Ruchama King Feuer­mans cel­e­brat­ed first nov­el about match­mak­ing (Sev­en Bless­ings, SMP) earned her the praise of The New York Times and Dal­las Morn­ing News, and Kirkus Reviews dubbed Feuer­man the Jew­ish Jane Austen.” Her most recent book, In the Court­yard of the Kab­bal­ist (NYRB LIT), is now avail­able. She will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

Ruchama King Feuer­man’s Moth­er and Father
The Bergen Record was com­ing to my house to do an inter­view for my new nov­el. You’d think after hav­ing spent years and years writ­ing this book, I’d have imag­ined this moment, pre­pared for it, I’d have my pat­ter down, my lines. Ten min­utes before they came, I called my hus­band. Quick,” I blurt­ed, tell me again why I wrote this nov­el.” My hus­band, a psy­cho­an­a­lyst, replied, Tell them you wrote it to be clos­er to your moth­er.”

I rolled my eyes, laughed, and then I thought, hey, there’s a shtick­el bit of truth here. In the Court­yard of the Kab­bal­ist fea­tures a Mus­lim Arab man. My moth­er grew up in Casablan­ca, Moroc­co, which tech­ni­cal­ly also makes her an Arab, even if she’s an Ara­bic Jew. Here’s the thing, though. When­ev­er friends meet my moth­er, they can’t believe we’re even remote­ly relat­ed. She can bel­ly dance with the best of them and hunt down bar­gains and tchotchkes with a ter­ri­fy­ing zeal. In her sev­en­ties she is still noticed, still the Casablan­can glam­our queen. In con­trast, I’m hap­pi­est at a Chu­mash class or holed down in front of my com­put­er in a ragged T‑shirt. Also, tchotchkes don’t mean a thing to me. She is so out there, and I am so in here, in myself. Con­ver­sa­tions were not always easy. Some­times yes, some­times no. 

But as I researched my nov­el, sud­den­ly we found a lot to talk about. She lives in Israel now and has picked up a respectable Ara­bic, almost as good as her Parisian French. She knows the food, the phras­es, the ges­tures, even if they dif­fer a bit from one Arab coun­try to anoth­er. A cor­nu­copia of detail, a writer’s par­adise! Of course I was also bur­row­ing through books about Islam, read­ing mem­oirs about Arab work­ers, googling my way to Mus­lim dat­ing web­sites and ask-the-Imam web­sites, and speak­ing with every Arab man and woman I knew in Pas­sa­ic, but maybe my moth­er could fill in the gaps, make me feel more heimis­che with this cul­ture I knew noth­ing about.

After I sat­is­fied my need for details, I found myself hun­gry for sto­ries of my mother’s child­hood in Moroc­co. There’s the sto­ry of how her grand­moth­er — anoth­er Moroc­can beau­ty — was abduct­ed by a rich sheikh when she was shop­ping for veg­eta­bles one day in the shuk. Through back-door chan­nels and nego­ti­a­tions, my great-grand­moth­er (then mar­ried and in her thir­ties) was returned unharmed, untouched.

You see,” my moth­er says. The Arabs in Moroc­co had a sense of hon­or.” I almost ask, Maybe have more hon­or and not abduct women in the first place?” But I don’t like to dis­turb the con­ver­sa­tion­al flow between us.

I love the sto­ries that bring Jews and Arabs togeth­er in small but sur­pris­ing ways – kind of the top­ic of my nov­el. My moth­er tells how her moth­er — my Grand­ma Estrel­la — would make a big pot of hari­ra soup every day dur­ing Ramadan. It was my mother’s job to deliv­er it to their Mus­lim clean­ing lady who lived in a base­ment in the French Quar­ter. Hari­ra soup is a mouth-water­ing one-pot meal with meat, chick­peas, lentils, toma­toes, cel­ery, lemon, cilantro, onion, and thick­ened with flour or very thin noo­dles — an Ara­bic ver­sion of mine­strone soup, but much fin­er and tasti­er. This was the food eat­en at the end of each day of Ramadan to sus­tain you for the next day’s fast. The pot would be left overnight at the maid’s, cleaned only with paper (not a sponge) for kosher rea­sons, and then returned the next morn­ing. I’m entranced every time I hear this sto­ry: an employ­er cook­ing food dai­ly for her clean­ing lady; a Jew help­ing a Mus­lim fast on her hol­i­day; and my favorite, a Mus­lim woman clean­ing the pot with paper to keep the pot kosher.

Ruchama King Feuer­man’s Moth­er and Grandmother

I ask my moth­er for oth­er Moroc­can recipes, how she cel­e­brat­ed the hol­i­days, any­thing she can remem­ber. She tells me about Grand­ma Estrel­la who did seam­stress work for the King’s Palace, and Grand­pa Emil’s bar­ber shop. A famous Arab sher­iff was so grate­ful for my grandfather’s bar­ber­ing skill, he would deliv­er sev­en live chick­ens to Emil’s house­hold just before Yom Kip­pur for Kap­parot. We have fun with these sto­ries, my moth­er and I. They bind us as sure­ly as my chil­dren – her grand­chil­dren – bind us.

When the Bergen Record comes and asks why I wrote the book, I give them my husband’s line. I wrote it to be clos­er to my moth­er.” They laugh, but then push me for the real rea­son. I shrug. For now, that’s the only rea­son I can remember.

Read more about Ruchama King Feuer­man and her newest nov­el, In the Court­yard of the Kab­bal­ist, here.

Ruchama King Feuer­man’s sec­ond nov­el, In the Court­yard of the Kab­bal­ist, was a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Awards final­ist and was named one of the best nov­els of 2013 in The Wall Street Jour­nal. Her first nov­el about match­mak­ing, Sev­en Bless­ings, earned her the praise of The New York Times and the Dal­las Morn­ing News.