Ruchama King Feuerman, often tagged as the Jewish Jane Austen, is the author of the celebrated novel “Seven Blessings,” (St. Martin's Press) and lived in Israel for ten years where she studied and taught Torah at various women’s institutions. The Wall Street Journal described her recently published novel, In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist, as “sophisticated and engaging…brilliant…a manifestly terrific novel!” and the reviewer tweeted it was the best novel he’s read in ages. It has been garnering rave reviews from national and Jewish publications.
Set in Jerusalem, In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist is the story of former Lower East Side haberdasher Isaac, now an assistant to an elderly mystical rabbi; Mustafa, a physically deformed Arab janitor who works on the Temple Mount; and Tamar, a newly religious American hipster searching for a spiritual man. As these characters – Muslim and Jewish; prophets and lost souls – move through their world, they are never sure if they will fall prey to the cruel tricks of luck or be sheltered by a higher power.
Why did you write In the Courtyard of the Kabbalists?
Years ago, when I lived in Yerushalayim, I met a kabbalist. We actually laughed together. It may sound odd but it was the best moment of my life. For years afterward, whenever I needed a lift, I would remember the rebbe’s laughter—our co-mingled laughter—and it sustained me. Sometimes I think I wrote In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist in order to relive that laughter, to re-experience the courtyard and the seekers I met there, and the seeker I was then.
Which kabbalists did you meet and did anything specific prompt you to go?
It was at a time in my life when I needed – how can I put it? – a big hug from God. I needed to speak with someone not only on an intellectual plane but with someone who I felt was in touch with the secrets of the universe. I met with the Amshinover Rebbe, Rav Usher Freund, and others.
How much of the novel is drawn from real life?
It’s ninety-five percent fiction, but the setting of the Jerusalem courtyard is similar to what I experienced. There was a wonderful anything-goes atmosphere. The kabbalist’s courtyard attracted Yeshiva students, soap opera actresses, depressed matchmakers, the occasional Arabic man or woman, star soccer players, businessmen without businesses, singles seeking magical solutions to find their basherte, people from all corners of Israeli society.
The kabbalist himself was often too sick to meet with people, so his assistant fielded questions and took them to the kabbalist or sometimes answered them on his own. The assistant was quite talented and insightful, had real kabbalist potential. I got intrigued, wanted to know what kind of life situation would make a man take on this job. And did he aspire to be more than just a helper. What about the kabbalist’s wife – did she resent all the people who took over her husband’s life, and did she have any kabbalistic aspirations of her own? I never met the kabbalist’s wife in real life, but a story began to spin.
Sure, here and there little parts of my life crept into the novel but not much. Jerusalem is the kind of place where outrageous stories are handed to you daily, but then you have to tone them down to make them believable. So if anything true is in there, it’s been edited heavily. Someone asked if I considered myself anything like the main female character, Tamar, a twenty-something newly religious American hipster who rides a Vespa and is a beauty besides. I had to say no.
The Dallas Morning News described the novel as a delicate balance between a courtship tale and a thriller. Your first novel, Seven Blessings, also had a strong matchmaking motif. Is there something about courtship that compels you?
Definitely. I find the topic of matchmaking irresistible, especially when you’re dealing with religious characters. It’s so much more than boy meets girl. It’s about overcoming your character flaws that get in the way between you and life. It’s destiny meets destiny.
Still, I have to admit, in this novel – as opposed to Seven Blessings – my characters come together (and often separate) without the aid of any matchmakers. Either way, God is present in that journey. Actually, the epigraph to my first novel reads, “Whoever cannot see the hand of God in finding their mate, will never see the hand of God in anything.” (Jewish Proverb)
And what’s the epigraph to “In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist?
Ah. “If I tell you my story, you will listen for awhile, and then you will fall asleep.
But , if, as I tell you my story, you begin to hear your own story, you will wake up.” (Hassidic saying).
I guess I’m kind of asking people to develop a holy imagination that would allow them to see the other, especially the shleppers and the people you’d really rather not know.
What possessed you to write from the point of view of a physically deformed Arabic janitor – one of your other main characters. Was that a challenge?
For years, this Arab janitor stalked my imagination but I didn’t dare let myself impersonate someone so different from myself. But then I began to see him as having an unusual physical deformity. His head is permanently twisted over his right shoulder, an extreme case of torticollis. Often, pity is the way I can truly enter my characters. I felt so bad for Mustafa – unloved by his own mother, kicked out of his village, having to walk sideways his whole life – that as soon as I began to put his story down on paper, I felt close to Mustafa, like I’d known him forever.
A Jew can’t tell the story of the Temple Mount if he or she is forbidden to ascend. And I wanted to tell that story. Who better than Mustafa who sees everything from his invisible perch as a janitor on the Temple Mount? The whole notion of sacred space gripped me. Who does an ancient artifact belong to? The one who unearthed it or the one whose story it tells? Then I was struck by the whole notion that prayer is illegal on the Temple Mount – that is, if you happen to be Jewish or Christian. What an outrageous idea that begged to be captured in fiction.
What kind of experience was it writing the novel?
Wonderful. I felt like the novel was writing me as much as I wrote it. For instance, I needed to research a scene at the chevra kadisha – ritual burial society – and showed up one night and helped ritually clean the deceased prior to burial. They asked me to become a regular volunteer, and I did for a couple of years afterward.
My novel research led me to people I wouldn’t have ordinarily met and kept me in what at times felt like a semi-mystical state of mind. There’s an old New Yorker cartoon. A writer is typing away on his computer. The caption reads: It must be winter because my characters are wearing mittens again. For me, while writing this book, I thought I had to be in Jerusalem because my characters were praying at the Western Wall or shopping at the shuk or chewing sunflower seeds. That was the best part, living that intense Jerusalem reality from my home in New Jersey. Who knows, maybe my next novel will bring me back to Israel for good.