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What Does a Kabbalist Eat for Breakfast?

Friday, November 01, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Ruchama King Feuerman wrote about the sweetness or redemption and stories from her mother's Moroccan childhood. Her most recent book, In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist (NYRB LIT), is now available. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Once upon a time, a person could easily make reference to a rabbi, maybe a rav, and maybe even a rebbe, but a kabbalist?

In Jerusalem, a kabbalist is as common as a plumber. Everyone knows what you’re talking about. In the holy city, the lexicon of magic, amulets and incantations are as real as the corner drugstore. You have a cold? Go to a kabbalist. You have a problem in religion? Go to a kabbalist. You want to marry a man? Go to a kabbalist, he’ll help you.

For the past seven plus years I’ve been swimming in kabbalists, collecting true tales from whoever visited with these mystic figures and rebbes. It was research for my novel In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist. Of course, I had my own set of kabbalists I’d met during the ten years I’d lived in Jerusalem, but oddly my experiences created a writerly static in my mind. To construct a fictional kabbalist, I needed to start from scratch.

Someone told me about a kabbalist who predicted he’d win a good chunk of money and he did, only to spend it all on expensive dental surgery the following week. Then there was the kabbalist, quasi-prophetess who directed someone to the exact place where she would meet her basherte, at a silver factory in Givat Shaul. (I don’t recall if she went or not.) A Hassidic man told me about a kabbalist he’d consulted with who said a special prayer whenever his non-religious brother was on the verge of getting married to a non-Jewess. Break-ups always followed shortly after.

I heard stories that could blow the socks off your feet. Listening to them, I felt like I was living in an alternate reality. Reminds me of a New Yorker cartoon: A writer says, “It must be winter because my characters are starting to wear mittens again.” Me, I knew I had to be in Jerusalem, because my characters were taking Egged buses, spitting sunflower seeds and visiting kabbalists in Geula.

After awhile, though, even these wonderful tales began to make me feel, well, impatient. None of them were what I wanted – and I had no idea what I wanted. All I knew was, they didn’t bring me any closer to my elusive fictional kabbalist.

Well, maybe I was asking the wrong questions. I switched to: Did your kabbalist ever say something, speak words that caused some major shift to happen in you? What was it?

Here people fell silent. It was hard to dig, to find something.

Then a teenage girl told me how once her nose was stuffed – no, plugged so badly she could barely speak for weeks. After she met and talked with the kabbalist, a strange thing happened. She told me her nose unplugged. She seemed embarrassed that her story was so silly, so trivial. I don’t know why, but this hit a chord within me. A man who could cause nasal passages to open, such a man – and story -- I could believe. A baby miracle. Nothing too grandiose. The fog surrounding my kabbalist lifted a tad.

Another woman told me that her baby was overdue and she was terrified she was going to have a Caesarean. The kabbalist reassured her it would be a regular birth. “It will come out, it will come out, it will come out” – zeh yetzei, he said, in Hebrew. She was comforted, but why had he said it three times, she wondered. A few days later, she was on the birthing table trying to push the baby out for nearly two hours. The Caesarean team surrounded her. At one critical point, the team gave up. The doctor said, “It won’t come out,” the anesthesiologist said, “It won’t come out,” and the surgeon said, “It won’t come out.” The woman looked at all three of them and just then realized why the kabbalist had said “zeh yetzei” three times. She burst out laughing, a deep upwelling that came from her very womb, and the baby slithered out in one whoosh. I didn’t use that story in my novel, but it too helped me see the kabbalist more clearly. It had a bit of earth and a bit of heaven in it, of this world and beyond, the right balance. Too much heaven made me leery. No -- too many miracles made me leery.

And if I, a believer, was leery of miracles, then a modern skeptical reader would certainly gag on such fare.


I began to pose different questions. To someone who knew a kabbalist very well, I asked: What did he like to eat for breakfast? Did he enjoy music? What kind? What books – if any – did he keep in the bathroom? What did he talk about with his wife? Did he wash the dishes? How did he treat the cleaner who did sponja? To others, whose encounter was brief, I asked for hand gestures, facial expressions, what he wore, detailed descriptions of his beard, his hands, the timbre of his voice. Basically I treated him like any old character I was trying to capture.

Slowly, slowly, like the magazine puzzle pieces the character Truman puts together of his beloved, the kabbalist picture began to fill. I loved each precious detail that came my way. But often the person telling the story would say, in half-annoyance, “But this is nothing! I have the most amazing miracle to tell you!” And she would begin to pour forth.

Try, just try to stop someone from sharing her miracle story. Even still, I would hold up my hand -- as if I could halt a waterfall -- and say, “Please, please, no miracles.”

Ruchama King Feuerman's celebrated first novel about matchmaking (Seven Blessings, SMP) earned her the praise of The New York Times and Dallas Morning News, and Kirkus Reviews dubbed Feuerman the "Jewish Jane Austen." Read more about Ruchama King Feuerman and her newest novel, In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist, here.

Sweet Judgment

Wednesday, October 30, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Ruchama King Feuerman wrote about stories from her mother's Moroccan childhood. Her most recent book, In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist (NYRB LIT), is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

When I was a kid, every morning I’d watch my father shave from my perch on the rim of the bathtub. After he washed and patted down his face, he’d squeeze body cement onto the bumpy pale wedge where his real ear used to be. Then he’d paste on his rubber ear, which gave his head a nice gluey smell. As for the prosthetic ear, it was unnoticeable, that is, until you noticed it, and then it lent him a curious air, like a man patched together from scraps and pieces.

He’d stand in front of the bathroom mirror, inspecting his ear to see if he’d placed it well, and then stories about his own life would start coming: the dirt poor Depression years when his mother had to use burlap bags as underwear or diapers; how he learned to wrestle so no one would ever again pick on him because of his ear; the twenty-nine relatives who all lived in one small house in the 1930s, the whole crew subsisting on Grandpa Sam’s single salary as a tailor; how he became religious in his late twenties and so set in motion a generation’s return to Judaism. Later, around the Shabbos table, he told us Hassidic tales and epic scenes from the Bible. Truth be told, it didn’t matter what he was saying. He knew just how to pause to make us yearn for the next sentence. He was a born storyteller.

My father’s stories insinuated themselves so powerfully into my psyche, that I’ve often felt I’m living two existences, my own and his. I’ll be scraping the vestiges of oatmeal out of a pot, going over my teaching schedule for the day, when suddenly I’m back in the summer of 1934. I see my father on a July afternoon, playing with rocks piled high on the corner of New Hampshire Avenue. My eyes swerve past him toward the end of the block, and then I see it, a ‘32 Plymouth barreling down the road. I want to shout, “Get up, run, Dad, stop playing with those stupid rocks, for God’s sake!” but he keeps piling those rocks high, until the Plymouth slams and skids into him, even as the driver slams on the brakes. He can’t die, I know he can’t die, because how else will I get born, and when the ambulance comes for him, he’s still breathing, but his ear hangs by a spider thread to his skull. I stand there at the sink, my heart rattling crazily in my chest, and finally shut off the faucet.

Over time, as I listened to my father’s sagas of horrible health (at any point in the year he could show up at a hospital and get admitted), a doomed marriage, and silly jobs that never matched his talents, I would think that no father in the world had suffered as much as mine. In my eyes, to have survived what he had, along with his heroic struggles to put bread on the table, made him a mythic character. With every tale he told, I couldn’t help but hear not just his stories but his Story, of all his life struggles, and to me they became one. Always I felt a scorching pity.

There’s a kabbalistic concept, hamtakat hadin, sweetening the judgment. In my own stories, the ones I write, I find there nearly always has to be some scrap of sweetness or redemption. If I look carefully, I know somewhere, someplace in the pages I’ve written, I’m saving my father, finding the poignancy and sweetness in the judgment of his life, of all our lives. It’s a compulsion of sorts – saving my father.

One of my main characters in my new novel, In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist, is a man called Mustafa, whose job is to pick up trash on the Temple Mount, or, as he calls it, the Haram al Sharif. His head is twisted permanently over his right shoulder. Walking is difficult, eating even more so. His mother, ashamed of him, won’t let him return to his village.

People who have read the book often ask me: How did you slip into the mind of someone so radically different from yourself?

I too had thought it would be impossible and so I put off writing about this Arab man who for years stalked my imagination. How strange, how wonderful to discover then, as soon as I began to put words down on paper, that I felt so close to Mustafa. He was as painfully close and tender to me as my own father.

Ruchama King Feuerman's celebrated first novel about matchmaking (Seven Blessings, SMP) earned her the praise of The New York Times and Dallas Morning News, and Kirkus Reviews dubbed Feuerman the "Jewish Jane Austen." Read more about Ruchama King Feuerman and her newest novel, In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist, here.

Kosher Soup for Ramadan & Other Tales of My Mother's Moroccan Childhood

Monday, October 28, 2013 | Permalink

Ruchama King Feuerman's celebrated first novel about matchmaking (Seven Blessings, SMP) earned her the praise of The New York Times and Dallas Morning News, and Kirkus Reviews dubbed Feuerman the "Jewish Jane Austen." Her most recent book, In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist (NYRB LIT), is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Ruchama King Feuerman's Mother and Father
The Bergen Record was coming to my house to do an interview for my new novel. You’d think after having spent years and years writing this book, I’d have imagined this moment, prepared for it, I’d have my patter down, my lines. Ten minutes before they came, I called my husband. “Quick,” I blurted, “tell me again why I wrote this novel.” My husband, a psychoanalyst, replied, “Tell them you wrote it to be closer to your mother.”

I rolled my eyes, laughed, and then I thought, hey, there’s a shtickel bit of truth here. In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist features a Muslim Arab man. My mother grew up in Casablanca, Morocco, which technically also makes her an Arab, even if she’s an Arabic Jew. Here’s the thing, though. Whenever friends meet my mother, they can’t believe we’re even remotely related. She can belly dance with the best of them and hunt down bargains and tchotchkes with a terrifying zeal. In her seventies she is still noticed, still the Casablancan glamour queen. In contrast, I’m happiest at a Chumash class or holed down in front of my computer in a ragged T-shirt. Also, tchotchkes don’t mean a thing to me. She is so out there, and I am so in here, in myself. Conversations were not always easy. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

But as I researched my novel, suddenly we found a lot to talk about. She lives in Israel now and has picked up a respectable Arabic, almost as good as her Parisian French. She knows the food, the phrases, the gestures, even if they differ a bit from one Arab country to another. A cornucopia of detail, a writer’s paradise! Of course I was also burrowing through books about Islam, reading memoirs about Arab workers, googling my way to Muslim dating websites and ask-the-Imam websites, and speaking with every Arab man and woman I knew in Passaic, but maybe my mother could fill in the gaps, make me feel more heimische with this culture I knew nothing about.

After I satisfied my need for details, I found myself hungry for stories of my mother’s childhood in Morocco. There’s the story of how her grandmother—another Moroccan beauty—was abducted by a rich sheikh when she was shopping for vegetables one day in the shuk. Through back-door channels and negotiations, my great-grandmother (then married and in her thirties) was returned unharmed, untouched.

“You see,” my mother says. “The Arabs in Morocco had a sense of honor.” I almost ask, “Maybe have more honor and not abduct women in the first place?” But I don’t like to disturb the conversational flow between us.

I love the stories that bring Jews and Arabs together in small but surprising ways – kind of the topic of my novel. My mother tells how her mother—my Grandma Estrella—would make a big pot of harira soup every day during Ramadan. It was my mother’s job to deliver it to their Muslim cleaning lady who lived in a basement in the French Quarter. Harira soup is a mouth-watering one-pot meal with meat, chickpeas, lentils, tomatoes, celery, lemon, cilantro, onion, and thickened with flour or very thin noodles—an Arabic version of minestrone soup, but much finer and tastier. This was the food eaten at the end of each day of Ramadan to sustain you for the next day’s fast. The pot would be left overnight at the maid’s, cleaned only with paper (not a sponge) for kosher reasons, and then returned the next morning. I’m entranced every time I hear this story: an employer cooking food daily for her cleaning lady; a Jew helping a Muslim fast on her holiday; and my favorite, a Muslim woman cleaning the pot with paper to keep the pot kosher.

Ruchama King Feuerman's Mother and Grandmother

I ask my mother for other Moroccan recipes, how she celebrated the holidays, anything she can remember. She tells me about Grandma Estrella who did seamstress work for the King’s Palace, and Grandpa Emil’s barber shop. A famous Arab sheriff was so grateful for my grandfather’s barbering skill, he would deliver seven live chickens to Emil’s household just before Yom Kippur for Kapparot. We have fun with these stories, my mother and I. They bind us as surely as my children – her grandchildren – bind us.

When the Bergen Record comes and asks why I wrote the book, I give them my husband’s line. “I wrote it to be closer to my mother.” They laugh, but then push me for the real reason. I shrug. For now, that’s the only reason I can remember.

Read more about Ruchama King Feuerman and her newest novel, In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist, here.