By Ruby Namdar; translated by Hillel Halkin
When this book opens “on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Elul, the year 5760, counting from the creation of the world,” Andrew P. Cohen, professor of comparative culture at New York University (NYU), is at the peak of a perfect life.
But that day, “which happened to fall on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2000, the gates of heaven were opened above the great city of New York, and behold: all seven celestial spheres were revealed, right above the West 4th Street subway station, layered one on top of another like the rungs of a ladder reaching skyward from the earth.”
There, in the first paragraph, we are faced with the amazing and beautiful duality of this book. Page after page, author Ruby Namdar makes the real magical and the magical real.
Cohen is a man whose looks, clothes, ideas, speech and body language “all had a refined, aristocratic finish that splendidly gilded everything he touched.” He has charisma that allows people to forgive him tardiness, rudeness, arrogance and self-centeredness.
His relationship with his 26-year-old Chinese-American girl-friend is exciting and discreet. He is on good terms with his ex-wife, her new husband and his two daughters. His essays appear in the New Yorker. He’s at every important opening and asked to write commentary on new museum exhibits. He is almost certain to be named as the director of a prestigious institute within the year.
Cohen is much less grounded as a Jew. He arrives late for Yom Kippur services and leaves early to attend an opening at the opera. At his Orthodox cousin’s son’s bar mitzvah, he meditates on how “a generation or two of small, undramatic decisions” are all it takes to erode a family’s Jewish roots: The move to the bigger house in the suburbs, joining a Reform synagogue close to home, and minimal Jewish education for the children because the mortgage is so high.
“Small, semiconscious, semi-voluntary deviations whose cumulative effect was that of an off-course missile, multiplied exponentially from generation to generation until huge unbridgeable chasms were created. . . . and they’ll go on growing until the last thin strands connecting us to each other gray and snap like old violin strings.”
Namdar himself described the book to Forward reporter Beth Kissileff as “the first Hebrew American novel” in many, many decades. “It is a Jewish American tale told only the way an Israeli could tell it.”
From the moment the book opens, when Cohen has a moment of poignancy that brings tears to his eyes as he reviews lecture notes in a cafe, to nearly the end of the book after months of full-blown Biblical visions, wild dreams and violent, baffling nightmares, Cohen seems to have no context or understanding of what is happening to him and his unraveling life.
Between the seven books that tell Cohen’s story are Talmud-like pages that tell a second story of the High Priest’s tasks on Yom Kippur to atone for the sins of the Jews and save them from death.
Namdar, in an interview with Larry Yudelson of the Jewish Standard on March 8, 2018, said, “The heart of the story is the tension between the present and the ancient mythological past. I knew that something deeper and older than the individual, an ancient collective memory, makes a claim on the protagonist’s life and mind and almost threatens to drag him into some deep abyss in time.”
I enjoyed this book for its lyrical descriptions and its balance of the physical and the metaphysical, the visceral and the intellectual. Although it is long (506 pages) and literary, it is also accessible. Namdar’s juxtaposition of modern American Judaism with ancient Temple-period Judaism is thought-provoking long after the last page is turned.
This book won the Sapir Prize, Israel’s most prestigious literary award in 2015, making Namdar the first expatriate to receive the award. After his win, the rules were changed to exclude Israeli writers who live abroad, making Namdar apparently the only Israeli expatriate to win it.
The Author: Reuven “Ruby” Namdar (1964 – )
Born and raised in Jerusalem, Ruby Namdar’s family was of Iranian-Jewish heritage.
He knew he wanted to be a writer since elementary school. Although he went to secular schools, he was so interested in Jewish culture and texts that he studied on his own and in beit midrash study halls.
His first book, HAVIV (2000), won the Israel Ministry of Culture’s Award for Best First Publication. THE RUINED HOUSE (2013) won the Sapir Prize, Israel’s most prestigious literary award.
He moved to New York City in 2000 to rekindle a relationship with a woman he had met in Israel many years earlier when she was studying abroad for a year. They ultimately married and have two daughters. He teaches Jewish literature with a focus on Biblical and Talmudic narrative.
Namdar is fluent in English and writes essays in it, but turns to Hebrew when he writes fiction. He describes Hebrew as the “language of my deep mind.”