The greatest Jewish novel?
What strange quirk brought it about that what may be one of the greatest and most Jewish of Jewish novels should be written not by a Diaspora Jew, nor an Israeli Jew, nor a Diaspora Jew who had made aliyah, but rather an Israeli who relocated to New York?
Further stymying expectations, Ruby Namdar did not write this novel in English, but in Hebrew (it was recently translated by Hillel Halkin). “For who?” asked an audience member at the Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival event on Nov. 26, when I had the pleasure of interviewing Namdar in front of a small gathering. If Namdar wanted his novel, which he acknowledged to be soundly in the lineage of Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, to be read by New Yorkers, why write it in Hebrew? If he wanted the novel to make sense to Israelis, why write it about a rootless Diaspora Jew with no connection to Israel?
“I don’t know what I was thinking,” said Namdar, “I don’t know who I was writing for, I just wrote.”
The Ruined House is not just a great Jewish novel or a great novel in modern Hebrew. It possesses a structure that is at once talmudic and kabbalistic, a structure that is deep and intricate yet carried off with such a sense of understatement and naturalness, effortlessly unfolding within Namdar’s lucid, lyrical and vivid prose, that most English-language reviewers thus far have not fully noticed it. This structure is what gives the novel its profoundly Jewish resonance, which is at once modern and ancient, rootless and anchored in the archetypal depths of Jewish experience and textuality.
The Ruined House is divided into seven books, with its seventh book being the culmination of an obviously Jewish numerical pattern. Each book follows the anti-hero, Andrew P. Cohen, over the course of one year of his life, as he enters what seems to be a midlife crisis from hell (or perhaps from heaven).
Cohen is a successful and wealthy professor of comparative culture, who lives in an idyllic Manhattan high-rise with a view of the river, a pristine Apollonian realm in the skies. He has a beautiful young lover, Ann Lee, and an adoring group of followers and acolytes. He cherishes his controlled, harmonious and detached existence, which he has gained through leaving his wife and two daughters years before.
At the end of the first six sections of the novel are a few pages of text designed to look like a blat Gemara, a page of Talmud. The central text in these inserts tells the story of a high priest preparing and executing the Yom Kippur sacrifices. While he does so, he is watched by Obadiah, a humble Levite who wonders whether the priest is truly pious or just a functionary in league with the elite. Encircling the narrative are passages from the Talmud, Mishnah and Tanakh, which describe the laws, folklore and spiritual significance of the high priest’s duty. They also feature key excerpts from Shaarei Gilgulim (The Gate of Reincarnation), a kabbalist text written by Chaim Vital (1542-1620) to expound the cosmology of his master, the Ari HaKodesh, Isaac Luria (1534-1572).
The insertion of these texts is deliberate and precise. Just as the narrative in the inserts is flanked by canonical Jewish sources, the narrative of the novel is surrounded by ancient Jewish forces. As the hidden, broken nature of Cohen’s life begins to surface, he begins to have intense, waking visions of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. His dreams turn nightmarish, alternating between repressed guilt at his betrayal of his family and dreadful tableaus of the rape of Jerusalem by the Romans and the murder of Jews by the Nazis.
The structure of the story and the inserts are not the only mirrors in the book: Cohen’s life is cast as priest-like. His elite status; the pure harmonious realm in which he lives; his having separated from his wife like Moses to live in the skies; even the elaborate meat dinners he cooks up for his dinner guests alone in his perfect kitchen all point to it. His name, of course, highlights both the substance and the irony of his life as priestly metaphor. At one point, his daughter, Rachel, disgustedly mocks people who think that Jews named Cohen are descended from the priestly lineage: “Everyone knows they just gave out those names randomly at Ellis Island.”
As Cohen descends into apparent madness, a grotesque version of the priestly sensibility gets stronger in him. He becomes morbidly obsessed with the impure and averse to the physical, the decaying and the dead. He finds himself horrified by menstrual blood and semen. The explanation of this growing claustrophobic sensibility lies in the paragraphs of Shaarei Gilgulim, which are included in Namdar’s inserts.
Shaarei Gilgulim describes the way that some souls, during the process of reincarnation, unite with other souls in order to complete their own tikkun (repair). In the first pages of The Ruined House, “one shining soul, the figure of a high priest” is suddenly visible above New York among the celestial machinations momentarily revealed as the veil is briefly sundered. The key to the priest’s identity lies in the kabbalist doctrine of ibbur, or impregnation, where a soul from beyond enters into an earthly person in order to help them, to complete their own mission, or some combination of the two. In Cohen’s case, as suggested in a last talmudic insert, he has been “impregnated” by the soul of the high priest in need of tikkun for feeling himself superior to Obadiah, the humble Levite. The high priest and Cohen share a sin in common: arrogance. Their collective confrontation and reckoning with it will be psychically violent and cathartic and come close to doing Cohen in.
Critique of Diaspora?
Some reviewers have read The Ruined House as a critique of the Diaspora Jew, viewing the narrative as a kind of punishment of Cohen, enacted on him by the rising tide of archaic Jewish intrusions into his life. Namdar said this is a moralistic distortion of his ambivalent, questioning text. Instead, Namdar pointed to the shatterings of the illusion of wholeness and perfection that happen in the book. “Where things are broken, there, seeds can take root and grow,” he said.
For example, Cohen’s harmonious life is an illusion that is shattered in the course of the book, leaving a “ruined house.” Yet the figure of the ruined house (bayit asher necharev in the original Hebrew, a phrase that comes from a poem by Yehuda Amichai) is also an allusion to another ruined house, that of the Beit Hamikdash, the Jerusalem Temple, whose pristine world of order and control, Namdar suggests, also was illusory.
The third ruined house is suggested by the timing of the events in the novel. The story begins in the Hebrew month of Elul (signifying its theme of repentance), on Sept. 6, 2000. After the narrative comes to a head on Tisha b’Av, the date of the destruction of the Temple, it jumps from Aug. 1, 2001, to Sept. 18, 2001, leaving a lacuna where Sept. 11, 2001, and the destruction of the Twin Towers, resides.
“I did not want Sept. 11 to appear in the narrative, thus making the novel reducible to being about that event,” said Namdar when I asked him about this. “Rather, I wanted the trajectory to point to its occurrence outside the frame.”
There is much more to talk about in this remarkable novel, which manages at once to be so Jewish, so Israeli, so American and so human. I did not touch here on the attention Namdar lavishes on the details of Cohen’s daily life or Namdar’s subversion of the lineage of Malamud, Bellow and Roth in his intense empathy with the female characters of the novel, and his unsparing deconstruction of Cohen’s narcissistic masculinity. I did not examine his vivid and hilarious slow-motion evocation of a grossly excessive bar mitzvah, or his brilliant parody of the Zionist clichés of a Birthright-like propaganda tour of Israel, and many other delights. I hope this introduction is enough to invite you to step into Namdar’s mesmerizing fusion of a talmudic-esoteric structure with an incandescent evocation of life in Manhattan, and discover what else he has hidden there, of which, I promise you on good authority, there is much.
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.