Recent­ly named Opin­ion Edi­tor at the For­ward, Sigal Samuel is the author of The Mys­tics of Mile End, a nov­el bend­ing stan­dard con­cepts of com­mu­ni­ty, gen­der, and Jew­ish mys­ti­cism. She is blog­ging here all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series on The ProsenPeo­ple.

Image from An Illu­mi­na­tion of Bless­ings by Ilene Winn Lederer

To study Kab­bal­ah, you’re sup­posed to be (a) forty years old, (b) mar­ried, and © a man. I am none of these things. Luck­i­ly, I grew up with a dad who was a pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish mys­ti­cism and was will­ing to share its secrets with me.

Raised in Montreal’s Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ty, I attend­ed a school with strict gen­der norms. I was expect­ed to obey all of Judaism’s 613 com­mand­ments. But, as a girl, I wasn’t allowed to take an inter­est in the religion’s more eso­teric branches. 

That didn’t stop my dad from giv­ing me lessons in mys­ti­cism. His after-school class­es, which usu­al­ly took place around our din­ing room table, began when I was about twelve and con­tin­ued through­out my high school years. 

I loved these Kab­bal­ah lessons. What I didn’t love was the way Kab­bal­ah seemed to repli­cate the gen­der norms I was try­ing to escape. It wasn’t just that women were not sup­posed to be study­ing the medieval mys­ti­cal texts; the texts them­selves includ­ed some pret­ty sex­ist ideas about women. 

I remem­ber the day my dad intro­duced me to the Kabbalah’s Tree of Life — the ten divine ves­sels that gave rise to the entire phys­i­cal world. He explained that, accord­ing to the Kab­bal­ists, some ves­sels are male and some are female. The male ones emit divine light, while the female ones only receive it. I protest­ed, stamped my foot, felt insult­ed and cheat­ed and angry.

That feel­ing was still with me when, years lat­er, I sat down to write The Mys­tics of Mile End, my nov­el about a dys­func­tion­al Jew­ish fam­i­ly obsessed with climb­ing the Tree of Life as a way to become one with God. Although I had a lot of love for the Kab­bal­is­tic texts, I knew that I want­ed to ques­tion and sub­vert their gen­der norms. Plus, from a writer’s per­spec­tive, I almost had no choice but to do that: How could I show a hyper-edu­cat­ed, con­tem­po­rary, urban Mon­tre­al fam­i­ly engag­ing with Kab­bal­ah and not have at least one of them grap­ple with its sex­ism? In our post­mod­ern world, that wouldn’t be believable.

All of this might go some way toward explain­ing why, in my nov­el, the most suc­cess­ful Kab­bal­ist is not David, the fam­i­ly patri­arch who also hap­pens to be a pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish mys­ti­cism, but his daugh­ter Sama­ra. She doesn’t fit the pro­file of a Kab­bal­ist at all, espe­cial­ly since (a) she’s a young col­lege stu­dent, (b) she’s not mar­ried but in a rela­tion­ship with anoth­er woman, and © she is, of course, female. 

In addi­tion to push­ing back against the Kab­bal­ists’ sex­ism (includ­ing the idea that men are active and women are pas­sive), Sama­ra devel­ops some pret­ty… unortho­dox meth­ods of climb­ing the Tree of Life. Let’s just say it involves club-hop­ping, binge-drink­ing, and giv­ing blowjobs in dark alleys.

At this point, a medieval mys­tic might object that those aren’t, ahem, bona fide ways of becom­ing one with God. But it’s the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, and if we real­ly want to imag­ine what a mys­ti­cal attempt would look like nowa­days, we’ve got to be will­ing to do some gen­der-bend­ing and genre-bend­ing — ide­al­ly both at once.

Sigal Samuel is an award-win­ning fic­tion writer, jour­nal­ist, essay­ist, and play­wright. Orig­i­nal­ly from Mon­tre­al, Sigal now lives and writes in Brook­lyn. The Mys­tics of Mile End is her first novel.

Relat­ed Content:

Sigal Samuel is a Staff Writer for Voxs Future Per­fect.” She writes about arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, neu­ro­science, ethics, and the inter­sec­tion of tech­nol­o­gy and reli­gion. Pre­vi­ous­ly, she was the Reli­gion Edi­tor at The Atlantic. Her award-win­ning jour­nal­ism has also been pub­lished in out­lets like Buz­zFeed, The Dai­ly Beast, The Rum­pus, and Elec­tric Lit­er­a­ture. She has appeared on NPR, BBC, and CBC. Sigal’s nov­el, The Mys­tics of Mile End, tells the sto­ry of a dys­func­tion­al fam­i­ly deal­ing with mys­ti­cism, mad­ness, and math­e­mat­ics in Mon­tre­al. It was nom­i­nat­ed for the Inter­na­tion­al Dublin Lit­er­ary Award and won a Cana­di­an Jew­ish Lit­er­ary Award. Sigal earned her MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of British Colum­bia and her BA in Phi­los­o­phy from McGill University.