The Ruined House

Ruby Nam­dar; Hil­lel Halkin, trans.

By – May 16, 2017

Israeli expat Ruby Namdar’s The Ruined House is an ambi­tious, remark­able spec­ta­cle of a nov­el. Trans­lat­ed from Hebrew into exquis­ite Eng­lish by Hil­lel Halkin, it is set in New York City in the ear­ly twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry and cen­ters on Andrew Cohen, a pro­fes­sor of com­par­a­tive cul­ture at NYU. Nam­dar ren­ders every­thing from the beau­ti­ful to dis­gust­ing in lyri­cal yet inci­sive prose. A Long Island land­scape is described in rhap­sod­ic terms wor­thy of F. Scott Fitzger­ald — and vio­lent hal­lu­ci­na­tions, pornog­ra­phy, and bod­i­ly func­tions are described with equal pre­ci­sion and imag­i­na­tion. As befits the cul­ture crit­ic he is, Andrew scru­ti­nizes every­thing, from the hol­low­ness of elite social deco­rum, to the assim­ila­tive process­es of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish bour­geoisie, to the frus­tra­tions of the writ­ing process. This the­mat­ic range is enabled by the narrative’s use of free, indi­rect dis­course, which grants the read­er full access to Andrew’s mind with­out the con­straints of first-per­son nar­ra­tion. Namdar’s excel­lent writ­ing (for which Halkin must also be rec­og­nized), acute obser­va­tion­al com­men­tary, and flu­en­cy in Jew­ish reli­gious texts make this nov­el a tow­er­ing achieve­ment of con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture — and one that almost tran­scends the genre’s American/​Israeli divide, at that.

Andrew Cohen inhab­its a rar­i­fied Upper West Side Jew­ish uni­verse that includes Bar­ney Green­grass, Absolute Bagels, and Tom’s Din­er of Sein­feld fame. He is cur­rent­ly under­go­ing a midlife cri­sis, com­plete with a girl­friend half his age, who is a for­mer stu­dent; fears of impo­tence and cas­tra­tion; wan­ing influ­ence over an increas­ing­ly diverse acad­e­my; and writer’s block. Andrew is bril­liant — and also arro­gant, nar­cis­sis­tic, and some­times misog­y­nis­tic. Indeed, spend­ing 500 pages inside his mind is not always enjoy­able. The trope of the dif­fi­cult, aging Amer­i­can Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­al is hard­ly a rare one in the Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­ary tra­di­tion. The nov­el is pep­pered with ref­er­ences to Philip Roth, Saul Bel­low, and Woody Allen, and the char­ac­ter of Andrew owes much to the arche­type of the Jew­ish Amer­i­can intel­lec­tu­al that those writ­ers refined.

But these aspects of Andrew’s cri­sis take sec­ond place to the core of what Andrew is expe­ri­enc­ing: a series of dis­turb­ing visions — of the Yom Kip­pur sac­ri­fi­cial rit­u­al dur­ing the Sec­ond Tem­ple peri­od, the destruc­tion of the Sec­ond Tem­ple, and of gen­er­al apoc­a­lypse — that become more fre­quent and more dis­turb­ing as the nov­el (and the Jew­ish year) pro­gress­es. Yehu­da Amichai, the first mod­ern Hebrew poet, who appears in the nov­el as well, is an influ­ence as much as Bel­low and Roth. If Amer­i­can Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture gives this nov­el its sur­face, Hebrew lit­er­a­ture gives it its substance.

The nov­el is divid­ed into sev­en books,” each of which is fur­ther divid­ed into chap­ters, dat­ed with both the Hebrew and Gre­go­ri­an cal­en­dars. These books are inter­spersed with the orig­i­nal sto­ry of a High Priest per­form­ing the Yom Kip­pur rit­u­al, sit­u­at­ed on Tal­mud-like pages along­side rel­e­vant sec­tions from Torah, Tal­mud, and Mish­na, as well as selec­tions from The Gate of Rebirth,” which explains the jour­neys of bro­ken souls over time and which appears to be inspired by the Kab­bal­is­tic text The Gate of Rein­car­na­tion.” With these Rebirth” sec­tions, Nam­dar seems to imply that Andrew’s soul is con­nect­ed to that of a priest­ly ances­tor. One such sec­tion reads, If a vital soul has not been per­fect­ed in its first stay in earth, it must return as often as nec­es­sary to per­fect itself. Even when it has done so, how­ev­er, it must be reborn one more time to be con­joined with an intel­lec­tu­al soul.” Per­haps the excru­ci­at­ing process Andrew is under­go­ing, forced to con­tend with visions of his ances­tors’ past, sig­ni­fies the rejoin­ing of his soul — the intel­lec­tu­al soul — with his past incar­na­tion, the vital soul.

As Andrew has more and more fre­quent visions of his poten­tial for­bear­ers, his ances­tral tra­di­tion sub­tly enters his life. He reacts with new­found revul­sion to things con­sid­ered rit­u­al­ly impure accord­ing to halakha: men­stru­a­tion, noc­tur­nal emis­sions, treyf. He uncon­scious­ly observes Jew­ish rit­u­als accord­ing to the cal­en­dar. Dur­ing the Omer, dur­ing which obser­vant Jews refrain from joy­ous activ­i­ties and do not cut their hair or shave, he gets a rash that pre­vents him from shav­ing. When does he final­ly shave? The 18th of Iyar, of course, also known as Lag b’Omer, the only time dur­ing the Omer that such activ­i­ties are per­mit­ted. The day before Tisha b’Av, when Jews mourn the Temple’s destruc­tion, he smells smoke in a fit of apoc­a­lyp­tic visions. The dra­mat­ic irony is that, unbe­knownst to Andrew, the World Trade Cen­ter will fall in mere weeks, and his vision of the destruc­tion of New York City, of the ruined house, will be realized.

Thus Andrew’s com­fort­able, sec­u­lar New York Jew­ish lifestyle is inter­rupt­ed by and inter­min­gled with aspects of his ances­tral reli­gious tra­di­tion. In that sense, the ruined house” per­tains to both New York sec­u­lar­i­ty and ancient Judaism. And if the source of Andrew’s new­ly rel­e­vant Jew­ish iden­ti­ty is bib­li­cal, pre-rab­binic times — pre-Dias­po­ra — then the line between Israeli and Amer­i­can Jew­ish­ness becomes irrel­e­vant. In hold­ing these iden­ti­ties togeth­er, the nov­el is a remark­able achieve­ment, one which Nam­dar is unique­ly qual­i­fied to create.

Miran­da Coop­er is a NYC-based writer, edi­tor, and lit­er­ary trans­la­tor. Her lit­er­ary crit­i­cism, essays, and trans­la­tions of Yid­dish fic­tion and poet­ry have appeared in a num­ber of pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing Jew­ish Cur­rents, Kirkus Reviews, the Los Ange­les Review, Pakn Treger, and more. In 2019, she was named an Emerg­ing Crit­ic by the Nation­al Book Crit­ics Cir­cle. She is also an edi­tor at In geveb: A Jour­nal of Yid­dish Stud­ies.