In the The Ruined House—recently published in English translation—the Israeli-American Hebrew author Ruby Namdar tells the story of a worldly, assimilated Jewish professor of comparative culture who experiences a mid-life crisis—and immediately begins to channel an ancient high priest from the Jerusalem temple, experiencing, among other things, sudden aversions to various kinds of ritual impurity. Adam Kirsch writes in his review:
The Ruined House, like those classic books by Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, is an extended tour of the world through the mind of a richly imagined protagonist. We follow Andrew to parties and doctor’s offices, on drives through Westchester and walks through Morningside Heights. The chief pleasure of the book lies in Namdar’s evocation of Andrew’s thoughts and feelings and observations, in a style that ranges from the colloquial to the poetic. More than most novels, The Ruined House lives in the quality of its prose, which renders the achievement of the translator, Hillel Halkin, all the more impressive.
Andrew Cohen is an unlikely choice for a portal between the Jewish past and the Jewish present, since he has no interest in God or Jewishness. Early in the book, a refrain comes to his mind: “Who by fire, who by water: wasn’t that a Leonard Cohen song?” Leonard Cohen got it from the Yom Kippur liturgy, of course, but Andrew Cohen only knows it from Leonard Cohen—a succinct diagnosis of the state of contemporary American Jewry. Andrew actually does attend Yom Kippur services, but he can’t say exactly why he does: “It was neither a rational decision nor the outcome of lengthy debate, but an unthinking, almost absent-minded choice.” In any case, he slips out early to go to the opera. . . .
Namdar . . . helps the reader along by inserting, at intervals throughout the novel, the story of an ancient high priest performing the atonement rituals in the Temple on Yom Kippur, [which are alluded in the main part of the book]. These pages are arranged like pages of Talmud, with a narrative at the center flanked by the biblical and talmudic passages from which Namdar takes his details. This high priest, the reader comes to understand, may be Andrew Cohen’s distant ancestor. They inhabit utterly different worlds, yet the two men are somehow connected. This is exactly the kind of primal connection to Jewishness that so many American Jews feel the lack of; yet when Andrew experiences it, it is terrifying and suffocating. . . .
Jewishness, The Ruined House intimates, is a matter of waking up to this historical connection, with all its splendor and horror. The originality and power of this idea, along with Namdar’s fertile power of observation and evocation, make The Ruined House a new kind of Jewish novel, which everyone interested in Jewish literature should read.