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How My Montreal Novel Led Me To Mumbai

Friday, December 25, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Sigal Samuel wrote about a key deleted scene to The Mystics of Mile End and envisioning a mystical experience for the twenty-first century against the traditions of Kabbalah. She is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

“Is your novel autobiographical?” That’s the question I (and probably all novelists) get asked most often. While I was in the process of writing The Mystics of Mile End, I would always answer “No.” Little did I know I was lying to people.

I thought I was writing a novel about a Kabbalah-obsessed family because my father was a professor of Kabbalah, which meant I’d grown up with easy access to Jewish mystical texts—simple as that. Only after I finished writing the book did I find out that my family’s Kabbalistic connection actually went much deeper—and much farther back.

The realization came on Passover, when I went home to Montreal for a seder with my dad and my grandmother. She’s an Indian Jew, born and raised in Mumbai. I watched her take the seder plate’s egg and peel it with neurotic carefulness, making sure to capture every tiny bit of eggshell in a napkin. When I asked why she was being so insanely precise about it, she shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said, “it’s just something my mother and grandmother did, and I learned to handle food from them, so I do it, too.”

Meanwhile, my dad started smiling across the table. “I know why she does it,” he said. “It’s a Kabbalistic ritual.” He explained that her way of handling an egg was rooted in the mystical idea of the Shattering of the Vessels. According to the Kabbalists, when the light of the divine poured down into the ten vessels that gave rise to all of creation, the force of its holiness shattered them. Bit of the broken vessels went tumbling down into darkness, and that was the beginning of evil. My grandmother is careful not to let a single shard of shell escape because of a fear of letting evil into the world.

For a moment, I was dumbstruck. Then I said: “But, wait. Her mother and grandmother were not educated women, so how could they have known about this Kabbalistic idea?”

My dad looked surprised. “What do you mean? Don’t you know that your great-great-grandfather was a famous Kabbalist in Mumbai? That the Jews of the city would come to study mysticism with him? That his home was known as Beit Kabbalah, the House of Kabbalah? That legend has it he died when someone interrupted him in the middle of a dangerous Kabbalistic meditation practice?”

Well, no, I didn’t know—because nobody told me!

I spent a while feeling shocked (and, let’s face it, a bit ticked off) that they’d never bothered to tell me this cool bit of family lore. Then I realized that maybe it was my fault. After all, I’d never asked.

Now, I started asking, with a vengeance. I gathered up all my grandmother’s memories of life in India, got on a plane and flew to Mumbai.

On this trip, which I ended up chronicling for the Forward, I didn’t manage to find any tangible traces of my great-great-grandfather and his Beit Kabbalah. But I did find out that my great-grandfather had been a Freemason—and possibly also a Theosophist.

The Theosophists were a secret society that blended the mystical traditions of many religions, putting a heavy emphasis on Kabbalah. There were plenty of Jewish Theosophists in Mumbai in the early 1900s. In 1925, they formed their own subgroup called the Association of Hebrew Theosophists, and their leader was Reuben Ani, a Jew related to me by marriage.

I started to become obsessed with the idea that my great-grandfather might have been a Theosophist. And so, eventually, I tracked down Mumbai’s contemporary Theosophical Society and crashed one of their meetings. Though they initially tried to shoo me away, they were impressed when they heard about my ancestry. They ended up initiating me into their secret society, calling me “Sister Sigal” and asking me to recite blessings in Hebrew.

In this way, writing my novel not only led me to discover my own family’s roots—it also led me on an obsessive Kabbalistic search that eerily resembles the search of my characters, collapsing the gap between them and me, between fiction and autobiography.

Sigal Samuel is an award-winning fiction writer, journalist, essayist, and playwright. Originally from Montreal, Sigal now lives and writes in Brooklyn. The Mystics of Mile End is her first novel.

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  • The Scene I Cut From My Novel Is Actually the Key To It

    Wednesday, December 23, 2015 | Permalink

    Earlier this week, Sigal Samuel wrote about envisioning a mystical experience for the twenty-first century against the traditions of Kabbalah. She is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

    It’s a strange irony that a scene I love but ultimately had to cut from my novel best explains why I wrote the novel in the first place.

    I’ll share part of it with you here. In this deleted passage from The Mystics of Mile End, an elderly and very isolated European Jew is trying, and failing, to read Shakespeare:

    More and more often, Glassman found himself appealing to the pleasure of carefully measured, beautifully proportioned words to stave off the specter of the old mistake that encroached on his mind when everyone else in the world was asleep. If only, if only he could understand! Because the words, beautiful as they were, were horribly confusing. Their meaning was gray and dim, like a dream that slipped away at the first signs of daylight. Glassman hated that night after night he kept brushing up against the limits of his own abilities. He wanted to understand. But he had no method, no system, and no teacher or friend who could help him push those limits further out.

    After the war he’d simply read whatever chanced to come his way. As a result, the holes in his knowledge of history and philosophy and science, like the holes in his vocabulary, were fathomless and impossible to number. Making his way through a poem or a passage of prose was like hopping from slippery stone to slippery stone in order to cross a river: he sensed, could actually physically feel, that there were huge gaping swaths of meaning in between his solid points of reference, large marshy areas that he dare not step foot in, because who knew where they would lead, what they were made of, and whether he would ever find his way out again?

    With a cautious toe, he felt around and sought out the words he knew. Sometimes these familiar words would come in clumps of eight or nine or ten, and when he reached one of these islands he would stand on it for a minute or more, frozen and grateful and breathless, before moving on. It was tempting to stay on these little islands forever, but he knew it was important to keep moving; if he stood in the midst of the same sentence for too long, it began to lose its shape, crumbling first into individual words and then into individual letters that broke apart beneath his feet and dissolved in the water around him. And this was a fearful thing, to be stranded inside a word, letters falling off on all sides, leaving the reader in empty space with nothing solid to cling to, sometimes, but a single vowel. And if this single vowel should then succeed in slipping from his grasp — then, then he was in trouble! Then there was nothing to anchor him in the blessed world of sound and, spinning off into silence, his body could easily come unstuck and fly apart from the thing that gave it life: the soul. To ensure safe passage through a stretch of language the reader had to race, and yet racing for pages and pages at a time, across increasingly sparse and slippery stones, was in itself exhausting and soul-crushing work.

    You can probably see why this passage got cut, right? It doesn’t push the plot forward; the action is all internal. But I admit that it has a special place in my heart. It features a character who counts on language to keep him sane, who uses words’ concrete sounds to moor him when he’s adrift in silence—only to find that words themselves are not stable berths or quays or jetties; they’re constantly threatening to come apart. And if they come apart, you come apart, too.

    I both relate and don’t relate to Glassman’s experience. Like my character, I read to keep body and soul together. But I write to make them fly apart.

    And that flying-apart, when it’s intentionally provoked, is the best feeling I know. It’s what made me write this book in the first place.

    I remember how and where I did it: night after night after night in a bleak university library. I was surrounded by unglamorous fluorescent lighting and student meal smells, an endless ramen haze. I always chose the same seat, facing a blank white wall. Every night I’d sit there for four hours, from 8:00, when I finished dinner, until midnight, when the janitor would shoo me out and lock up the building.

    My goal in those hours was to put down 1000 words; good or bad, it didn’t matter. At first it was hard—painful—to make myself face the blank white of my computer screen. But after about twenty minutes of typing, something happened. It wasn’t just that I’d suddenly remember forgotten moments from childhood, or find myself hearing a character’s voice that others had warned me I wouldn’t be able to access; ideas would come flying out of my fingertips that I never knew I had in me.

    At the risk of sounding like one of my crazy, mysticism-obsessed characters, I’m just going to go ahead and say it: In those moments, the act of writing itself felt like a Kabbalistic practice.

    The medieval mystics’ meditations were nothing if not techniques for achieving altered states of consciousness. That’s exactly what writing fiction does for me. It alters my consciousness in a way that opens me up to something beyond myself. It allows some Other—call it a dybbuk, call it my subconscious—to temporarily inhabit my conscious mind and take over, producing things that are much better than anything I’d be able to produce if it were “just me” sitting there.

    For this reason, writing fiction always feels to me like cheating. My dirty secret is that I feel I’m not a creator but a stenographer, a transcriptionist. But what can I do? It’s still the best feeling I know.

    Sigal Samuel is an award-winning fiction writer, journalist, essayist, and playwright. Originally from Montreal, Sigal now lives and writes in Brooklyn. The Mystics of Mile End is her first novel.

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    My Very Unorthodox Kabbalist

    Monday, December 21, 2015 | Permalink

    Recently named Opinion Editor at the Forward, Sigal Samuel is the author of The Mystics of Mile End, a novel bending standard concepts of community, gender, and Jewish mysticism. She is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

    Image from An Illumination of Blessings by Ilene Winn Lederer

    To study Kabbalah, you’re supposed to be (a) forty years old, (b) married, and (c) a man. I am none of these things. Luckily, I grew up with a dad who was a professor of Jewish mysticism and was willing to share its secrets with me.

    Raised in Montreal’s Orthodox community, I attended a school with strict gender norms. I was expected to obey all of Judaism’s 613 commandments. But, as a girl, I wasn’t allowed to take an interest in the religion’s more esoteric branches.

    That didn’t stop my dad from giving me lessons in mysticism. His after-school classes, which usually took place around our dining room table, began when I was about twelve and continued throughout my high school years.

    I loved these Kabbalah lessons. What I didn’t love was the way Kabbalah seemed to replicate the gender norms I was trying to escape. It wasn’t just that women were not supposed to be studying the medieval mystical texts; the texts themselves included some pretty sexist ideas about women.

    I remember the day my dad introduced me to the Kabbalah’s Tree of Life—the ten divine vessels that gave rise to the entire physical world. He explained that, according to the Kabbalists, some vessels are male and some are female. The male ones emit divine light, while the female ones only receive it. I protested, stamped my foot, felt insulted and cheated and angry.

    That feeling was still with me when, years later, I sat down to write The Mystics of Mile End, my novel about a dysfunctional Jewish family obsessed with climbing the Tree of Life as a way to become one with God. Although I had a lot of love for the Kabbalistic texts, I knew that I wanted to question and subvert their gender norms. Plus, from a writer’s perspective, I almost had no choice but to do that: How could I show a hyper-educated, contemporary, urban Montreal family engaging with Kabbalah and not have at least one of them grapple with its sexism? In our postmodern world, that wouldn’t be believable.

    All of this might go some way toward explaining why, in my novel, the most successful Kabbalist is not David, the family patriarch who also happens to be a professor of Jewish mysticism, but his daughter Samara. She doesn’t fit the profile of a Kabbalist at all, especially since (a) she’s a young college student, (b) she’s not married but in a relationship with another woman, and (c) she is, of course, female.

    In addition to pushing back against the Kabbalists’ sexism (including the idea that men are active and women are passive), Samara develops some pretty… unorthodox methods of climbing the Tree of Life. Let’s just say it involves club-hopping, binge-drinking, and giving blowjobs in dark alleys.

    At this point, a medieval mystic might object that those aren’t, ahem, bona fide ways of becoming one with God. But it’s the twenty-first century, and if we really want to imagine what a mystical attempt would look like nowadays, we’ve got to be willing to do some gender-bending and genre-bending—ideally both at once.

    Sigal Samuel is an award-winning fiction writer, journalist, essayist, and playwright. Originally from Montreal, Sigal now lives and writes in Brooklyn. The Mystics of Mile End is her first novel.

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    Interview: Sigal Samuel

    Sunday, October 04, 2015 | Permalink

    by Elie Lichtschein

    Sigal Samuel is the author of the debut novel The Mystics of Mile End, published this October by William Morrow.

    Elie Lichtschein: The Mystics of Mile End is written from four distinct perspectives. How did you go about channeling these different voices? Were there any difficulties you faced in doing so?

    Sigal Samuel: When I decided to write from the perspectives of a little boy, a middle-aged professor, a female college student, and an old man, I thought the hardest part would be accessing an authentic voice for each, but the trickier thing was actually staying “in the zone” of any one voice long enough to finish writing that character’s section. For a while, I actually had to give up reading fiction that was written in a vastly different voice from the one I was trying to create.

    EL: A recurring theme in this book is that of the outsider standing on the fringes of a close-knit community. David, Samara, and Mr. Katz each manifest this at times. Which is a neat embodiment of the Kabbalah's role in traditional Jewish study—it's not meant to be examined until one is forty years of age, and even then only with a special tutor. Do you find that the study of Kabbalah is essential for a Jew's intellectual development, or is it more supplementary in nature?

    SS: I think it depends on the person. For many Jews, Kabbalah is unnecessary at best and heretical at worst. For me, it’s the most interesting (and moving, and radical, and literary!) thing that Judaism has to offer.

    EL: What first inspired your interest in the mystical side of Judaism? Were you raised with it or did it develop later?

    SS: My father was a professor of Jewish mysticism, so I was exposed to Kabbalistic texts and ideas from a young age. Once, when I was maybe eight years old, I sat in on one of his university lectures. Looking up from the flashing lights of my Gameboy, I saw that he was using a yoyo to illustrate the movement of the mystic’s soul as it ascends and descends on the path toward God. That was it—I was hooked.

    EL: What other works informed your writing of this book? Which authors—classic or contemporary—were most influential while you worked on The Mystics of Mile End?

    SS: I was inspired by Jewish works ranging from the ancient (Torah, Talmud) to the medieval (Zohar) to the modern (S.Y. Agnon) to the postmodern (Myla Goldberg, Nicole Krauss). The magical realist element in my fiction owes itself to contemporary Jewish writers (Etgar Keret, Jonathan Safran Foer) as well as South American writers (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges). While writing Mystics, I kept returning to my all-time favorite novel, Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov—the character of Alyosha Karamazov being a loose inspiration for Lev.

    EL: I'm curious about your process in writing the book. Did you know from the outset that there would be four distinct voices, or was that a decision that came about once you had already begun writing?

    SS: Originally, I tried writing the whole story from Samara’s perspective. But it felt claustrophobic to stay in the head of one increasingly insane narrator for 300 pages. So I tried writing it in four sections, with the final section written entirely from the perspective of the old neighbor, Mr. Glassman. But many readers told me that they wanted to return to Lev’s voice at the end of the book, since they’d bonded with him so strongly at the beginning. So I rewrote that last section from the point of view of the neighborhood, swiveling between the perspectives of a few residents (including Lev), and was happy with the result. I was surprised to find that the book could take so many different forms—it was almost infinitely malleable.

    EL: You have a wonderful grasp on the lonely hope that is a major component to childhood—I found Lev's constant attempts to set up his widowed father especially poignant. What are some of the difficulties in writing about childhood? Do you find it easier in your writing to grab the reigns of a twelve year old's mind or that of an adult?

    SS: I find it easier to inhabit an adult’s mind. Writing in a kid’s voice is tough because you have to remember that all kids, even precocious ones like Lev, are self-centered—they think the whole world revolves around them. I read Lev’s whole section out loud to myself to make sure every phrase sounded like something he would really say. Living in a child’s mind is also rewarding, though: it forces you to reconnect with your childhood self, to remember that experience in all its loneliness and lushness and confusion and awe.

    EL: What do you hope readers will take away from The Mystics of Mile End?

    SS: I think that some of us are so hungry for meaning that we get obsessed with certain ideas—often seductive religious or mystical ideas—and we forget that pursuing this obsession comes at a cost to the people around us. Without making any moral judgment about this, I wanted readers to consider what’s the value of devoting yourself to some notion of holiness if it means leaving behind those who love you most?

    EL: What can readers expect from you next?

    SS: I’m interested in writing about India these days. After I finished writing Mystics, I found out that my own family has a mystical connection—my great-great-grandfather was a revered Kabbalist in Bombay. I traveled there to hunt down his forgotten secret society and came back with a longform article for the Forward, “Searching for My Indian Jewish Family, from Kabbalah to Bollywood.” That trip left me with such powerful impressions — I wouldn’t be surprised if they find their way into my fiction.

    EL: What are you reading now?

    SS: I’m reading Sarah Wildman’s amazing memoir, Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind. On the surface, it’s a Holocaust story rooted in Vienna, but it’s also a story about growing obsessed with a deeply unreliable family mythology.

    Elie Lichtschein is a writer and musician based in New York. He is currently pursuing an MFA degree in Creative Writing from the New School, where he is completing a mysti-fantasy Middle Grade adventure novel.

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