In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist, by Ruchama King Feuerman

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. 

17736998Among the many things I don’t understand, there is one that I’m sure no effort will help me with. I don’t understand the religious, people of such deep faith that they let the rules of their religion guide every aspect of their lives. Ruchama King Feuerman gave me a glimpse in In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist. The prologue introduces us to Isaac Markowitz. He has sold his haberdashery to travel to Israel to seek the advice of Rabbi Yehudah Grodin, whose reputation as a problem solver has spread far and wide. Isaac never leaves.

In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist opens a few years later. Isaac has found a home with the Grodin’s as an assistant to the rabbi. The elderly rabbi is not well, but Isaac lacks the confidence in himself to counsel people the way the rabbi does. He also lacks the confidence he needs to make a success of dating. All the women he dates become exasperated with him because he always waits for others to make the move.

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Wailing Wall, Jerusalem, 1920

Feuerman also gives us the story of Mustafa the janitor. Mustafa has a crooked neck and has been insulted and neglected all his life. Isaac is the first person to show him kindness for years. So when Mustafa discovers a Jewish relic during construction on Temple Mount, he delivers it to Isaac. The little ceramic pomegranate with the Hebrew letters on it is politically dangerous and it touches off a battle between Isaac, Mustafa, the police, and Mustafa’s bosses on Temple Mount.

As the controversy over the pomegranate grows, Isaac struggles to be a good rabbi and to show his affection to Tamar, an American who came to Israel to live a religious life and find a religious husband. It’s a touching story, though I grew exasperated myself at Isaac’s passivity. He’s the story of man who needs to be pulled to the end of the diving board, then pushed off because he will never jump himself.

Judaism, Jewish tradition, and Islam and Islamic tradition run all through In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist. I was not pleased by the portrayal of the Muslims in this book. Apart from Mustafa, they’re shown to be irreligious, venal, and cruel. It cheapens the story. Feuerman is capable of writing more nuanced characters, as she shows with all her Jewish characters. In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist could have been much better than it was (and it was already pretty good) if it had embraced more of the complexity inherent in the premise.

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