Mixing earth and spirit

Ruchama King Feuerman’s lovely new novel, 'In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist,' is a testament to the power of the imagination in fiction-writing.

Man praying. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Man praying.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Ruchama King Feuerman’s lovely new novel, In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist, is a testament to the power of the imagination in fiction-writing, to break down barriers between different sorts of people and create a new form of connectedness.
Feuerman is able to put her imaginative gloss on places she may never have visited, as well as those she knows well. She creates sympathy for characters from disparate worlds, a rare talent. As an Orthodox Jew she has never been to the Temple Mount, a spot forbidden to those who adhere to her religious tenets, yet she is able to create many believable scenes there.
A pivotal scene actually has one character physically breaking down the mehitza separating men and women at prayer; the intent is not disrespectful to the mehitza or to religion, but shows the power of people coming together to assist a fellow human.
In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist is set in Jerusalem in 1999, and centers around three characters – Isaac, Tamar and Mustafa - who are drawn to the courtyard of a rabbi and his wife. The other characters of the courtyard are a mixture of the earthbound and the spiritual, seeking help from a rabbi whose philosophy is pragmatic.
“You know who miracles happen to?” the rabbi queries one seeker. His response? “Pragmatists, realists. Come up with a business plan. An idea. Lay the groundwork. Then come and I’ll be happy to give you a blessing for success.”
His rebbetzin gives out equally pragmatic advice to Isaac, who has come to Israel in his 40s, single and alone after the deaths of his parents. Isaac complains, “I have nothing against marriage, but marriage seems to have something against me. I have no mazal in this area.” The rebbetzin, unfazed, commands him, “Make your mazal.” When he tells her he is unsuited to marriage, she replies, “Who is suited for marriage? No one that I know.” She goes on to tell him how hard it was to be married to the rebbe – a great tzaddik who didn’t understand that she did not have the same “capacity to give, just like himself.”
Tamar, a beautiful, redheaded ba’alat teshuva in her 20s who zips around Jerusalem on her motorcycle, is also drawn to the rabbi’s courtyard, as is Mustafa, a Arab man who works in maintenance in the buildings on the Temple Mount. Mustafa sees himself as a custodian of the site at the Temple Mount, and is saddened that when he finds artifacts with Hebrew letters there – proof of Jewish use of the site – they are rendered “junk” by the sheikh overseeing his work.
Mustafa comes in contact with Isaac through a chance encounter on the street, when he is touched by Isaac’s telling him, apropos of his cleaning tools, that the janitor Mustafa is “like the kohen [priest]” in his task of keeping the “holy mountain” in a state of cleanness.
Mustafa is moved by Isaac’s small notice of him and gives him a present – one of the antiquities he finds, a small pomegranate- shaped trinket. The trinket turns out to be from the First Temple period and leads to seizure by the police, landing Isaac in jail.
Jail turns out to be an opportunity for Isaac to recapture his love of teaching those thought to be unreachable. Emblematic of this is a story Isaac tells the other prisoners, about a thief who seeks the blessing of a rebbe and evades capture for many years.
Once the rebbe dies and he loses this protection, he looks for another rebbe to protect him. He can’t find one, and goes to plead at the grave of his patron. The rebbe comes to him in a dream, and tells him the meaning of a heretofore indecipherable Talmudic passage. Feuerman’s character Isaac tells them that after this, “The thief became a different man, a different Jew. In fact, he became a rebbe, a great rebbe, in his own right.”
In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist, similarly, is about characters who are struggling to realize their fullest selves, in their own right. Shaindel Bracha, the rabbi’s wife, turns out to have a far greater store of knowledge and wisdom than she had let others know. Isaac and Tamar take on roles of their own, he in learning to run the courtyard, and she in working for a women’s school. Mustafa, as keeper of the Temple Mount, takes on a role that also enables him to achieve something.
This is a novel about the power of people to help others, not to be dependent on one another but to grant assistance that enables a person to be someone “in his own right.” After a man leaves the presence of the rebbe of the courtyard, Isaac asks him, “How do you do it, Rebbe? Such simple advice, but did you see his face when he left? He had such hope!” “If a man can be made weak,” the rebbe said, “a man can be made strong.” “All men?” Isaac wondered. But said nothing.”
Feuerman’s novel does not leave readers wondering. All can be strengthened by reading this novel, which teaches understanding for one’s fellow humans. Set in a place of daily arguments over turf and religion, In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist creates characters who show that the possibility of creating a place that may be “rebuilt from a foundation of groundless love” starts in the empathy for others, begun in fabulous stories.