by Miri­am Brad­man Abrahams

Ruchama King Feuerman’s lat­est nov­el, In the Court­yard of the Kab­bal­ist, has been praised by the Wall Street Jour­nal among many oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and was a final­ist in Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award’s fic­tion cat­e­go­ry. Ruchama spoke to me as sin­cere­ly and pas­sion­ate­ly as to a friend. Her pas­sion for Israel, for writ­ing and research, and for her work help­ing to devel­op oth­er writ­ers shone through­out our phone conversation.

Miri­am Brad­man Abra­hams: To which char­ac­ters do you relate in your stories?

Ruchama King Feuer­man: There are pieces of me in all the char­ac­ters. Isaac reminds me of my father, while Mustafa also reminds me of him, since they each had a defor­mi­ty. [Feuerman’s father lost an ear in a child­hood acci­dent.] I share ide­o­log­i­cal frus­tra­tions with my char­ac­ter Beth from Sev­en Bless­ings, though there are many dif­fer­ences between us. 

MBA: Where does your obses­sion with kab­bal­ists come from?

RKF: I lived in Jerusalem for ten years and befriend­ed wise women” who all sought out kab­bal­ists. I was obsessed with any­one who is wise and holy, includ­ing assis­tants to kabbalists.

It was rec­om­mend­ed that I meet the Rav Ush­er Fre­und and while wait­ing many hours for my chance to speak with him, I felt joy at see­ing all dif­fer­ent types of peo­ple wait­ing in his court­yard; it was a hum­bling expe­ri­ence. The kabbalist’s assis­tant blew me away with his insight and inten­si­ty and even­tu­al­ly, after many hours wait­ing and now run­ning out of time, I had just one minute face to face with the kab­bal­ist whose grand­daugh­ter was beside him. I told Rav Ush­er Fre­und my name, and he told me his. There erupt­ed between us a mag­i­cal laugh­ter which has stayed with me to this day.

MBA: It’s easy to see your love for Jerusalem in your writ­ing. Why did you make aliyah and why did you leave?

RKF: Mov­ing there was a nat­ur­al exten­sion of my back­ground. My father shared sto­ries about his spir­i­tu­al jour­ney. I took my father’s dream of going to Israel and ran with it. I arrived at age sev­en­teen, and was open to many types of com­mu­ni­ties, but felt not com­plete­ly part of one. I thought I couldn’t fall in love and make a life for myself in Israel. I left at twen­ty-sev­en to pur­sue an MFA in fic­tion writ­ing at Brook­lyn Col­lege. As the daugh­ter of a South­ern born-again Jew” and a Moroc­can moth­er from Casablan­ca, I grew up with a Jew­ish edu­ca­tion and prac­tice. With my unique iden­ti­ty, to my FFB” (frum-from-birth [born into a reli­gious­ly obser­vant back­ground]) friends I’m a BT” (baal teshu­va [new­ly reli­gious­ly obser­vant]), and to my BT” friends I’m an FFB.”

MBA: How was your trip back to Israel this summer?

RKF: I hadn’t been to Israel since a short vis­it in 2002 and want­ed to return there with my hus­band and chil­dren. I felt the sweet­ness of life and the sense of humor with which peo­ple live there, espe­cial­ly dur­ing wartime. Upon return­ing to the U.S. I felt a sense of flat­ness, a vanil­la exis­tence” here. Going back to vis­it Israel was like wak­ing up from a coma. I spent some time in Tzfat, which I love, and in Raanana, where my mom lives.

MBA: How do you write descrip­tions of Jerusalem that read like a photograph?

RKF: I’ve been writ­ing since fifth grade, and pub­lished a few arti­cles in my twen­ties. I kept a jour­nal dur­ing my decade in Israel which refresh­es my mem­o­ry with details. Things make a vis­cer­al impres­sion on me and I try to cap­ture them. After years away from Israel I was afraid my im­pressions may have been dilut­ed, so I use the pow­er of invention.

MBA: Do you con­sid­er this book a polit­i­cal nov­el since you’re deal­ing with the ques­tion of own­er­ship of antiq­ui­ties found on the Tem­ple Mount?

RKF: A polit­i­cal nov­el is polar­iz­ing. I want to bring peo­ple in to expe­ri­ence true-life 3D char­ac­ters, not pol­i­tics with a cap­i­tal P.” I’m not shut­ting peo­ple out. I want the read­er to expe­ri­ence a 

Black Hat” reli­gious Jew, to have immer­sion, to care for dif­fer­ent types of peo­ple, to expe­ri­ence things you haven’t before, using imag­i­na­tion to expe­ri­ence what’s out of your realm. If there are polit­i­cal echoes then let them be.

MBA: Are you mak­ing a fem­i­nist point with all your strong inde­pen­dent women? Tamar, Reb­bet­zin Shain­del Bracha, and, in Sev­en Bless­ings, the young Ortho­dox women tak­ing upon them­selves the study of holy texts (tra­di­tion­al­ly reserved for men), ques­tion­ing, prob­ing and devel­op­ing them­selves in the process?

RKF: I don’t think I was mak­ing a fem­i­nist pitch. I sim­ply recalled a lot of the pow­er­ful, wise women with tons of Torah knowl­edge I met when I lived in Jerusalem. Not only famous teach­ers and reb­bet­zins but reg­u­lar women, next-door-neigh­bors whom you’d ran­dom­ly meet while tak­ing out the garbage or peo­ple you’d go to for Shab­bos. But I must say, the idea of a female kab­bal­ist excites me. It feels like a way of claim­ing our Bib­li­cal past, which was replete with female prophets.

MBA: Who are your influences?

RKF: Bernard Mala­mud, Rohin­ton Mis­try, Mon­i­ca Ali’s nov­el Brick Lane, Gra­ham Greene, Chaim Grade.

MBA: What are you work­ing on next?

RKF: I’m work­ing on mak­ing a liv­ing as a col­umnist and my one-on-one work with clients is grow­ing. I love writ­ing short sto­ries and want to get beyond Israel. I have an idea for two differ­ent nov­els, but it’s a com­mit­ment. A nov­el is like a mar­riage, a real com­mit­ment for many years, not an easy thing. I have no dis­ci­pline while in the midst of writ­ing; every­thing else falls to the way­side. Get­ting out the first draft is like hav­ing an itch on the brain.

MBA: What does your book tour look like?

RKF: I’m mak­ing 10 – 15 stops in the next five months!

Miri­am Brad­man Abra­hams is Cuban born, Brook­lyn bred, lives in Wood­mere, NY, Hadas­sah Nas­sau Region’s One Book chair­la­dy and liai­son to the Jew­ish Book Net­work, Hewlett Hadas­sah Her­ald edi­tor, retired book fair chair­la­dy, cer­ti­fied yoga instructor.

Relat­ed Content:

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.