A short review by John Wilson on the Books and Culture website tipped me off to this book, In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist by Ruchama King Feuerman. Set in Jerusalem, it’s a story in which the main characters orbit around the garden of a dying rebbe and his gifted wife, (i.e., rebbetzin), a garden in which people in need or in trouble gather daily for help.
There is a love-story too, as wonderfully improbable as it is commonplace, and a jailhouse gathering for worship, and much more. (In one of its aspects, the novel is a story of vocation, finally recognized and shouldered after long deferral.) Altogether delicious.
It’s Wilson’s last point that intrigued me. At the beginning of the novel, neither of the two main characters are who or what they hoped to be. Isaac. a Jew, once a haberdasher from New York’s Lower East Side had longed to be a rabbi but now finds himself only an assistant to a rebbe. Mustafa, a a Muslim, longs for a position of respect but can’t seem to rise above his janitorial job on the Temple Mount. There are good reasons each of them is stuck where they are: the circumstances of real life beyond their control, betrayals by people they loved, and physical limitations, among others. Throughout the novel, though, each of the characters sees things and calls out things in the other that trigger transformation. Other characters join in, seeing Isaac and Mustafa for who they are, who they can be. New circumstances shape them.
I think this is true to life, that we don’t become who we are meant to become in a vacuum. We need others to call things out in us, we need to look deeply at others as well. I think it’s also true that who we are to become may not look as we originally imagined it to be.
“You said I was like a kohein,” Mustafa explained. “But a kohein is very important, and I …” he trailed off as he glanced at his old work clothes. “Oh.” Rabbi Isaac was quiet. Then he began to speak. “He burned incense on the altar each morning when he cleaned out the lamps. He lit the lamps the night before. He swept up the ashes from the sacrifices. He maintained a plumbing system on the Temple Mount. This way it was easy to clean up the blood.” “Me too,” Mustafa said, tapping his chest. He cleaned the bathroom, he made sure to replace the burned-out bulbs. He swept and hosed down the place, just like the kohein. Mustafa gazed in wonder. “Now I understand. The kohein is a janitor.” The rabbi rubbed his parsnip nose. “I—” He scratched the side of his jaw. “In a way, yes. A holy custodian,” he assented. “The word kohein means ‘to serve.’ It says in our Torah, God chose Israel to be a nation of koheins, of priests—chosen to serve.” At these words, Mustafa’s head exploded with happiness. Picked by Allah! To serve!”