Once upon a time, a person could easily make reference to a rabbi, maybe a rav, and maybe even a rebbe, but a
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.
I heard stories that could blow the socks off your feet. Listening to them, I felt like I was living in an alternate reality. Reminds me of a New Yorker cartoon: A writer says, “It must be winter because my characters are starting to wear mittens again.” Me, I knew I had to be in Jerusalem, because my characters were taking Egged buses, spitting sunflower seeds and visiting kabbalists in Geula.
After awhile, though, even these wonderful tales began to make me feel, well, impatient. None of them were what I wanted – and I had no idea what I wanted. All I knew was, they didn’t bring me any closer to my elusive fictional kabbalist.