In the Court­yard of the Kabbalist

By – May 13, 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.

Miri­am Brad­man Abra­hams, mom, grand­mom, avid read­er, some­time writer, born in Havana, raised in Brook­lyn, resid­ing in Long Beach on Long Island. Long­time for­mer One Region One Book chair and JBC liai­son for Nas­sau Hadas­sah, cur­rent­ly pre­sent­ing Inci­dent at San Miguel with author AJ Sidran­sky who wrote the his­tor­i­cal fic­tion based on her Cuban Jew­ish refugee family’s expe­ri­ences dur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion. Flu­ent in Span­ish and Hebrew, cer­ti­fied hatha yoga instructor.

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?