Once upon a time, a person could easily make reference to a rabbi, maybe a rav, and maybe even a rebbe, but a kabbalist?
In Jerusalem, a kabbalist is as common as a plumber. Everyone knows what you’re talking about. In the holy city, the lexicon of magic, amulets and incantations are as real as the corner drugstore. You have a cold? Go to a kabbalist. You have a problem in religion? Go to a kabbalist. You want to marry a man? Go to a kabbalist, he’ll help you.
For the past seven plus years I’ve been swimming in kabbalists, collecting true tales from whoever visited with these mystic figures and rebbes. It was research for my novel In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist. Of course, I had my own set of kabbalists I’d met during the ten years I’d lived in Jerusalem, but oddly my experiences created a writerly static in my mind. To construct a fictional kabbalist, I needed to start from scratch.
Someone told me about a kabbalist who predicted he’d win a good chunk of money and he did, only to spend it all on expensive dental surgery the following week. Then there was the kabbalist, quasi-prophetess who directed someone to the exact place where she would meet her bashert, at a silver factory in Givat Shaul. (I don’t recall if she went or not.) A Hasidic man told me about a kabbalist he’d consulted with who said a special prayer whenever his non-religious brother was on the verge of getting married to a non-Jewess. Break-ups always followed shortly after. Continue reading
When I was a kid, every morning I’d watch my father shave from my perch on the rim of the bathtub. After he washed and patted down his face, he’d squeeze body cement onto the bumpy pale wedge where his real ear used to be. Then he’d paste on his rubber ear, which gave his head a nice gluey smell. As for the prosthetic ear, it was unnoticeable, that is, until you noticed it, and then it lent him a curious air, like a man patched together from scraps and pieces.
He’d stand in front of the bathroom mirror, inspecting his ear to see if he’d placed it well, and then stories about his own life would start coming: the dirt poor Depression years when his mother had to use burlap bags as underwear or diapers; how he learned to wrestle so no one would ever again pick on him because of his ear; the twenty-nine relatives who all lived in one small house in the 1930s, the whole crew subsisting on Grandpa Sam’s single salary as a tailor; how he became religious in his late twenties and so set in motion a generation’s return to Judaism. Later, around the Shabbos table, he told us Hasidic tales and epic scenes from the Bible. Truth be told, it didn’t matter what he was saying. He knew just how to pause to make us yearn for the next sentence. He was a born storyteller. Continue reading
The Bergen Record was coming to my house to do an interview for my new novel. You’d think after having spent years and years writing this book, I’d have imagined this moment, prepared for it, I’d have my patter down, my lines. Ten minutes before they came, I called my husband. “Quick,” I blurted, “tell me again why I wrote this novel.” My husband, a psychoanalyst, replied, “Tell them you wrote it to be closer to your mother.”
I rolled my eyes, laughed, and then I thought, hey, there’s a shtickel bit of truth here. In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist features a Muslim Arab man. My mother grew up in Casablanca, Morocco, which technically also makes her an Arab, even if she’s an Arabic Jew. Here’s the thing, though. Whenever friends meet my mother, they can’t believe we’re even remotely related. She can belly dance with the best of them and hunt down bargains and tchotchkes with a terrifying zeal. In her seventies she is still noticed, still the Casablancan glamour queen. In contrast, I’m happiest at a Chumash class or holed down in front of my computer in a ragged T-shirt. Also, tchotchkes don’t mean a thing to me. She is so out there, and I am so in here, in myself. Conversations were not always easy. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Continue reading