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BLOG: Writers of the Lost Arc

"The Accidental Holy Man" review of "In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist" in Wall Street Journal

(I'd give the link but you need to be a WSJ subscriber).
Book Review: 'In the Courtyard of the Kabblist' by Ruchama King Feuerman
A Lower East Side clothier decamps for Israel and ends up dispensing kabbalistic advice to eager supplicants.

Dec. 13, 2013 3:11 p.m. ET
'A month after his mother died, Isaac Markowitz, forty, plagued with eczema and living on the Lower East Side, sold his haberdashery at a decent profit and took an El Al flight to Israel." So begins Israeli writer Ruchama King Feuerman's second novel, "In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist." In the Holy Land, Isaac finds work as an assistant to a kabbalist rabbi, who (to oversimplify) uses esoteric and unconventional Talmudic readings to deal with a variety of human problems.

Ms. Feuerman vividly catalogs the supplicants who crowd the holy man's courtyard in Jerusalem: "homemakers, unemployed Israelis, yeshiva students, a concert pianist who hiccupped excessively and couldn't play anymore." To each of these the rabbi is able to convey exactly the appropriate spiritual remedy. When he dies, the people keep coming for counsel, and Isaac, who isn't even a rabbi yet, has to somehow take his place. What sort of wisdom can he impart to a portly rabbi who confesses to hitting his children, or to a Hasidic teenager with severe acne? He has no clue, but somehow he cobbles together some satisfactory bit of insight for each. His greatest challenge, however, comes from an Arab boy.

Mustafa is a janitor on Jerusalem's Temple Mount—the site of the Western Wall of the Second Temple and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Horribly deformed, the boy is shunned by his own community. ("Don't stand out in any way or bring attention on yourself," a relative had once told Mustafa. "It would be like drawing attention to a mistake of Allah.")

In return for a small act of kindness from Isaac, Mustafa presents him with an ancient pomegranate engraved with Hebrew lettering. Mustafa has found the pomegranate while helping with renovations that the Arab authorities have undertaken near the dome; the Arabs had intended the pomegranate and other Jewish relics for the landfill.

The gift only brings trouble. Isaac is outraged that the Arabs are trashing the artifacts they find. The Israeli security forces in turn suspect Isaac of fomenting trouble among the "crazy mountain faithful" and "black hatters," as one officer calls Hasids and Orthodox Jews.

All this takes place in the late 1990s, as the Oslo Accords are beginning to unravel. The Israeli authorities, worried that Isaac's fervor for rescuing the artifacts might spark a security incident, detain him in jail. Mustafa, meanwhile, is finding more artifacts and devising ways to smuggle them off the Temple Mount and bring them to Isaac.

"In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist" is a deeply conservative work—in the broadest sense of the word. Its overarching theme is the value of work, even or especially lowly forms of work. Isaac has done well, financially, selling clothes, but he is unhappy until he finds work serving ordinary people in quiet and unremunerative ways. Mustafa's disdainful attitude toward his own work completely changes when he finds that his janitorial duties are in some ways akin to those of the Jewish kohen, or priest—a keeper of the temple. When his fellow janitor Hamdi remarks, "My brothers laugh at me and say it's donkey work," Mustafa responds nobly: "Well, it would stink here without us."

NYRB Lit, the e-book's publisher, deserves praise for bringing out "In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist." Ms. Feuerman's novel hasn't even been published in the writer's home country. I don't know anything about the Israeli book market, but it says nothing good about the American one that this book has not garnered more attention.

It's a sophisticated and engaging book. Moreover, it treats an endlessly tangled topic—relations between Palestinian Arabs and Jews—with intelligence and originality. The narration seamlessly moves between Isaac and Mustafa, and the author brings the work's interwoven stories to a brilliant climactic end.

The novel lacks two important elements, however: cynicism and irony. Isaac's love is real love, Mustafa's self-realization is never undercut by "capitalism" or religious hypocrisy, and in this novel death isn't some pointless consequence of racism or war but a heroic expression of friendship. If there's any cynicism here, it's the cynicism one feels toward a publishing industry that has failed to recognize a manifestly terrific novel.
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