Ear­li­er this week, Ruchama King Feuer­man wrote about the sweet­ness or redemp­tion and sto­ries from her moth­er’s Moroc­can child­hood. Her most recent book, In the Court­yard of the Kab­bal­ist (NYRB LIT), is now avail­able. She has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

Once upon a time, a per­son could eas­i­ly make ref­er­ence to a rab­bi, maybe a rav, and maybe even a rebbe, but a kab­bal­ist?

In Jerusalem, a kab­bal­ist is as com­mon as a plumber. Every­one knows what you’re talk­ing about. In the holy city, the lex­i­con of mag­ic, amulets and incan­ta­tions are as real as the cor­ner drug­store. You have a cold? Go to a kab­bal­ist. You have a prob­lem in reli­gion? Go to a kab­bal­ist. You want to mar­ry a man? Go to a kab­bal­ist, he’ll help you.

For the past sev­en plus years I’ve been swim­ming in kab­bal­ists, col­lect­ing true tales from who­ev­er vis­it­ed with these mys­tic fig­ures and rebbes. It was research for my nov­el In the Court­yard of the Kab­bal­ist. Of course, I had my own set of kab­bal­ists I’d met dur­ing the ten years I’d lived in Jerusalem, but odd­ly my expe­ri­ences cre­at­ed a writer­ly sta­t­ic in my mind. To con­struct a fic­tion­al kab­bal­ist, I need­ed to start from scratch.

Some­one told me about a kab­bal­ist who pre­dict­ed he’d win a good chunk of mon­ey and he did, only to spend it all on expen­sive den­tal surgery the fol­low­ing week. Then there was the kab­bal­ist, qua­si-prophet­ess who direct­ed some­one to the exact place where she would meet her bash­erte, at a sil­ver fac­to­ry in Givat Shaul. (I don’t recall if she went or not.) A Has­sidic man told me about a kab­bal­ist he’d con­sult­ed with who said a spe­cial prayer when­ev­er his non-reli­gious broth­er was on the verge of get­ting mar­ried to a non-Jew­ess. Break-ups always fol­lowed short­ly after. 

I heard sto­ries that could blow the socks off your feet. Lis­ten­ing to them, I felt like I was liv­ing in an alter­nate real­i­ty. Reminds me of a New York­er car­toon: A writer says, It must be win­ter because my char­ac­ters are start­ing to wear mit­tens again.” Me, I knew I had to be in Jerusalem, because my char­ac­ters were tak­ing Egged bus­es, spit­ting sun­flower seeds and vis­it­ing kab­bal­ists in Geula. 

After awhile, though, even these won­der­ful tales began to make me feel, well, impa­tient. None of them were what I want­ed – and I had no idea what I want­ed. All I knew was, they didn’t bring me any clos­er to my elu­sive fic­tion­al kabbalist.

Well, maybe I was ask­ing the wrong ques­tions. I switched to: Did your kab­bal­ist ever say some­thing, speak words that caused some major shift to hap­pen in you? What was it? 

Here peo­ple fell silent. It was hard to dig, to find something. 

Then a teenage girl told me how once her nose was stuffed – no, plugged so bad­ly she could bare­ly speak for weeks. After she met and talked with the kab­bal­ist, a strange thing hap­pened. She told me her nose unplugged. She seemed embar­rassed that her sto­ry was so sil­ly, so triv­ial. I don’t know why, but this hit a chord with­in me. A man who could cause nasal pas­sages to open, such a man – and sto­ry — I could believe. A baby mir­a­cle. Noth­ing too grandiose. The fog sur­round­ing my kab­bal­ist lift­ed a tad.

Anoth­er woman told me that her baby was over­due and she was ter­ri­fied she was going to have a Cae­sare­an. The kab­bal­ist reas­sured her it would be a reg­u­lar birth. It will come out, it will come out, it will come out” – zeh yet­zei, he said, in Hebrew. She was com­fort­ed, but why had he said it three times, she won­dered. A few days lat­er, she was on the birthing table try­ing to push the baby out for near­ly two hours. The Cae­sare­an team sur­round­ed her. At one crit­i­cal point, the team gave up. The doc­tor said, It won’t come out,” the anes­the­si­ol­o­gist said, It won’t come out,” and the sur­geon said, It won’t come out.” The woman looked at all three of them and just then real­ized why the kab­bal­ist had said zeh yet­zei” three times. She burst out laugh­ing, a deep upwelling that came from her very womb, and the baby slith­ered out in one whoosh. I didn’t use that sto­ry in my nov­el, but it too helped me see the kab­bal­ist more clear­ly. It had a bit of earth and a bit of heav­en in it, of this world and beyond, the right bal­ance. Too much heav­en made me leery. No — too many mir­a­cles made me leery.

And if I, a believ­er, was leery of mir­a­cles, then a mod­ern skep­ti­cal read­er would cer­tain­ly gag on such fare. 


I began to pose dif­fer­ent ques­tions. To some­one who knew a kab­bal­ist very well, I asked: What did he like to eat for break­fast? Did he enjoy music? What kind? What books – if any – did he keep in the bath­room? What did he talk about with his wife? Did he wash the dish­es? How did he treat the clean­er who did spon­ja? To oth­ers, whose encounter was brief, I asked for hand ges­tures, facial expres­sions, what he wore, detailed descrip­tions of his beard, his hands, the tim­bre of his voice. Basi­cal­ly I treat­ed him like any old char­ac­ter I was try­ing to capture.

Slow­ly, slow­ly, like the mag­a­zine puz­zle pieces the char­ac­ter Tru­man puts togeth­er of his beloved, the kab­bal­ist pic­ture began to fill. I loved each pre­cious detail that came my way. But often the per­son telling the sto­ry would say, in half-annoy­ance, But this is noth­ing! I have the most amaz­ing mir­a­cle to tell you!” And she would begin to pour forth.

Try, just try to stop some­one from shar­ing her mir­a­cle sto­ry. Even still, I would hold up my hand — as if I could halt a water­fall — and say, Please, please, no miracles.”

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.” 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.