The Ruined House: A Different Kind of Jewish Novel

Nov. 17 2017

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.

Read more at Tablet

More about: American Judaism, Arts & Culture, Hebrew literature, High priest


Why President Biden Needs Prime Minister Netanyahu as Much as Netanyahu Needs Biden

Sept. 28 2023

Last Wednesday, Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu met for the first time since the former’s inauguration. Since then, Haim Katz, Israel’s tourism minister, became the first Israeli cabinet member to visit Saudi Arabia publicly, and Washington announced that it will include the Jewish state in its visa-waiver program. Richard Kemp, writing shortly after last week’s meeting, comments:

Finally, a full nine months into Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest government, President Joe Biden deigned to allow him into his presence. Historically, American presidents have invited newly installed Israeli prime ministers to the White House shortly after taking office. Even this meeting on Wednesday, however, was not in Washington but in New York, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.

Such pointed lack of respect is not the way to treat one of America’s most valuable allies, and perhaps the staunchest of them all. It is all about petty political point-scoring and interfering in Israel’s internal democratic processes. But despite his short-sighted rebuke to the state of Israel and its prime minister, Biden actually needs at least as much from Netanyahu as Netanyahu needs from him. With the 2024 election looming, Biden is desperate for a foreign-policy success among a sea of abject failures.

In his meeting with Netanyahu, Biden no doubt played the Palestinian issue up as some kind of Saudi red line and the White House has probably been pushing [Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman] in that direction. But while the Saudis would no doubt want some kind of pro-forma undertaking by Israel for the sake of appearances, [a nuclear program and military support] are what they really want. The Saudis’ under-the-table backing for the original Abraham Accords in the face of stiff Palestinian rejection shows us where its priorities lie.

Israel remains alone in countering Iran’s nuclear threat, albeit with Saudi and other Arab countries cheering behind the scenes. This meeting won’t have changed that. We must hope, however, that Netanyahu has been able to persuade Biden of the electoral benefit to him of settling for a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia rather than holding out for the unobtainable jackpot of a two-state solution.

Read more at Ynet

More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Joseph Biden, Saudi Arabia, U.S.-Israel relationship