman, who finds detailed nuances of inflection and pacing to bring each of the novel’s vast range of characters man or woman; sophisticate or rube; human or supernatural to life. His imperious Dr. Freud, befuddled Dr. Zamenhoff, haughtily passionate Frau Bernfeld, and Ita, in her many shocking incarnations, are just a few of his convincing portrayals. Most of all, Woodman captures Sammelsohn’s painful and humorous propensity to over-think and vacillate, a la Woody Allen, especially about women (thus explaining why it takes him until his third marriage to lose his innocence).
As Sammelsohn’s journey takes him through several sub-cultures of Jewish life in Europe from before the first World War until the apex of the second he finds he is searching for a larger love, perhaps one of his own people. Skibell’s bright, soulful, imaginative storytelling is complemented by Woodman’s skills, and together they make listening to A Curable Romantic truly enriching. Elly Schull Meeks