In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist: A Novel
In her second book, In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist (New York Review Books, 207 pp. $16 paper), set in Jerusalem in 1999, Ruchama King Feuerman depicts the human landscape by building contrasting religious and political portraits. Romantic, suspenseful and insightful, the author has created a compelling connection between a Jew and a Muslim, Isaac and Mustafa, skillfully crafting an unusual yet believable friendship and intertwining plot. Short chapters switch between their narratives.
Mustafa, a lonely 55-year-old Arab janitor, works scrupulously on the Temple Mount, subservient to the domineering Sheikh Tawil. Isaac Markowitz, a 43-year-old Orthodox single man, moved to Israel from the Lower East Side after his mother died. He is working as an assistant to an elderly kabbalist, Rebbe Yehudah.
Isaac and Mustafa have a lot in common—they both endured unhappy upbringings and are now middle-aged, unmarried misfits working at sacred jobs under a religious leader. Both suffer from intense physical disabilities yet still dream of finding their place (Isaac wants to get married; Mustafa longs for wealth so he can buy his mother jewelry and be welcomed back into his village). Mustafa has a severely twisted neck and, condemned as a cripple, was cast out from his community. Although Isaac is an intelligent man, his feelings of inadequacy and anxiety exacerbate bouts of eczema.
After the two men’s paths cross in the shuk, Mustafa becomes fascinated by their brief, peculiar exchange. “Like the kohein,” Isaac says to Mustafa, referring to the Arab’s job of cleaning the holy site. The janitor begins to visit the rabbi’s assistant, each time secretly bringing a Temple-era artifact from the highly restricted excavation site.
The kabbalist’s courtyard serves as a microcosm of Jewish communal life as various individuals in need arrive seeking help, or miracles, from the ailing rabbi.
A third main character, Tamar—a beautiful, red-haired, newly observant woman in her late twenties—is the most dynamic person in the book. From the moment she arrives by motor scooter at the courtyard in search of both a man to marry and a job she loves, she captivates by her sweet confidence, easy mannerisms and free spirit. Eventually, she helps reconcile Isaac and Mustafa.
Although drawn to Tamar, rigid and inhibited Isaac carries hurt that prevents him from developing a relationship. Struggling to find the ethereal in the mundane work he does in the kabbalist’s shadow, Isaac constantly doubts himself as he carves himself into a surrogate rabbi. Ultimately, Isaac’s quest to find his bashert is just as much about finding himself—as a rabbi, a friend, a disciple, a son and, one hopes, an adequate partner.