Ancient Jewish past, modern New York collide in Israeli’s prize-winning novel
Ruby Namdar's novel "The Ruined House" follows a New Yorker who finds himself slipping into madness as the collective ancient Jewish memory erupts in his mind.
Israeli author Ruby Namdar’s award-winning novel “The Ruined House” elegantly juxtaposes past and present, secularism and spirituality, and madness and intellectualism, while taking its readers on an intense and ambitious journey through Judaism’s collective consciousness.
It is not an easy book to read, and not surprisingly, it was not an easy book to write.
Namdar, who will be speaking on March 21 as part of Rodef Shalom Congregation’s “A Conversation with the Author” series, said that the 10 years it took him to complete “The Ruined House” were “at times wonderful, but at times excruciating.”
Speaking by phone from his home in New York City, the Israeli expatriate described his writing process in penning a novel set partially in New York — focused on the inner life of the secular Jewish professor, Andrew Cohen — and partially in the ancient Temple, described through Talmudic and Midrashic texts.
“You may have noticed how many connections and symmetries and symbols are echoing each other, and it’s so detailed, the work and the elements and the connections,” Namdar said. “This was a lot of work, and sometimes I felt my mind would burst. There was so much big structure that only I could see, and I knew that I needed to build it on paper, and I was alone. Writing each scene and making sure they all correspond was a very, very hard, lonely endeavor.”
His attention to detail and narrative paid off. In 2015, Namdar, who was born and raised in Jerusalem to a family of Iranian-Jewish heritage, won Israel’s Sapir Prize, the country’s most prestigious literary award. He was the first expat to do so.
The novel was translated from Hebrew into English by Hillel Halkin and released in the United States in November 2017.
Namdar, who is a student and teacher of classic Jewish texts, said he did “extensive research” in developing those portions of his novel that reflect the Talmud.
“This was also the very fun part of the work, to sit and read these wonderful texts,” he said. “I love classic Jewish texts. I love Talmudic and Midrashic and Biblical texts, and I’m very interested in aggadah, which is the narrative part of the Talmud. I wouldn’t say it was recreational, but for me, it was one of the most rewarding parts of the work.”
While researching the ancient texts, Namdar was often surprised to find within them some elements that he had intuitively included in his novel, such as the Talmudic obsession with bodily fluids and purity, and concepts of masculinity in decline.
“The more and more I looked into the Talmud, I was amazed,” he said. “It was as if I knew those texts, and I didn’t.”
In “The Ruined House,” Namdar’s New York protagonist, Andrew, finds himself slipping into madness throughout an intimate and raw crescendo toward the end of the novel as the collective ancient Jewish memory erupts in his mind, seemingly out of nowhere. Though Andrew is a secular New York intellectual, Namdar said, he “represents all of us.”
“It is not just his particular brand of Jewish experience that I am dealing with,” explained Namdar. “I feel most modern humans have a disconnect from the past and it is an interesting thing to me to try to juxtapose the very contemporary mind with a past that is not so relatable” — symbolized, in this book, by the ancient Temple.
“This was the real challenge, and what was exciting,” the author continued. “To go to a place where Andrew, and me and you, are all foreigners in our own culture.”
While Andrew emerges from his breakdown almost intact, Namdar notes that a change may still occur, if it hasn’t already.
“The real reason that he returns to himself is I did not want this to be a drama about somebody who does teshuvah, and then becomes what? He would become like a nice Conservative Jew, such as myself and go to shul and have kiddush? That’s not for me the goal of all this. The thought that this happened to him, then let go and vanished, is almost a promise that this will return. Maybe not to Andrew. Maybe to someone else, maybe to a collective, maybe to Andrew in the next incarnation.
“There is an image somewhere in middle of the book about the whale of memory,” Namdar added. “This is an image I think about when I think about this novel. Yes, it seems like Andrew’s life has gone back to what it used to be — almost — but we, the readers, I hope will never be the same. We have witnessed the eruption. And Andrew, like a normal person, will try to protect himself and his life from this earthquake that almost destroyed him. In order to survive, he must use denial and forgetfulness. But we, the readers, are transformed.”
The program at Rodef Shalom, which is free and open to the public, begins at 7 p.m. and will include a presentation by Namdar, a Q&A, and a book-signing. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.