BWW Reviews: Feuerman's IN THE COURTYARD OF THE KABBALIST
"Who shall ascend into the mountain of the Lord? Who shall stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands, and a pure heart; who has not taken My name in vain, nor sworn deceitfully. He shall receive a blessing from the Lord, and righteousness from the God of his salvation." The twenty-fourth Psalm tells of going up to the Temple Mount, of seeking God's presence. God's presence is everywhere in Ruchama King Feuerman's new work, about to be released as an e-book from New York Review of Books, IN THE COURTYARD OF THE KABBALIST. The only problem is that its protagonists aren't always aware of it themselves.
Rabbi Yehudah and his wife Bracha serve up equal parts of advice and chicken soup to their followers who wait in the yard of their small house. One of those followers, Isaac, comes to work for them as Yehudah's assistant, where he carries the advice and the soup to the elderly rabbi's devotees. A former New Yorker and small business owner, he now wonders what it means to be a rabbi's apprentice, though in his youth, in yeshiva, he'd longed to be a rabbi himself.
Also in the courtyard is newly immigrated ba'al t'shuvah (newly-devout Jew) Tamar, with her hair and her motorcycle, younger than Isaac and hungry for the wisdom she believes he can give her - and for the advice she needs to find a husband. Isaac's advice isn't working for her, and she believes he's giving her advice meant for himself. Is he?
And then there is Mustafa, the disabled Arab caretaker up on the Temple Mount, who comes into their lives with the findings he's made in the dirt of the wadi near one of the mosques - findings his own Muslim spiritual leader has told him to discard, but that he can't. His life is transformed when Isaac compares him to a kohen, for the priests of the Temple were also responsible for cleaning up in it. Mustafa's sudden perception of himself as a priest rather than a mere laborer changes both his life and everyone else's. He has already ascended the mountain of the Lord, but it is Isaac who gives that ascent meaning for him.
There are two types of Jewish novels - the ponderous historical one covering generations and sweeping vistas - think EXODUS - and the small one that focuses on the dynamics of one small family or group: for that, try not to think of PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT (though it's a good example), though there are many others. It's the latter that are often the most memorable, though they're not the ones that make blockbuster movies. They're the most memorable because they're the ones that deal squarely with our emotions.