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.
But as I researched my novel, suddenly we found a lot to talk about. She lives in Israel now and has picked up a respectable Arabic, almost as good as her Parisian French. She knows the food, the phrases, the gestures, even if they differ a bit from one Arab country to another. A cornucopia of detail, a writer’s paradise! Of course I was also burrowing through books about Islam, reading memoirs about Arab workers, googling my way to Muslim dating websites and ask-the-Imam websites, and speaking with every Arab man and woman I knew in Passaic, but maybe my mother could fill in the gaps, make me feel more heimische with this culture I knew nothing about.
After I satisfied my need for details, I found myself hungry for stories of my mother’s childhood in Morocco. There’s the story of how her grandmother—another Moroccan beauty—was abducted by a rich sheikh when she was shopping for vegetables one day in the shuk. Through back-door channels and negotiations, my great-grandmother (then married and in her thirties) was returned unharmed, untouched.