Ruchama King Feuerman’s latest novel, In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist, has been praised by the Wall Street Journal among many other publications, and was a finalist in National Jewish Book Award’s fiction category. Ruchama spoke to me as sincerely and passionately as to a friend. Her passion for Israel, for writing and research, and for her work helping to develop other writers shone throughout our phone conversation.
Miriam Bradman Abrahams: To which characters do you relate in your stories?
Ruchama King Feuerman: There are pieces of me in all the characters. Isaac reminds me of my father, while Mustafa also reminds me of him, since they each had a deformity. [Feuerman’s father lost an ear in a childhood accident.] I share ideological frustrations with my character Beth from Seven Blessings, though there are many differences between us.
MBA: Where does your obsession with kabbalists come from?
RKF: I lived in Jerusalem for ten years and befriended “wise women” who all sought out kabbalists. I was obsessed with anyone who is wise and holy, including assistants to kabbalists.
It was recommended that I meet the Rav Usher Freund and while waiting many hours for my chance to speak with him, I felt joy at seeing all different types of people waiting in his courtyard; it was a humbling experience. The kabbalist’s assistant blew me away with his insight and intensity and eventually, after many hours waiting and now running out of time, I had just one minute face to face with the kabbalist whose granddaughter was beside him. I told Rav Usher Freund my name, and he told me his. There erupted between us a magical laughter which has stayed with me to this day.
MBA: It’s easy to see your love for Jerusalem in your writing. Why did you make aliyah and why did you leave?
RKF: Moving there was a natural extension of my background. My father shared stories about his spiritual journey. I took my father’s dream of going to Israel and ran with it. I arrived at age seventeen, and was open to many types of communities, but felt not completely part of one. I thought I couldn’t fall in love and make a life for myself in Israel. I left at twenty-seven to pursue an MFA in fiction writing at Brooklyn College. As the daughter of a Southern “born-again Jew” and a Moroccan mother from Casablanca, I grew up with a Jewish education and practice. With my unique identity, to my “FFB” (frum-from-birth [born into a religiously observant background]) friends I’m a “BT” (baal teshuva [newly religiously observant]), and to my “BT” friends I’m an “FFB.”
MBA: How was your trip back to Israel this summer?
RKF: I hadn’t been to Israel since a short visit in 2002 and wanted to return there with my husband and children. I felt the sweetness of life and the sense of humor with which people live there, especially during wartime. Upon returning to the U.S. I felt a sense of flatness, a “vanilla existence” here. Going back to visit Israel was like waking up from a coma. I spent some time in Tzfat, which I love, and in Raanana, where my mom lives.
MBA: How do you write descriptions of Jerusalem that read like a photograph?
RKF: I’ve been writing since fifth grade, and published a few articles in my twenties. I kept a journal during my decade in Israel which refreshes my memory with details. Things make a visceral impression on me and I try to capture them. After years away from Israel I was afraid my impressions may have been diluted, so I use the power of invention.
MBA: Do you consider this book a political novel since you’re dealing with the question of ownership of antiquities found on the Temple Mount?
RKF: A political novel is polarizing. I want to bring people in to experience true-life 3D characters, not politics with a capital “P.” I’m not shutting people out. I want the reader to experience a
“Black Hat” religious Jew, to have immersion, to care for different types of people, to experience things you haven’t before, using imagination to experience what’s out of your realm. If there are political echoes then let them be.
MBA: Are you making a feminist point with all your strong independent women? Tamar, Rebbetzin Shaindel Bracha, and, in Seven Blessings, the young Orthodox women taking upon themselves the study of holy texts (traditionally reserved for men), questioning, probing and developing themselves in the process?
RKF: I don’t think I was making a feminist pitch. I simply recalled a lot of the powerful, wise women with tons of Torah knowledge I met when I lived in Jerusalem. Not only famous teachers and rebbetzins but regular women, next-door-neighbors whom you’d randomly meet while taking out the garbage or people you’d go to for Shabbos. But I must say, the idea of a female kabbalist excites me. It feels like a way of claiming our Biblical past, which was replete with female prophets.
MBA: Who are your influences?
RKF: Bernard Malamud, Rohinton Mistry, Monica Ali’s novel Brick Lane, Graham Greene, Chaim Grade.
RKF: I’m working on making a living as a columnist and my one-on-one work with clients is growing. I love writing short stories and want to get beyond Israel. I have an idea for two different novels, but it’s a commitment. A novel is like a marriage, a real commitment for many years, not an easy thing. I have no discipline while in the midst of writing; everything else falls to the wayside. Getting out the first draft is like having an itch on the brain.
MBA: What does your book tour look like?
RKF: I’m making 10-15 stops in the next five months!
Miriam Bradman Abrahams is Cuban born, Brooklyn bred, lives in Woodmere, NY, Hadassah Nassau Region's One Book chairlady and liaison to the Jewish Book Network, Hewlett Hadassah Herald editor, retired book fair chairlady, certified yoga instructor.