January 22, 2019

A Mystic Tale in ‘The Ruined House’

After “The Ruined House” by Ruby Namdar was first published in Israel in 2013, the book won the prestigious Sapir Prize, Israel’s equivalent of the Booker Prize. Namdar, whose given first name is Reuven, thus became the first recipient of the Sapir Prize who did not live in Israel. At the time, the author told Tablet’s Beth Kissileff that “he was pleased not to have been excluded ‘because of my ZIP code.’ ”

Now the prize-winning first novel has been published by the Harper imprint of HarperCollins in a glorious English translation by the renowned Hillel Halkin. In addition to a cash prize to the author, the Sapir Prize funded both the English version and an Arab translation now in preparation by As’ad Mousah Odeh.

Namdar — like the fictional hero of “The Ruined House,” Andrew Cohen — teaches Jewish literature in New York City. From the very first page of Namdar’s enchanting first novel, however, we discover that it is a magical version of the Big Apple. “[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,” Namdar writes. “Errant souls flitted there like shadows, one alone bright to the point of transparency: the figure of an ancient priest, his head wrapped in a linen turban and a golden fire pan in his hand.”

Cohen himself is always is mindful of the things of this earth. When the words of the Yom Kippur liturgy pop into his head (“Who by fire, who by water”), he wonders: “Wasn’t that a Leonard Cohen song?” The people who populate his daily life are unremarkable — a girlfriend half his age, a personal trainer, an ex-wife and the children of their failed marriage — and he is convinced that everything is thoroughly under his control. “[His] dress and appearance, his speech and body language, his ideas and their expression — all had a refined, aristocratic finish that splendidly gilded everything he touched,” Namdar explains. “In general, ‘elegant’ was the adjective most commonly applied to anything bearing the imprint of Professor Andrew P. Cohen.”

But the story that Namdar tells in “The Ruined House” — and tells in richly observed and often heart-shaking prose — begins when a certain mystic light falls across his mundane life. When he puts the meat on the fire for one of his “renowned dinner parties,” Cohen goes into a trance. “Oh my god, this meat is divine,” a guest cries out, but the phrase is not just idle praise. “Anyone observing his single-minded intensity at such times might think him an avatar of an ancient hunter or tribal shaman charged with sacrificing to the gods.” And, verily, Cohen finds his way to a series of ancient texts, reproduced on the printed page in a talmudic format, that conjure up the sacrificial rituals of the Kohanim at the Temple of Jerusalem.

Namdar allows his characters — and his readers — to catch a glimpse of the magical and the mystical in the here

and now.

The book is structured like a countdown to apocalypse, each section marked with both a secular and Hebrew date. Visions of horrific otherworldly events are scattered unexpectedly and inexplicably through the contemporary narrative: “Crimson, boiling blood coursed through the streets: the besieged city has fallen.” Now and then, Cohen himself experiences a sudden moment of mystic sight in the middle of Manhattan, as when he rides a bicycle along the West Side Highway — “all seemed pure and primeval, a marvel to behold” — and then is suddenly struck with a revelation: “The day would come when all would return to what it had been and the world would revert to chaos.”

The tension builds as Namdar deftly notes that humans have always been prone to panics and prophecies of disaster. “A year ago, the apocalyptic shadow of the Y2K bug clouded the celebrations of the new millennium,” he reminds us. When the ball of light fell in Times Square on that day, “the universal relief was tinged was a touch of disappointment. Nothing had happened.” But when we read the first entry dated in the year 2001, we cannot fail to recall that a catastrophe was waiting for us on 9/11. And then, as he walks along a street in Lower Manhattan, Cohen experiences another vision, a “deep, bestial roar” and “a strange light shining the street’s northeast corner.” Are we meant to understand that he has been granted a glimpse into the near future? And then the vision takes on a distinctly Hebraic shape — a snow-white bull, a bearded man in white linen who carries a sacrificial knife, all reminiscent of the Temple sacrifice.

Of course, Cohen also is afflicted by far more mundane ills — family conflict and academic politics, the tedium of working out and grading student papers, the aches and pains that inevitably remind us of aging and looming death, even the guilt-inducing temptation of internet porn. He struggles to hold his life together but cannot escape the forces of entropy, and the author seems to suggest that there is a certain comfort in thinking about the calamities that may bring the world to a sudden end. “There will be no more terror; no more memory; no more shame or sin,” he writes. “All will revert to sand and stone, chalk and dust.”

At one point in “The Ruined House,” the author observes in passing that “what happened next was … taken from a Philip Roth novel.” He also name-checks Saul Bellow’s “Mr. Sammler’s Planet,” Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen,” and Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo.” Although Namdar himself was born in Jerusalem and raised in an Iranian-Jewish family, he has mastered the fine points of American Jewish culture so thoroughly that I was surprised to learn that the book was published first in Hebrew and in Israel. Yet his book also reminded me of the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, another Jewish writer who allows his characters — and his readers — to catch a glimpse of the magical and the mystical in the here and now. And that’s the highest praise I can bestow upon Namdar’s luminous book.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.