Book Review: In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist

In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist

Last Thursday night we were treated to a talk by Ruchama King Feuerman of her latest book, In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist. Ruchama read a few parts of her book, and she also gave some background as to how she came about writing the book. It seems when she lived in Israel (and she lived there for ten years), she took upon herself to visit kabbalists. She wanted to get married, and sometimes a kabbalist can help. She didn’t end up getting married until after she left Israel, but she developed material for this novel. At first, she was fascinated with the kabbalist himself. Then she found herself studying his wife, his assistant and many of the people who frequented his courtyard.

One of themes that ties this book to her last one (Seven Blessings) is the importance of finding a spouse. She hypothesized that this may be one reason she has been called the Jewish Jane Austen – just as marriage and finding the right husband was so important in the times and culture of Jane Austen, so too it is important in the Orthodox Jewish community. She brought some of this alive with her description of 40-year-old Isaac with his eczema dating Mrs. Edelman who asks too many questions.

A recurring theme in the book seems to be lonely people who find ways to connect. For example, there is the character Mustafa, an Arab 55-year-old janitor who cleans garbage from the Temple Mount. Early in his life his mother decides he is too dumb for a career and too dumb to get married. He seems to feel like to at least he has a job.

Here are a few of my favorite lines or phrases from the book. One of the treats of reading Ruchama’s work is her language – she chooses words carefully, and I think they almost sing back to you, setting up the stage for her characters so it becomes alive for the reader.

Opening lines: “A month after his mother died, Isaac Markowitz, forty, plagued with eczema and living on the Lower East Side, sold his haberdashery at a decent profit and took an El Al flight to Israel. At the Central Hotel, the most pious-run hotel in all of Jerusalem, he stumbled upon a pamphlet shuffled in with the tourist brochures, a veritable Yellow Pages of saints, zaddiks, rebbes, kabbalists and other holy men.”

Courtyard smells: “a fragrant smell of rosemary and honeysuckle and jasmine and … chicken soup”

On acturaries (my husband is an actuary): “Who learns Torah. and if not that, at least let him be teaching it or doing something meaningful. Not these investment bankers or actuaries.”

Describing the Galil: “Poppies, jonquils and anemones lay like colored jewels spilled unto a plush carpet.”

On being helpful but receiving no thanks: “Mustafa freed the ball … and the boy scrambled after his ball with not a word of thanks.”

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Have you read any books with the theme of finding a spouse? Of lonely, alienated people finding ways to connect with others?

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