With his poetic descriptions of New York City’s gargoyles, water towers, sidewalks and sunlight, changes by the hour along Riverside Drive, Ruby Namdar establishes his love of New York City and his delight in its beauty and the secrets it reveals.
Namdar’s “The Ruined House” which was awarded the Sapir Prize, Israel’s prestigious literary award, in 2015, has now been published in a fine English translation by Hillel Halkin. The prize attracted some controversy two years ago, as Namdar lives in New York. Since then, the rules were changed so that winners must live and write in Israel.
“It’s really not an Israeli book,” Namdar says, in an interview in his Upper West Side apartment. “It’s a book without a homeland. That’s what makes it so Jewish.”
Namdar embraces all the corners of his Jewish identity: He is Israeli, very much at home in New York, writing in Hebrew, married to an American woman whose Jewish roots here go back to the Civil War and raising their daughters to speak Hebrew and English. His background is Persian and he learned Farsi from his grandmother; he’s traditional in observance, and he teaches and studies Jewish texts.
“The Ruined House” opens in September 2000, corresponding to the month of Elul 5760 — dates are given both ways at the beginning of each section — and follows a year in the life of Andrew Cohen, a man considered elegant in his dress, speech, stature and ideas, and successful in his academic career at New York University. Happily divorced, he lives in a sleek apartment overlooking Riverside Park, cooks seriously, gathers interesting friends and colleagues around his table and publishes articles in The New Yorker. The reader first glimpses him on his first day of the fall semester, wearing a white suit and teaching “The Critique of Culture, or the Culture of Critique: An Introduction to Comparative Thought.” He does grow more likeable as the novel proceeds.
On that first day, he begins to feel odd stirrings in his gut, an aching longing for something he can’t name. Over the next six months, the ancient past is increasingly present, as this secular Jew has a series of dreams streaming his own history and visions that include animal sacrifice, blood, rites and offerings of the priesthood in the days of the Temple. He has no understanding of what he sees or why he sees it. Hebrew letters appear to him “like a secret code that suddenly seemed painfully familiar.” The polished surface of Cohen’s life is cracked, upending relationships with his ex-wife, daughters and young girlfriend.
“It’s really not an Israeli book. It’s a book without a homeland. That’s what makes it so Jewish.” – Namdar
In his dramatic state of unraveling, Andrew attends a way-over-the-top bar mitzvah where he gets pulled into a circle of men dancing, and uncharacteristically is drawn to the wild rhythms. When summer returns, and he’s searching for something to fill his belly, or his soul, he heads to an old favorite place, Barney Greengrass, where the waiters have rough manners and neither the menu nor decor has been changed in generations. But he soon realizes that “Nostalgia was only for the healthy-minded. You had to be comfortably situated in the present to be able to smile at your longing for the past.” No comfort in herring for Andrew.
Namdar speaks of “this eruption of the collective unconscious of ancient memory” as related to Andrew’s cultural unrootedness. “What erupted in him was a memory not of something relatable like universal teachings, but actually the least accessible and least relatable ancient ritual of blood, gold, fire and incense. Folded behind our mind, covered by many layers of memory and deliberate forgetfulness. When it erupted in his mind, it was with a vengeance that almost swept him into the abyss. We are all Andrew Cohen, even the more affiliated of us.” Still, there is hope and compassion in Namdar’s storytelling.
The novel is divided into seven books; the story’s sub-plot unfolds in pages formatted like Talmud folios, with a central text surrounded by various commentaries. The first set of Talmudic pages appears in Book One when Seder HaAvodah, Order of the Ritual, is introduced during a Yom Kippur service, in a progressive congregation meeting in a century-old synagogue. The other seven are inserted as dividers between the books. While the central text is invented, the commentaries are drawn from the Mishna, Bible and Talmud.
“The Ruined House” is ambitious and, as Namdar suggests, demanding on the reader. “The author gave it all, and the reader has to give something back, allowing the pace to happen, not to look for immediate gratification.” He adds, “You have to walk with me.”
“My literary grandfather is Shai Agnon. He built cathedrals of words, which were my inspiration.” – Namdar
It’s a novel to be reread, for its layers of meaning and symbolism, noise and silence, mystical resonances and lyrical passages. His writing, in its deep and close observations, is prayerful.
“I have a religious soul,” Namdar says. “I’m also a jolly fellow, a lover of life.”
Namdar grew up in Jerusalem and attended secular schools. His Iranian family wasn’t strictly religious, but traditional — “enough of a dosage to make me very interested.” His was the first generation “to be born in Hebrew, to read books as a way of life. I never took it for granted. For me, language was this wonderful paradise.” He never attended yeshiva or studied Talmud in school, but later on became interested on his own.
“My literary grandfather is Shai Agnon,” Namdar says. “He built cathedrals of words, which were my inspiration.” He’s especially interested in Agnon’s relationship with ancient Hebrew and sacred layers of the language.
“Freud talked about ‘the oceanic feeling’ of religion, quoting a Romanian friend. I think of the depths, the waves, the largeness. The lure of the depth,” he says.
In describing his process, he says, “When I write, I see a very clear and tangible vision of the entire work, a whole gesture that is very strong, that includes the tone, sentence length, the voice that tells it. I see this vision — My project is then how to capture all the details.
“I was once listening to David Grossman talking to a group of women and he said that when he writes, if he knew what would happen on the next page, he would be bored. This is not me, not how I work. I know exactly what will be on the next page. My excitement is how do I manage to capture it, like hanging onto a beautiful butterfly — to capture this creature with all its intricacies and pin it down. I do surprise myself. Things get added, but very little changes as far as the arc.”
“My commitment is to create complex, deep art.” – Namdar
Unlike those Israeli writers who feel a moral obligation to speak out on political issues, he admits that’s not what he’s passionate about. He feels more of an urgency to be culturally aware and culturally brave. He says, “I feel a strong sense of commitment that when I write in Hebrew, it should be very good Hebrew, and when in English, no traces of Hebrew. My commitment is to create complex, deep art.”
Namdar came to New York in 2000 to be with the woman he would marry, just about the time that his first book, a collection of stories called “Haviv,” was published in Hebrew. That book won the Israeli Ministry of Culture’s Award for Best First Publication. He says that he then vanished from the Israeli literary scene, as he became increasingly immersed in the life of New York, and in raising children.
Other than a serious interest in cooking, he doesn’t seem to have much in common with the remote, aloof and elegant Andrew. “He’s the absolute opposite of me,” Namdar says. The novelist is warm, informal, very involved in community life, a self-defined Jewish mother-type father who is “madly in love with his wife.” ✦