a novel by Robert Mayer

It was a time of love, of struggle, of hope, of worship, of the birth of dynasties and the crushing affliction of hatred...

In the 1770s, the Jews of Frankfurt are trapped, both physically by the walls of the ghetto within which they must dwell, and in a larger sense by the rules of a society in which they are outcasts, legally debased and barely suffered to live.

And yet within those confines they find life, in all its glories and tragedies. This is the story of young Guttle, whose sweet face and curves could win her any man in her little world, but whose keen mind demands the best. It is the tale of Meyer Rothschild, who knows all the ways of the business world but discovers the ways of the heart. It is a tale of love and lust, of murder and betrayal, of holy works and unholy schemes, of bakers and brigands, of hope and of ruin. This is a novel, both amusing and sad, that will grace your bookshelf for generations – a book you will want your children to read and discuss as they reach maturity.

Pocahontas GertlerRobert Mayer has written for Vanity Fair, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek, GQ, and more. His first novel, Superfolks, changed superhero fiction forever. Best-selling author John Grisham called his The Dreams of Ada “a fascinating book, a wonderful reminder of how good true-crime writing can be.”

Mayer lives in New Mexico with his tapestry-weaving wife, La Donna, and their people-loving pit bull.

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Associated Press coverage of The Origin of Sorrow.

Interview with the author on SpiritTalk Live, 11/16/2011

"Mayer [...] succeeds while dealing with the question of Jewish identity and survival that is as relevant today as it was in 18th-century Frankfurt." --Hadassah

"Brilliantly writtten ... Mayer has a gift for writing dialogue. Lest readers think life in the Judengasse was unrelentingly grim, the author provides hilarious accounts of arguments between neighbors, all of whom know each other so well they have no need of actual conversations but can handle both sides of the topic, single-handedly, quarrel and make peace, all without exchanging a word..." --The New Mexico Jewish Link

“A masterpiece of story-telling, rich characters, moving scenes, delicious history. I loved reading it the second time, too." -- New York Times contributor Robert Lipsyte.

“The best book I have ever read.” -- Peggy Frank, Book Mountain

"Think Bellow or I.B. Singer."-- Santa Fean

"A very, very beautiful and wonderful read." -- Rabbi Wayne Dosick, SpiritTalk Live

"Love story, murder mystery, historical fiction, The Origin of Sorrow is a riveting tale that makes clear both the price of ambition and the priceless nature of character."
--Lisa Sandlin, author, Message to the Nurse of Dreams

"In his monumental study of Frankfurt’s Jewish ghetto in the 18th-century, including how a resident named Rothschild became patriarch of the world's richest family, Robert Mayer has achieved nothing less than a tour de force. Although The Origin of Sorrow is billed as a novel, it contains more scholarship and research than most history books. At the same time, it bursts with the juice of life, and has a vibrant 'you are there' immediacy."
-- Mort Sheinman, former managing editor, Women's Wear Daily

"Santa Fe author Robert Mayer’s latest book is a damned good read—one of those novels it’s hard to put down from the first, heart-stopping moment. If you’ve never heard of the Rothschilds, the amazing family of financiers that sprang from the oppression of Frankfurt, Germany’s Judengasse (Jews Lane) in the late 18th century, it doesn’t matter. This is still a fascinating novel. If you have heard of them, Mayer’s imagining of the family’s first 15 years is even more intriguing."
--Kate McGraw, Albuquerque Journal

The Origin of The Origin of Sorrow

by Robert Mayer

A few years ago, I received in the mail one of those heart- warming invitations tendered to lapsed members of the Book-of- the-Month Club. “We Want You Back,” it gushed, “Four Books, Four Bucks!” Always a sucker for affection, I bit.

One of the books I selected was the first half of a two-volume biography called “The House of Rothschild,” by the British writer Niall Ferguson.

Unexpectedly, this bargain purchase led to the creation of my 10th novel, a 578-page historical work. “One Book, $19.99.” Not a bad price for its two-pound weight, I aver, because New York Times contributor Robert Lipsyte has called the novel “a master- piece,” and Santa Fe bookstore owner Peggy Frank says the book, which is called The Origin of Sorrow, is “the best book I have ever read.”

Before I read about the Rothschilds, my understanding of that fabled dynasty could fit on two sides of a Roosevelt dime: “Wealth” and “Wine.” Although I did know it was the richest family in the history of the world–richer even than Bill Gates. What I did not know is that this immense for- tune took root in one of the most crowded, noisy, smelly Jewish ghettos in history, the almost for- gotten Judengasse—Jews’ Lane—in Frankfurt-am-Main, which is now part of Germany, but back then was an independent city in the Holy Roman Empire.

The Judengasse was a narrow, muddy waterfront street half a mile long, near the River Main, closed in by stone walls 30 feet high. All the Jews in Frankfurt were required to live there. Women were allowed to leave for about an hour each day, to buy produce at the nearby market—but only in the afternoons, so the Christian ladies could get first choice. Men could leave the ghetto if they had business in the city, but had to be home by five o’clock, when the gates were locked. No one could leave on Sunday. Among other perversities, Jewish men could not marry until they were 25; the purpose of this was to cut down on the number of Jewish babies. A sign carved in stone above a major entrance to the city depicted rabbis in obscene poses with a pig. The sign was not the product of some vile minority, but was posted and maintained by the city of Frankfurt itself.

Created in 1460, when about 100 Jews were locked inside, the Judengasse had grown by the mid-1770s to more than 3,000 people. The single lane was 12 feet across. Three-story wooden homes, some only eight feet wide, stood or leaned side by side like a denture of ill-fitting teeth. A second row of houses had through the years been squeezed between the front row and the stone walls.

Not a blade of grass was visible anywhere. With hawkers shouting their wares and children scampering underfoot, the Judengasse, in those days before plumbing, was a noisy, stinking place, which, I imagined, must have survived on large doses of patience and humor. What a setting for a novel, I thought. Necessary characters began pouring out of my subconscious like dream merchants on parade—a chief rabbi, Hebrew school teachers, a cantor, a coffin maker, a kosher butcher, a baker or three, seamstresses, sly old men to comment on it all like a funny Greek chorus. While armed police stood guard outside the gates.

The idea for the novel coalesced when, a few pages later, I read that Meyer Rothschild, the patriarch of the Rothschild clan, had grown up in this Judengasse; had married at 25 a neighboring girl named Guttle Schnapper, whose father Wolf had the honored title, back then, of Court Jew; that the Rothschilds had either 17 or 19 children, ten of whom survived to adulthood; and that Meyer, who started in business as a seller of antique coins, invented many practices now common in the banking business, and one by one sent his five boys to England, France, Italy and Austria to create wealth as fast as bees create honey.

The book, and others I soon read, contained plenty of information about Meyer, taken from countless surviving ledgers, business records and contemporary recollections; he was a famous man before he died in 1812, at 69. More intriguing to me was his wife.

Guttle rated only a few lines in any of the books. She was 16 when she and Meyer wed. She was pretty, and witty. She must have been smart as well; the five boys could not have acquired their brilliance from only half their gene pools.

Little-known Guttle Rothschild soon vied with the Judengasse to become the novel’s central character. One reason was that she lived until 1849, when she was an astonishing 96, and in all those years, long after the ghetto had been dissolved, when her sons could have built her palaces of gold anywhere in the world, she chose to reside in the same narrow wooden house, now hemmed in by warehouses, in which she and Meyer had lived their lives.

Why did Madame Rothschild, as she was widely known by then, do this? It would be a “sin” to move, she told reporters. The historical record is silent beyond that. But what would make it a sin, I wondered. What was the real reason she stayed? There was only one way to discover the answer. I would have to write the book.


The Origin of Sorrow is published under the Combustoica imprint of About Comics, a publisher which has brought out work by such best-selling authors as Charles M. Schulz and Neil Gaiman. After over a decade of working within the comics specialty field, we decided to expand our vision, and bring out quality prose works, both new material and reviving great out-of-print works. Thus, Combustoica was born.

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