Prologue

A month after his mother died, Isaac Markowitz, forty, plagued with eczema and living on the Lower East Side, sold his haberdashery at a decent profit and took an El Al flight to Israel. At the Central Hotel, the most pious-run hotel in all of Jerusalem, he stumbled upon a pamphlet shuffled in with the tourist brochures, a veritable Yellow Pages of saints, zaddiks, rebbes, kabbalists, and other holy men. Rebbe Yehudah’s name stood out—a kabbalist  described as having a gift for analyzing difficulties of the soul. It didn’t hurt that Rebbe Yehudah’s address was within walking distance from the hotel.

Isaac went searching for him in the alleys and byways, Ezekiel Street, Hosea Court, Isaiah Avenue, lost amongst the prophets until he arrived at a shabby stone-floored courtyard on Ninveh Street that fronted a two-storied cottage.

He took a seat under a stoop overhung by a thick old olive tree and waited beside an odd assortment of Jews: a mustached man in a ragged T-shirt, an old lady in pink biker shorts, a burly Hassid pacing, a man weeping behind his briefcase. He noticed in the courtyard a fragrant smell of rosemary and honeysuckle and jasmine, and something else he later identified—chicken soup.

An old man, his white beard resting on his chin like a cloud, motioned to one person and then another. His silver-eyed gaze looked as bright and happy as an inventor with his machine. This must be the rebbe, Isaac thought, and he got comfortable on the stoop while he waited his turn. He watched a plump, dark-skinned woman in torn stockings eat a pizza slice with olives sprinkled on top. She seemed to relish each bite, her nostrils flaring and contracting with each swallow. Suddenly, the pizza fell splat, cheese facedown, onto the courtyard stones. Isaac stared at the woman, and the woman lifted her eyes and stared back at him. A heartbreak in her raw dark eyes. “Can I still eat it?” she rasped, reaching for the dirty slice. Isaac shrugged and took out his wallet. “Maybe you should buy yourself another pizza,” he said, and gave her a few shekels. She pocketed the money but scraped the cheese off the pizza and continued eating.

Finally the old man, the rebbe, motioned to him. Isaac followed him indoors and down a narrow hall to a small room with a table, the walls and shelves heavy with books.

Isaac spoke to the rebbe from a place of defeat—no wife, no children, not even a job he could say was a higher calling. And now, his mother dead. “I’ve lost my bearings,” he sobbed a little. “I don’t know what to do anymore. Does this sound crazy?”

The rebbe said in English softened by a European accent, “Life is not a clean or an easy business. You need to talk and I need to listen.”

And Rebbe Yehudah listened. Then, with both his hands the rebbe pushed a paper cup of seltzer across the table to Isaac. The sleeves of his white kaftan fell back and exposed the tattoo—thin survivor arms. He slid over a perfectly rectangular piece of honey cake on a napkin. “Makh a bracha un trink etvas.” Eat something and take a drink. A spider crawled on the napkin, and when Isaac lifted his hand to flatten it, the rebbe put a hand on his wrist.

“Though it’s not forbidden to kill,” he said, “maybe you want to consider letting the creature live.” Isaac stared at him and set his hand down. The rebbe said, “Stay here awhile, if it suits you.”

For the next three weeks Isaac came to the courtyard, helping out as the need arose.

His managerial experience at the haberdashery now came in handy. Sometimes he pitched in when the rebbe or his rebbetzin was cooking up a batch of herring for the food deliveries to the poor. One day the rebbe spoke to him. “My wife and I can no longer come and go as we once did. You are young. The needs are great. You can help.” Isaac’s heart began to jerk and pound. The rebbe said, “Here you can have a place to eat, a bed to sleep. It isn’t much by way of this world, but it will be a blessing for us both.”

Isaac answered the call.

* *

(A year later. Isaac is going on a blind date, a shidduch, with a widow, Mrs. Edelman. Actually, they know of each other from the kabbalist’s courtyard. They are meeting for the first time in a hotel lobby. One more thing. Married women – including widows — cover their hair with wigs.)

* *

A ficus tree partly shielded Isaac Markowitz as he waited outside the café in the Jerusalem Plaza hotel lobby for his blind date to appear.

Just then Mrs. Edelman waved her fingertips at him from across a sea of glass coffee tables and puffy puffy chairs, and he lifted his arm in return, bringing down a rainstorm of ficus leaves. She walked toward him serenely, looking angelic in the creamy lights of the hotel lobby. She had changed from the blunt pageboy wig she usually wore to something a little longer, fuller, and feathered at the side. Rather daring for the proper widow, even though her wig barely grazed her shoulders. The thought that Mrs. Edelman (he couldn’t even think of using her first name) might have chosen her deluxe Sabbath wig for this shidduch, this very blind date, made him blush.

He emerged from behind the ficus tree. “Shall we have something to eat?” He gestured toward the café, while not quite looking at her. Suddenly, he felt naked without the courtyard as a buffer.

“How about just sitting in the lobby,” she offered, smoothing back a feathery brown strand of wig. “I’m not particularly hungry.”

He coughed his assent, though he pondered her meaning. Maybe she, too, didn’t have high hopes for this evening and didn’t want to wait around for their order if things went poorly. Or perhaps, he thought more charitably, she was similar to many pious Jerusalem women who took compassion on a Jewish man’s wallet.

She sat in a beige-and-burgundy-striped easy chair next to a lamp, and he stood, undecided. Should he sit facing her three feet away on the sofa? Too formal, he thought, too much like an interview. But to sit in the easy chair kitty-corner to her seat struck him as unbearably intimate. He found himself backing his way toward the sofa—after all, weren’t these blind dates interviews in a sense, packed as they were with questions designed to ferret out who was marriage-worthy and who should be set aside?—and he sat down heavily, bumping his knee against the glass coffee table.

Mrs. Edelman, in her simple navy skirt and matching jacket, looked like a perfectly wrapped box, all neat corners and angles. Nice-looking and a fine lady, he thought. Most likely in her upper-thirties. In short, appropriate for him. “So how long have you been coming to the courtyard?” he began. Better if he took charge with the questions. In this way, he could avoid the unwanted ones.

“Oh, for ages,” she said. “Rebbe Yehudah has been just wonderful to my family, especially since . . . you know, my husband passed away,” she murmured. “So helpful.”

Helpful. He didn’t know why, but the word irked him, as if the rebbe were no more than a social worker. “Do you have any unusual story that you can tell me?” he asked her. “Something special about the rebbe?”

“Unusual?” She frowned. “A story? How exactly do you mean?”

“I don’t know, anything out of the ordinary he said or did.” Any tidbit about the rebbe was precious to him.

“Hmm.” She crossed her legs tightly at the ankles. “All I can think of is, once I had a terrible cold. I could barely breathe, but I didn’t want to break my appointment with Rebbe Yehudah. The strange thing is, after I spoke to the rebbe, my nose”—she touched it with a light hand—“well, I could breathe again. Not that I believe in that voodoo stuff,” she said with a deep roll of her eyes and dismissive shake of her fluffy wig.

“And neither do I,” he said, though he found her vehemence a little off-putting. “Some tea?” he inquired as a waiter walked by carrying mugs and a small porcelain teapot.

“Tea would be nice.” She nodded her thanks as the waiter poured her a cup. “I must tell you, I never thought I’d seek advice from a man who looks as though he’s wearing an old sheet, but he really is the most sensible person I’ve ever met.”

Isaac nodded. “True, true.” Though again he winced—at the word sensible. Too paltry for Rebbe Yehudah. Ach, he was far too zealous of the rebbe’s honor. .

“Actually, it’s a kaftan,” he now said mildly to Mrs. Edelman, “not an old sheet,” and then he countered with a few stories of his own about Rebbe Yehudah, one involving an overdue pregnant lady, the second a lottery, the third a lawsuit—well-told stories from his rebbe repertoire. A few times Mrs. Edelman gazed in amazement or laughed out loud, and her wig shook alarmingly. Isaac was on the verge of relaxing into the conversation, enjoying his tea, when Mrs. Edelman leaned forward and asked, “I hardly know anything about you. Tell me, where did you grow up again?”

“The Lower East Side.”

“Your parents still live there?”

“Actually”—he paused to remove his hat and set it carefully on the seat cushion beside him—“neither of them is alive.”

“I see.” The widow nodded composedly. She pulled her navy skirt a little lower over her knees. “So what did your father do for a living?”

His stomach muscles pinched slightly—the chill of questions to come. Or maybe the hotel’s central air-conditioning was cranked too high. “He was a scrap and salvage man,” he said. “Ran his own business.” About his father, a man with a nineteen-inch neck span and an endless supply of coarse jokes, the less said, the better. Though his father kept the basic traditions of the Torah, it had always struck Isaac that he and his father were made from different batches of dough.

“And your mother . . . ?”

“A wonderful lady,” was all he would allow. Simple, devoted, and practical, but unfortunately, she hadn’t been capable of standing up to her husband’s bullying. “And you?” he tried to divert her.

“My parents?” She touched her collarbone. “No, I’m not finished with you,” she said, now smiling, a little menacingly, it seemed to Isaac. “I heard you were a haberdasher. Somehow I can’t put that together with what you do now in the courtyard.”

“A haberdasher, yes.” Isaac blew on both hands, cracked and scaly with eczema. He remembered his shoe box of a store on the Lower East Side. The storeroom was always dusty and full of mouse turd.

“Actually,” he said, suddenly feeling a need to round himself out, “when I was younger, I hoped to teach Torah.” This, over the objections of his father who had wanted him to be an accountant or dentist, something “useful” his father would say. “And I did teach for a bit.”

“Really?” Mrs. Edelman sat up, hands clasped in her lap, in a posture of complete receptivity. “You taught Torah?” Her brown eyes fixed on him so encouragingly that all his thoughts and ideas about Jewish education began to spill out, his desire to reach the boys who couldn’t sit still with the books, the ones the other teachers considered beyond hope. He discovered he had a special talent as a youth leader, and people in the community recognized it, too. A few summers, he ran camps. For reasons unknown to Isaac, the boys gravitated toward him. Then, in his early twenties, Isaac became ambitious—he wanted to start a special afternoon program, not quite a school, but almost.

He talked on and on to Mrs. Edelman, about the backer who had lent him a sum of money; and the backer’s fine daughter, the lovely, dark-haired Gitty, who was fired up with the same idealism as himself; the rundown building they’d refurbished together, making their dreams come true; his old yeshiva buddy Heshy, garrulous, sunny, and built like an ox, who he had recruited to help teach since he bore the official title of rabbi, and Isaac’s own rabbinic ordination was at least a year away. He remembered that moment when Gitty had turned to him and said, “You’re going to accomplish amazing things, Isaac.” Those had been the best months in his life, getting ready for the wedding and getting that place into shape, tearing down—

“You were engaged?” Mrs. Edelman broke in.

“Why—” Isaac broke off, stupefied. His ears and neck went cold, then hot. How could he be so stupid as to have relaxed? He was a fool. “Yes, engaged,” he said, and expelled a sour gust of air. “To Gitty.”

“And then . . .” Mrs. Edelman’s eyes coaxed him on.

“And then, nothing. It didn’t work out. She broke it off.” Simultaneously his elbow began to itch and he was overcome with an almost violent urge to yawn. The yawn he smothered with his hand. The itch couldn’t be contained, though, and he scratched through his suit jacket.

She sipped her cup of tea and patted a napkin against her lips. “So your heart was broken,” she concluded.

He was reaching for his hat. “One might say such a thing,” he replied with a small ironic smile, as if to surgically detach himself from his own history. Gitty had broken it off two days before the wedding. She was tearful but wouldn’t explain the breakup, though he begged her to. The day of his canceled wedding, a black tornado of a flu descended upon him that he couldn’t shake for weeks, and he’d had to let all his plans for the school program drop. Anyway, he’d run out of funds. Four months later, Gitty married Heshy, his recruit, and Isaac finally understood everything. She had chosen his yeshiva buddy, quick-witted, extroverted Rabbi Heshy with the big arms, broad thighs, and slap-happy can-do manner, so different from Isaac, so similar, in fact to his own father.

“I’m curious. Whatever happened to the school you were planning?”

At this, he signaled a waiter passing with a white teapot. “Care for more tea?” Another yawn overtook him that he tried to cover with his palm. What was wrong with him? Up since 6:00 a.m., he supposed.

Her eyes darted from Isaac to the waiter. “I think it’s getting late,” she said firmly. The waiter shrugged and moved on.

They walked out the hotel lobby, while Isaac viciously scratched his elbow, releasing flakes, he was sure. He waited like a gentleman for her bus to arrive while trying valiantly to stave off more yawns. The night air had a sting to it on this April evening. He wished he had brought a scarf. Cold, itchy, tired. The world—or maybe just his body—could be such an uncomfortable place sometimes. Mrs. Edelman said, “So you’ve been living in the rebbe’s home for a year now?”

“That’s right.” His neck craned for the bus.

“Don’t you want a place of your own? Or perhaps you can’t afford it.”

Why oh why was she asking him these questions when she had already disqualified him? “I can certainly afford my own place. But what a privilege to be able to assist the rebbe. When I marry, I’ll rent my own place. Or maybe buy.” Scratch, scratch.

Mrs. Edelman nodded and let out a big yawn of her own. “Excuse me for saying this,” she threw out as the bus rounded the corner, “but I can’t see you ever getting married, if you’ll forgive me.”

A lump of silence. Then, “Just because you and I are probably not a match,” he said stiffly, “doesn’t mean I’m unmatchable.”

“I know a serious man when I see one,” she stated, and a flush traveled from his itchy sock all the way to the black hat on his head. It was true. All his setups ended like this. Why he even bothered to date was a mystery to him.

“So why waste my time?” the widow went on, reading his mind. “Or anyone’s?”

He pondered this. “A single person can be compared to a captive held in jail, waiting to be redeemed,” he said at last. “He could be saved the next minute or in another twenty years. One never knows. Don’t the sages say that redemption can come in the blink of an eye?”

Mrs. Edelman let out a faint snort. “I fail to see how that answers my question,” she said, and boarded the bus.

Then he took his own bus back to the courtyard.

At the cottage on Ninveh Street, he hung up his jacket in the tiny hallway closet.

Rebbe Yehudah’s wife stuck her plump head out of the kitchen doorway, though it was late, already past ten in the evening. “How did it go?” she asked, her tightly woven snood covering every speck of hair. She glanced down at his arms, and her pale brown eyes went wide with alarm. “Oy vey, you’re bleeding!”

He glanced down and past his scabby bloodied elbow toward a memory, the school Gitty and Heshy had started, modeled so closely after his own (they even had recruited his former students). It was a great success, he’d heard. The school had saved many a teen and young man. As for himself, he never did get his rabbinic ordination.

“It’s nothing,” he said to the rebbetzin, pulling a tube of hydrocortisone from his pocket. He shmeared a fingernail amount onto his elbow, asked after the rebbe’s health, and shuffled off to sleep in his own room next to the study.

IMG_1805 (1)Ruchama King Feuerman’s celebrated first novel about matchmaking (“Seven Blessings,” St. Martin’s Press) earned her the praise of the New York Times and Kirkus Reviews dubbed Feuerman the “Jewish Jane Austen.” Her new novel, “In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist” (newly released by the New York Review of Books as an e-book), has received rave reviews from the Dallas Morning NewsBoston Globe, and Ha’aretz and a reviewer anointed her the “Jewish Graham Greene.” 

In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist, by Ruchama King Feuerman: Order now from Amazon