Image via Flickr/​TikkunGer

Ruby Nam­dar is the author of the nov­el The Ruined House, out this week from Harp­er Books. Ear­li­er this week, he wrote about how he came to see the Holy Tem­ple as a source of inspi­ra­tion. He has been blog­ging here as part of the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe Series.

I did not grow up reli­gious, and received no Yeshi­va-style Tal­mu­dic train­ing. Grow­ing up in a nos­tal­gi­cal­ly tra­di­tion­al home and attend­ing a sec­u­lar pub­lic school in Jerusalem dur­ing the sev­en­ties, I knew almost noth­ing about the Tal­mud. All I knew was that it was ancient, com­plex to the point of being unin­tel­li­gi­ble, and com­plete­ly irrel­e­vant to my life as a mod­ern Jew.

There were a few rea­sons behind this igno­rance. For decades the Tal­mud — once the most dom­i­nant sources of Jew­ish learn­ing — has been mar­gin­al­ized and pushed aside by sec­u­lar Zion­ist cul­ture. Instead of study­ing the strange and won­der­ful tales of the Tal­mu­dic ages, we stud­ied the dif­fer­ent­ly won­der­ful epic tales of the Bible, sto­ries of kings and war­riors which res­onat­ed much bet­ter with the Zion­ist Zeit­geist. Anoth­er rea­son for the alien­ation we felt towards the Tal­mud was the lan­guage bar­ri­er. The Tal­mud is writ­ten most­ly in Ara­ma­ic, a dead lan­guage that, not unlike Latin, was pre­served only in a nar­row reli­gious con­text. Tal­mu­dic Ara­ma­ic, albeit bear­ing some sim­i­lar­i­ties to Hebrew and being writ­ten in Hebrew char­ac­ters, is a for­eign lan­guage for most Israelis.

Last­ly, there was the lay­out: the com­plex, maze-like, mul­ti-columned page with its almost micro­scop­ic let­ters and strange, archa­ic fonts. This lay­out served as a wall, fenc­ing us out of our ances­tral cul­tur­al her­itage and one of the most intel­lec­tu­al­ly chal­leng­ing works known to human­i­ty, the Tal­mud. Para­dox­i­cal­ly, it was a dis­cus­sion of a wall, and espe­cial­ly the tech­ni­cal and legal aspects of it, that the Israeli edu­ca­tion sys­tem chose as the gate­way to our acquain­tance with the Tal­mud. It was in high school when we received our first and last dose of Tal­mud. A short, round, aging teacher wear­ing a tat­tered yarmulke on his bald­ing head stood help­less­ly in front of a class of indif­fer­ent, hos­tile teenagers and tried to open our minds to the intri­ca­cies of the dis­cus­sion about sizes, lengths and width of walls, fences and par­ti­tions sep­a­rat­ing two adja­cent yards. How pathet­ic, how hope­less, how doomed to fail­ure was this effort! Now, know­ing what excit­ing nar­ra­tive parts and incred­i­ble tex­tu­al rich­es are hid­ing in the Tal­mud, I can­not but think that this sug­ia (Tal­mu­dic debate) was delib­er­ate­ly cho­sen in order to sti­fle any inter­est we may ever devel­op in this grand intel­lec­tu­al work.

Iron­i­cal­ly, the same lay­out that stood as a tall wall between me and the Tal­mud is now one of my main points of attrac­tion to its won­der­ful world. Hav­ing dis­cov­ered aggadah (Tal­mu­dic nar­ra­tive parts) with its intense cham­ber dra­ma fea­tur­ing sages instead of kings and intel­lec­tu­als instead of war­riors, I also opened myself to explor­ing the dra­ma of the Tal­mu­dic page itself. And what a dra­ma it is! Where else will one find so many lev­els and lay­ers of mean­ing arranged side by side on the same page? Apart from the aes­thet­ic val­ue of the pages, many of which were ear­ly print mas­ter­pieces laid out by the lead­ing mas­ter type­set­ters of Europe, there was the vast rich­ness of con­tent. So many gen­er­a­tions of com­men­ta­tors hud­dle togeth­er on the same page, vocal­ly con­vers­ing and debat­ing with each oth­er across the divide of time and place. On the same Tal­mu­dic page you can find the words of a sec­ond cen­tu­ry CE schol­ar from Baby­lo­nia (where the mod­ern state of Iraq and parts of Syr­ia are now), a Hebrew schol­ar from Roman-era Pales­tine, a medieval French and Ital­ian schol­ar, as well as Renais­sance-era schol­ars from Moroc­co, Ger­many, and Poland. The live­ly con­ver­sa­tion can res­onate over a gap of a thou­sand years, and remain as heat­ed as if the speak­ers are sit­ting in the same room.

I find the dra­ma of the Tal­mu­dic page so inspir­ing, so cap­ti­vat­ing, that I felt com­pelled to import” it into my own work. The sub­plot of my new nov­el, The Ruined House, is not only told as a Tal­mu­dic tale but is also laid out on the page as one. Parts of the text are my own fic­tion, while oth­ers are orig­i­nal quotes from dif­fer­ent parts of the Tal­mud and of var­i­ous oth­er midrashic and kab­bal­is­tic sources. Few projects in the past were as chal­leng­ing, but also gave me as much plea­sure, as com­pos­ing and lay­ing out the pages of this Tal­mu­dic” sub­plot. I know that I am tak­ing a risk, and that the dra­ma of the Tal­mu­dic page may at first scare off some of my read­ers, but I am tak­ing this risk hap­pi­ly know­ing that those who brave these pages will gain some­thing unique and tru­ly gratifying.

Ruby Nam­dar’s first nov­el The Ruined House won Israel’s high­est lit­er­ary award, the Sapir Prize. He lives in Man­hat­tan with his wife and two daughters.