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.

The emotions in Feuerman's small but gripping story are love and fear - sometimes separate, but usually together. Rabbi Yehudah's friends and followers love him, but he is ill and they fear his death. Isaac is developing feelings for Tamar, and equal fear - she's so much younger than he is; isn't it a scandal? And isn't it wrong for a man in his position to have feelings at all? And then there's Mustafa - he loves Isaac, in his way, for his kindness and his advice, but he's been taught to fear Jews and what they will do to him. Meanwhile, though Isaac and his companions marvel at what Mustafa has discovered, and appreciate his turning to them, how can they trust an Arab Muslim not to endanger all of them? Love and fear breathe together here, as they so often do in the world around us.

There are puzzles to unfold here, depths like those in which the wisdom of the kabbalah is concealed within Torah itself. Who is the real kabbalist? Was it Rabbi Yehudah, or is it someone else? What are the meanings of the things Mustafa has found, and who can be trusted with the secret of their existence, or can determine their worth? If Rabbi Yehudah dies, how can his work continue, and who is fit to continue it? Whose hands are clean enough, whose heart is pure enough, whose knowledge and wisdom are vast enough, to carry out Yehudah's legacy?

It's a short book, but a densely packed one with moments worth re-reading as you go. It's possibly most meaningful to Jews, but not so packed with Yiddishkeit that it's incomprehensible to those outside the tribe - which is important, as one of this book's most meaningful details to most readers will be its clear explanation, through the characters' observations, of the gulf in thought and ideas that separate Arab from Israeli living within Israel's borders. They are not just religious ideas, but cultural ones, that can be a wider gulf than an ocean between people living together in a very small country.

"The Earth is the Lord's, and all that fills it; the world, and those who dwell in it." The dwellers in Feuerman's world are certainly big enough to fill it; the remembrance, by each of them, that all of them are the Lord's, and not just one or a few of them, is their most difficult task. The tour through their hearts and minds, particularly Isaac's and Mustafa's, makes for some of the most deeply interesting, challenging reading of the year.

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From This Author Marakay Rogers

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