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 Feuerman’s 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.