October 20, 2018

The Jewish Jane Austen

One of the remarkable things about Ruchama King Feuerman’s second novel, “In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist” (New York Review of Books, $9.99) is the fact it is only available as an ebook in the NYRB Lit series.  Such is the fate of literary fiction nowadays, and it remains to be seen whether authors and publishers will find their readership in the world of digital publishing. 

Feuerman is certainly worthy of attention. Her first novel, “Seven Blessings,” was published in a print-on-paper edition by St. Martin’s Press, and one reviewer hailed her as the “Jewish Jane Austen.” Her new book is more nearly a thriller, although it is, like her earlier work, much concerned with romantic intrigue, too. 

Born in Nashville, Tenn., Feuerman now lives and works in Israel, where her new book is set.  One of the great pleasures of her novel, in fact, is her rich and vivid evocation of contemporary Jerusalem, and especially the people and places in Jerusalem that would not be out of place in a novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer, “saints, zaddiks, rebbes, kabbalists and other holy men.” Her protagonist is Isaac — “forty, plagued with eczema and living on the Lower East Side” before he sold his haberdashery, boarded an El Al flight to Israel, and put himself in service to a charismatic rebbe in Jerusalem. 

Isaac soon encounters an Arab man named Mustafa, a trash collector on the Temple Mount who is reduced to his low labor by a physical disfigurement with which he was born. “Satan is inside Mustafa,” his mother observed. “Expect seven misfortunes from a cripple.” And his sister warned him against marriage: “How’ll you kiss your bride?” she taunts, referring to his twisted and frozen neck.

Isaac also befriends a worldly young woman, Tamar, a motorcycle-riding redhead who is seeking advice from the rebbe on how to find a yeshiva boy for a husband. “I wish you a lot of luck finding the best,” says Isaac, though life usually has something else to say.” But, inevitably, Isaac notices that Tamar appears to be interested in him. “A man is a human being, not an angel,” he reflects as he tries to talk himself out of “another entanglement, more trouble.” Says Isaac: “The two of them together, it was like milchigs and fleishigs, meat and dairy; they just didn’t mix.”

Between these three points of contact — Isaac, Mustafa and Tamar — Feuerman tells a tale of human beings who seek to make connections with each other against all odds against and with no inkling of the consequences. From the outset, Feuerman manages to inject a note of tension into her narrative, and it carries us through the suspenseful story that she has chosen to tell.

Along the way, Feuerman displays a sharp eye for the rhythms of real life in Jerusalem. She knows, for example, that the lobby of the King David Hotel is a favorite venue for couples whose first meeting has been arranged by a matchmaker, and that’s where Isaac goes on “blind dates” with “a stream of Rochels and Leahs and Mindys and Yocheveds … a decade and a half of shidduchs.” 

The author is interested in the lives of the religious, both Jewish and Muslim, and when she allows us to glimpse the wider world of contemporary Israel, it is usually through their eyes.  When Isaac rides a bus down Jaffa Road, the passengers fix their eyes on a dark-skinned man with a backpack until he opens it and takes out a volume of Talmud. “Too much bus drama!” Isaac muses. “If only those foolish boys — and of course Peres — hadn’t rushed off to Oslo to make their deals with Arafat, he thought. Because only then the party had started.”

Mustafa, as it happens, makes a gift to Isaac that turns out to the fatal link between them.  He finds an interesting object in a pile of rubbish on the Temple Mount — to Mustafa, of course, it is called the Noble Sanctuary — and innocently presents it to Isaac, who brings the object to an Israeli archaeologist. The little red globe of clay turns out to be an artifact that may date from as far back as the First Temple, a rare and even revolutionary archaeological treasure. Mustafa regards the whole notion as blasphemous because he has been taught that the Temple of antiquity was pure myth. “Crazy Jews, he scoffed. Talking, always talking.” But the significance of his gift cannot be overlooked.

Indeed, the artifact turns out to be a crucial but also volatile object, one that is capable of transforming the lives of both Isaac and Mustafa. Here the author shows that she may be the Jewish Jane Austen, but she is also something of a Jewish Graham Greene.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch will be discussing and signing copies of his new book at Shaarey Zedek Congregation in Valley Village on Oct. 27; at American Jewish University on Oct. 30; and at University Synagogue in Irvine on Nov. 1.