An Unusual Jewish Novel, Full of Blood and Incense

January 10, 2018 | , , , ,

By Ruby Namdar
Translated by Hillel Halkin
514 pp. Harper. $29.99.

It’s been a season of reckoning for our high priests, as one after another, in the film industry, journalism, politics, academia and other fields, have been judged and sometimes punished for their sins. How eerie that Ruby Namdar’s strange and exhilarating novel, “The Ruined House,” should appear in English translation just now.

Namdar wrote the book, his second, in his native Hebrew, and received Israel’s most lucrative literary award, the Sapir Prize, for it a few years ago. Having lived in New York for decades, he was the first expatriate ever to gain that particular honor, and it looks as if he’ll remain the only one: After his win, the rules were shamefully changed to exclude those who live abroad.

It’s just coincidental timing, then, that the novel centers on the sort of American high priest who has recently come under long overdue scrutiny. In “The Ruined House,” he’s the kind of 50-something Jewish New Yorker who publishes his essays in The New Yorker, occupies an impeccable Upper West Side apartment and leads seminars on “comparative culture” at N.Y.U. You can probably already picture him, this elegant Andrew P. Cohen, down to “the old-fashioned watch on his left wrist, the cartoonishly heavy-framed reading glasses, the Warholian shock of hair with its playful wink of gray.”

We follow Andrew as he floats through his putatively enviable life, preparing for classes, visiting the mother of his 26-year-old Chinese-American girlfriend, schmoozing the slick president of N.Y.U. He shuttles between the Hamptons and gallery openings, treating himself to cappuccino and biscotti and almond croissants at “those sexy bakeries that have been opening all over.” True to type, Andrew surrounds himself with admiring women he has selected because they will play their roles (ex-wife, girlfriend, daughter) without ever impinging upon his “personal and aesthetic independence.” Namdar skewers the man thoroughly as a hypocritical misogynist, phony scholar and petty narcissist.

But Namdar’s deeper subject isn’t contemporary patriarchy and its discontents. Some critics have mistaken the book as continuing the tradition of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud — whose names Namdar strategically drops, as red herrings — with Andrew just another Kepesh, Silk, Levin or Herzog. Namdar actually has less in common with those novelists, whose imaginations were largely secular, than with Cynthia Ozick, who has grappled with religious prohibition, or with the young Leonard Cohen, who harangued an audience in Montreal in 1964, telling them: “There is an awful truth which no Jewish writer investigates today…. It is this truth: We no longer believe we are holy.”

As if in response to that howl, in “The Ruined House” ancient Jewish holiness bleeds, insistently, horrifically, into the present. The connection is hinted at from the start, in the Hebrew dates given in the chapter headings, which count “from the creation of the world”: The novel begins on Elul 6, 5760 (“which happened to fall on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2000”), and ends on “The 1st of Tishrei, 5762” or “Sept. 18, 2001.” This indicates that Andrew’s story is being narrated, unusually, as part of the trajectory of the long Jewish past.

Uneasy links between that past and the present animate the visions that begin, over the course of the novel, to flood Andrew’s senses and invade his dreams, frightening and finally paralyzing him. He’s overtaken by the sights and smells of fires, bulls, golden candelabra and massacres; he watches as “red, boiling blood runs in the streets,” hears “wails of terror and sorrow” and has no idea why.

An explanation, eventually available to the reader but not to Andrew, appears in a pseudo-Talmudic narrative set during the Roman rule of Palestine and involving the High Priest and one of his many assistant priests. This ancient back story appears on pages styled to evoke the commentary-laced text of the Talmud.

In that fine print, it turns out that Andrew’s breakdown — his visions, the attendant writer’s block and uncontrollable urges, as well as a protracted, bizarre battle he wages with a “cut of Black Angus beef tenderloin, dry aged for 21 days and weighing seven and a half pounds, at $39.99 a pound” — reflects the strictures that governed the ancient High Priest’s conduct leading up to the moment, during Yom Kippur, when he would speak the name of God and attain atonement for all the world’s Jews.

Such a conceit — a projection of a perspective from ancient Judea onto the lifestyle of a contemporary secular New York Jew — might strike some readers as tendentious or random, but it’s not.

First, it should be noted, it’s only natural that Namdar, as a Hebrew speaker and teacher of classical Jewish literature, should perceive strange crossings of the ancient and the modern that English-speaking Americans would miss. Many such echoes, present in Namdar’s Hebrew original, could not be conveyed even in Hillel Halkin’s extraordinary translation, but some do manage to peek through. For example, apropos of not much, on a jaunt out of the city, Andrew happens to notice “the opaque, misplaced names on the road signs — Goshen, Rehoboth, Bethel,” which are noteworthy only if you’ve been thinking about the old Canaan, the one that’s not in Connecticut.

Andrew’s surname, Cohen, functions in the same way, as a portal between past and present. It means “priest,” and the people who bear it — every songwritermodeltelevision hostcomedianTrump lawyerbaseball announcernovelist and figure skater — all trace their roots, knowingly or not, to the functionaries who performed ritual sacrifices (slaughtering animals, burning incense) in the Temple in Jerusalem, before A.D. 70. Don’t be embarrassed if you didn’t know this: Since the days of vaudeville, in America “Cohen” has meant nothing at best, and at worst it’s been the punchline of a cruel joke. Namdar’s protagonist, sophisticated and brilliant as he may be, hasn’t the slightest inkling of his inheritance.

As the novel carefully reminds us, though, the sacrifices performed by priests in the Temple have always been the not-so-thoroughly repressed core of religious Judaism. It’s not just the Orthodox, but also Conservative Jews, all across America, who still pray constantly for the Temple to be rebuilt. Before the advent of political Zionism in the 19th century, that dream of rebuilding was the reason Jews even cared about Zion: They believed the only thing that could purify them or secure their atonement was ritual sacrifice, possible nowhere but on that highly contentious scrap of land, the Temple Mount.

So it’s no caprice on Namdar’s part to take seriously the legacy of the destroyed temple, the “ruined house” whose fall sent the Israelites into exile and elevated the rabbis over the priests as Jewish authorities. On the contrary, his is an attempt to recover the mythic foundations of the present.

Namdar has no thesis, and the novel does not suggest that the return of the repressed would be easy or even productive. At times dripping in gore and effluvia, steeped in sacred texts and apocalyptic visions, “The Ruined House” cannot be recommended lightly. But it is a masterpiece of modern religious literature, exactly as deep, disturbing and unresolved as is necessary to remind us, habituated as we are to the shallows of contemporary Jewish life, what still lurks beneath — primitive, raw and exacting.

[Originally published in the New York Times Book Review.]