Between heaven and earth in Montreal

Sigal Samuel’s debut novel traces a dysfunctional Jewish family and their relationship to mysticism.

Montreal (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Cosmopolitan and morose Montreal is a fine choice to set a book about the ups and downs of Jewish spirituality.
First and foremost, I should disclose that I am a native Montrealer. I’m very nostalgic about my birthplace, and I examine its history and divides in my own writing; so I had high expectations about how Sigal Samuel would weave our common hometown into her debut novel, The Mystics of Mile End.
The book follows the Meyers, a sad and dysfunctional Jewish family, and their love-hate relationship with Jewish mysticism over a decade. Samuel tells the story through the voices of the three protagonists, brother and sister Lev and Samara and their widower father, David.
David and his wife Miriam meet at a yeshiva as ba’alei teshuva (returners to Orthodoxy). They settle in the Mile End neighborhood, home to Montreal’s most hard-core hassidic population as well as an eclectic mix of hipsters, old and new immigrants, veteran francophones and anglophones (though the first two are the only ones mentioned). It has a storied Jewish history as the landing spot of many Ashkenazi immigrants in the first half of the 20th century. Samuel accurately compares it to “Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, but grittier and more French.”
Even before the children are born, David and Miriam waver between staunchly secular and deeply religious Judaism.
David eventually distances himself from religion, and this creates a rift between the couple. It’s at this fraught time that Miriam dies. David subsequently buries himself in professorial work on Jewish mysticism and leaves Samara and Lev to raise themselves. In one scene, preteen Lev and Samara, left to their own devices, top their homemade pizza with Nibs and gummy bears and color their Kraft dinner with M&M’s. It’s in descriptions like these that Samuel’s skill as a writer comes through.
Each Meyer takes a different direction in conferring with religion. As Lev and Samara grow up, David scoffs at any connection to Judaism, even though his children attend Hebrew school after “Normal School.”
One of the novel’s peaks is Samara’s bat mitzva that she studied for in secret.
It was both an act of rebellion against her father and a last-ditch effort for him to “see” her. She didn’t succeed and thereafter disconnects herself completely from Jewish tradition.
Samara follows the path of her father, pursuing a successful academic career, while Lev eventually becomes a yeshiva student.
“I’d gotten one kid off religion – at great personal cost – only to have the other turn,” David says of his children’s divergent paths.
Following a heart attack, David returns to religion in the most extreme way: He decides to ascend the Tree of Life, the forbidden, most esoteric pursuit within Kabbala.
Samara follows suit.
Samuel is deft in her description of the Meyers’ faulty relationship with religion.
It’s clear that they commune with it, instead of with each other. This is their vice.
Samuel brings her own experiences as an Orthodox teenager who unusually studied Jewish mysticism with her professor father into The Mystics of Mile End. The richness and complexity of her writing is testament to her personal investment in the story, especially in Samara’s narrative.
As such, Samara is the most engaging character of the trio, and it’s during her (third) section that the book gains momentum.
Her actions are as bewildering as her father’s and brother’s, but somehow more believable. They meld naturally with her complex character.
Lev, recounting the first chapter of the Meyers’ saga as a child, is unconvincing.
His voice is uneven, and we don’t understand his initial motives for becoming religious, one of the novel’s central developments.
David is plain unlikable. Even though some may appreciate him more than this reviewer, we don’t see his human side. He is shallow. Samuel doesn’t adequately explain why he abandoned his children for books and sordid affairs with graduate students. Even unsympathetic characters have reasons for doing what they do and deserve introspection.
As the Meyers’ story climaxes, the reader becomes deeply involved with their unnerving narrative.
Ultimately, it’s the quirky Mile End personalities who save the day: Mr. Glassman, the Holocaust survivor/local Jewish scholar; Mr. Katz, the neighborhood nutcase, who attempts to build a physical Tree of Life; and Alex, Lev’s best friend who favors astrophysics to mysticism.
These characters add depth and surprises.
Montreal itself is a character in this book. At first, besides a few superficial details, the book could have taken place in any city with a sizable hassidic population.
“This beautiful, lunatic, impossible city” only comes into its own toward the novel’s end. Moreover, I would have liked to read more about the English-French tensions, the waves of immigrants, etc. in the neighborhood as well. It could have made a nice juxtaposition to the Meyers’ storyline. For me, as mentioned above, this was a disappointment, but most readers probably won’t notice that (or a few minute inaccuracies).
Readers’ religiosity and attitude toward Kabbala will also influence their appreciation of this book. Because it deals with extreme and traditionally forbidden applications of mysticism, those who believe may find it offensive.
Ultimately, Samuel triumphs in her sophisticated unraveling of a complex family drama, despite the problematic main characters. She infuses the plot with Jewish themes in the correct dosage.
Throughout the book, her language is sophisticated and readable.
Sigal Samuel is a writer to look out for; if her debut novel is any indication, her future work will be very worthwhile.