In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist
(NYRB Lit, 2013)
How easy it would have been for Ruchama King Feuerman to write the typical Jerusalem novel, with the typical Middle East obliquities: Arab-Israeli/Israeli-Jew friendship pitted against the external tension of social and political pressures. Romeo and Juliet in the shuk. But Feuerman isn’t typical, and in her new book, In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist, she tells a story that is spiritually generous and astutely realistic about an Arab-Israeli and an Israeli-Jew, who may be the most unlikely pair of friends we’ve seen in current fiction. These two men aren’t under any illusions about their differences, but a call to action brings them together in ways neither could have expected.
Isaac Markowitz, an eczema-suffering, former Lower East Side haberdasher, failed rabbi, failed teacher, failed suitor, has immigrated to Jerusalem and found his calling as the assistant to Rebbe Yehuda and, just as importantly, the rebbe’s wife, Shaindel Bracha. Rebbe Yehuda and Shaindel Bracha run a mom-and-pop charity organization, feeding and healing the bodies and souls of a constant stream of petitioners. Isaac’s narrative satisfies the reader-voyeur by giving us the nitty-gritty of the petitions and life crisis, exploring the question: What is it religious folk want? Feuerman also treats us to the tender and chaste intimate moments between kabbalist rabbi and wife or, as the question is raised, kabbalist rabbi and kabbalist wife.
Mustafa is an Israeli Arab. He’s a sensitive, intelligent observer of his world and its hierarchies, though we might hasten our step as we pass him in the street: Mustafa is crusty, dusty, has holes in his shoes and his raggedy clothes. He is a janitor at the Noble Santuary, or the Temple Mount; he spends his day washing windows and stabbing plastic bags and candy wrapper with his metal pronger. He hauls the trash around in a rucksack—but only on his good shoulder. Mustafa is the victim of a debilitating birth defect called torticollis, his head permanently and painfully turned to one side. Rejected by his family and village, and apparently gelded by his mother in an attempt to make sure there are no more of him, he nevertheless dreams of going back to his village, back to his mother’s embrace.
As much as Mustafa and Isaac are entrenched in their worlds and slightly depressive conditions, they are in search of human, even ecumenical, connection, which Feuerman sets up cleverly. One day, on his way back from the Western Wall, winding his way through the Arab shuk, Isaac sidesteps a few dangers (a tumbling wheelbarrow, a hanging sheep). Mustafa,in spite of himself, in spite of wondering, “should he offer good advice or good will to ... this Jew,” asks Isaac, “Aren’t you frightened?”; Isaac takes one look at Mustafa’s trash pronger, which looks like a weapon and says, “Should I be?” “I clean the Noble Sanctuary,” Mustafa says. Then, after an awkward moment where they trade names and geopolitical points of view, establishing that the Arab Noble Sanctuary is the Jewish Temple Mount, Isaac responds, “You are keeping our Holy Mountain clean and wonderful,” taking Mustafa’s hand, endowing him with the dignity he craves.
Mustafa, in return, gives Isaac something. A couple of days later, he finds Isaac in the kabbalist’s courtyard and hands him a Jewish Temple Mount artifact, a tiny jug he has found in the trash heap from the Noble Sanctuary renovation that he has been assigned to clean.
As the tenuous friendship begins, so do the troubles, and Feuerman’s meticulous research is apparent. There are hundreds, even thousands, of these ill-treated artifacts being bulldozed and trashed on a daily basis, but the Islamic Waqf that controls the area does not fulfill the obligation as a guardian for all religions and all histories. And so Mustafa and Isaac must try to save the artifacts, butting up against the complacent Israeli bureaucracy and then the competing claims of academic scholars, religious scholars, and artifact vendors.
In spite of awakening yet another kvetch in the region’s ongoing travail, Feuerman clearly loves Jerusalem, a fact she established in her first novel, Seven Blessings. In Courtyard, she expands the Jerusalem travelogue, at times with a wide-ranging eye, as if she’s attached a camera to one of the swifts or turtledoves that flit around the Holy Mountain. We get the awe-inspiring concentration of the Muslim worshipers and awe inspiring round-the-clock devotion of Jewish prayer. Feuerman also brings Jerusalem to life through lush sensory details: lots of pungent za’atar spice here, plus mint, basil, cilantro, and rosemary bushes.
On a recent trip to Jerusalem, I watched a native Jerusalemite bundle up the street with her loaded shopping cart, gabbing away in Hebrew to her small children, then gathering them together as she pointed to the bus stop across the street. But just as her bus rolled in, instead of crossing the street, she came to a sudden halt. She bent over and motioned for her children to do the same, to smell the rosemary bush in the intersection. In her new novel, Feuerman invites us to do the same, offering us a little aroma therapy.