In a time when many of Israel’s complications are risen to the surface, it’s a blessed distraction to read about other times in Jerusalem. Hence my decision to publish this book review despite the current hardships in Israel.
Reading In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist while waiting for Egged buses or sitting on them, or while relaxing under a tree in a Jerusalem park, made the Jerusalem world of the kabbalist, his wife, his assistant, an Arab Muslim Temple Mount worker and a funky ba’alat tshuva quickly feel intertwined with my own.
This gem of a book told me a riveting story with multi-dimensional characters who are easy to care about in a storyline that felt like a holy city adventure.
Ruchama King Feuerman’s narrative of the city’s complexities allowed me to relax into the book. The author succeeded in touching on an array of issues relating to the city – Arabs’ feelings towards Jews, Jews’ feelings towards Arabs, Judaism, Islam, security, the justice system, the police, the jail system, languages, the ultra-Orthodox, relationships, love, Zionism, aliya (moving to Israel), archaeology, holidays, death and shiva (the Jewish custom to sit in mourning for seven days following the burial of a close relative), modesty, trying to make a living here, hassidut (a spiritual sect of Judaism) and Arab culture.
The story has an impressively large focus on the Temple Mount which was particularly interesting to me because despite its religious and political importance, I know so little about it and I have never been there. King Feuerman’s knowledge of the mountain – its topography, layout, architecture, archaeology, history and present-day character – was truly impressive and fascinating.
The relationships in this book all develop within the courtyard of a revered kabbalist. Isaac Markowitz, an American ultra-Orthodox “older” single man with terrible skin problems moves to Israel and ends up working as the assistant to the kabbalist in the Makor Baruch neighborhood. Isaac and Mustafa, a Muslim Temple Mount janitor with a serious physical birth defect who also never married, slowly build a tentative friendship.
It is in the courtyard that Isaac meets the fiery Tamar, a fellow American olah (Jewish immigrant to Israel) who has been religiously observant for not many years, Isaac thinks, and is way too young for Isaac, he also thinks.
The inter-personal stories are intertwined with Mustafa’s decision to start sneaking archaeological treasures from the Temple Mount to these questioningly trustworthy Jews in Nachlaot, the only people, it turns out, who really treat him with any respect or who ever have proper conversations with him.
Thankfully things are not Hollywood-esque in this book. The Arab continues to wonder why he has a relationship with Jews, the dynamics between Isaac and Tamar stay in the realm of realistically complex with each person’s issues rising to the surface. And without giving anything away, let’s just say that it isn’t exactly a “happily ever after” ending though it does provide some guilty relief.
The rich dialogue was one of my favorite parts of the book. It smoothly moves the plot along, building relationships, in a graceful fashion.
For example, here is how Isaac and Mustafa meet in the Arab shuk in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City:
Mustafa watched as the Jew side-stepped a hanging sheep and a boy pushing a wheelbarrow of eggplants, the man’s steps cautious but not afraid. He’s crazy, Mustafa thought. This was no safe place for a Jew. Yahudi majnun.
As the man went by, Mustafa called to him in Hebrew, “Aren’t you frightened?” Then he bit down on his lower lip. Why should he offer good advice to this, this Jew? Yet a day had gone by and the only words he’d heard were that of the stupid shopkeeper’s.
The man stopped and looked at him, staring where his head and eyes actually were. He said, “Should I be?” in a Hebrew that sounded funny to Mustafa’s hears, and pointed to his iron pronger.
Mustafa looked at his tools and saw how terrifying they truly appeared, weapons to kill. His lips twisted into a smile. “No, no.” He shook his head. “This is for my work. I work over there,” and he pointed the pronger toward the Noble Sanctuary. “I clean.”
The man’s gaze followed the tip of his pronger. “You clean the Temple Mount?”
“I clean the Noble Sanctuary,” he stated with an extra boldness. “I’m the janitor there.”
The man’s watery eyes looked stunned. “You clean the mountain. This is a great deed. You are keeping our holy mountain – God’s mountain – clean and wonderful.” He leaned over and briefly took one of Mustafa’s dusty hands into both of his clean ones, and then he moved away, murmuring, “Like the kohein.”
Feeling King Feuerman’s love for Jerusalem through her book, I asked her if working on it made her miss Israel, possibly motivating her to move back; she lived in Israel for 10 years – nine of those in Jerusalem – and now lives in Passaic, New Jersey.
“It definitely whet my appetite,” she replied. “I always quote this New Yorker cartoon. A writer says, ‘It must be winter ‘cause my characters are wearing mittens again.’
“While writing the book I felt like I was living in Israel, taking the Egged bus, et cetera. But of course experiencing Israel via a book is no substitute for the real thing.”
Besides many stories and essays, In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist (NYRB LIT, 2013) is King Feuerman’s second published book, following the highly acclaimed Seven Blessings (St Martin’s Griffin, 2004).
Although enthralled by her depth of knowledge on the local issues and her success in describing them, for me the book was first and foremost an adventurous story that was fun to join; I couldn’t read it fast enough simply to find out what would happen next.