To immerse yourself “In The Courtyard of the Kabbalist,” the latest novel by Ruchama King Feuerman of Passaic, is to be drawn into a richly woven tale of self discovery, romance, and culture clash against the backdrop of Jerusalem.
It was also created in part using an understanding of character gained in her own hometown.
In Feuerman’s novel, her second, that Old City courtyard is a gathering spot for the lost souls and misfits who linger there, outside the home of a Jerusalem mystic, yearning to receive his guidance and blessings.
The elegantly written novel spins the tale of three enchanting characters, whose search for meaning and love is bound to resonate with readers.
There is Isaac, a luckless middle-aged man from New York’s Lower East Side, whose life has been a series of losses. After his mother’s death, he sells his haberdashery store and comes to Jerusalem, where he is appointed assistant to the elderly kabbalist. Although he yearns to find both his soulmate and his place in the world, he is haunted by his past.
He befriends Mustafa, an Arab who suffers from a tragic deformity and works as a custodian on the Temple Mount. The humble man is an outcast who feels rejected by everyone, including his own mother, until he meets Isaac. Mustafa finds acceptance and respect with Isaac, who likens Mustafa’s work on the Temple Mount to that of a kohen – a priest.
Their lives intersect with that of Tamar, an attractive young American redhead who spins around town on a motorcycle, searching for a more spiritual life – and a husband. She arrives at the courtyard to seek help finding her destiny. Unlikely friendships are formed, and a voyage of self discovery begins. Unexpected romance blossoms.
|Ruchama Feuerman drew on characters she knows in her hometown of Passaic.|
Feuerman, an Orthodox mother of four who also conducts writing workshops, tells the story of spiritual people with honesty and without self consciousness. “I’m not aiming for a Hallmark Card,” she quips, adding that a novel’s characters must sound believable. “Working with holy characters in particular is such a challenge because often they often sound sentimental and uninteresting,” she said. In some ways, she said, it’s easier to portray a murderer than a genuinely holy person.
She was drawn to write this story, she said, because of her own experience in a kabbalist’s courtyard, about 20 years ago.
“I felt a compulsion to capture this unusual place, an egalitarian place, because you get people from all walks of Israeli society – soap opera actresses, Arab lawyers, soccer players, and Knesset members – and it was very open to everyone.”
Although she waited in the courtyard for several days to meet with the kabbalist, much to her chagrin she ended up spending most of the time with his middle-aged assistant. She became fascinated by the notion of being a kabbalist’s assistant. She wondered what sort of life circumstances would bring someone to this calling. “Did he have ambitions to be more than just a helper? Was it possible to train to become one? And how did he decide who gained entry and who got put off for another day?”
She sat down to compose this story, she said, in order to re-experience the courtyard and the seekers she met there.
Feuerman also was curious about what might be the result of a collision when people from different segments of Israeli society meet: a physically handicapped Arab janitor, say, and a kabbalist’s assistant with emotional defects. “Might something new happen here? Or did the repetitions of an ancient conflict preordain every interaction between Jew and Arab?” she mused. She wrote this story, she said, because she had to find the answer for herself.
She admits that she initially was reluctant to depict an Arab character. His life was so different from her own – she is a religious Jew, born in the South and living a middle-class life in New Jersey. But she didn’t have to go far to gain insight into her Arab character.
Passaic has a large Arab and Muslim cohort. Feuerman has many regular encounters with Arabs and Muslims, including her doctor, her family’s barber, and neighborhood acquaintances. And her own mother comes from an Arab country. In fact, the Mustafa of her novel bears a striking resemblance to an uncle of hers, a Moroccan who had a clubfoot and whose family therefore considered him a pariah.
Born in Nashville, Feuerman grew up in Virginia and Maryland as a shy, quirky girl. She discovered her calling when she was young; she wrote a spoof of her classmates and teachers. After observing their outraged reactions to her vivid descriptions, she appreciated the might of the pen. “I realized then that writing is power,” she said.
When she was 17, she bought a one-way ticket to Israel in an effort to nurture her spiritual side. She remained there for a decade, studying and teaching Torah. Her first novel, “Seven Blessings,” earned her praise by the New York Times and the Dallas Morning News. One critic even dubbed her the “Jewish Jane Austen.”
“In the Courtyard of the Kabbalists” was written with the help of grants from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. “In The Courtyard of the Kabbbalist” will be published this month by NYRB Lit. a new ebook series from the New York Review of Books.