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The Weight of Ink

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An intellectual and emotional jigsaw puzzle of a novel for readers of A. S. Byatt’s Possession and Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book.

Set in London of the 1660s and of the early twenty-first century, The Weight of Ink is the interwoven tale of two women of remarkable intellect: Ester Velasquez, an emigrant from Amsterdam who is permitted to scribe for a blind rabbi, just before the plague hits the city; and Helen Watt, an ailing historian with a love of Jewish history.   

As the novel opens, Helen has been summoned by a former student to view a cache of seventeenth-century Jewish documents newly discovered in his home during a renovation. Enlisting the help of Aaron Levy, an American graduate student as impatient as he is charming, and in a race with another fast-moving team of historians, Helen embarks on one last project: to determine the identity of the documents’ scribe, the elusive “Aleph.”   

Electrifying and ambitious, sweeping in scope and intimate in tone, The Weight of Ink is a sophisticated work of historical fiction about women separated by centuries, and the choices and sacrifices they must make in order reconcile the life of the heart and mind.

704 pages, Kindle Edition

First published June 6, 2017

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About the author

Rachel Kadish

6 books740 followers
I often begin writing when something is bothering me. Years ago, I was thinking about Virginia Woolf’s question: what if Shakespeare had had an equally talented sister?
Woolf’s answer: She died without writing a word.
What, I wondered, would it take for a woman of that era, with that kind of capacious intelligence, not to die without writing a word?
For one thing, she’d have to be a genius at breaking rules.
My novel The Weight of Ink reaches back in time to ask the question: what does it take for a woman not to be defeated when everything around her is telling her to sit down and mind her manners? I started writing with two characters in mind, both women who don’t mind their manners: a contemporary historian named Helen Watt and a seventeenth century Inquisition refugee named Ester Velasquez. It’s been a delight working on their story.
The Weight of Ink is my third novel, but I’ve also written two other novels and one novella, plus a few dozen essays and stories. Whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction, I put words to paper because it's my way of metabolizing life. To paraphrase Henry James: I don't really know what I think until I see what I say.
Thanks for visiting this page, and for your interest in books.

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Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
3,853 reviews35k followers
October 28, 2019

Manuscripts had laid undisturbed more than 300 years. A discovery had been made.

Helen Watt, British historian is 64 years of age with failing health. She used a cane to walk. She has Parkinson’s disease. Helen’s strength -knowledge & passion for history and Jewish studies stand out - her ruthless commitment to her work reflect who she is - but her illness is quietly just ‘being’. Helen operates much bigger than her disease.
She is not Jewish, but has done a lot of work with Jewish history and taught as University professor. Since Helen is about to retire at the University, she would like to go out with a bang. So there is some urgency and competitiveness in getting the documents she learns about to the college before anybody else gets their hands on them.

Ian and Brigette Easton, lived in a house from the late seventeenth century. It was built in 1661 by Portuguese Jews. It changed hands a few times until 1910 when Brigette’s aunt bought the house and allowed it to deteriorate.
Brigette inherited the property from her aunt. Their plan was to renovate and then open up a gallery in the house. The Easton’s had many building delays. It seemed that Brigette’s late aunt had spent decades offending members of every historical preservation group in the area. After The Easton’s finally obtained all the requisite permissions, the electrician found a stash of papers under their stairs. He thought they were Arabic. He didn’t realize the papers were dated more than 300 years ago— and the lettering was in Portuguese and Hebrew.

NOTE — After finishing the book - I found it ‘a little’ funny that I remembered reading about Brigette’s aunt ‘offending’ people — ( who died before Brigette inherited the house). The more we get to know Brigette in this story - I can say ....”the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”.

Ian had been a student of Helen Watt at University—and he called her to come examine the papers they found in their house. Helen recognized some correspondence between 17th century Rabbis on the documents. She told the couple -(Bridgette & Ian), that the papers needed to be assessed before they could safely be moved.
Helen tried to explain a little more to Brigette & Ian of what the electrician and covered. She explained that any document that contain the word God could not be thrown out in Jewish communities, but instead had to be buried as a person would be buried. Brigette ‘might’ have wanted to toss the found 300 year old documents away - if she could have gotten away with it....so she could get permits and just remodel her old house already. The woman represents everything annoying about ultra modern women today ...lol
Synagogues, and religious Jewish communities stored these documents in troves called genizah’s, until a burial could be arranged.
Helen was adamant that the papers found belonged to England’s history— and not the Jewish community. She believed the documents found belonged at a major research university.

Helen needed help - and calls a colleague to recommend a post grad student to be her assistant.
Aaron Levy, American Jew, a college post grad student had been working on his dissertation, but was struggling to finish it. He was trying to prove there was a Jewish connection with Shakespeare’s writing. Aaron, about 40 years younger than Helen, - 25 ish - resembled a man named Dror, from Helen’s past that she had history with.
Whether or not it was because Aaron, reminded Helen, or Dror, from many years ago ( who we learn more about later in the book)— or because Aaron came off being a basic arrogant schmuck, - Helen & Aaron were not off to a good start as a cohesive happy team.
Helen was aware right off the bat that Aaron didn’t like her much, but at least he didn’t pity her.

The documents discloses letters written by Ester Velasquez, under the care of Rabbi Moseh HaCoen Mendes. Mendes fled Portugal - and went to Amsterdam after the Inquisition killed his parents and left him blind. From Amsterdam, he went to London to try to help with the Jewish community. There’s interesting facts about the struggles of the Jewish community during this time too - hiding their religious identity-or at least keeping it pretty quiet - but they were relatively safe in London- so many Jews didn’t want to rock the boat by pressing for more civil rights.

Ester became the secret scribe for Rabbi Mendes. Her brother, Isaac, didn’t want the job. Ester was proficient in Latin & Greek - but even being literate at ‘all’ was astonishing for women in the 1600’s. She yearned for knowledge and to converse with the great philosophers ..(Spinoza, Descartes, etc.).
The story of Ester is fascinating - she’s MORE than JUST a woman born before her time - a female radical thinker/ philosopher - She took huge risks that would be risky today. She took risks in signing the documents. She took risks with her communications in all her relationships - with both men and women
She entered into a marriage for convenience with a homosexual- that some people today would judge harshly.
And......Esters inquiry about God & Love - the existence of God - freedom to think freely - religious beliefs - social obligations - are presented in depth.

I have been asking myself...., “If I HAD to pick a FAVORITE character in this novel .....
would it be HELEN.....( with her inner strength).....
I learned from this woman. She made me cry. Helen truly taught LIFE LESSONS - so subtle - but truthful - ‘emotions rise’.... and I saw just HOW STUBBORN we as people can be. CHANGE - changing our lives - even if we have dreams to make it better - can be so darn scary - Helen showed us what happens when we don’t take those risks.

Or....Ester for OBVIOUS reasons ..... she never EVER stopped climbing the mountain— her life was a one-way ticket UP......she never stopped pressing the limits of her circumstances. She was incredibly inspiring. Even her mistakes - are forgiving.

Or....*Aaron Levy*: I have a special heart for Aaron. I GOT HIM RIGHT AWAY! It helps to be Jewish to understand his pompous arrogance. I knew his attitude was just his outer shell ....and that once it was stripped away - we’d see a beautiful struggling soul.
I have much more I’d like to say about Aaron....but I’ll leave it for discussion with my buddies who are reading this right now ( or have finished it)- Melissa ....Jan ....Lisa....
and anyone else who wants to jump in for discussion.
My fear is I’d give spoilers away.....
“Melissa”..... I wanted to CRY *FOR* Aaron TWICE....
Plus....I was SO MAD AT HIM TOO! I hated a choice he made.

YIKES......Forgive me.....( nobody has to read this review)....I see I wrote it out of NEED to complete my OWN EXPERIENCE......( trying to)...

I DON'T THINK I CAN CHOOSE A FAVORITE CHARACTER....I have a soft spot of all of them!!!!!

I think this book is extraordinary, brilliant, ambitious, and exquisite! I took my time reading it. I looked up philosophers: Spinoza - etc. I thought about it when I wasn’t reading it. I wrote Melissa private messages - who read it before me - as I was dying to talk about it.

I loved the scenes where Aaron is writing his friend Marisa who went to work on a
Kibbutz in Israel. The author got EVERYTHING about Kibbutzim life right!! I started craving my tomato and cucumber breakfast ( called the dairy meal). The volunteers staying on a Kibbutz would have contests with the Israelis as to who could dice their tomato & cucumber fastest. The Americans always lost. BUT.... by chance we did win....they had to give us a yummy chocolate bar.

“The Weight of Ink” is a heavy-weight book: intellectually challenging and satisfying!!! .....Rachel Kadish is AMAZING!!!!
The only time I had thoughts that maybe this book could have been cut shorter was once when Ester, Mary, Thomas,and John ....were on their boat on the river. I’m not sure why I felt that part went on too long ......yet I actually liked it too. My thoughts though were on another part of the story - curious as to what would develop.

The SUPPORTING CHARACTERS are memorable, too!!!
The dialogue is intimate- engrossing - authentic
The INNER THOUGHTS of THE THREE MAIN CHARACTERS: Helen, Ester, and Aaron are painfully - butterflies- in - my - gut- WONDERFUL!!

There is history - Philosophy- Jewish history - theology: exploring christianity and Judaism. Interfaith relationships are explored - homosexuality - the existence of God- 17th century life: conditions of the times : The plague, and the fire in London.
20th century Kibbutz life in Israel- RICHNESS in SUBSTANCE.

The roles of women are explored. There is mystery, tragedy, triumph, dreams and disappointments.....and GORGEOUS POETIC imagery!!!


“Where words are scarce they are seldom spent in vain, for they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain”.

Profile Image for Jaline.
444 reviews1,588 followers
November 10, 2017
This book is a journey – through time (1600’s, mid-1900’s and early 2000) and space (Amsterdam, Israel, and London) whose only requirement is that we give ourselves over to the story being told and flow with it.

I loved this book. The writing is exceptional and although it deals with history and philosophy primarily, it is not in any way dull or boring. The characters are extraordinarily well developed and contain such a treasure trove of human thoughts and feelings on so many different levels, that their very integrity led me to a deeper understanding of each one’s inner nature. And my own.

”I care neither to defend nor attack him. Much as I detest the man, I’ll never know the full circumstances behind his choices. Life is muddy. Denying that – thinking there’s only one noble path above the fray – can be a poisonous approach to life.”

The story is told primarily from two points of view. Ester, a young Jewish woman in the 1600’s whose passion for thought and philosophy in a time when women were impossibly shackled to hearth and home, grabbed my heart and held it through the entire book. Helen, an historian who is 64 and in the grip of an aggressive and accelerated onset of Parkinson’s disease, touched a profound level of empathy within me. I deeply admired her courage and dedication to the one opportunity remaining for her to shed light on a little-known aspect of historical significance.

The relationships between the people in this book are so well written that I felt I was evolving along with them – or dissolving, as was sometimes the case.

This book is a long, satisfying, fulfilling read and I highly recommend it to those who are willing to invest their time in learning something new, seeing life and living through different lenses, and experiencing the different times, places, and cultures found within these pages.

Edited to add: Thank you to Goodreads friend Iona whose fabulous and enthusiastic review of this book caught my attention and caused me to put it on my priority reading list!
Profile Image for Ioana.
274 reviews337 followers
September 17, 2017
Unlimited stars!!! WOW. SWOON. Fanning self. Holy Mother of Books. Absolutely awestruck by the pure MAGNIFICENCE of this BRILLIANT mellifluous poetic historically rich masterpiece... Unadulterated GENIUS. Whoa. AAA! I'm sure I could not string enough accolades together to do justice to Kadish's work.

I had such a hard time thinking of where to begin this review because Weight of Ink is too incredible, really, to describe, at least by a non-poet like myself. Nothing I could say could ever do justice to this work and I feel like even trying to talk about it in mere-human language is doing it a disservice. But I'll try something, because in the very least, I hope to convince you to make some time for this book in your life.

First off, The Weight of Ink is, quite literally, weighty. At over 550 dense, long pages, it takes Herculean effort, attention and dedication to get through. I know many of us like to read widely and don't always appreciate savoring a book for months, but my recommendation would be, if you're not ready to spend weeks on end reading nothing but this book, to set aside some time each week while also continuing your regular reading. I took an extended vacation this summer (to Israel, where this book is partially set) - and was happy to bask in these glorious pages without other distractions, but I rarely have that leisure or patience at hand on my regular days. Whatever you do, my recommendation is to please be patient with this book. The pleasures it offers forth are profound, but not if you approach it as a "book to finish". This novel is an experience that is best imbibed to the core.

A very quick synopsis: the story alternates timelines between modern day England (and the story of academic historian Helen), Helen's coming-of-age in Israel some decades ago, and the 1660s Portugal/England Jewish community.

But really, this is a story about BOOKS, reading, knowledge, and the passion that each of us, as readers, holds for these intangible but empowering and delectable pleasures. (This is why it's so important to let it seep through your entire being while reading, and not to rush). Helen is a historian who has come across a newly discovered genizah, a trove of Hebrew/Jewish writings from a 1660s Jewish-English household, and The Weight of Ink details her journey into the life of the scribe who has set down these words - a woman who may have had previously undisclosed links to Spinoza, a Jew excommunicated from his community for his 'heretical' beliefs. Helen's world, the scribe's world, Spinoza's world - all revolve around books/reading/documents. And that's just the beginning - again, I have no words really to adequately describe the poetic nature of Kadish's words, but her language is divinely inspired and does full justice to her themes.

There may be other books that I consider just as brilliant but right now they've all been eclipsed from memory - The Weight of Ink is not just by far my most favorite book of the year, it may be the favorite for a lifetime. No other has ever paid such reverent homage to the art of books, knowledge, and reading.
Profile Image for Liz.
1,920 reviews2,361 followers
October 4, 2021
Thank heavens for book club selections that force me to read books I’ve been meaning to read and keep skipping!

A dense historical fiction, The Weight of Ink tackles a female scribe for a rabbi in 17th century London. The Jews have just been allowed back after 400 years of banishment from England. The rabbi, a survivor of the Spanish Inquisition, has come from Amsterdam to help educate the English Jews. He is forced to use an unusually educated young woman as his scribe when her brother runs off.

Told from a trio of voices, including a 20th century female history professor on the verge of retirement and her American assistant, we learn not only the history of the time but also the philosophical discussions of the 17th century. I admit to having to google Spinoza to learn more about his theories. And I appreciate the lengths Kadish went to ensure she understood the philosophers of the day as well. (Make sure to read all the way to the end for the interview with her.) We learn the backstory for each of the main characters. Each, in their own way, are strong individuals, bucking expectations.

Kadish does an amazing job of giving us a true sense of time and place. It really drew me in and I found I kept reading much more in any given day than I had planned to read. Her ability to describe London during the Plague was intense in its realism. This isn't a light book but it’s in no way dull or boring. It totally fulfills my main requirement of an historical fiction, which is to teach me about a time I know little or nothing about.

Anyone who enjoyed Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book or Year of Wonders will also enjoy his. Actually, any fan of historical fiction will do well to add this book to their queue.
Profile Image for Violet wells.
433 reviews2,898 followers
June 14, 2018
The Weight of Ink clones AS Byatt's Possession. Academics on the trail of a hidden narrative footprinted in a slow reveal of discovered manuscripts. Firstly, I ought to point out I wasn't a massive fan of Possession. I enjoyed its mischievous elaboration of standard romance fiction but found most of the characters flimsy. This too in many ways is standard romance fiction within an ambitious framework but with less, if any, mischief.

It begins with our two academics, Helen, a sour ageing spinster and Aaron an obnoxious self-regarding playboy. Needless to say, they don't get on. However, it's perhaps too telegraphed from the beginning that this conflict will resolve itself in a crowd-pleasing fashion. Possibly the part of the novel I most enjoyed was an extended flashback to Helen's youth when, despite not being Jewish, she volunteers to participate on a kibbutz in Israel where she falls in love.

A bigger problem for me was the subject of their investigation, Ester. Ester is the scribe of a rabbi blinded by the Inquisition in Spain. She arrives in London after her mother and father die in a fire at their house in Amsterdam. After a while we become privy to Ester's thoughts. She's not buying the conventional notion of God as exalted mail order service, but I suspect most maids and washerwomen thought along similar lines in the privacy of their own minds. We're talking about a period in history when Christianity was as zealous and unforgiving in its doctrine as the Gestapo. To think few committed heresies in the privacy of their own mind is like believing every single German in the 1940s believed the Jews should be exterminated. Ester as pioneering philosopher and feminist just didn't hack it for me. A novel which succeeded much better on this theme is Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of all Things because Gilbert convinced me her heroine did have an extraordinary mind. I didn't buy Esta's extraordinary mind. There's a sense towards the end that neither did the author and so shoehorns in a new lead to potentially give her far more historical importance. I was more intrigued by her wild mother and amorous grandmother who are both given short shrift. (There's the ghost of another novel prowling through this novel which the author chose not to write but which I suspect may have been the better option). Philosophy during the heyday of Christianity not alchemised through art was hardly the most creative medium for a busy mind and it's hard to get excited by any of Ester's ideas. I couldn't help feeling a more compelling subject for her once she had taken exception to the conventional Jewish notion of God would be to question the nature of Jewish identity bereaved of its religious structure, especially since as a Jew she and those close to her are continually persecuted. Instead, she's arrowed into hair-splitting theological technicalities which are hard to get excited about. In short, she seemed to me too much a construct with not enough identifiable humanity to her.

There's a lot of very good writing in this book but sometimes I found the author guilty of insecurely overstraining for profundity. It was also a little too safe and formulaic for me. I didn't hate it but neither did I love it.
Profile Image for Melissa Crytzer Fry.
306 reviews329 followers
February 21, 2018
This is one of those books that, when you close its covers upon reading the final pages, you know you’ve read something special. It is also the kind of book that, days later, sinks even deeper into your subconscious and makes you realize just how impressive a literary accomplishment it is.

I was immediately intrigued by the dual-period style and the book jacket’s promise of a story about “two women of remarkable intellect.”

I should note, up front, that rarely in dual-period novels do I find both stories equally compelling. I generally feel one is stronger and often favor the historical storyline, but in this novel, they both carried tremendous weight and were done so well!

I suppose the beautiful cover drew me to this book as well, and the title with the word “ink” in it was part of the attraction – as I was an avid letter writer when I was younger (with pen-pals from across the world). I assumed – and was correct – that there would be epistolary elements to the book as well … another thing I love. But once wrapped inside the pages of this book, I was gripped by the incredible characters, full of depth and flaws, wants and desires, facing obstacles and celebrating triumphs.

And did I mention the writing? The writing is gorgeous, poetic, lyrical and so adept at reaching inside the characters' heads and hearts! As my friend Jaline’s review
said better than I have, here: "The characters are extraordinarily well developed and contain such a treasure trove of human thoughts and feelings on so many different levels, that their very integrity led me to a deeper understanding of each one’s inner nature."

It is a long book (560 pages with some very small print in some parts) and also includes a great deal of historical background, period language, and religious + philosophical themes. BUT these elements happen to be the VERY reasons I loved this book so much.

1) Length – With the publishing industry’s typical 320-page standards, I often feel that many books feel rushed and underdeveloped emotionally. (Admittedly, some slim books still portray that emotional authenticity, but many do not). This book takes its time with a slow unspooling of history and character and flashback. And it’s all the richer for it. At the end, you will feel you know Helen Watt, Aaron Levy and Ester Velasquez.
2) Historical background/period language/– The book jacket reveals that this book focuses on Jewish documents (and, therefore one can assume, Jewish faith). I grew up in an Evangelical protestant area of rural Pennsylvania, so I came to this book with very little understanding of Judaism, Jewish history, or culture. I knew not a single person of Jewish faith growing up, and when I attended a Methodist college, still lacked exposure to this religion. That was NOT a detraction to reading this story; it was quite the opposite. This book taught me just how deep my ignorance was regarding the historic and continued persecution of those of Jewish faith (not just during WWII). I am humbled for the learning opportunity.
3) Religion – If you are at all interested in religion, and maybe even if you’re not – how and why people have faith and why others do not, or why others have an alternative kind of faith – this is an excellent book that poses so many fabulous questions.
4) Philosophy – I will be honest. I absolutely abhorred the philosophy classes I took as part of a liberal arts curriculum in undergrad. And yet, I truly enjoyed the philosophical components of this book (of which there are many, and they are – as you might expect - written in realistic, stilted philosophical language). But they were so integral to this story, they fascinated me.

I was hooked by this book immediately, so when I saw an incredible e-book deal, I bought it in addition to the hardcopy my husband bought me for Christmas. That means I am able to share some of the highlights from my Kindle on my Goodreads review. I hope you’ll enjoy them. And if you can’t see them, let me know and I will paste some into the body here.

This really is a story of intellect in so many ways: the literary way in which it’s written; the exposure to current academia (which includes some fun being poked at the rigors of academic research); and the intellect of the characters, themselves.

It is not a ‘light’ read. But it is satisfying and sustaining. It’s the kind of story you want to commit to – and by that, I mean, don’t rush it. Take your time. Savor the incredible literary language and metaphors, get to know the characters and their secrets, enjoy the slow unraveling of an interesting mystery rooted in historically accurate details, enjoy the new historical insight you may gain.

If you enjoy dual past-present storylines, literary fiction, Shakespearean references, unapologetic women, and a mystery hidden within, read this book! If you love the written word and others who love the written word, read this book! I am still awed by the author’s ability to create prickly and, by many standards, unlikeable characters that, by the end of the book, you literally will be crying with/for.
Profile Image for Lori.
353 reviews418 followers
January 5, 2022
Epic. This is what is meant by a "sweeping" story. Masada in three time periods. Portugal during the Inquisition. Portuguese and Spanish Jews living safely, welcomed, in Amsterdam, a community which included Spinoza until he was excommunicated. Italy, same time period. England, during the Inquisition, when Jews had been banned for hundreds of years. And when they were permitted to return. Still reviled by most. In the time of the plague. Present-day London, university scholars attempting to read the past, do it justice, outfox one another and get through another day. Shakespeare?

It begins and everything revolves or rotates around the discovery of a trove of 17th century documents by the new owners of a home in a London suburb. They seem to have been taken down by a female scribe. The weight of these documents of great historical value.

Some fascinating layered characters and plotlines, some not. Different people will be riveted by different aspects. Mystery. Philosophy. Poetry. History: how it's handed to, how it's handed down, found, by characters every one of whom is flawed, which is how I prefer my characters. Every one dedicated to something: spiritual, intellectual, philosophical, decent, cruel, greedy, horrible, petty.
Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,081 reviews67.9k followers
October 19, 2021

As far as I know the institution of the genizah - a kind of literary mortuary used before the final burial of any document bearing the divine name - is a concept and a practice unique to Judaism. Sometimes, as in Rachel Kadish’s novel, the genizah is abandoned because of persecution or some other disaster, at which point it becomes an historian’s or archaeologists’s potential treasure trove of sacred trash. But the real cultural significance of the contents of the genizah is not the meaning of the correspondence, old liturgical books, sermons, or household ledgers it might contain. Of central concern is the language of these documents. In no other culture is language itself considered sacred*, not simply deserving of respectful disposition but demanding of the rites of demise - or failing that, the kid glove treatment of a museum curator.

The genizah which is the centre of Kadish’s novel is found in the house of the Eastons, a rather unlikeable upper middle-class English couple. These two are not overtly anti-Semitic but harbour an undisguised resentment that such an item was found on their premises (Mrs. Easton in particular knows full well what the thing is, and purposely mispronounces its name, as if it were an offensive smell). Their call for help about what to do with the contents of the genizah is pointedly to an academic acquaintance rather than to the local Jewish community. Their fear is that the local Jews would interfere with their plans for the house. The wisdom of their decision to call in an academic is confirmed when they learn that what they have discovered is of considerable monetary value. The theme of cultural appropriation beyond the mere documents is thereby established early on.

My view is that just as there is subtle anti-Semitism, there can be equally subtle anti-anti-Semitism and that Kadish’s book is a good example of the genre. Calling out the various nuances of prejudice explicitly isn’t usually effective, largely because they can be denied as misinterpretations created by excessive sensitivities. Much more effective, therefore, is to allow the signals of condescension, dismissal, and even hatred emerge through a softer allegorical mode which has a parallel ambiguity and deniability. A store of Jewish cultural treasure hidden in a Gentile household seems to me a rather fruitful way of depicting the reality of Jewish existence, not only in England but throughout Europe. My assessment of the book is made in this light.

There is a sufficient (but certainly not good) reason for the simmering anti-Semitism in The Weight of Ink; and it has been a persistent reason throughout the history of Christian culture: self-definition through the denial of Jewish identity. Christians have always been keen to ensure that they were not those whom their gospels had said crucified Jesus. They insisted on this to the imperial government in Rome, and to their intended converts in Asia Minor. And most crucially to themselves in their later gospels and in their epistolary scripture. They wanted nothing to do with ‘Judaizers,’ around whom they feel (and properly so) illegitimate. But it is two such Judaizers - one a Jew, the other an historian of Judaism - who are admitted to the house as researchers and who disrupt the Eastons’ cultural tranquility.

What is less obvious but more relevant in subsequent history is that Christians also identified themselves by redefining what had previously constituted religion and religious language. Christians might continue to speak the same Koina Greek, Latin, or Aramaic as Jews but they rejected not just the historical interpretations of what had been written and said in these languages, but also the fundamental category of language as a divine gift. For the Eastons the contents of the genizah are an asset to be bought and sold. That is, the language of wisdom, suffering, and history in its letters, sermons, and records is useful rather than revelatory. The language has no impact on the course of the Eastons’ lives. For them it was mere waste paper.

Ironically it was Jesus who articulated the prevailing Jewish attitude toward language. When tempted in the desert, Jesus rebukes the devil that human sustenance includes “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Further in Matthew’s gospel, he is reported to proclaim unambiguously, “For‭ verily‭ I say‭‭ unto you‭, Till‭‭ heaven‭ and‭ earth‭ pass‭‭, one‭ ‭jot‭‭ or‭ one‭ tittle‭ shall in no wise‭ pass‭‭ from‭ the law‭…” (5:18). It is the ‘weight’ of the letters written in the old gall ink in some of the documents of the genizah that literally eats the paper on which it is placed. These letters evaporate, only to be inhaled by those who open the documents, becoming part of them as the dust is assimilated into their bodies in an eternal cycle - language in search of a voice in search of a language to express itself.

The law is the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. It is sacred, as Jesus says, in its every detail. It must be revered and obeyed until the end of time. Yet Paul, his avid but unmet disciple, contradicts Jesus, abrogates the Mosaic Law of the Torah, and declares a New Law of Faith (Romans 3: 21-28). For Paul, obedience to the law, and its ethical action, is replaced by something Jesus never mentioned and wouldn’t have understood. What Christians can’t forget (or forgive) is that Jesus was a Jew who knew the importance and the role of not just the law but also the nature of the words through which the law was conveyed. Mrs. Easton is a flirt. She uses words to seduce and get her way. She has arrogant faith, mainly in herself, that her will is law in her house.

The word ‘faith’ was redefined by Paul in order to make his claim credible. Faith was his new form of religion expressed in his new religious language. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures the word faith is synonymous with trust, usually trust in the wisdom and justice of the divine but with no content beyond that. For Paul, Faith is a quantity of a substance one receives from God and proclaims in words provided by Paul. He calls it Grace and preaches the word of faith, which, according to Paul, is not a word at all but a mystical entity, a symbol, which occurs in no other vocabulary, called Christ Crucified. The Eastons’ ancient Jewish house is being ‘re-purposed’ as an art gallery with abstract symbols to be displayed in every room.

Paul transforms faith from trust in the traditions handed down for generations into an intellectualised belief and its tribal acclamation. From this, Paul formulated a command which he claimed replaced all commands of the law: “Believe on the Lord Jesus” (Acts 16:31). Paul, of course, abolishes the sacredness of language along with the law. For his followers, language becomes a tool, largely of propaganda and revenge, against those for whom it remained what it had been, a divine gift through which they were to make their way in the world. Language becomes a kind of ad hoc bricolage justifying the new regime. The incongruous Victorian addition to Eastons’ house are a physical manifestation of the new concept of language.

The ancient Hebrew trust in language is nothing like Paul’s unconditional belief. There is nothing intrinsic in language to believe in at all. Dare I say that a primary principle of Hebrew thought is argument. What that argument is about is most frequently what words mean, as proven by the detailed, seemingly endless, discussions in the Talmudic and Mishnaic commentaries! Quite appropriately therefore, the central mystery of Kadish’s story is the identity and fate of the elusive scribe, self-identified as Aleph, which is also the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The researcher’s argue about Aleph continuously. Appropriately, Aleph, the letter, has no sound; it is an unvoiced preparation for speech.

In fact the entire narrative is really based on complete confidence in Aleph as a person as well as a copyist. The language of the law and Aleph is laconic. It is the silent preparation for further thought. The details must be filled in by imagination. Such imagination is the driving force of the book’s protagonists (who in good Talmudic fashion don’t agree on anything). This is precisely how language must be trusted… and how sacred scripture gets written and rewritten with invented material inspired by the previous writing. The contents of the genizah live even when they appear dead because they provoke diverse interpretations.

In theological terms, the Hebrew language (by implication every language) is iconic, it is meant to point elsewhere, beyond itself - if it is allowed to. In Christianity, language is subservient to faith and quickly turns idolatrous, words are confused with reality, and then form the de facto objects of worship in fragmenting creeds and confessions. Paul’s contradiction of Jesus is paradigmatic for the continuing conflicts within Christian society as well as between Christianity and Judaism. The genizah is also iconic, pointing to yet another important trove in the house with enormous historical significance beyond Judaism, a light to the Gentiles as Isaiah suggested.

So the genizah by its existence is an affront, an offence, an unwanted reminder to a Christian culture which considers something/someone superior to the gift of language and its divine directives. It is what the Christian scriptures, as well as the Eastons, would consider a stumbling block, an impediment to progress in faith. The house had been built by a Jewish merchant but had been subsequently acquired (or probably usurped) by English Christians when protection of Jews was withdrawn by the Crown.

But within it remained this historical core of Judaism that is getting in the way of re-wiring of the place, that is to say, it’s source of power. It is this Jewish core of powerful language which foils the work of the electrician, the plans of the Eastons, and the way in which the house fits into local suburban society. Kadish’s book expands the potential scope of that impediment to confront the global increase in anti-Semitism .

The contents of the Eastons’ genizah are literally haunting because they implicitly abjure and renounce the Pauline discontinuity that is buried in the Eastons’ culture not just in their abode. It is pure human arrogance to believe that anyone can dominate language, even in the name of religion. All of us are subject to it. But this discontinuity is precisely what Paul was selling. Yet it is clear, even to a child, that the source of sin in the world is not the absence of Pauline faith, but the distortion of language to justify our wanting something - wealth, reputation, influence, that is to say, power. There are, of course, no children, no genetic heirs, in the Easton household. The house, its wealth, not its significance, will be passed on but the Pauline discontinuity will be repeated. It will remain without tradition.

Like any allegory worth its salt, The Weight of Ink has a number of sub-themes that swirl around in it, allowing for limitless interpretation. But all these themes - disappointing relationships, religious uncertainty, professional rivalry, misogyny - have their resolution in the fate of the genizah and its contents. Each of the main characters discovers or has revealed to them his or her hidden neuroses, some equivalent to an unacknowledged discontinuity under the stairs. All these, in one way or another, are linguistic in nature - misunderstandings, incomplete explanations or outright lies. A certain maturity is achieved, even in the old, when these are recognised and addressed. Pope Pius XII once famously said that he considered himself a spiritual Semite. Taking him at his word, perhaps that was the first step to address Christianity’s obsessive repression of Judaism. Or was it his form of allegorical misdirection?

* Apologies to adherents of other religions as necessary; but let me explain. Ecclesiastical Latin was never a sacred language but at its best a universal means of conveying the sacred; and at worst an elitist attempt to control discussion about what the sacred meant. Classical Arabic, the language of the sacred Koran, is not itself sacred, simply untranslatable. The English of the King James Bible is not sacred, merely archaic. The ritual Vedic Sanskrit is considered the language of the gods, but, again, not in itself sacred. Some incantations in the Buddhist Pali, are believed to have supernatural powers, but this puts them in the domain of the magical rather than the sacred. And not even Tolkien considered his elvish language of Valarin anything more than a means of facilitating divine gossip.
Profile Image for Kelly.
878 reviews3,949 followers
April 20, 2018
I know Possession. I’ve read Possession. You, madam, are no Possession.

Do not name drop unless you know what you’re doing, book marketers. In this case, you set the bar far too high and honestly never convinced me I was at the right bar to begin with. Never mind the truly, madly, deeply overwritten metaphors that absolutely blossom from nearly every page. The historical part seemed interesting, but I can just as easily read, you know, an actual history on the topic, so you’ve gotta have something more than that for me. I will admit that I decided I was done no more than a quarter of the way through so perhaps she got her act together later, but I somehow doubt it. I’ve been at this particular rodeo of purple prose and Dramatic Foreshadowing one too many times before. It seldom surprises me.

I wish publishers understood better what people liked about the biggest best sellers. We could all avoid a lot of needless disappointment in the “Let’s Find Or Manufacture a Copycat” mill that follows. Don’t make the cookie when you don’t know the secret ingredient. That’s all I’m saying.
Profile Image for Ingrid.
1,161 reviews38 followers
June 1, 2020
I've really struggled with this book. Hidden in all the layers of words that I had to plough through lay a most beautiful story. It is for this story that I went on reading, it touched my heart.
It seems to me that the author couldn't choose between non-fiction and a novel which weakened both. I'm hesitating between 3 and 4 stars, but because I can see the enormous effort I choose 4.
Profile Image for Cheri.
1,688 reviews2,241 followers
November 9, 2019
June 8, 1691 11 Sivan of the Hebrew year 5451 Richmond, Surrey

Let me begin afresh. Perhaps, this time, to tell the truth. For in the biting hush of ink on paper, where truth ought raise its head and speak without fear, I have long lied. I have naught to defend my actions. Yet though my heart feels no remorse, my deeds would confess themselves to paper now, as the least of tributes to him whom I once betrayed. In this silenced house, quill and ink do not resist the press of my hand, and paper does not flinch. Let these pages compass, at last, the truth, though none read them.

Two women, one living in seventeenth century London, the other in the twenty-first century, whose stories, eventually, become intertwined when a collection of papers that had been long hidden in a private home surfaces. Helen Watt learns of these papers when she receives a phone call from a former student, and she brings her new “assistant,” Aaron Levy, along to determine their importance.

Helen comes across as quietly dismissive of Aaron, and Aaron is more openly dismissive of her. Dismissive of the years Helen has spent, the knowledge she holds, the processes required, the level of careful attention to detail in handling these papers, as well as careful transcription and translation that are required. He’s still feeling the wounds of not having risen to the greater heights he believes are his right, and seems to blame her for wanting to stay actively involved in her life’s passion, despite her failing health.

”Below the rabbi’s sprawling signature and the initial of the scribe Aleph, was the word, decorated with a small, elegant scroll, Finis. But turn the page upside down and, in the same elegant hand, the Hebrew read, Here I begin.

With 592 beautifully written, densely packed pages, this was not a fast read, but it was a very moving one. I loved the unveiling of this story, of these previously undiscovered historical, religious writings, especially against the twenty-first century impressions, and a story that was sprinkled with a bit of intrigue driving the story forward, providing a depth of the thoughts and feelings of these characters that really brings them, and this story, to life.

” Our life is a walk in the night, we know not how great the distance to the dawn that awaits us. And the path is strewn with stumbling blocks and our bodies are grown tyrannous with weeping yet we lift our feet. We lift our feet.

Many thanks to Melissa, Jaline, and Elyse whose reviews prompted and reminded me to read this National Jewish Book Award winner, the links to their reviews are below:


Profile Image for RoseMary Achey.
1,326 reviews
September 13, 2017
I had a very difficult time with this highly rated novel. The writing was very good at times, but other times I felt it would benefit from a strong edit. If you are looking for a light, quick read-this certainly is not the book. Unfortunately, I didn't love any of the characters in either the contemporary or the historical story. Lots of readers loved this one, I just was not one.
Profile Image for Marianne.
341 reviews
February 27, 2018
Not that I'm one to talk, but this book could stand to lose a few pounds...
Profile Image for Jeanette.
3,169 reviews542 followers
December 4, 2017
Oh! Oh! Oh!

Do you love the written word? Are you a patsy for any historical site and love to read history books for fun? Are you part philosopher? Does your birth position within the era, family order, vocational direction and almost any other category you can define which could describe the intersection where aptitude and desire toward work or vocation cross- is it all wrong? If you answer yes to most of these questions, take on this one. It is super, super long. About 3 books length. And not an easy read in any measure. If you know Spinoza, Shakespeare, Harvey in specifics? Or if you have studied the Torah or loved conservation library tasks?

But first and foremost if you are NOT in love with history itself and the written word to record it- this book is NOT for you.

It's in 2 periods (mid to late 17th Century England and 2000-2001 era in the same location) and has about 7 or 8 prime personalities cut to atom sized precision.

Add the plague, Jewish persecution and diaspora and some mysteries solved along the way and you have a scrumptious story.

There are myriads of quotable passages among the pages. Most have heart in philosophy. But a few also dwell in female role dynamics.

Plotting is so complex that those who want an easy answer? No! They come in droplets of piecing by Library Patricia or Conservation Patricia. Only receiving their last names within the last 150 pages.

Aaron, Helen, Rabbi, Ester- those are the primes but not near all.

This was an outstanding entertainment for me. Think piece supreme.
Profile Image for Libby.
569 reviews160 followers
August 30, 2020
4.5 rounded up - In ‘The Weight of Ink,’ author Rachel Kadish explores themes that would be important to many readers. How do we live an authentic life while also exploring and paying homage to the life of the mind? What if the life of the mind is your passion? For two women in this book, Ester Velasques, and Helen Watt, such is the case. Ester comes of age in the late 1650s. She and her brother, Isaac, are orphans that Rabbi HaCoen Mendes take with him to London to set up a learning center for the Jewish community there. When Isaac abdicates the role of the Rabbi’s scribe, Ester is called upon. Ester’s father had seen to it that she was educated, but many if not most in the Jewish community feel that the world of learning is no place for a woman. Still, Rabbi Mendes uses her skills as his scribe.

Over three centuries later, Helen Watt, historian and academic, is called to the home of a former student, to investigate a cache of documents found behind a stairwell. Her assistant, Aaron Levy, who is working on his post doctoral dissertation, rounds out the cast of main characters. Aaron and Helen rub each other the wrong way. Helen is implacable and stiff, showing very little emotion. She is also on the edge of retirement, which is another one of those milestones that make the ground shake. Aaron’s dissertation is flagging as is his understanding of what direction his life should now take. He begins to question his own need for approval and compliments as he moves up the academic escalator. I found the dynamic between these two characters incredibly interesting. As their university makes arrangements to buy the papers, a competition and urgency to be first to publish using the new sources will arise.

This novel is a slow burn, but one that pleasantly pulled me into its webs of intrigue. Ester’s right to academia, her right to live a life of scholarship are constantly called into question. She loves the Rabbi, but the more she learns, the more she questions. Like the Rabbi’s old student, Baruch de Spinoza, who was excommunicated from the Amsterdam Portugese community at the age of twenty-three, she begins to question the nature of God. She hides these thoughts from her teacher but wonders why scholarship doesn’t embrace these questions rather than repudiating the questioners.

Ester's passion was the life of the mind, as was Helen’s. An intellectual awakening is a flowering of possibilities, a quickening of the spirit, the inner being coming alive to stretch and grow in previously undreamed of ways. It is more than academia because although it may be fostered by it, this kind of awakening is fulfilled by the seeker’s own heat seeking pulse. The quest of the seeker becomes its own Holy Grail. And yet, these two women paid a price. An excellent novel with great depth and rich characters that caused me to think about my inner life, and yes, at times, what I give in exchange.
July 6, 2017
I don’t need plot. Most of the time I choose books that don’t have such a thing or that I spend time performing rituals and rites in hope that one won’t appear. So what is it with this book that it is about plot, wonderfully plotted, yet I cannot leave it for long or if I do I can’t wait to return.

What I think, a hazy belief, is that Kadish has skimmed along the line where story abuts literature. A thin porous line it can be. Often, a work where story is so predominant it is just that; a nice or interesting tale, heartfelt or sentimental. So, what is it and what is it about this book that lifts it above and past this line?

Kadish’s style is so engaging, so clean, that rarely did I know that I was reading. If someone pointed out that I was I would have been surprised. Normally I know when I’m reading. I’m bright in this way. There is a book with pages and words running across, a pair of glasses on the bridge of my nose. Not so here. Stop a moment. You’ll need rest. This review is long. It is this spare and telling vernacular which does not show a similarity to the great works of literature, the grand wordings, the poetic phrasings. Does that mean… Of course there have been others.

The content is ruthlessly engaging. A young girl, Esther is adopted by a Rabbi in Amsterdam in the 1600’s after her parents die in a fire. He leaves the Jewish community there to venture to London, bringing she and her brother along, to the help the congregating refugee Jews to follow their faith closely.

Her mind is bursting with the curiosity of learning, of thought. The Rabbi had been blinded as a young man during the Spanish Inquisition in Portugal. In London he no longer has a scribe to write out his thoughts for him. She becomes the scribe against Jewish law for a woman to participate in the religion at this level. She is honored to serve her beloved, learned, kind Rabbi. Hours each day she writes as he speaks and thinks. She thinks. They talk. Women are not supposed to be doing this, They are not to be thinking about these things; morality, philosophy, religion, much less scribing for a pious Rabbi. The more she learns the more her mind reaches for that which is true for her, an honesty that perches and resides within. An independence of thought. Her thinking is pure and vast. There is no place for this. Not for her. Not for a woman.

Her thoughts being kindled, in large part by being not only mentored by him but as one who is to be respected for her thoughts, understandings, ability to assimilate, has burst into a rapacious hungered flame. She lives for thought. She lives for the hope that she might be able to communicate with other thinkers, others whose lives have been devoted to thought.

“There was life in London. There was life in her. And desire. A flame leapt in her, defiant of the bounds which she prisoned it.”

“The thoughts were heretical, and they were her own. A frightening alluring hunger surged in her…”

“Somewhere across this bridge, beckoning her, were books that would be hers to explore and question-and yes, argue against-for in her new daring now nothing seemed impossible, and she allowed herself to admit even this: that she thought the sages scant in their exploration of what she most wished to understand-the will that sets the world in motion and governed it. Shutting her eyes, letting the crowd steer her, she saw behind closed lids the books that awaited her, the thinkers’ collected voices inked onto each crowded page. An ecstasy of ink, every paragraph laboring to outline the shape of the world. The yellow light of a lamp on leaves of paper, the ivory-black impress of words reasoning, line by line.”

Even if this book didn’t have other admirable qualities this young woman, is one of the most forceful, appealing characters I have met. She is so much of what I would like to be, to have been, the character I love to read about win or lose. But how stifled she found herself as she grew, by jewish tradition, the violence of anti-Semitism, the bottom tier of social status forced upon women especially if they didn’t, “Marry well,” and had financial means.

We’re still in England, no less wet and foggy, but it is 2005. We are settled in the world of academia, where a stodgy, icy, resentful professor nearing her retirement is studying a trove of pages from the 1600’s which has been presented to her by a former student renovating a historic house he bought, and a young post graduate student who has been assigned to her. He is coy, shiftless, and somewhat in love…with himself. Others, especially women, are objects for him to use to get his narcissistic needs met. His thesis on Shakespeare has stalled similar to the professor’s health gradually stalling. But she is determined to take the disorder of these manuscripts and turn them into a significant find that nearing the end of her career will establish her, her name, in a field, a world, dominated by men.

The story in different chapters goes back and forth between these worlds. There is nothing seamless about this…on the surface. It so easily might have been. This book has, and rightfully so, been compared to, A.S. Byatt’s Possession. The storylines follow similar paths. Two markings where Kadish veers off; where Byatt’s writing style is precise, articulate, at times a silken touch to the fingers, Kadish’s prose has a coarser feel, heated and leveraged. It is composed of blood’s pounding, the tense grab of the necessity of choices and their consequences. It seems right that Kadish must have been there too and speaks with the fire of experience. Turning to the sentimental to engross a set of genre readers would have been such an easy fall. She writes here in my view for the integrity of the writing itself. Her considerable skills are devoted to this cause. The scars snaking down my hand where I held the book while reading attests.

I believe my struggle with this book is that in its danger of yielding to the sentimental it may have crossed that porous line at times unbeknownst to me since I was enraptured with Esther’s character, the nerve crushing violence, the suspense, the symbolic and metaphoric activity. Then the deft crossing back to 2005. The struggles of these more modern characters, not drawn to mimic the 1600’s section but in its own right to address more modern problems in a similarity that evades me but I know is somehow still there.

I think there might be some who read it and who might think it is mere genre, others may read it and see a powerful piece of literature, in its own vernacular, taking place. I’m giving it 4 stars too unsure and probably cowardly to give it that last one. It is there just beneath my bed, its faded blink only barely out of my touch.

Profile Image for Lisa.
607 reviews229 followers
March 22, 2018
The Weight of Ink
Rachel Kadish

MY RATING ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
PUBLISHER Highbridge
PUBLISHED June 6, 2017
NARRATED Corrie James

An complex but emotionally rewarding story of two women centuries apart who sacrificed much by choosing a passion of the mind over the heart.

Two women of remarkable intellect are the subject of this monumental and award winning novel set in London in the 1660’s and early 21st-century. Helen Watt, is an ailing historian with the love of Jewish history, right on the verge of retirement. She has just been called to the home of a former student to review a cache of 17th century Jewish documents, discovered during his home renovations. Helen, with the help of Aaron Levy, an embittered and unsympathetic American graduate student, soon realize they have uncovered something stunning. They are in a quest to unlock the secrets of the documents, the identity of the documents scribe, and the meaning of their own lives.

Ester Velasquez, a bright, young immigrant from Amsterdam tirelessly scribes for an aging blind rabbi, despite prohibitions against her doing so. As a result of her work, she learns much from the Rabbi. Her mind is opened to new ideas and self discovery, and she soon longs to do so much more. Despite offers of marriage, Ester staunchly chooses her scholarly work, and she further desires to engage with the brilliant minds of her day, particularly the controversial Dutch philosopher Benedictus de Spinoza. Ester’s story illuminates the standing of Jews in London, the plague (1665) and the Great Fire of London (1666)

The Weight of Ink is a deftly woven epic story of self-discovery of two women. Ester is in the beginning of her adult life and looking forward, and Helen is completing her career, looking backwards over her life. Both women compellingly chose to focus their lives on scholarly work over love in spite of traditional roles for women. Two true Bluestocking women! Poignant, moving and thought-provoking, this book will draw you in like a moth to a flame, and leave you amazed. This is undoubtably one of the best books I have read in 2018.

Rachel Kadish’s writing is masterful and absorbing. She effortlessly transports us back and forward across the centuries, with memorable characters that keep you grounded and propel the story. With close to 600 pages or 23 listening hours, this is by no means a light or quick read, but it is well beyond satisfying. In January 2018, The Weight of Ink was named a winner of a 2017 National Jewish Book Award The Audible version of this book narrated by Corrie James was performed with perfection.

“Love must be, then, and act of truth-telling, a baring of mind and spirit just as ardent as the baring of the body. Truth and passion were one, and each impossible without the other.”

Rachel Kadish, The Weight of Ink

Profile Image for Lisa.
1,382 reviews522 followers
June 17, 2019
[4.5 stars]I am dazed, bleary eyed from reading this - today I could do nothing but read. I am partially in 17th century London, still. I wish there was more, but I am also satiated. The people in this novel came alive for me - Ester and Helen and Aaron. I will miss them. I love the importance placed on learning and thinking - and relationships. Unlike many novels that go back and forth between two time periods, this one flowed beautifully. Remarkable.
Profile Image for Barbara.
261 reviews196 followers
December 17, 2020
I read and reviewed this book over two years ago. I just reread it, something I rarely do but felt was necessary in order to adequately lead the discussion for a book club. My love of the book was increased the second time around, and I had been totally blown away by it two years ago. There were so many nuances I had forgotten or had missed on the first reading. It remains one of my all-time favorite books.

Dual storylines tell the stories of Ester in 17C London and Helen in the 20C, also in London. Ester is a scribe for a blind rabbi. A woman scribe is unheard of at that time, no less one who writes her surreptitious and heretical thoughts to Spinoza and others. Helen is an aging historian of Jewish history who is assigned to decipher the cache of 300 year old documents found hidden in a 17C London home. These two intelligent women follow a life of the mind but both are filled with guilt and regret. Kadish's two storylines are equally compelling, something I have rarely found with this format.

Having recently read two books set in the 17C, O'Farrell's Hamnet and C.J Sansom's Sovereign, I am slowly reentering this present time. Although I would never wish to have lived back then, my immersion was extremely pleasurable.

Profile Image for Margaret.
278 reviews169 followers
January 21, 2018

Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink is simply my favorite read of 2017. Its basic structure consists of two alternating narratives. The first, taking place in London in the late seventeenth century, contain the writings of Ester Velasquez, a young Sephardic Jew who was born in Portugal, grew up Amsterdam, and finally is brought to London as a young girl, along with her brother Isaac, by a distinguished but blind rabbi, after their parents die. Rabbi HaCoen Mendes had hoped that Isaac would serve as scribe, but Isaac has other desires. Ester, on the other hand, loves the word, the learned life, and ends up acting as the rabbi’s scribe. Such learning and work was denied to women in the late 1650’s, but the rabbi allowed her to help. The second narrative frame takes place, primarily in London, in the years 2000-2001. The main characters here are Helen Watt, an aging history professor, and her assistant, Aaron Levy, who is an American graduate student “on loan” to Helen as she takes three days to look into a stash of ancient papers discovered by a former student when he and his wife undertake a remodeling of a seventeenth century home they purchased. And yes, those papers turn out to be primarily the papers of Ester Velasquez, and those three days are but a mere beginning of a great academic adventure. If you think you’ve read a book with a similar structure, you would be right. A. S. Byatt’s Possession also alternates between the lives of contemporary scholars investigating newly found texts from the past. If you liked her book, I think you will love this one.

The writing in Kadish’s book is simply superb. Even if she had a less compelling story, I would be swept away by the words. Let me quote the opening section, “written” by Ester Velasquez and dated June 8, 1691 as an example. (And there are many, many other passages that could have served as well.):
Let me begin afresh. Perhaps, this time, to tell the truth. For in the biting hush of ink on paper, where truth ought to raise its head and speak without fear, I have long lied.
I have naught to defend my actions. Yet though my heart feels no remorse, my deeds would confess themselves to paper now, as the least of tributes to him I once betrayed.
In this silenced house, quill and ink do not resist the press of my hand, and paper does not flinch. Let these pages compass, at last, the truth, though none read them.

But the story does compel. This book will keep you in your chair as you turn page after page of this 564 page long novel. Kadish allows her characters in both narratives free reign, and we hear of their past and present lives, and their inner thoughts and outer actions. Even the minor characters (for example, the librarians with whom Helen and Aaron work) are created in depth and flesh out the communities in which they live and work. And we learn in some depth, in both narratives, about the philosophers and writers of the seventeenth century. This being a novel, several of those characters are fictional, but others are taken from history; you are likely to recognize their names and their ideas. This is the kind of historical novel that sends you searching to learn more about some of these thinkers. The focus is primarily on Jewish texts and thinkers, but not entirely. And because Ester is a woman doing work a woman is forbidden to do, there is also a focus on the issue of women being able to choose the lives and vocations they wish.

I was transported by this powerful book—by its passionate language and the struggle of its characters to find and ride the meaning this world. Loved it so much I forgave its sometimes too neat shape and its language with its richness of fruit five minutes past ripe (but only five minutes). I abandoned myself to its power but finally I had to draw back a bit because of a final twist too far. But now that I’m more than a month out of the text, that twist fades away under the extreme light of the rest of the book. This one’s a treasure.
Profile Image for Barbara.
261 reviews196 followers
February 25, 2018
Truly brilliant. It is the kind of book that lingers in your mind - for days, weeks, maybe forever. I am not ready to begin another book because I am still a part of this fine piece of fiction. One reviewer wrote that the book borders on sentimental. Perhaps, but for me that doesn't detract from its brilliance.

There are many thoughts Kadish expresses beautifully, but the one that is the heart of this story is, in my opinion, the following." Yes. It was indeed all of our history. No people's thread was separate from any other's, but everyone's fate was woven together in this illuminated, love-stricken world."
Profile Image for Lewis Weinstein.
Author 9 books487 followers
February 11, 2020
This is an absolutely marvelous book, although not perfect.

Let's start with the marvelous. The two related story lines (1600's and modern day) are each fascinating and well conceived. The characters in each are always in a state of tense challenge, as they think through the problems they face. The reader is continually challenged as well, with philosophical and religious ideas that don't often grace the pages of fiction, including Spinoza's view of God and Nature.

But all of those good things take second place to the writing itself. When Kadish is in her rhythm, she produces a sequence of glorious sentences, each one superbly crafted and the cumulative impact breathtaking. This is not a fast read, but rather one to be savored.

The problem is that not every scene or every character contributes to the positives listed above. IMO, there are substantial scenes and several characters which could be eliminated and never missed. These always involve the extra characters, perhaps included to create some background or context which I could very well do without. If these were excised, the story would flow more smoothly without any dead spots, and perhaps a reduction of 100 pages or so would make the read less daunting.

Even with these flaws, however, it is a wonderful work, worth every one of 5 *****.
Profile Image for Jan Rice.
510 reviews428 followers
June 5, 2018
There's a book with the subtitle "What's the right thing to do" (Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel), and that, I'm thinking, is what The Weight of Ink is about. What is the right thing to do?

The story moves back and forth between the seventeenth century and the earlier 2000s. In the seventeenth, the focus is on Ester, a young Jewish woman of Sephardic descent who has fallen on hard times. Her circumstances in Amsterdam had allowed her to pursue her love of learning far beyond the norm for a girl, so that subsequently, as a destitute immigrant to England, she finds herself in the highly unusual circumstance of scribing for an elderly, blind rabbi, since she can do the job and no one else is available. Ester's story is juxtaposed against that of Aaron, an American graduate student in London -- a history ABD ("all-but-dissertation") -- and his struggles with intimidating professor Helen Watt as he flails around trying to find himself.

At some point it struck me that this novel was dealing with sexism, contrasting Ester's dilemma over using her intellectual potential with Aaron's inability to mobilize himself despite his society's furnishing him a straight road ahead. And of course it is; Ester couldn't have it all:

Nowhere in the known world, it seemed to her, could she live as she'd been created: at once a creature of body and of mind. It was a precept so universal as to seem a law of nature: one aspect of a woman's existence must dominate the other. And a woman like Ester must choose, always, between desires: between fealty to her own self, or to the lives she might bring forth and nurture.


Yet sacrifice of the self is everywhere viewed as the highest calling, and the more so for a woman, who must give every element of her life to others. Kindness is at all times counseled to women, who are called unnatural if not kind.

Yet how can a kindness that blights the life of even one--though it benefit others--be called good? Is it in fact kindness to sever oneself from one's own desires? Mustn't the imperative to protect all life encompass--even for a woman--her own?

Then must we abandon our accustomed notion of a woman's kindness, and forge a new one.

But then I thought about all I'd been reading about Philip Roth (given his recent death)--that he only set himself free after he doubled down on self-discipline and became a "monk of fiction" (David Remnick, The New Yorker, June 4 & 11, 2018). He had no children, and his marriages didn't last. When someone gave him a kitten, he had to give it back because taking care of it was too much of a distraction.

I'm not saying everything is equitable. I'm saying that those who know what they're here for often make sacrifices, no matter whether they're men or women.

Last year (2017), David Brooks wrote a column entitled "The Strange Persistence of Guilt," based on an essay of the same name by Wilfred McClay. Because of the breakdown of moral consensus within society, according to their way of thinking, people seek expiation in the only remaining way: by assuming the victim status, which unfortunately entails blame and culture wars.

I can see what Brooks and McClay are saying. But a different way of thinking is that guilt comes, not from the breakdown of moral consensus but from breakdown of consensus about how, more generally speaking, we should be spending our lives. In other words. not how much charitable work we should be doing (that is, activities conventionally understood as being "good works,") but, given the overload of demands and needs and tasks, how we should choose to spend our time. Not being able to do it all means we don't respond to everything, which is a prescription for guilt. And those who feel guilty are predisposed to look for someone to blame. Solution: we should figure out what we're here for, as Philip Roth did, and Ester in the book. And bottom line: all three of the main characters, Ester, Aaron, and Helen, are trying to answer the question of what's the right thing to do.

So for me the book's strength is as an attempt to illuminate modern problems. While it's ostensibly a historical novel, and while the author did research her settings, Ester is essentially working out a modern problem. The seventeenth-century protagonist often seems to me like a modern character in period costume because her way of thought is essentially like our own.

I enjoyed the story, both the modern and seventeenth century parts, and its climax, too, although I'd say the book didn't need to be quite so long.

Profile Image for Kathleen.
1,278 reviews119 followers
July 24, 2019
2017 National Jewish Book Award. Kadish brings to life a community of Jewish refugees that escaped the Portugal Inquisitors, and settled in London after spending time in Amsterdam in the 17th century. She has done this through a discovery of historical documents in a London mansion undergoing renovations. The trove of documents introduces Helen Watt, an elderly British expert in Jewish history and her American research assistant, Aaron Levy.

In translating the documents written in Portuguese, Hebrew, Latin, and Castilian; Helen and Aaron uncover the story of Ester Velasquez, a Sephardic refugee, who acted as a scribe for Rabbi Moseh HaCoen Mendes. The rabbi was blinded by Inquisitors in Portugal and was now educating Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity as they were now able to practice Judaism openly. Acting as Mendes’s scribe, Ester’s own mind is opened to philosophical and theological ideas. Her own curiosity leads her to correspond to the excommunicated Benedict Spinoza via a nom de plume.

Esther Velasquez navigates the constraints of a conventional Jewish woman’s life of marriage and children in order to pursue her intellectual freedom. Along the way, Kadish has Esther deal with the bubonic plague of 1665-6 and the Great Fire of London, as well as anti-Semitic mob violence.

As for Helen Watt and Aaron Levy; they are transformed by their work discovering Esther’s story. Recommend.
Profile Image for Stacey B.
270 reviews58 followers
September 15, 2021
This book won an award, which is very hard to come by with all the competition out there.
I was asked a few months ago to read this book (not by the author) for an upcoming conference.
and can understand why this book an award.
As a lover of jewish history, historical and contemporary fiction, it was
a wonderful surprise recognizing I would be reading both as one.
The writing is superb, as is the subject matter.
I loved this book.
Evidently so did many others.
Keep it up Rachel!!!!!
Profile Image for Antoinette.
719 reviews32 followers
March 17, 2022
4.5 Stars.

This is a book I would consider a “weighty” read, but oh such a “ worthy” read.
It is a book filled with philosophizing, history, women’s study, religion and anti- semitism. It really is a history book hiding under the guise of fiction.

So what is this book about? It covers two time periods- London in the 1660’s and London in the early 2000’s. We meet two strong women. In the 1660’s, we meet Ester, an atypical Jewish Woman, as she would rather learn than get married. At that time, Jewish women did not learn to read or write- only the men. Ester becomes a scribe for HaCoen Mendes. He is blind and needs someone to write his correspondence. No man is available, so he allows Ester to do so. In the 2000’s, we meet Helen Watt, a 64 yr old professor, who is facing the end of her career due to health issues. A former student calls to tell her a hidden case of documents have been discovered in his home and he would like her or come take a look. These documents are a rare find. Helen would like to be the one to research and write about them as the pinnacle to end her career, but the university pushes her aside in favour of a male professor.

This book is about these two women- 2 women fighting to do what they loved and not just be pushed into a box.

I learned a lot from this book, and yes it lead me to doing research. It touched on the Inquisition and how it impacted the Jewish people; 1665- the plague hits London; 1666-the Great Fire of London. Anti-semitism was rampant through this whole period. A lot of historical detail throughout the book.

“...why say woman may not follow her nature if it lead her to think, for must not even the meanest beast follow its nature? And why forbid woman or man from questioning what we are taught, for is not intelligence holy.”

A very thought provoking read!
Highly recommended, but do not go-in expecting a light read. After reading 20 pages, I felt I had read 50-that is how dense it is!

Published: 2017
Profile Image for Annette.
734 reviews313 followers
September 15, 2021
The plot of the story progresses very slowly. The writing is very descriptive, which I didn’t find engaging.

The present day story is overly drawn-out with the female historian reminiscing about past love and seeing some resemblance in her past student. His brow reminds her of this and that. The descriptions are pointless, not progressing the story.

The 17th century story, which I was looking forward to, progresses slowly as well.

If you like descriptive writing, I recommend reading other reviews.
Profile Image for Jennifer Blankfein.
379 reviews646 followers
July 8, 2018
The Weight Of Ink tells the story of Ester Velasquez, an emigrant from Amsterdam who becomes a scribe for a blind rabbi in London in the 1600s right before the plague. At the same time we learn about Helen Watt, a close to retiring British historian who is working on translations of some 17th century documents signed by scribe “Aleph”. Even though these women lived-in different centuries, both were strong and determined to pursue their interests and fight to be heard, and choosing a life to satisfy the mind and sacrifice the heart.

Ester is a product of the Portuguese Inquisition and although displaced with little family, what feels like home for her is her job a a scribe for the rabbi, where her love of learning is nourished. She turns down marriage offers as she prefers to work for the rabbi in order to continue her scholarly pursuits. She has an open mind and longs to converse with philosophers and educated men, and although it is not acceptable for women to engage in these types of discussion, she creates unorthodox opportunities to be heard.

Helen has a love of Jewish history and as she and her American graduate student assistant Aaron Levy investigate the many pages of letters written to and from the London based rabbi to determine the identity of the scribe, it is a race against time as Helen’s physical health is failing, she is approaching retirement, and another team of historians are working on the same project.

We also learn about Aaron Levy, the Jewish assistant, who is interested in a relationship with a girl who is living in Israel on a Kibbutz and is pushing him away. And then there are Ian and Brigette Easton, the couple who live in the 17th century house where the documents were found. This is a complex story; a mystery and rich with history and well developed characters.

Author Rachel Kadish provides extensive depth: Jewish theology and philosophy, interfaith relationships and lost love, 17th century history, the Portuguese inquisition, the plague and so much more…no skimping on research here, but for me a bit too wordy, complex and long. The Weight of Ink is powerful, intricate and the well deserved winner of the National Jewish Book Award. Although this is not an easy book, if you love historical fiction and Jewish history and set aside a big chunk of time to conquer it, you will be rewarded with the beauty of memorable storytelling.
Profile Image for Kathryn Langlois.
20 reviews7 followers
June 18, 2017
I received this book as a free Goodreads giveaway and had no expectations. Fast-forward eight days and I feel as though the author reached into my soul and twisted until I believed I was living in the pages of her book. I don't know if that makes sense, but after the initial few chapters I found that I related to, empathized, and cared about the book's three main characters- Aaron, Helen and Ester so much more than is typical for me.

The unfolding of the story is captivating and the author does a great job of pacing the story (with the exception of the first few chapters).

While structurally similar to other books I've read, the writing in this book seems stylistically unique, by which I mean it's some combination of the following: meditative, implicit, poetic, unfurling. --->basically, I can't describe how it's unique...

The story was wonderfully illuminating in regard to the plight of Portuguese Jews of the inquisition, and Refugee Jews in Amsterdam and England. One of my favorite elements of this book was each main characters' quest for the light and desire within themselves and their consequential struggle to define what their purpose would be.

The ending was not my favorite, but neither did it ruin the feeling of the book as a whole. Great story, great characters, great puzzle.
Profile Image for Scott  Hitchcock.
779 reviews223 followers
July 6, 2018

I'm really torn on the rating on this book. The historical look into the suffering of the Jewish people across decades and countries was well researched and very interesting. However the individual stories weren't always as compelling and in particular some of the love stories were pretty boring, IMO.
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