by Rachel Leal
With her second novel, In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist, Ruchama King Feuerman once again brings Jerusalem, a city so vibrant it feels like a character, to life for the reader. Feuerman’s love for the city is expressed in her vivid and masterful writing. The novel seamlessly mixes the history of the city with the modern complexities of two societies, Arab and Jewish, living side-by-side in mistrust and sometimes in hatred. Feuerman moves beyond the superficial and shows us the compassion and humanity of these very people looking for place, spirituality and love in the same holy city.
The novel is set in 1999 and centers on three characters: Isaac Markowitz, a heartbroken haberdasher from the Lower East Side who moves to Jerusalem and finds himself the aid to an elderly Kabbalist Rabbi; Tamar, a newly devout young American seeking a spiritual life and a spiritual husband; and Mustafa, a Muslim Palestinian janitor working on the Temple Mount, a holy site for both Muslims and Jews. When their paths cross, they find not only the compassion and connection they crave, but after Mustafa gives a holy relic he found on the Temple Mount to Isaac, they find themselves in danger.
Rachel Leal: Could you tell us a little about your background? You were born in Nashville and raised in Virginia and Maryland. These places seem very different, culturally, from Israel. Were you raised in an Orthodox household like the one in your novel?
Ruchama King Feuerman: It’s complicated. When I was growing up, my father was gravitating toward something that was solid, traditional, true, and more often than not it looked like Orthodox Judaism. He loved the life of the synagogue and developed something of a crush on rabbis. Slowly, the family drifted along with him toward religious observance. When I was 15, I made my own commitment to Orthodoxy. The center of my influence was no longer the home. I guess I developed my own crush on rabbis, and on rebbezins, too.
RL: Both Isaac and Tamar of In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist are transplants from America looking for spiritual or religious renewal. You bought a one-way ticket to Israel at 17 years old—a courageous act for a 17-year-old. What was your goal and what where you seeking?
RKF: Moving to Israel was just a natural expression of everything I had been learning my whole life. Israel, God, the Torah—it was all of a piece. It had always been my father’s deepest wish to live there, and his dream became mine.
I thrived in that spiritually-soaked atmosphere, and how easy it was to meet scholars, mystics, holy men, and wise women. You could just take a bus and knock on some kabbalist’s door. Back in the States, whenever I said a blessing over food in public, I’d cover my mouth and pretend to yawn, so no one would see and think I was weird. What was I seeking? To feel at home when I walked down the street, at home with my Jewishness and in the universe. To not have to apologize for making blessings. In Israel, even people who know little about Judaism will understand that when you exit the bathroom, you’re reciting the after-bathroom-blessing and not mumbling something psychotic under your breath.
RL: The characters in In the Courtyard are very relatable to an audience outside the Jewish and Arab world. Was it important to you that you reach a secular or non-Jewish audience?
RKF: I’m glad you found the characters relatable. Yes, I did want to reach a wider audience. For me, the kabbalist’s courtyard and the goings on at the Temple Mount—they’re a literary gold mine. I had to capture these worlds, the holy parts, the ridiculous, the diversity, and layeredness, for want of a better term. I did fear someone else might get there first and only see the ridiculous parts. (Sometimes it feels like some literary map is getting colonized.)
By the way, I always write with a non-Jewish audience in mind. It stimulates me, sharpens me, forces me to engage in an intimate way. I have to be brain to brain with this imaginary audience, eye to eye, human to human.
RL: The novel is set in 1999. What is the significance of that year?
RKF: The late nineties were basically a confluence of several storms. The Israeli government had changed from right-wing to left-wing, and there was serious talk about giving back the Temple Mount. The Oslo Accords were on their last gasp, and suicide bombings were happening every other week. The largest mosque in Israel, the Marwani Mosque on the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary, was getting built at the time, and major excavations were taking place, pretty much without regard for the site’s archeological relics. Also, the country was still nursing psychic wounds from the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin by a Sephardic religious Jew. There was a tremendous backlash against the Orthodox community. Both the left and right factions thought the other side was delusional, dangerous, each hoping the other faction would disappear. It seemed at the time that a lot was at stake, a pivotal moment. Still, I’ve yet to encounter a year in Israel which didn’t seem pivotal. All these factors influenced my choosing 1999. Also, I like the sound and look of it.
RL: Your character Isaac is riddled with self-doubt and weakness, yet he’s likeable and the reader is hopeful for him. How did you balance this?
RKF: I’ve been with Isaac for so long, it’s hard for me to imagine a time when I was pre-Isaac, plotting and devising his character. He’s the kind of man I might have seriously dated myself, say in my twenties, when I was drawn to compassionate men with a high quotient of angst. Isaac is someone who doesn’t know his own desire, his wants. It appears like a weak pulse, there and not there. Think of the emotionally constipated valet in Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. The reader can’t help but ache for the valet to come in contact with his own desire. Isaac isn’t afflicted as strongly as that poor guy, but he is afflicted. It’s a kind of exquisite torture to watch someone come close to what he really craves, then bury this awareness, out of fear and ignorance, and rediscover it again, even if only by acquiring a sliver of self-knowledge. Because there’s a world in that sliver.
RL: There is a complex and diverse cultural mix of not only Arabs but also Jews in Jerusalem in In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist: Yeshiva students, orthodox Jews, secular Israeli Jews, ba’al teshuvas, black-hats, kabbalists. Isaac makes note of these throughout the novel. Is this a reflection of Isaac as an outsider who would be more sensitive to these differences? Or is this a reflection of his inability to assimilate himself fully into any group? How does this compare to the Jerusalem you
RKF: I don’t see Isaac as an outsider, struggling to fit in. He simply notes the differences among the various groups that others notice. All of these differences, the cultural mix you mentioned, are of enormous significance to others, but not to Isaac. Part of Isaac’s appeal is his ability to be unruffled. (This quality also has a negative side in terms of women—there, he needs to be more rufflable.) But he has that magnificent quality that some Jewish men have: the ability to be unruffled and effective with many kinds of people.
I experienced Jerusalem as a united city, despite itself, and a divided city, despite itself. You know that Freudian concept, “the narcissism of the small difference”? You end up feeling aggrieved or threatened by the person who differs from you in some small way, rather than the person who is hugely dissimilar. You can see this sort of dynamic in Israel with everyone crowded together. All these groups of Jews who desperately need to maintain a separateness from each other. And so there’s a divisiveness that flares up to the point of becoming enflamed. Sometimes the only thing that can soothe and lower the tribal tension is a parent figure who loves everyone, because when you feel utterly loved you can accept the minor differences between us all. The kabbalist functions as a proxy father who can love everyone, still the savage beast within.
RL: In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist features a woman who has been studying the Torah. Has this caused you any criticism?
RKF: I’m a little confused by the question. Women studying Torah in the Orthodox community is pretty much the norm these days. It wouldn’t engender criticism but praise. Do you mean the fact that one female character studies Kabbalistic texts? It’s possible that could raise a few brows. The study of kabbalah isn’t exactly encouraged—for men or women. I’m not referring to Madonna-style kabbalah study where you pick up cool concepts at a lecture but serious and direct engagement with the text. Why is it discouraged? It’s a whole topic. I think because it needs to be approached as a whole and mature person. You wouldn’t give away nuclear knowledge just because a country wants it. It has to be a mature and responsible government. Kabbalah is one of the treasures of the Jewish people. It can’t be held too preciously but it can’t be given away just because it glitters.
RL: In an article you wrote, you described the lengths you went to research bathrooms on the Temple Mount. Is this dedication to research common in your writing process? Is there one character more than any others that required more research?
RKF: I came across this line somewhere: “I didn’t let my lack of research get in the way of writing my book.” For me, I feared too much preliminary research just might turn into a detour, yet another reason not to write. So I researched as I wrote. Even though this caused me a little trouble—when I discovered, say, that the ancient pomegranate relic I’d based my novel on turned out in real life to be a hoax—I was glad I took that route.
The characters I researched most were Mustafa and the kabbalist. They were the most elusive to me. For Mustafa I needed to get a quick education in Islam, Arab culture, and what it’s like to be a menial Arab worker in Israel, and with a deformity, no less. I read books, chapters within books, spoke with people, Googled like a mad woman, but I’d hardly call my research exhaustive. I cherry-picked the information I needed and ran with it.
Researching the kabbalist was a hoot. I spoke with many people about their encounters with kabbalists (although I easily could’ve relied on my own experiences). People kept telling me miracle tales, amazing things that this or that kabbalist had predicted and had come true, but the more I heard, the more, well, impatient I got. None of these miracle stories were what I wanted—and I had no idea what I wanted. All I knew was that they didn’t bring me closer to my fictional kabbalist. Finally I learned to narrow my questions: What did the kabbalist’s beard look like, how did he gesture with his hands, what kind of small talk did he make with his wife or assistant, what did he like to eat for lunch? What color were his socks? That sort of thing. Slowly, a kabbalist began to emerge. I’m in love with details.
Also, in order to authenticate a scene, I showed up at a Jewish funeral home to witness how a body is ritually cleansed and purified for burial. It seemed too ghoulish to nail my scene and then run off, so I stayed on as a volunteer at the funeral home for a couple of years afterward. They did need an extra pair of hands. You could say that my novel wrote me as much as I wrote it.
RL: You returned to the United States to pursue a degree in writing. How do you think writing in the U.S. has made you a different writer than you would have been in Israel?
RKF: There’s a New Yorker cartoon: A writer sitting before a computer says, “It must be winter because my characters are starting to wear mittens again.” All the time I was immersed in writing this novel, I thought I was in Jerusalem, because my characters were praying at the Western Wall, dodging bombs, and spitting sunflower seeds. So in a way, my feeling of being exiled from Jerusalem was a big factor in making me want to write about it. Maybe if I’d lived there, I wouldn’t have felt the same deep-in-the-marrow urgency. Maybe each writer needs his or her own exile—that place to write from.
RL: Could you tell us about any writers who influenced or mentored you?
RKF: In college, I was lucky to have as my teacher the author Allen Hoffman (Small Worlds), who writes brilliantly and from a place of great knowledge of Torah. I saw it could be done, not just by the Yiddish writers of 70 and 100 years ago, but today. He planted a seed.
As for writers who influenced me, I do think Rohinton Mistry, Graham Greene, Chaim Grade, and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane played a role in my writing life. Many more writers influenced me, too many to recall.
Click here to read Sonya Chung’s feature piece on NYRB Lit.