In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist

New York Review of Books  2013

 

Isaac Markowitz is a forty-three-year-old haberdasher from the Lower East Side who feels unfulfilled and moves to Jerusalem. Isaac had almost married, almost become a rabbi, and almost formed a school of his own. He winds up as the assistant to an elderly rabbi and his wife, who do kindnesses for the array of unfortunate people who loiter in their courtyard seeking help. Isaac befriends Mustafa, a crippled custodian who is an outcast to his family, and Tamar, a young American woman who feels like an outsider after making aliyah and becoming observant. Mustafa works cleaning the Temple Mount and picks up ancient shards hidden within the rubbish. Red-headed Tamar rides a Vespa through Jerusalem and wants to find the perfect mate. Mustafa is drawn to the courtyard of the rabbi with questions about the kohanim – Jewish priests. These characters have brushes with criminals and the police and fear the Waqf as they get involved with antiquities. With gentle nudging from the rabbi and rebbetzin, and through his work helping others, Isaac slowly comes into his own, realizing his self worth and finding meaning in his life. This book has a slow enjoyable rhythm reminiscent of a traditional folktale. The characters are likable eccentrics and the author describes Jerusalem beautifully. Although this reader anticipated a happy ending, a few twists kept the plot interesting and didn’t disappoint.

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Discussion Questions

Courtesy of NY Review of Books

1. In a way, this novel is about numb people who wake up. What role can religion and culture play in sedating you, and what role can it play in waking you up?

2. Why could Isaac only find relief from his woes in Israel? What was there that he could not find in the vibrant Jewish community of New York?

3. If such a think were possible, would you seek out the kabbalist or his wife, Shaindel Bracha, for advice?

4. Does Shaindel Bracha's stance toward her spiritual gifts reveal a feminism or an anti-feminism?

5. How does the Jerusalem portrayed in the novel differ from the Jerusalem of your own perceptions?

6. Do you see Mustafa as a betrayer of his people or as loyal to himself and to the true principles of his religion?

7. What is Isaac's view of manhood? Does it change?

8. To whom does an ancient artifact belong—the one who unearthed it or the people whose story it tells?

9. Would you call this novel a political book? Or perhaps an anti-political book?

10. What lessons can we take for our own lives from the relationship of the Rebbi and Rebbetzin to each other and to those who come to the courtyard?



 



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