It’s not often that a man’s children rebel against him by turning to religion. It’s usually the other way around, at least the way most literary fiction. Yet, that’s what happens to David Meyer. After his wife’s death in a car accident, David became resolutely atheist. His son, Lev, and his daughter, Samara, secretly study with the local rabbi to prepare for their bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah. The Mystics of Mile End, by Sigal Samuel, is a curious exploration of faith and non-faith, by way of the Tree of Knowledge.
From my own experience, atheism is a choice. I grew up in a kind-of-sort-of religious family. In my teens, I started to question. I was an atheist by the time I graduated with my bachelor’s degree. It’s entirely possible to raise children as atheists, but it’s not easy. In a community like Mile End, it might be impossible. Mile End, in Montreal, Canada, is a predominately Jewish area. There are several different sects of Hasidim. Even the less traditional Jews in the area are still Conservative. David and his wife were Conservative before David started to question. After her death, David wanted to eradicate faith from his household. Still, Lev and Samara are not ready for the abrupt transition. They weren’t questioning. They don’t see anything wrong with their faith. Indeed, the way Samuel portrays the family and Mile End, David is the strange one.
The Mystics of Mile End is narrated by each member of the Meyer family in turn. Lev, at age ten, is our introduction. Through him, we learn about David’s anger, Rabbi Glassman, and one of their neighbor’s attempts to build a replica of the Tree of Knowledge. Lev is mostly bewildered by events around him. He is afraid to cross his father, but he wants to have a bar mitzvah like the other boys. He knows his sister is studying with the rabbi and that she’s hiding it from her father. After Samara reads her haftarah for her bat mitzvah, the novel jumps ten years and drops us into David’s head.
David has grown apart from his children. Lev is devout. Samara has gone off to college. They don’t talk much. When David suffers a heart attack, he loses his grip on his fierce atheism and starts to reconsider. In Kabbalah, the phrase “making the climb” refers to the metaphorical journey a person makes while seeking ayin through the various aspects of the Tree of Knowledge. Ayin, as The Mystics of Mile End portrays it, is a unity with god, either literal or figurative immortality, and great understanding and wisdom. Rabbis throughout history have cautioned people against making the climb, citing a story in which one seeker died, another went mad, and the third never spoke of the journey ever again. Watching David make the climb, it’s not hard to understand the proscriptions. The last parts of the book are narrated by Samara and Lev. The last parts of the book are also the hardest to wrap one’s brain around as things get more mystical and unstable. Kabbalah mixes with grief. Atheism is left by the way side, along with quotidian Judaism.
By the end, I wonder if it just didn’t have enough pages to fully open up the world of Mile End and the Meyer family to me. I think I understand what The Mystics of Mile End was trying to tell me and I appreciate that it made me uncomfortable with its depiction of the angry atheist. Along with bigger questions about faith and non-faith, The Mystics of Mile End is also the kind of book to send one to Wikipedia with questions about Jewish practices and Kabbalah. I know I missed subtleties because I don’t know much about Jewish philosophy and mysticism.
I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 13 October 2015.
Notes on bibliotherapeutic use: Recommended for atheist readers who need to be reminded that one cannot argue someone out of their belief.