The reincarnation of Ruby Namdar

The reincarnation of Ruby Namdar

Or the making of a Hebrew-language American Jewish novelist

Ruby Namdar
Ruby Namdar

American Jews and Israeli Jews, it might be said, are one people divided by an uncommon language — Hebrew.

In New Jersey, we read David Grossman and Amos Oz translated into English, and in Nahariya, if the latest Steimatzky’s bestseller list is to be believed, they read Hebrew translations of Alice Munro and John Le Carré.

And yet, there are those who bridge those gaps.

The novelist Ruby Namdar is one such bridge.

Born in Jerusalem to Persian parents in 1964, Reuben Namdar came to New York in 2000, and in 2013 he published what is considered to be the first great Hebrew-language American Jewish novel, “The Ruined House.” The book, the story of a year in the life of an American Jewish university professor living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, won Israel’s Sapir Prize for Hebrew-language literature — and prompted the awards committee to restrict future nominees to writers living in Israel. The English translation of the book came out last year.

Mr. Namdar will sell and sign his book — both the English and Hebrew editions — in Closter next week, where he will also introduce the recent Israeli film “Maktub” as part of the IAC Cinametec film series (see box, and related articles).

How did Mr. Namdar come to be a bridge between American Jews and Israelis?

One answer starts with his journey to New York.

“I arrived in New York 18 years ago, for the best set of circumstances possible — an intense love story rekindled after years,” he said. “We met in Israel many years ago. She was from New York and had finished college and studied in Israel for a year. We were together. She had to go home. There was a whole story. Years later, we decided to give it another chance and I came to New York to visit this woman I loved.”

It is a romantic story with a happy ending. Carolyn and Ruby got married, and now they have two daughters.

“It was a double love story,” he said. “I also fell in love with the city. This was the winter of 2000. I was walking the streets of Manhattan, taking it all in. The vastness of it. The duration of it. The whole mess of the city.”

You can hear the love in his book. From the beginning of Chapter 2: “O Manhattan, isle of the gods, home to great happenings of metal, glass, and energy, island of sharp angles, summit of the world!”

And here comes the other answer to the question of what makes him a bridge. Growing up in Jerusalem, the child of Iranian immigrants, “the Jewish component of my identity was always very strong,” he said. “I always felt more Jewy than my friends the sabras, who were more Israeli in the way they saw the world. For me, the Jewish angle was always more vital, more crucial.”

He went to secular schools but developed a self-motivated interest in Jewish culture and texts. He studied on his own, and in the pluralistic beit midrash study halls that sprouted in Israel in the last generation.

He knew he wanted to be a writer since elementary school. “I had a clear knowledge that I would write fiction and that would be my vocation,” he said. “Ironically, it took many years to actually be able to write things I was proud enough to be able to publish. I’m a huge perfectionist. I write slowly and very meticulously.”

Not long after arriving in America, he published a collection of short stories. It was well received in Israel; it has not yet been translated. Then he started on the project that became “The Ruined House.” It took him a decade.

His time in America, he believes, strengthened his Jewish identity.

“American Jews dealt with Jewish identity in such a different way than the way I knew,” Mr. Namdar said. “It was very interesting to me, and very inspiring.”

His family life, he continued, is “thickly Jewish.” They are members of Minyan Me’at in Congregation Ansche Chesed — a Conservative synagogue — and the daughters go to the Abraham Joshua Heschel School.

Mr. Namdar didn’t just embrace American Jewish life when he came to America. He embraced American Jewish culture. “It’s a world we don’t know much about in Israel,” he said. “I started reading American Jewish literature — also something we are not very well versed in in Israel.” He cites the 20th century American Jewish canon of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud and Cynthia Ozick, as influences on his novel.

“I came to New York and discovered them on the bookshelf and read them with great enjoyment,” he said. “It was a parallel Jewish literary universe, where the Jewish experience is processed in wonderful literary ways that is Jewish but not very Israeli.”

But “the literary establishment in Israel chooses to emphasize original Israeli fiction and focuses on books that describe the Israeli experience,” he said.

Though it was written in Hebrew, “You will notice that my novel is a Jewish-American novel, it is not an Israeli novel,” he said. “There’s very little Israel in it. The little Israel that is there is not necessarily from an insider’s point of view.”

And yet it’s a Hebrew novel, written in demanding, literary Hebrew, whose biblical references are well captured in the translation by Hillel Halkin.

Take, for example, the opening sentence:

“One clear morning, on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Elul, the year 5760, counting from the creation of the world, which happened to fall on Wednesday, September 6, 2000, the gates of heaven were opened above the great city of New York, and behold: all seven celestial spheres were revealed, right above the West 4th Street subway station, layered one on top of another like the rungs of a ladder reaching skyward from the earth.”

Only Cynthia Ozick of the aforementioned quartet of American novelists would have been quite so mystical, quite so Jewish. And considered, in translation, as a work of American Jewish literature, it is explicitly wrestling more with Jewish tradition than most of its antecedents. It is not only that the heavens open up on the first page; throughout the book there are pages from a book within the book, stories of an ancient Jewish priest surrounded, as on a page of Talmud, by quotations from the Talmud and other (mostly but not always real) Jewish texts.

“The heart of the story is the tension between the present and the ancient mythological past,” Mr. Namdar said. “I knew that something deeper and older than the individual, an ancient collective memory, makes a claim on the protagonist’s life and mind and almost threatens to drag him into some deep abyss in time.

“There was a certain artistic process to try to figure out the best way to make it happen. I started playing around with the format of telling the subplot using this wonderful layout of the talmudic page. It represents the existence of a different layer of existence, another memory, another layer of consciousness that we are not always tapped into but exists under or above or somewhere around reality as we know it today.

“Once it clicked that this is the format I’m going to use, it became a wonderful project. I did a lot of research for these pages. Parts of them are fiction, but a lot of them are actual excerpts from the Bible, the Talmud, the midrash, some kabbalistic sources. Within these pages I also introduce as a hint the whole notion of reincarnation in Judaism, which is also one of the hinges the novel is hanging on.”

While he is busy promoting “The Ruined House,” Mr. Namdar is working on some short stories and the outline for another novel. He is fluent in English, and writes essays in it, but when it comes to fiction, he will stick with Hebrew. “Hebrew is really the language of my deep mind,” he said. “English is the language of my every day. I don’t write fiction of the every day. Also, I’m invested in the project of Hebrew literature. There is something about writing in the language of Bereshit and Kohelet and Tehilim and Yehuda Halevi and Bialik and Agnon, something about being part of this lineage that is a tremendous honor. With its enormous depth, with its biblical and talmudic and midrashic resonance, it’s such a wonderful universe to be part of. I’m very reluctant to leave this wonderful language.

“Having said that, I’m extremely happy with the translation done by the great Hillel Halkin who did a tremendous work with his translation. The translation really represents the original in a wonderful way.”

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