The passion of a lonely mind

Kadish’s portrait of Rabbi HaCoen Mendes is moving. Tortured during the Inquisition, he remains a model of compassion.

A library (photo credit: Courtesy)
A library
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Rachel Kadish spins a tale about a rabbi, a 17th-century female scholar and the pursuit of knowledge The Weight of Ink, the third novel by Rachel Kadish, the author of Tolstoy Lies: A Love Story and From a Sealed Room, begins with the discovery of a cache of mid-17th-century Jewish documents during the renovation of a house in Richmond, England.
Assisted by Aaron Levy, a handsome graduate student from the United States, Helen Watt, a cantankerous 64-year-old professor of Jewish studies at a prestigious English university, races against another academic team to uncover the identity of “Aleph,” the scribe of the blind Rabbi Moses HaCoen Mendes. Surprised to find that the scribe was a woman, an emigrant from Amsterdam and a refugee from the Inquisition, Watt and Levy immerse themselves in her world and, along the way, learn a lot about themselves.
Although they are separated in time by over 300 years, Helen and Ester have a lot in common. They are very smart. Both have loved – and lost their lovers. Both have lied.
Having learned early in life that there was no one in this world (or in all likelihood a next one) to audit one’s soul, Helen has decided she must do it herself, “tenaciously and without mercy.” She warns anyone and everyone: “Never underestimate the passion of a lonely mind.”
Living in a world in which a woman’s body “was a prison in which her mind must wither,” Ester wanted, desperately, to be a philosopher, perhaps even a Spinoza, who “might smash some edifice of thought that stood guard over the land,” and unearth some truth beyond it. Ester will come to believe that far from being cold, “the universe was built of naught but desire, and desire was its sole living god.”
The Weight of Ink is a page-turner.
Kadish moves back and forth in time (including an excursion to Israel in the 1950s) with great skill. She knows how to generate suspense – and sympathy for her large cast of characters. Most admirable, perhaps, the novel is packed with fascinating details about 17th-century Jewish religious practices (and controversies); antisemitism; philosophical disputes about God, nature, free will, and determinism; Shakespeare’s plays; the plague that savaged London; and even academic politics in 21st-century English universities.
To be sure, the novel is a melodrama.
Some readers, no doubt, will find the almost endless twists and turns of the plot – and the documents tie up just about all the loose ends – ingenious but not always credible. A few may find the interventions of the novel’s narrator intrusive and unnecessary.
Kadish’s portrait of Rabbi HaCoen Mendes is moving. Tortured during the Inquisition, he remains a model of compassion.
HaCoen Mendes permits, indeed he invites, Ester to acquire learning deemed unnatural for females, even when he realizes that she entertains blasphemous thoughts, antithetical to his conviction that to live without faith, “with no ground beneath one’s feet except the logic of one’s own mind… is to live a death.” To Ester, and no doubt to many of Kadish’s readers, the rabbi’s goodness is the standard against which to test one’s understanding of the world.
That said, The Weight of Ink belongs to its women. Inspired by Virginia Woolf’s claim that if Shakespeare had had an equally talented sister, she would not have written a word, the novel asks about the personal cost Ester – and, for that matter, Helen – paid for their ambition.
Both women, Kadish indicates, have a “frightening, alluring,” fever for truth, “the touch of truth,” for books, the collected voices of thinkers that are theirs “to explore, question” and, yes, argue against.” Ester and Helen wonder whether one could fathom the world “from texts and traditions already established,” or from the mind on its own. They give voice to ideas and make choices “thought cold-blooded in a man, and in a woman, abhorrent.”
Kadish’s most impressive achievement, it seems to me, lies in getting readers to think that maybe, just maybe, a woman like Ester could have existed in the Jewish Diaspora circa 1660. A woman capable of lamenting that love has not proven to be her fate, but then going on to say, “A woman such as I is a rocky cliff against which a man tests himself before retreating to safer pasture. I cannot fault any such man as takes what ease the world offers him. Nor shall I blame those who disdain the life I choose, and think it misbegotten. Yet this life I have conceived and have sworn to nourish. The choice is mine and I have borne its burdens.”
A woman who could not bring herself to act on her stated intent to burn her papers.
A woman whose story, as Prof. Helen Watt, the proper English Protestant, was wont to say to Dror, her Israeli lover, about the history of the Jews, “belongs to all of us.”
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.