The Mys­tics of Mile End

By – May 19, 2015

Told from mul­ti­ple points of view, includ­ing that of a lit­tle boy, a female col­lege stu­dent, a mid­dle-aged col­lege pro­fes­sor, and an old man, Sigal Samuel’s The Mys­tics of Mile End exam­ines the inter­sec­tion of cryp­tic Jew­ish mys­ti­cism and reli­gious life in mod­ern-day Montreal.

David Mey­er is a lapsed Ortho­dox Jew whose life (and mar­riage) was nev­er the same upon his dis­cov­ery of Ger­shom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jew­ish Mys­ti­cism. After read­ing it, he dropped out of yeshi­va and marched down the path that even­tu­al­ly led to his becom­ing a pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish mys­ti­cism. A wid­ow­er father of two chil­dren, Sama­ra and Lev, with a pen­chant for sleep­ing with the occa­sion­al grad­u­ate stu­dent, David feels most alive while jog­ging — he’s con­vinced that after a cer­tain lev­el of exer­tion he hits a unique runner’s high that allows him to hear his heart con­vey­ing a mes­sage of two syl­la­bles, either Ani or Ayin.

Ani, mean­ing I,” and Ayin, mean­ing noth­ing” are dia­met­ri­cal oppo­sites, and the con­trast of these two ideas is not lost on the read­er famil­iar with Jew­ish Hasidic ideas. A well-known Hasidic teach­ing (some attribute it to Rab­bi Sim­cha Bunim of Peshis­cha, oth­ers to the mys­ti­cal­ly-mind­ed Rebbe Nach­man) states that In one pock­et every per­son should car­ry a piece of paper that says I am but dust and ash­es,’ and in the oth­er pock­et should be a paper that says For my sake was the world cre­at­ed.’ ” This clas­sic mys­ti­cal idea of striv­ing to leave one’s mark in the world while remain­ing aware of one’s ulti­mate insignif­i­cance pops up in dif­fer­ent guis­es through­out the absorb­ing novel.

The Mys­tics of Mile End, the debut nov­el from Samuel, a Mon­tre­al native who day­lights as an edi­tor at the For­ward is, as might be expect­ed, rid­dled with ref­er­ences to the Jew­ish mys­ti­cism. Aside from David’s career study­ing mys­ti­cal texts with a schol­ar­ly eye, there are numer­ous char­ac­ters attempt­ing to build and climb” the mys­ti­cal Tree of Life — most humor­ous­ly, a bat­ty old neigh­bor attempts to build such a Tree on his front lawn out of toi­let paper rolls and den­tal floss. And just as the Kab­bal­ah is often treat­ed as a much-aligned Jew­ish area of study by the Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­al main­stream, each mem­ber of the Mey­er fam­i­ly suf­fers from some degree of iso­la­tion and sep­a­ra­tion from them­selves and one another.

Samara’s strug­gle is com­ing to terms with her dis­tant father in light of her bur­geon­ing homo­sex­u­al­i­ty, and a decrease in what was once a fer­vent inter­est in Jew­ish prac­tice. Lev comes from the oth­er side of the reli­gious spec­trum — as he ages, his inter­est in reli­gious life increas­es, much to the con­ster­na­tion of his father and sis­ter. And David grad­u­al­ly feels the build-up of dis­tance and detach­ment from his chil­dren, which becomes a major source of anguish. In a pow­er­ful moment, he jogs past a syn­a­gogue just as it lets out: Dark beards and scrawny shoul­ders pushed past, while the gazes of their own­ers slid right through me; I felt, for a moment, the lone­li­ness of the invisible.”

Samuel’s writ­ing is crisp and enjoy­able and the text is pep­pered with charm­ing lit­tle anec­dotes about aca­d­e­m­ic and reli­gious life in Mon­tre­al. The effort­less way in which Samuel inhab­its the four dis­tinct voic­es con­vey­ing the nar­ra­tive is impres­sive. Sim­i­lar­ly, her com­mand of com­plex mys­ti­cal ideas is assured, but what’s most strik­ing is her abil­i­ty to con­fi­dent­ly imbue a sto­ry about a fam­i­ly strug­gling with con­tem­po­rary issues with insight and human­i­ty gleaned from age-old mys­ti­cal texts.

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.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of William Mor­row Books. Copy­right Harper­Collins, 2015.

  • Why do you think the author set this book in Montreal’s Mile End neigh­bor­hood? What does the set­ting add to the story?

  • David is depict­ed as a sec­u­lar pro­fes­sor. Do you think he is a spir­i­tu­al per­son, if not a reli­gious one? How does his rela­tion­ship with reli­gion change after he is diag­nosed with the heart murmur?

  • How are Lev and Sama­ra dif­fer­ent? How are they alike? Why do they adopt such oppo­site atti­tudes toward reli­gion as they grow up?

  • Is Sama­ra a sym­pa­thet­ic char­ac­ter? Why or why not? Is it impor­tant to your expe­ri­ence of the book that you like her?

  • Why do both David and Sama­ra grow obsessed with the Tree of Life? And why is the out­come dif­fer­ent for each of them? Can you relate to this sort of obsession?

  • When Sama­ra begins to climb the Tree of Life, she choos­es to send let­ters to Alex. Why him?

  • Mr. Katz’s neigh­bors see him as deranged. Are there any moments that sug­gest he may not be so crazy after all? What do you imag­ine led to his obses­sion with recre­at­ing mys­ti­cal trees?

  • In one of his sto­ries, Mr. Glass­man lists words that don’t exist but should. What do you think he wish­es he could say to his wife, and what does he say after the book ends? What are some expe­ri­ences that you wish you had words for?

  • A Jew­ish leg­end quot­ed in this book tells of four sages who enter a holy gar­den: one dies, one goes mad, one cuts down the plant­i­ngs,” and one comes out intact. Do you see par­al­lels between them and the char­ac­ters in this novel?

  • Where do you think Sama­ra and Lev will be in ten years? What will their rela­tion­ship be like over that decade? Will Jen­ny still be in their lives? Will Val?