All great movies are, at the core, love stories. And it follows that all great novels are also love stories. And it is for this reason that novels written by Orthodox Jews about Orthodox Jews have been noticeably absent even with the astonishing modern rise of Orthodoxy in North America and Israel. How is a talented author supposed to plum the depths of the male and female heart without succumbing to descriptions of physical love that are considered holy and deeply private? Modesty is a mitzvah. But the modernist novel has become an ocean of nihilistic physical sensuality.
Enter the courtyard of Ruchama King-Feuerman, a fine novelist who just happens to be Orthodox. Seraphic Secret greatly enjoyed her 2004 novel, Seven Blessings, and has been eagerly looking forward to her next offering. The long wait has been worth it.
In The Courtyard of the Kabbalist, published by the New York Review of Book’s new e-book only press NYRB Lit., tells the story of Isaac, an Orthodox Jew who has moved to Jerusalem from New York, and Tamar, a newly religious hipster who has also moved to Jerusalem from America. They meet in the courtyard of a Jerusalem Kabbalist. Isaac, suffering a terrible case of eczema, has become, by default, an assistant to the not-so Kabbalistic Kabblaist—the elderly rabbi is more of a behavioral psychologist—and the lovely Tamar (think Irene Dunne on a motor scooter) who has come seeking a blessing so she can find a husband. The third major character is Mustafa, a devout Muslim, deformed and unloved, a janitor who works on the Temple Mount. These three characters are each, in their own way, lost souls, yearning for love.
I’ve always seen King-Feuerman as a Jewish Jane Austen. Like the great English author, King-Feuerman is obsessed with the rituals of courtship. And like Austen, Ruchama King-Feuerman places smart, articulate young women at the center of her narratives. Like Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice, Tamar is so smart, so pretty, that most men are seriously intimidated. But unlike Austen, King-Feuerman has a more mysterious view of life and love. Delicately, almost as if building her characters from layers of lace, King-Feuerman creates a narrative in which the intersecting lives of Isaac, Tamar, and Mustafa evolve into a kind of mystical dance against the backdrop of Jerusalem’s golden stones.
There is a plot, but it’s just a MacGuffin.
Alfred Hitchcock explained the function of a MacGuffin as, “the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace, and in spy stories it is most always the papers”. In short, it is a plot device, a desired object that spins the plot. The point, Hitchcock explained, is that the MacGuffin is not important. It’s just an excuse to reveal your characters as they race through the plot.
The MacGuffin of this book is a shard of pottery Mustafa discovers on the Temple Mount, a pomegranate carving that was probably the head of a staff used by the Kohanim during the First or Second Temple periods. Everyone wants this piece of pottery, and as in Hitchcock movie, the shard is only a device to keep our characters engaged with one another, and ultimately, for all of them to discover love in all its pain and glory.
Ruchama King-Feuerman writes beautifully, almost mystically, weaving character and plot in a seamless, compelling mosaic. But she’s not one of those graduate school authors whose sentences are so finely crafted that real emotions become an afterthought. In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist is a lovely work, a love story that will appeal not only to the Orthodox, but to the much wider general audience who yearn for true romance.
You can purchase and download In The Courtyard of the Kabbalist here.