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In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist

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Isaac, 43, a haberdasher, has led a life of “almosts” – almost getting married, almost becoming a rabbi, almost starting a school of his own. After his mother dies, he leaves the Lower East Side and moves to Jerusalem, where he ends up as an assistant to an elderly kabbalist and his wife who daily minister to the seekers who gravitate to their courtyard.

One day on an errand, Isaac happens upon Mustafa, an Arab janitor who works on the Temple Mount, holy to both Jews and Muslims. Mustafa suffers from an extreme case of torticollis – his head is turned painfully and permanently to one side. He has been cast out of his own village – a mutant – unloved even by his own mother.

Somehow, the luckless haberdasher from the Lower East Side has finally managed to heal someone’s wounded spirit, in this case, Mustafa, and the two men enter into an intense and fraught friendship.

Though rejected by his family, Mustafa longs to return and be respected by his village. Isaac yearns to find his place, in the courtyard (where he is forever the assistant), and in the romantic realm (he goes out on innumerable blind dates to seek a wife), and is thwarted on both counts by his own anxieties and memories of past betrayals. When a beautiful young woman in the courtyard, Tamar, becomes electrified with feeling for Isaac, he is too frightened and prudish to respond.

Mustafa, wishing to return Isaac’s kindness, finds an ancient shard on the Temple Mount whose value may exceed anyone’s imagination, and brings it to Isaac in gratitude. That gesture sets in a motion a series of unexpected events that land Isaac in the company of Israel’s worst criminal riff raff, put Mustafa in mortal danger, even as Tamar struggles to save them both.

272 pages, ebook

First published January 1, 2013

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About the author

Ruchama King Feuerman

9 books54 followers
Ruchama King Feuerman was born in Nashville, grew up in Virginia and Maryland, and when she was seventeen, bought a one-way ticket to Israel to seek her spiritual fortune. Seven Blessings (St. Martin’s Press), her celebrated first novel about match-making, earned her the praise of the New York Times and the Dallas Morning News, and Kirkus Reviews dubbed her "the Jewish Jane Austen." She wrote her second novel, In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist, with the help of grants from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, and it will be published in September 2013 by NYRB Lit, a new e-book series from the New York Review of Books devoted to publishing contemporary books of literary merit from around the world. Her stories and essays have appeared in numerous places, including the New York Times, and she is a winner of the 2012 Moment Fiction contest, judged by the novelist Walter Mosley.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 113 reviews
Profile Image for Jan Rice.
533 reviews460 followers
September 8, 2015
The Wikipedia section on Inspirational Literature starts out coy, with the contention that Chicken Soup for the Soul is inspirational literature. Then the entry acknowledges that in the U.S., "inspirational literature" means Christian fiction. So let this book constitute a new genre: Jewish inspirational fiction. The writing wasn't bad. I tried to think what it was reminding me of: maybe books I used to read as a child, formulaic below the surface. It had an unrealistic feel, but at the same time, I felt nostalgic about that childhood aura. The story required a dollop of the reader's imagination to hang together. In the last quarter of the book, there was some inspiration, and some action-oriented excitement, too. Maybe a fourth star, I was thinking. But it crashed back to earth in the end, with a familiar trope I was hoping I didn't see coming.

After his mother dies, a forty-year-old rabbinical school dropout and longtime proprietor of a men's clothing store in the Lower East Side sells his store and moves to Israel, where he takes up being an ultra-Orthodox rabbi/holy man's assistant. He subsequently has fulfilling adventures involving particularly a beautiful redhead and confused but heroic Arab janitor. That's the gist!

As the sages wrote, the greatest charity was enabling a person to stand on his own feet, to the point where assistance was no longer necessary.

"Hell?" he said. "Maybe you are going there. But one can lower the temperature one degree at a time until it is no longer hell...."
"What?... How do you do that?...."
..."Through good deeds, Torah, and prayer."

Wasn't it true that he who understood his father understands the world...?

In a place where there is no man, become one.

Profile Image for Nathaniel Popkin.
Author 8 books16 followers
October 2, 2013
Reprinted from my review in: Cleaver Magazine

As I was crossing the street just outside the Jaffa Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem one evening this summer, I noticed a Palestinian boy, about 15 years old, flying a kite on the corner. It was about seven and the sun had disappeared already. The light was pink. The sky in the distance was a cloudless blue, but it seemed, at dusk, to have the texture of felt. An orthodox Jewish mother, wearing a headscarf and long skirt, came across to the traffic island, where the boy in capris and a t-shirt stood watching his kite fly over the honeycomb colored wall of the old city. The woman pushed a stroller, inside of which sat a nicely dressed boy of two. He was interested in the kite.

The older boy immediately noticed the little boy’s gaze; he gestured to him and the mother let him out of the stroller. She smiled with delight as the Palestinian boy held out the kite handle and the two boys held on together, the older one keeping a casual eye on the kite, tugging and guiding, the younger one concentrating hard on the string.

The kite was a momentary gift—a child’s toy, after all—in a place that so rarely seems to allow any give.

Ruchama King Feuerman proffers a similar kind of gift—or two of them rather—in her second novel, In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist, which will be published September 17 by the New York Review of Book’s new e-book only press NYRB Lit. (The press’s publishing strategy is to eventually publish print editions of books that sell well in the electronic edition. I printed a PDF copy of the book.) The book tells the intersecting stories of Isaac Markowitz, an orthodox Jew who moved to Jerusalem from New York as a forty year old, and Mustafa, a janitor at the Dome of the Rock, the Muslim Holy site in the Old City above the Western Wall that includes the monumental Al-Aqsa Mosque. Both men are nominally believers and both suffer from a physical ailment: Markowitz from terrible psoriasis and Mustafa (whose last name is never given) from a birth defect that left his head permanently turned, facing over his right shoulder.

The pained men’s lives cross when Mustafa discovers Isaac, with his long beard and black coat and hat, walking through the Arab Quarter. He wonders what a religious Jew would be doing there. “Aren’t you frightened?” he asks. The uneducated Mustafa is guileless, but so is Isaac.

“Should I be?” he responds.

Isaac praises Mustafa for doing God’s work by keeping the site—holy to Jews who believe it was the place where God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and to Muslims as site of Mohammed’s rise to Paradise—“clean and wonderful.” So whose site is it? Jews claim a history on the “Temple Mount” dating to the first Temple period of King David. Muslims claim the place was made holy only by Mohammed; they deny a Jewish presence there.

This is the heart of the issue, of course. Whose holiness matters? Whose claim on the land is longer, more lasting, more vital? Whose God is best? These most vexing of questions, which trap otherwise smart and even liberal-minded people in boxes they can’t seem to get themselves out of, emerge from this one spot in this one city.

But what if, Feuerman wonders, a Muslim would offer irrefutable evidence of the Jewish presence on the mount? And what if a religious Jew would open his heart to save the life (and soul, presumably) of the Muslim? Could the boxes be broken?

What if the answers lie right beneath our feet?

Feuerman asks these most delectable questions in the form of a fable (the form, it seems, dictated by the place and the subject), infected, like the novels of Meir Shalev, with a kind of Jewish mystical magical realism. She is a wonderfully empathetic and perceptive writer sensitive to the psychology of people particularly who choose to move to Israel. “I’d be riding on the bus or walking along Jaffa Road, and I’d feel the most amazing sensation,” says Isaac. “That I was fulfilling my destiny—not only my personal destiny, but God’s plan for the Jewish People. It’s an extraordinary feeling.”

She delivers a nuanced portrait too of Mustafa, with his bent neck, according to his own mother some kind of curse from God; and she is equally clear eyed about religious fanatics on both sides. But it’s the operators, those who “live out these problems, in the real world,” “while all of you hide behind your Torah books,” she interestingly scorns most.

When Mustafa discovers a piece of pottery—a pomegranate carving that had been the head of a cane or staff used for religious activities during the First or Second Temple periods—he gives it to Isaac. A gift, like the handle of the kite. This one, however, is deeply subversive, for it’s “proof to the ones who say our temple didn’t exist.” Mustafa immediately regrets his gift and the rest of the fable follows the characters as they try look over the edges of the boxes that trap them, recoil, and press ahead to the most dangerous ledge, right to the very end.

Feuerman is masterful in directing plot and manages, under very challenging circumstances, to avoid turning her characters, which include the orthodox Rebbe Yehuda, the Kabbalist, into cartoons. And she is careful to try, somewhat unsuccessfully, to give equal treatment to Jews and Muslims. Among the imbalances, even in this carefully calibrated book, Feuerman fails to deliver a sympathetic Muslim analog to the kind and open-minded Rebbe.

But as a novel about people trapped by religion and history, it too is trapped by the form of the fable. The characters, though well-conceived, can’t evolve past the limits of the book’s architecture, which makes the story feel like it isn’t quite fully imagined. The cost is the power of the ultimate tragedy; what ought to feel terribly melancholic is delivered with a wink and a nod.
Profile Image for robin friedman.
1,814 reviews241 followers
July 5, 2022
A Novel Of Late Twentieth Century Jerusalem

Ruchama King Feuerman's thoughtful, religious second novel, "In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist" (2013) features complex characters and a great deal of feeling and insight together with a plodding story. Feuerman, is an American Orthodox Jew who moved to Israel at the age of seventeen in search of spiritual growth. She subsequently returned to the United States. Her novel undoubtedly reflects her own spiritual searching, questions, and experience.

Set in Jerusalem in 1999, the novel tells of lost people seeking religion and the meaning it can bring to life. Isaac, in his early 40s, is an American who moved to Israel, selling his profitable men's clothing store after the death of his mother. He is unmarried, lonely and dissatisfied with himself. In Israel he meets an old Chasidic Rebbe who every day offers advice to the disaffected and troubled people who gather in his courtyard and his wife. Isaac and a Moslem janitor, Mustafa, who works on the Temple Mount meet and form an unlikely friendship. Mustafa was born with a birth defect which makes his head rest crookedly and at an angle on his neck. This defect causes him to be shunned and rejected by most people, including his family. Although Mustapha is uneducated, he has managed to acquire a good reading knowledge of Hebrew.

Feuerman develops the characters of these two fragmented men and their growth individually and in their friendship. Isaac wins the trust of the Rebbe. Upon the Rebbe's death, the Rebbetzin, the Rabbi's wife, encourages Isaac to assume the Rebbe's role of counseling the brokenhearted and the lost. She subtly offers her assistance. She also realizes Isaac's loneliness without a mate and encourages him to find a wife. Isaac forms a halting relationship with Tamar, 28, another lonely American who seeks to find her life in Israel.

Mustafa, for his part, has a menial job. He gradually gains self-respect and understanding through his friendship with Isaac. He brings Isaac relics from the days of the Second Temple from his job on the Temple Mount. Neither he nor Isaac are aware at first of the trouble this action will cause between Arabs and Jews or with the Israeli government. The friendship between Isaac and Mustapha, and Isaac's fragile relationship with Tamar play out against the political trouble resulting from Mustapha's finding and keeping the antiquities.

The book is strongest in small scenes and details. Feuerman shows the growth of the three primary characters,, Isaac, Mustapha, and Tamar with often telling, individualized moments from childhood involving relationships with parents, romantic partners, and others. A few of these scenes showed surprising insight into character. Feuerman also individualizes the many characters who come to the Rebbe for advice. Among the best of these is a short scene between Isaac and an American basketball player who had moved to Israel and who had formed an odd friendship with the Rebbe. Feuerman's novel recognizes as well the complex, difficult nature of human spirituality. Isaac's Judaism and Mustapha's Islam are allowed to develop without a sense of chauvinism or superiority. Their friendship, the human need for love, and the relationship between men and women are developed in a non-dogmatic manner. The relationships in the story get developed in too nonsexual a way. The book moves slowly and the plot sometimes creeks. The story cannot be told without a political dimension. On the whole, Feuerman describes the politics of Jerusalem well but sometimes the story gets in the way of the characters.

The book offers a good sense of Jerusalem, a holy city, and also the site of much turmoil. The beauty of the story lies in its people and in its sense of spirituality and religious seeking which transcend any specific place or denominational lines and in the book's exploration of the human need for love. The book includes a group of questions for discussion which raise important issues but which, in my view, are often poorly formulated. Readers should enjoy the insights and underlying issues of "In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist" while getting past the formulation of the discussion questions.

Robin Friedman
Profile Image for Cynthia.
633 reviews43 followers
September 17, 2013

What a long title for so short a book but what a wallop it packs. I was hesitant to read a book with such a religious sounding title because such books can become preachy and tedious. My fears were needless. This book is set in Jerusalem and its two main characters are a Jew and Muslim however the real theme is not so much religion as it is acceptance, humanity, understanding, and compassion.

Isaac was a tailor in New York prior to coming to Israel to pursue his religious knowledge. He came to work with a well respected rabbi. The rabbi is elderly and in poor health so Isaac’s job is to attend the courtyard which fills up each day with petitioners seeking guidance. Isaac and the rabbi’s wife take turns discussing solutions with the rabbi to convey to his flock. Mustafa is a Muslim but in desperation he decides to visit the rabbi. He was born with a twisted neck and his family and many of his fellow Muslims despise him for this. He’s hoping the rabbi can heal him. Not much to ask right?

Feuermann’s characters are beguiling. It’s almost impossible not to grow fond of them and worry about their problems whether that includes loneliness, ideological issues, disobedient children, lack of work or a need for a miracle. There’s a wonderful love story…no, there are actually two main love stories, which are irresistible. Feuermann is amazing in how she can bring up the longstanding violence and religious differences that plague the Middle East yet keep the issues on a human level.

By reading this book you can also learn enough Yiddish to amaze your friends though what truly amazes me was how much Yiddish my Kindle knows!

This review is based on an advance reader’s copy provided by the publisher.
(Disclaimer given as required by the FTC.)
Profile Image for Glenna Pritchett.
468 reviews30 followers
June 27, 2017
I very much enjoyed the story of Isaac, Tamar, and Mustafa, and I was impressed by the wisdom that is packed into it. Jews, Muslims, Christians -- if we would just sit down and get to know one another, we would find that we are more alike than not. We would find, of course, that we are all just ordinary people, trying to get through this life the best way we can. But most of all, we would find that the three religions all funnel back to the same God. So why be enemies?

A quick and very good read.

Profile Image for Andy Weston.
2,501 reviews153 followers
December 18, 2018
After the death of his mother, Isaac Markowitz, afflicted by eczema, sells the struggling family haberdashery in New York and moves to Jerusalem. Mustafa is a janitor at Jerusalem’s Temple Mount; tormented and bullied by his own community because of a deformity.
“Don't stand out in any way or bring attention on yourself," a relative had once told him, "It would be like drawing attention to a mistake of Allah."
This is the story of how Isaac’s and Mustafa’s lives bizarrely intersect, and it is wonderfully well told. It is set in the 1990s and deals with many issues of the day, not least relations between Palestinian Arabs and Jews, and preconceived notions about people from different cultures, and yet a dry humour is evident throughout.
Profile Image for Helen.
Author 12 books225 followers
November 8, 2013
Someone called Ruchama King Feuerman the Jewish Jane Austen. I disagree. I think she's the Jewish Graham Greene, traveling to far-away and war-torn parts of the world, teasing apart tangled knots of religious differences.

Isaac is a bearded Orthodox Jew who works as an assistant to the Kabbalist of the title. Beneath that long black coat, he is suffering under the burdens of loneliness, an unhealed broken heart, and preconceived idealized notions of what his wife should be like. Taken together, this has him pushing happiness away with both hands. Tamar is a baalat tshuva, someone who has chosen to become Orthodox, a beautiful redhead confidently navigating the ancient streets of Jerusalem on a Vespa scooter, her heart set on marrying a holy man. Mustafa is a devoutly religious and tragically handicapped Muslim whose job it is to keep the mountain clean, the holy mountain upon which stands both the Al-Aksa Mosque and the Jewish Western Wall. As if by order of one of the Kabbalist's spells, gently, delicately, these three lonely people come together to create a misfit family of their own.

Feuerman gives us the land of Israel using all of her senses; she describes the beauty of the settings, the feel of the ancient stones, the tastes of the local foods, the sound of the muezzin, the smell of a prison cell, the glorious spicy aromas of the shuk. My favorite passages took place in the Kabbalist's courtyard. The volatile mix of beggars, yeshiva students, housewives and supplicants, all searching for magical solutions to everyday problems was delightful, hilarious, crafty and poignant.

She writes of Muslims and Jews with a calm confidence that makes you feel like she's been there and talked with all these people, that she's grounded and comfortable in both cultures, her eyes wide open to the flaws and beauties of each. This is a story that toys with, then rejects, cliches, politics, and religious stereotypes.

Too many people choose to see this part of the world as either black or white. Ruchama King Feuerman paints it in a hundred shades of gray.
Profile Image for Dov Zeller.
Author 2 books108 followers
January 27, 2016
Isaac and Mustafa meet early on in this novel, an unlikely pair, a bit of a problematic but disarming odd couple, both suffering from physical and existential malaise. They meet not long after Isaac makes aliyah. He arrives in Jerusalem from the U.S. after his mother's death, and soon becomes the social director of sorts in the titular courtyard of a kabbalist.

Isaac is now an orphan, and with few if any family or relationship ties. Mustafa is also, in his own way, an orphan, because though his mother is still alive, she wants nothing to do with him and never has, because he was born with a crooked neck (Congenital Muscular Torticollis). Isaac is still heart-broken over a long lost love and still sorting through the wreckage of his relationship with a brutal and unaffectionate father. And Mustafa has lived a life with very little love and its taken its toll on him. His father loved and protected him, but there was only so much he could do in a community where Mustafa's crooked neck marked him as an unholy outcast.

Mustafa is educated and intelligent but emotionally unfledged and fragile. He was nurtured for a time as a child by a Christian woman who saw to it that he learned to read and speak Hebrew and English, but that ended under confusing circumstances, and after her disappearance from his life, his value as a person, his thoughtfulness and intelligence, goes unacknowledged, and he lives a spare existence, working as a janitor on the Dome of the Rock, and sharing an apartment with another man who seems more acquaintance than friend. His life's routine appears to be confined to working, eating, sleeping, shopping and doing laundry, until Isaac comes along.

The course of their relationship is in many ways, the course of this book

When the two meet -- Mustafa initiates the initial dialogue because Isaac has crossed over into an Arab neighborhood -- Isaac treats Mustafa with a kind of off-hand kindness (speaks to him as he would almost any stranger?) and tells Mustafa (as it comes up in conversation) that his work as a janitor on the Dome of the Rock is holy work, similar to the work of the kohein (priestly class, descendants of Aaron whose job it was to take care of the temple.)

Mustafa becomes drawn in by Isaac's matter of fact acceptance of him as a valued person, and simultaneously, he is captivated by this idea that he is doing holy work. For the first time in a long time (maybe ever) Mustafa feels important, and this feeling of importance is indivisible from a moment of affection shown him by a stranger. For Isaac this same moment was not so meaningful (for Mustafa, it was something of a revelation) but his connection with Mustafa becomes inextricable from his connection with self, love and calling.

One of the pivotal early scenes in the book happens when Mustafa seeks Isaac out and asks him to say more about the kohein. Below is the passage. Note that Mustafa refers to Isaac as "rabbi", and in Mustafa's chapters, Isaac is called "the rabbi" though Isaac has not yet been ordained (he came close to ordination in his younger years, and then his life took a different direction).


“Well, let’s see.” The rabbi’s eyes grew thoughtful. “The priest led the sacrifices, slaughtered the animals, sprinkled blood,” — he flicked his fingers outward as if throwing spices into many pots—“directed the prayers and confessionals, he—“

“No, tell me. What did he do like”— here his voice dropped—“me?”

Rabbi Isaac’s hands paused in mid-air. He looked at Mustafa through mismatched eyes, one light blue, the other gray.

“You said I was like a kohein,” Mustafa explained. “But a kohein is very important, and I…” he trailed off as he glanced at his old work clothes.

“Oh,” Rabbi Isaac was quiet. Then he began to speak. “He burned incense on the altar each morning when he cleaned out the lamps. He lit the lamps the night before. He swept up the ashes from the sacrifices. He maintained a plumbing system on the Temple Mount. This way it was easy to clean up the blood.”

The rabbi rubbed his parsnip nose. “I—“ He scratched the side of his jaw. “In a way, yes. A holy custodian,” he assented. “The word kohein means ‘to serve.’ It says in our Torah, God chose Israel to be a nation of koheins, of priests—chosen to serve.”

At these words Mustafa’s head exploded with happiness. Picked by Allah! To serve! A moment later his mind went black, like a prayer rug had been thrown over his head. “Allah only picked the Jews?” He said this with disbelief and despair.

“A good father makes each of his children feel chosen,” the Jew said with a cryptic smile hovering on his skinny lips. “Each child has a special task in this world.”


And so, though confused about his new role as protector and custodian of this holy site, Mustafa also feels like he has a purpose in life, and out of zeal and gratitude, he begins collecting Jewish artifacts that are being thrown out as ground is being dug up on the site. The first artifact he finds, a pomegranate engraving that likely went at the top of a staff, likely dating from the first or second temple periods, he gives to Isaac, and from here, trouble with the law begins. Isaac gets in contact with an archeologist and finally gets mixed up with the police. The Israeli police are trying to keep peace by giving the Dome of the Rock to the Arabs and not interfering in any way with their work. If it gets out into the public that the Arabs are throwing away important, historical temple artifacts, (artifacts that prove this site was unquestionably once a Jewish temple) it could cause quite a stir, and potentially end in serious fighting or war.

Thus, we have our external conflicts (between Isaac and the police, and between Mustafa, who continues to collect artifacts, and his Arab community who would further shun him or even kill him if they found out) and our internal ones (the existential struggles of the two male leads.) Meanwhile we have the Kabbalist and spouse, and Isaac's love interest.

"In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist" is a very well written book in many ways, the style, the pacing, the humor. But it pretty much drops the relationship between Isaac and the rabbi and rebbetzin who run the courtyard after a certain point. And I found the whole part in the prison where Isaac is being held, a bit far-fetched.

My greatest frustration in the book is that we have many Jewish characters, American and Israeli, and only one Arab main character, and while the Jewish characters get to live in the realm of subjecthood, Mustafa remains, in many ways, in a troubling world of object, allegory and symbolism, there to help the Jews realize themselves.

Do I recommend this book? Yes, but as much for what its flaws teach us as for its merits as a novel. Feuerman is a talented writer telling a compelling story, but in the end the book seems to me both over and underdeveloped and it fails in important ways to keep Mustafa from falling into a certain kind of martyrdom of otherness (for lack of a better word) so common in literature, and so disquieting.

I enjoyed this review.

Profile Image for Kressel Housman.
974 reviews226 followers
April 23, 2014
I didn't think Ruchama King Feuerman could possibly beat her first book, Seven Blessings, but if this book didn't do it, it definitely matched. Like Seven Blessings, it's a love story set in Jerusalem, but what's different about it is that in addition to the man and woman in the love story, there's a third main character: an Arab. This allows the book to venture beyond the subject of marriage and into the Arab-Israeli conflict, but to call it "political" puts way too mundane a stamp on it. The conflict is described in religious and spiritual terms, and refreshingly, the viewpoint is neither radical or polemic.

Overall, the book really captures the feeling of Jerusalem, particularly with its cast of quirky minor characters milling around the Kabbalist's courtyard. It's got a beautiful message and is the perfect book for a Shabbos or yom tov afternoon when you want to relax but still keep your mind in something Torah'dig.
Profile Image for Jen.
1,783 reviews59 followers
August 9, 2013
In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist is one of my favorite books so far this year. Beautifully written with a story that slowly unfolds and reveals wonderful characters who will stay with you for a long time.

The characters are so richly portrayed that I fell in to story at once. This is a novel of individuals, of relationships, of prejudice, of insight and of reflection, of wisdom and understanding.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, this is one of my favorite books this year, and I've hated having to wait until closer to publication to review it. On the other hand, I've had a difficult time trying to decide how to review this novel.

This quote does a good job of summarizing it for me:

"Her characters jump off the page and into the hearts of her audience
….charming, spiritual tale." — Library Journal

I don't think I can say it any better.

NetGalley/NYRB LIT

Literary fiction. Sept. 17, 2013.
Profile Image for thewanderingjew.
1,538 reviews18 followers
January 8, 2015
The prologue draws the reader in immediately by perfectly capturing the atmosphere of the kabbalist and his entreaters. In a dry and dusty courtyard, a rebbe and his wife show kindness to those in need: damaged people, people who are disfigured, emotionally disturbed, poverty stricken, any and all who come to seek their advice and food. They serve the needs of these sad misfits with no place else to go to seek counsel or solace. Somehow, their wise and common sense advice, delivered in the simplest of terms, calms and aids these suffering people.
Enter Isaac, a religious Jew, recently bereaved because of the loss of his mother. He has sold his haberdashery store and traveled to Israel. Instead of returning to the United States, he decides to stay and become the apprentice to Rebbe Yehudah, a man who offered caring, common sense advice with such sincerity that his solicitors believed him and often went away happy with their problems on the way to being resolved. Isaac suffers from severe eczema, psoriasis and unbelievable insecurity. His lack of confidence is his worst enemy and the cause of many of his problems.
Now enter Moustafa, a Muslim, born with a severe deformity. His head is turned to the side so he can never look completely forward. He is ridiculed and ostracized because of his deformity. Uneducated and a bit simple, he is a janitor on the Temple of the Mount, a holy place for Muslims and Jews, but a place where Jews are forbidden to pray because of its sacredness, and because the Muslims also forbid it. He learned Hebrew and English because of the kindness of woman who took him to weekly services when he was young. He is not devout in his faith, mostly because he does not pray in the mosque with the other men. He makes them uncomfortable, and they fear he brings the evil eye wherever he goes.
Moustafa and Isaac met quite by chance. Isaac was walking in an Arab area near the Temple Mount, and Moustafa, wondering what he was doing there, asked him if he was afraid to be there. Isaac, eyeing Moustafa’s pronged rubbish tool, asked why he should be afraid. They enter into a conversation, and when Isaac found out what Moustafa did, he called him a kohain. Moustafa was mystified. What was a kohein? Moustafa became a bit obsessed with the idea that he had this special significance and “therein lies the rub” and on the other side of the coin, the beauty of this story which seemed very much like a parable to me.
We have two men from totally different worlds, a Muslim and a Jew, who both believed strongly in their own religions, and they became friends of sorts. Both were outcasts in their own way. Both came from a background in which one parent cold and rigid, even cruel, while the other was the counterpoint. Both are searching for solace and love, both find it hard to describe the things that they want and need to find the answer to their hopes and dreams. Both vacillate, even when they finally decide what it is they want to do. Both are innately kind. Both are surprised when others are kind to them. They find they have things in common, their work, their words, their needs and their friendship transcends the hatred that exists between their cultures and homelands.
Because Moustafa was so grateful for the gifts, chicken soup and kind words that Isaac had bestowed upon him, when he visited him in the courtyard, he wanted to present him with a gift as well. What would be appropriate for a poor Muslim janitor to give to a poor religious Jew? Moustafa cleans up the area on the Mount, and as he sifts through the dirt, he finds discarded objects which he believes have no value other than to show his gratitude for Isaac’s kindness; they are after all bits of detritus being crushed and thrown away as rubbish. So he passed some of these odd objects, broken bits of pottery and a clay pomegranate, to Isaac, as a token of his appreciation, and Isaac is overwhelmed by his childlike generosity.
The seemingly innocuous discovery and gift of the ancient pomegranate will bring danger to both of these innocent men and expose a hypocritical pattern of abuse that is taking place on the grounds of the Holy Mount. The Muslims on the Temple Mount have been deliberately destroying antiquities to rewrite history, to erase the record of those that came before them so they can claim to have been first, so that they can claim the land and its history. The Jews in charge know this but do not want it to be discovered since it will cause massive controversy and demonstrations that would be dangerous for all in the region.
The misunderstandings arising from this antiquities discovery will jeopardize the safety of both men. When it is resolved, the reader will be left with a difficult message to ponder. Who was right? Was it Sheikh Tawil who wanted to willfully destroy the artifacts, the Rebbe Yehudah who wanted the wanton destruction of history brought to light so the true heritage could be preserved, the blustering Commander Shani who as the Israeli Intelligence Officer, consumed by his ideology and politics just wanted to maintain secrecy to prevent violence, Isaac or Moustafa who only wanted to appreciate the objects he found?
The character development was textured with many emotions and images. Tamar came across as a flamboyant girl on a motor cycle, but also as someone more serious, possibly suited to Isaac, despite their age difference. Shaindel Bracha, the Rebbetzin, came across grandmotherly, but also all-knowing and a strong influence on the courtyard. Politics and fanatic leaders would seem to be the villains in this story, not religion. The book, on the surface is an allegory, but it also exploits the reader’s mind with subtle reminders of the Israeli conflict, subtle hints about the fractured societies trying to live together, subtle hints about how they survive, often owing to odd compromises with one group or another in order to keep the peace. If only both sides could see the other side’s needs more clearly, without prejudice, so much might be achieved, and yet, in conclusion, one is left to wonder if this is really a possibility since so much is still misunderstood, so many are still blind to anything but their own needs and never see the true nature or needs of another.
It feels like such a tender story. The Yiddish expressions, conversations between characters and simple sayings and comforting remarks are examples of the beauty of Israel and its oft unjustly ridiculed religious society which is pitted not only against the secular but also the conflicting religious points of view. I believe that even non-Jews could be warmed by the sentiments expressed by this storyteller, by the simplicity of the love, devotion and loyalty exhibited by these two so different men, both a bit Job-like. Both men grew larger in the end, but did they achieve their dream? The reader will be left wondering if Isaac betrayed his friend or performed a miracle for him. Is the spiritual message of the book only achieved if one is Pollyanna?
Profile Image for Holly R W.
359 reviews39 followers
October 22, 2020
I enjoyed reading this rather gentle story. It reminded me a little of "In My Father's Court" by I.B. Singer. Set in Jerusalem, the book is about American born Isaac Markowitz who becomes an assistant to an inspiring orthodox Rebbe. With the Rebbe's wife's help (Shaindel Bracha), they serve out kindness and spiritual guidance to the Rebbe's followers, along with Shaindel's home-made soup.

The book centers around Isaac, Tamar (his would-be girlfriend) and Mustafa, a Muslim janitor who works on the Temple Mount. They are each Seekers, although in their own ways. Mustafa finds precious historical artifacts from the first Temple, which he takes to Isaac. The story spins off from there.

I liked being transported to Jerusalem for a while as well as peeking into a world different than my own. Just like the rebbetzin's soup, the book was nourishing for me. What made this just a 3.5 star read was the author's portrayal of poor Mustafa - he was sympathetic yet somewhat a caricature.
Profile Image for Denise.
88 reviews13 followers
March 3, 2017
Totally amazing to see hatred born & raised inside communities, cultures & individuals. But when one person faces another of that learned hatred & begins to know them & question their belief is interesting. Just something I took from reading this great story of two long time differences.
1 review
December 30, 2013
In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist is an engaging, beautifully crafted and courageous novel that shatters stereotypes, going beyond the geopolitical tension of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount to reveal the internal struggles and compassion of the heart. Against this backdrop is a multi-layered story of friendship between a lonely Arab janitor -- afflicted with a crooked neck and abandoned by his family -- and a single Jewish man who leaves his unfulfilling life in New York and finds his way as the assistant to a rabbi with “a gift for analyzing difficulties of the soul.”

The story deepens with both intrigue as the Jerusalem police tail Isaac – he accepted as a gift a rare antiquity from the Temple Mount, thereby endangering the State of Israel -- and a budding romance between Isaac and the beautifully quirky Tamar. As in her previous novel, Seven Blessings, Feuerman has a gift for capturing the pulse of Jerusalem in the details, from riding the buses and blind dating at a hotel lobby to buying vegetables in the souk. Here, her writing soars in the deep compassion she evokes for the broken supplicants who drift into the courtyard of the kabbalist’s cottage waiting their turn for his life-sustaining words.

The poignant and sometimes hilarious descriptions -- a man weeping behind his briefcase, a barren midwife, an old lady in pink biker shorts -- suggest that everyone needs fixing and spiritual sustenance in some way or other. Feuerman beautifully captures the transformative power of a kind word spoken when Isaac tells the lonely Mustafa he is doing holy work by keeping the Temple Mount clean. He is lifted by his newfound dignity.

Feuerman weaves a multiplicity of themes into a story as deliciously satisfying, rich and authentic as a fresh Jerusalem pita still warm from the bakery.
Profile Image for Judy.
Author 6 books46 followers
October 16, 2015
This novel develops around the unlikely friendship between Mustafa, an Arab janitor from the Temple Mount, and Isaac, an Orthodox Jew who has found refuge from the problems of his own life as the assistant to a revered Kabbalist to whom people flock for blessings and advice.

A small kindness from Isaac to Mustafa sets it all in motion. Mustafa suffers both physical and emotional pain from a deformity that makes his neck irredeemably twisted. Shunned by his mother and rejected socially, Mustafa clings with excitement to the idea, suggested by Isaac, that his work cleaning at the Temple Mount is a bit similar to that of the Kohein, or High Priest, who used to serve in the ancient Temple and whose job also involved cleaning. This is a gift of self-esteem that Mustafa has never received from family or friends. As a token of thanks, he brings Isaac a fragment from the site where the Waqf is literally demolishing and trashing ancient artifacts from the days when the Temple stood in Jerusalem.

This sets into motion a series of events that places both Isaac and Mustafa in danger -- Mustafa because he would be considered a collaborator and would surely be killed; and Isaac because the Israeli authorities do not want to make waves politically over the excavations on the Temple Mount.

Feuerman tells the story beautifully, and adds texture and depth through a secondary storyline about Isaac and his fears of forming a romantic relationship. Both Isaac and Mustafa live with feelings of inadequacy and unfilled dreams. Through their friendship, they each are able to find courage and understanding with "the other" in their midst.

Profile Image for Anna Olswanger.
Author 9 books65 followers
October 6, 2013
In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist is a novel about two expatriate Americans in Jerusalem and a deformed Arab janitor whose lives become intertwined romantically, spiritually and dangerously in the courtyard of an elderly kabbalist. It's literary fiction, but plot driven.

Ruchama Feuerman has told a story different from the stories we've all been fed about the Middle East. The unrelenting streams of information coming out from there—the terrorism, the self-important editorials, the never ending peace process, the heaviness and intensity, the olive groves and the Allah Akbars and the burial crews—conspire to rob us of our humanity. Ruchama's is a new story, a story about possibility.
Isaac and Mustafa, the main characters of In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist, are two people deeply frightened of what they sense and know about each other. They experiment with being at once loyal to the national and tribal story, and at the same time, they dare to break away, if only slightly. It is a story that makes me cry every time I read it. I cared deeply about Isaac and Mustafa.
548 reviews1 follower
June 11, 2014
Feuerman weaves a number of threads of Jewish tradition to create a satisfying and touching story. The presence and credence given to kabbalah rings true; the prisoners portrayed in the jail chapters called to mind an updated retelling of people from a Baal Shem Tov story. I thought that she struck a balance in creating characters that were likable but not perfect. Feuerman also captured the romantic tension in religious dating and relationships.
I thought she did an adequate job explaining the political and religious history behind the archeological finds, but would have liked a little more of an exploration into this very hot topic. I thought the Jewish characters could have expressed more awe and reverence for the artifacts, and anguish about the issue as a whole. But perhaps she wanted to avoid the purple prose of over-writing.
I found Mustafa a sympathetic character, and would have like more about him, as well.
Over all, it's a great read!
Profile Image for Magdelanye.
1,672 reviews210 followers
May 7, 2016
If you are a student of the Kabbalah or even just someone with a more than casual interest, there may be a wealth of symbolism here. The chapter numbers, the progression of the story,and of the emotional state of the protagonists, perhaps the number of vowels, all could very well create a pattern for the universe. If so, it was beyond me to figure out alone, although it wasn't hard to anticipate the trajectory and to delight in this tale of cultural confusion and well intentioned mis-communication.

The reading for me was definitely enhanced by my knowledge of the area. RKF is a lively and observant narrator and as I warmed up to the characters, I marveled at her ability to sidestep the common pitfalls of any book that attempts to portray real life in the middle east. Over the course of the novel, told from alternating points of view, no ultimate or tidy solution is provided, but at least the sense of possibility is present.

695 reviews62 followers
October 22, 2014
So... the women in my knitting group have been going on and on about this book. How great it is. How it really isn't a "Jewish" book. etc. etc. I finally decided to read it if only so that I could join in the conversation.

Now I'm not sure how I'll do that.

I found this book to be stereotypical and rather prejudiced. With a good dose of Zionism thrown in.

Yes, the writing was pretty good, but the subject and tone of the book were so offensive to me that I can't recommend this to anyone.
Profile Image for David.
Author 3 books63 followers
November 27, 2016
There was at least one detail (Mustafa's ability to bury archeological artifacts on the Temple Mount without anyone noticing) I found unlikely, though I was just barely able to suspend disbelief. During the same period I was listening to the audiobook version of this novel I have been reading (with my eyes) Rhoda Lerman's God's Ear compared to which In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist is not in the same league.
Profile Image for Sara Prager.
2 reviews
October 15, 2013
This book peels away the layers of politics of a charged environment and draws characters from different backgrounds who walk into our hearts and stay for a while. Feuerman gives us Jerusalem in all of its beauty and grittiness and we are enriched by all of it because this tale takes us to a place of hope and redemption.
Profile Image for Julia.
621 reviews16 followers
December 5, 2013
Bigotry, even when it's from the perspective of MY tribe, is not ok. In fact, maybe that should be ESPECIALLY not from the perspective of my tribe. I expect more and I would be *mortified* if anybody whose opinion I value read this awful tripe.
42 reviews
September 22, 2013
Absolutely spectacular. I could taste the dust of the Old City and smell the olive tree in the Rebbe's courtyard. A beautiful, romantic and spiritual tale in a classical vein.
316 reviews
October 1, 2013
Like Jerusalem itself - full of byways and misunderstandings and odd collisions of religion and politics, antiquity and modernity. This is a story of false starts, love and redemption.
Profile Image for Stephanie.
Author 9 books282 followers
March 2, 2018
I was so fascinated by the two main characters of this engrossing novel, the elderly kabbalist's assistant, a never-married man in his forties who has traveled to Jerusalem from New York's Lower East Side to find some meaning in his life helping others -- and a humble Muslim porter whose job it is to sweep and keep clean the Temple Mount, and who begins to discovered fragments and shards from early Judaism in the ground. I loved the language, the setting, the odd and wonderful relationship of the two main characters. I felt I wanted to both stay in the novel when I finished it and also travel at once to Jerusalem and find the kabbalist's courtyard and the the porter. They were so real to me!
889 reviews10 followers
August 4, 2020
If I tell you my story,
you will listen for a while
and then you will fall asleep.
But, if, as I tell you my story,
you will begin to hear your own story,
you will wake up.
Hassidic saying

Above is from the opening of this work.
This book could just as easily been called Open Your Eyes.
A seeming fable or maybe it is a story with a touch of magical realism.
This novel has sweetness at its center. It revolves around a group of people who in one way or another are not fully realized in their own lives. In coming together they find purpose and that life is here now not in some magical future.
1 review46 followers
October 18, 2013
by Ruchama King Feurman
260 pages

Ruchama King Feurman’s novel opens with a Hassidic saying. “If I tell you my story, you will listen for awhile and then you will fall silent. But, if I tell you my story and you begin to hear your own story, you will wake up.”
And wake us up she does! Set in Jerusalem, the novel is propelled by the friendship between a brilliant, but schlepy, middle-aged, Hassidic former haberdasher from the Lower East Side who comes to Israel to find himself after the death of his mother and an Arab garbage-picker on the Holy Mount, a site sacred to both Muslims and Jews, a pariah in his birth family as well as his community because of his crooked neck that forces him to walk sideways, crablike, in order to see. This relationship is made even more unlikely since it takes place in Arafat’s Jerusalem during one of the worst bombing sprees when every Israeli had his kishkes in his mouth just to ride a bus or do anything at all. And an Arab had to live in fear of what would happen at checkpoints, or if he was caught fraternizing with a Jew, or if he was suspected of being a terrorist. Isaac sees the value of what Mustafa does, compares cleaning a holy site to the work of a Kohain, one of the highest Jewish priests, and Mustafa sees Isaac as a sage who can help him, which has a positive impact on both of them. But when Mustafa finds an ancient relic that he brings to Isaac out of gratitude, terrible forces are unleashed which put their lives in danger.
Isaac, who never finished his rabbinical studies, ends up the assistant to a great rebbe, the Kabbalist, a Holocaust survivor who describes himself as having a gift for analyzing difficulties of the soul, and his wife who offers soup along with her own wisdom to the motley collection of people in their courtyard that includes a black basketball player, an anorexic teenage girl, and a madwoman who compulsively farts, businessmen without business, and women looking for husbands. One of those women, Tamar, a young, beautiful American new to Orthodoxy, longs to live a spiritual life with a Torah scholar husband and decides Isaac is the one for her, never mind his parsnip-nose and eczema, and the fact that he wants no part of her plan.
Israel becomes a character in the novel with its olive trees, the scent of rosemary, the sharp sunlight along with its disparate people and their colliding philosophies such as the staunch Zionist cop, Shani, who will never trust the Arabs, and Tamar who will never accept not being able to pray with the men at the Wailing Wall. There’s the resentment the secular Jews have against the heredi (the Orthodox) who won’t serve in the army, the anger against the Arabs living in Israel who don’t pay their taxes, and the seething rage between Arabs and Jews. Yet the story is gently-told, full of humor, humanity, and compassion for every side, every individual soul.
I love fiction that teaches me something. The Courtyard of the Kabbalist not only taught me about the Koran, the Kabbalah, archeology, and the Mideast, it also taught me much about how the window of the human heart can fling open, allowing light into the darkest places.
Profile Image for Talia Carner.
Author 22 books357 followers
September 25, 2015
In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist

I was blown away by the originality and details of the two male characters in this novel. Ruchama King Feuerman did an amazing job coming up with very interesting shortcomings for each of these men whose destiny places them in each other’s path in Jerusalem.

It is always astonishing to outsiders to discover the diversity of the characters that populate that city. Probably more than anywhere else in the world, Jerusalem is a magnet to the most varied people, and King-Feuerman has tapped into it by bringing the setting of yet another colorful place in the holy city—the courtyard of the Kabbalist.

The one area that she could have done better was to get out of her own very conservative religious background, as both her male characters are asexual, which would have been plausible for one, but not for both. Crawling under the skin of each of these characters should have yielded at least one men who struggles with his more than his emotional loneliness.

Parts of the story are predictable, such as the results of Tamar’s search for a husband, but they do not detract from the flow and the beauty of the prose. Less predictable to outsiders are the political conflict-pregnant ramifications of Muslims digging in the antiquities of the Temple Mount and the Israeli authorities’—from academia to police—reaction to them. This political backstory highlights the very contemporary problems that are beautifully set against the very traditional, unchanging wisdom of the Kabbalist and his brilliant wife.
Profile Image for Evelyn.
161 reviews
April 13, 2014
I'm so disappointed by this book. The premise was so original. A disillusioned haberdasher from New York moves to Israel and becomes assistant to a Kabbalist, a rabbi who people flock to for help with every problem you can imagine. By chance he meets an Arab who is a janitor on the Temple Mount. The encounter, though brief, has a profound impact on this janitor, who is deformed and has been rejected by his mother. He meets a young woman who has returned to Judaism from a secular upbringing. The interplay between these characters, as well as a number of other, less prominent characters, was complex and should have been compelling. The story line was constructed to show a major impact on the development of all of them. However, there was not one character that I could really like a lot. I felt on the outside looking in the entire novel, rather than being drawn into the experience. Grrrr! There was much to like about the novel, and I learned something, certainly, about the impact of politics on present day Israel and the population there. For that reason I gave it 3 stars. It should have been 2.5 stars, really. I just wanted so much more.
Profile Image for JM Randolph.
49 reviews3 followers
September 29, 2013
I loved everything about this book. Beautiful writing, great characters. I wasn't at all deterred by the fact that I know nothing about this world and felt like I accidentally learned something by the end. She's a strong writer who trusts her readers and doesn't spoon feed them or wrap things up all neatly with bows at the end. Fed my soul.
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