As a student at Rutgers, Saul Golubcow wrote for a literary magazine. An English professor saw something in the young man’s work and urged him to pursue the life of a professional writer. But first, the professor told him, find work as a bartender. That’s the best way to learn about people.
Golubcow didn’t feel he was ready for that, however. Instead he focused his life on his marriage to Professor Hedy Teglasi, their children, Jeremy and Jordan, the mortgage and his work as a project director for a health insurance company.
But two or three years ago, Golubcow pulled out some notes he had taken in graduate school. They were from a series of stories about Holocaust survivors, and his perspective on those stories. He wanted to take a fresh look at those old notes.
“And I decided I was ready, after all these years, to write fiction,” said Golubcow. “That I had grown up, after decades, to be able to create lives. That’s what fiction is.”
Last month Golubcow, 75, published his first book, “The Cost of Living and Other Mysteries,” which takes as its main character Frank Wolf, a Holocaust survivor and Orthodox Jew who becomes a New York private eye.
The book is a collection of three sequential novellas set in the 1970s, Golubcow said. One novella centers on the murder of a kosher butcher in Brooklyn. Another focuses on the disappearance of an 8-year-old Chasidic boy from Williamsburg.
“The cases that he solves really can only be solved by somebody that has his background,” said Golubcow, who lives in Potomac and is active at Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County. “They all involve the Orthodox Jewish community of New York at that time. And without [both his] ability to sleuth and analyze, it’s also his Jewish soul that allows him to see what others cannot see to solve the cases.”
Golubcow said a major inspiration for “The Cost of Living” was his father-in-law, Kalman Teglasi. Originally from Debrecen, Hungary, Teglasi was a Holocaust survivor who lost his family. Golubcow called Teglasi a man who was learned in the arts, the sciences, in literature, and who had studied to go into the rabbinate.
“If I take my father-in-law, and what he might have become,” Golubcow recalled thinking, “I just imagined how he might bring his skills, his thought processes, to the detective profession.”
Over the years, Golubcow has poured forth non-fiction pieces on such subjects as Jewish culture in America and the relationship of American Jews to Israel. His op- eds and Torah commentaries appear frequently in these pages.
But when he turned again to fiction, he started with a short story called “Table Talk.” It centered on Jewish life on a poultry farm in southern New Jersey and was published on a Jewish fiction website. Next, he wrote a short story featuring Frank Wolf. It was published in Mystery Magazine and was positively received, he said. He soon “fell in love” with writing about the aging, devout survivor, turning that first short story into a novella and then writing two more.
Asked why he chose to write detective stories as opposed to another genre, say romance, science fiction or horror, Golubcow laughed and said, “Horror was always out.”
There is more than a hint of autobiography in Golubcow’s fiction. He was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany after World War II, the child of Holocaust survivors. The family came to the United States when Saul was 2. In southern New Jersey, his parents became poultry farmers.
Golubcow later received an undergraduate degree in history from Rutgers University, then a doctorate in English literature from Stony Brook University.
He hints that “The Cost of Living” may be more than a hardboiled story about isolated crimes.
“In a way it’s my attempt to make a microcosm out of what may even have occurred on a much larger scale in the Holocaust,” Golubcow said. “How do things get out of hand for someone to die? The same, how do things get out of hand that a whole culture rises up against another culture?”