Sigal Samuel’s debut novel, in the vein of Nicole Krauss’s bestselling The History of Love, is an imaginative story that delves into the heart of Jewish mysticism, faith, and family.
“This is not an ordinary tree I am making.
“This,” he said, “this is the Tree of Knowledge.”
In the half-Hasidic, half-hipster Montreal neighborhood of Mile End, eleven-year-old Lev Meyer is discovering that there may be a place for Judaism in his life. As he learns about science in his day school, Lev begins his own extracurricular study of the Bible’s Tree of Knowledge with neighbor Mr. Katz, who is building his own Tree out of trash. Meanwhile his sister Samara is secretly studying for her Bat Mitzvah with next-door neighbor and Holocaust survivor, Mr. Glassman. All the while his father, David, a professor of Jewish mysticism, is a non-believer.
When, years later, David has a heart attack, he begins to believe God is speaking to him. While having an affair with one of his students, he delves into the complexities of Kabbalah. Months later Samara, too, grows obsessed with the Kabbalah’s Tree of Life—hiding her interest from those who love her most–and is overcome with reaching the Tree’s highest heights. The neighbors of Mile End have been there all along, but only one of them can catch her when she falls.
This book and one other have, in the last month, taught me more about Judaism than I think I had heard for my entire life.
Mystics is separated into four main sections. The first three focus on the points of view of a son (Lev), a father (David) and a daughter (Samara), concerning Judaism in general and study of the Kabbalah in particular. The fourth section is titled 'Mile End' and seems to have more than one narrator/focal person, all of whom are known to the family previously listed.
Knowing next to nothing about Kabbalah, (except that Streisand used to have an interest in it), I thought a definition might be in order:
a system of esoteric theosophy and theurgy developed by rabbis, reaching its peak about the 12th and 13th centuries, and influencing certain medieval and Renaissance Christian thinkers. It was based on a mystical method of interpreting Scripture by which initiates claimed to penetrate sacred mysteries. Among its central doctrines are, all creation is an emanation from the Deity and the soul exists from eternity.
-kabbala. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged. Retrieved October 12, 2015, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/kabbala
There is at least as much 'mental action' in Mystics as there is physical action. But then, real life is like that sometimes. We ponder on our beliefs; after all, they are what spur us into action.
Do we reach 'resolution'? Do we complete the work that is ours in this life to do? Well, the answer to those questions is different for every person that has ever lived. It is certainly different for each of the main characters (Lev, David, Samara) and for some of the surrounding characters (Alex, Mr/s Glassman, Jenny, Valerie, Mr. Katz).
Mystics is a full, rich story, satisfying and nourishing the mind much as a good meal satisfies and nourishes the body. It tells the tale of a brother, a sister, their father, a people, a religion and a study of mysticism. Some stories are like the old joke about a meal of Chinese food - rich and filling, but you are 'hungry' again a few hours later. (This is not a criticism, merely a way to sort in my own mind.) Other books stick to your ribs, for lack of a better term. Not only do they fill you up, but this satisfaction stays with you for a long time - maybe forever. The Mystics of Mile End by Sigal Samuel is one such book.
MEET THE AUTHOR
Sigal Samuel is an award-winning fiction writer, journalist, essayist, and playwright. Currently a writer and editor for the Forward, she has also published work in the Daily Beast, the Rumpus, BuzzFeed, and the Walrus. Her six plays have been produced from Vancouver to New York.
Sigal earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. Originally from Montreal, she now lives and writes in Brooklyn. The Mystics of Mile End is her first novel.
Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the author and publisher via TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest and unbiased review. Clicking the tour host button will take you to the book tour site.