I think we often look for Jewish connections and enquire of friends and family about “Jewish geography”: points from which to unravel our identity as people belonging to a particular religion with shared knowledge , ideologies, beliefs, customs and traditions.
A friend of mine remarked that a certain reviewer she knew was always looking for books with Jewish themes. Not surprisingly, that reviewer lectures mainly to bookgroups at synagogues so why wouldn’t her topic revolve around authors whose interests relate to Jews?And yes, I agree it’s important to empathize and stretch, expanding our perspectives beyond one’s own realm, but oftentimes when we peer deeper into ourselves, we begin to understand others better.
The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish has been making the rounds, especially as a Jewish book award winner, it has attracted much attention. The story contains two entwined stories, one in 1660; the other in 2000. Documents secreted in a hidden cubbyhole of a house are the rallying point for a story that showcases the lives of two independent women, the main protagonist, orphaned penniless Ester Velasquez from Amsterdam and Helen Watt historian from London. Unlike Ester, Helen is not Jewish, but has had a meaningful relationship with Dror, a Holocaust survivor in Israel.As well, Helen, has lived on a kibitz around the time of the War of Independence. Life in Israel stimulates an interest and an enduring remembrance of a Jewish love. She has a sketch of Masada on her walls and is drawn to research that recalls her passion for the country.
Similar to A. S. Byatt’s construction of a historian’s unearthing important documents in the book, Possession, Helen is the taciturn seeker who initiates the search into Ester the young Sephardic woman, an anomaly for her times. There are many parallels between the women: their questing, intelligent minds, their unfulfilled love lovers, their strong sense of self, and disregard for authority, especially male imposition. Complimenting the story are other Jewish women, not side figures who are poorly written, but memorable women with their own personal ambitions, histories, desires and limitations due to the times into which they were born. For example, stoic Rivka, survivor of Polish pogrums; flirtatious wealthy Mary a confused teenager, abandoned by her father, whose adventures lead her to danger, Ester’s Portuguese mother whose discussions regarding love are perplexing confidences to the developing Ester. All women have deep connections to Judaism: of what is written, allowed and forbidden.
Particularly as the Inquisition has damned Jews in Europe and depending on the particular King who sits on the throne in England , Jewish lives are accepted, ruined or made miserable. In all cases, antisemitism is promoted . In one shocking scene in the novel, in order to save their lives, the “ Jewesses”, Ester, Rivka and Mary, must turn over Mary’s family house and its contents to the Church, rather than be put to death by a mob pelting windows with excrement and stones.
Even the Jewish men in the story are multidimensional from Aaron Levy, American doctoral candidate who works with Helen in the rare manuscripts department, to blinded Rabbi HaCoen Mendes who encourages Ester as his scribe and confesses that she is brightest of two pupils he has ever taught: the other being the excommunicated Spinoza. HaCoen Mendes regrets the role he has played in Ester’s life, accepting guilt on his deathbed that he encouraged her studies, allowing her to be his scribe when her brother could not – particularly in a time when women’s learning was not tolerated.Ester distressed by betraying Mendes’s trust through her dalliance in correspondences , tells herself she would not have changed a thing.
To confound the notion of love and loyalty is gay Alvaro HaLevy whose father signs him up for the life of a sailor and Mary’s lover, Thomas Farrow, ribald actor and disgraced son who refuses responsibility in regards to his deeds. Laced throughout are troubling writings considered heretical , some by the banned Spinoza who equates G-d and nature. For Jews in 1660, to even consider such thoughts, but even worse to put pen to paper to share these speculations, was reason for excommunication, treason and death.
But the protagonist, Ester is fascinated and troubled, pondering ideologies and ontologies while her female contemporaries plan marriages and provocative dresses. So too Helen is a serious scholar whose discovery of Ester as author is a breakthrough advance for feminist history.
In her 1988 book A Poetics of Postmodernism, Linda Hutcheon refers to books like this as “historiographic metafiction.” Such novels display a special awareness of the relationship between history and literature. They combine real events and lives from the past, unconcerned with accuracy. Kadish uses The Plague and the Great Fire of London along with real documented facts and attitudes held by the English towards Jews, even situating Ester and Mary at a play that resembles Sir George Etherege’s The Comical Revenge: or, Love in the Tub ( 1664).Her protagonist Ester is a creation, her relationships fictional, yet Ester is the readers’ gateway that brings insight and awareness into lives lived by Jews at the time, but especially of Jewish women.
Historiographic metafiction is an intrinsically postmodern form, by Hutcheon’s definition, and so it follows that these books have special pertinence to the moment of their writing. Interestingly, The Weight of Ink delves into seventeenth-century Jewish culture in Amsterdam. In Heretics, Leonardo Padura Fuentes also focuses on a Jewish assistant to Rembrandt, forbidden to make representative images by The Ten Commandments.
Both novels investigate the crisis caused by Sabbatai Zevi, the seventeenth-century rabbi who claimed to have fulfilled the role of the Messiah. Both novels also address the herem—or shunning—of Spinoza at the age of 23, as well as the significance of the return of Jews to England.
As Rachel Kadish is a woman, she explores the life of a woman by her own reading of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Here the notion was contemplated: what if Shakespeare had a brillant sister, what would her fate have been( see questions with Rachel Kadish at the conclusion of the novel). Although Woolf speculates that “Judith” Shakespeare would have died young, unable to test her intelligence, Kadish gives us tough minded Ester in a narrative that imagines the possibilities of one young woman- a Jewish woman at that- provided by fate with the tools to drive a personal need for knowledge and enlightenment.
Labelling herself as” unnatural” and an” empty vessel”, Ester is more than a copyist or mere scribe to Rabbi HaCoen Mendes. In a recent interview with JewishBoston, Kadish noted that Ester “speaks the language of philosophy..her mind incandescent.” To engage the thinkers who are likewise ponder questions of existence, Ester uses male pseudonyms, spurring questions and replies on metaphysics and religion with some of the greatest thinkers of the 17th-century, such as Van den Enden, Thomas Hobbes and even, Spinoza.
Criticized for being over written in its 600 pages, The Weight of Ink does fully develop and extend a picture of a world inhospitable to Jews, made more difficult for some Jews themselves through their “crypto- conversion” from the Inquisition, pettiness, exclusionary tactics for self protection and their adherence to unflinching rules and traditions to safeguard remnants of faith that is constantly used against them .Yet in light of repressive and terrible consequences, anti Semitic attitudes that could result in death, the communities in Amsterdam and London endeavour to survive by any means possible. That Benjamin HaLevy and Rabbi HaCoen Mendes soften, display kindness and even provide opportunities to a young woman,Ester, demonstrates the glimmers of hope in the worst of times, for the most beleaguered in society.
In light of the few female names that have survived in the visual and written arts, one wonders how many women actually painted and wrote in attics , at dusk or dawn with forbidden brushes or pens, how many struggled to overcome the edicts of their days, and their birth – and how many allowed their desire to die or whither in fear of punishment or worse.
It is a fascinating story and truth of past lives.