March 17, 2005
Sugar, Spice and a Binary Device
"The Seventh Beggar" by Pearl Abraham, (Riverhead, $25.95).
A key dropped down a drain by a brother later proves to be an exit sign for his sister lost wandering in the sewers. A boy faints and it is unclear if he has suffered an epileptic seizure, or experienced a vision admonishing him against studying kabbalah. Jewish men attempt to create women and robots out of Hebrew letters and computer codes. Stories and symbols intersect in unexpected places in Pearl Abraham's intricate and complex third novel, "The Seventh Beggar," a vivid meditation on the nature of creation.
Abraham, 44, grew up in Jerusalem and New York as one of nine children in a devoutly Satmar Chasidic household where Yiddish was her first language. In her childhood home, dolls had their noses cut off and photographs had to be sliced off in corners to prevent the depiction of graven images. Her previous novels, including the bestselling "The Romance Reader" (Riverhead, 1995), chronicled the struggles between modernity and tradition faced by Orthodox Jewish women. Although Abraham no longer lives in the Orthodox world, she remains engaged in it through her writing.
"I have been asked why I left so often and I don't truly have an answer. It remains something of a mystery even to me," said Abraham from her home in New York. "My relationship to Chasidism is an intellectual one at this point. I'm interested in its foundations, texts, ideas and also in its continued development. I think of Chasidism as very much a part of who I am; it formed me, and remains with me and gives me a particular angle of vision."
"The Seventh Beggar" is being released hot on the heels of a controversy sparked by an essay in the New York Times Book Review about the state of Orthodox Jewish fiction. Abraham, as someone who has left the chasidic world, but is still attached to it, offers a window into an otherwise closed existence with absolute authority. While an insider's portrayal of chasidism is nothing new for Abarham, in "The Seventh Beggar," she expands her storytelling scope by delving into the mysteries of into Kabbalah and the creation of stories themselves, all set against a background of the stories of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810).
Nachman was the great-grandson of the Ba'al Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, and the creator of the stories collected in "Book of Tales," which consists of 13 stories that Nachman told his followers that were then written down and are still studied to this day.
Drawing heavily from Ukrainian folk tales and kabbalah, the stories are enigmatic creations that deliberately do not contain endings. Abraham's book takes its title from one of Nachman's most complex stories, "The Seven Beggars," which tells of the wedding of two lost children who are visited by seven beggars, but the story ends before the seventh beggar appears. The waiting for the seventh beggar is often interpreted as the waiting for the messiah. Nachman's tales have been studied by Jewish writers like Kafka, Sholom Aleichem and Der Nister, and are still studied devoutly by Nachman's followers, the Bratslav Chasidism, for a deeper mystical understanding of the world.
The novel begins with Joel Jakob, a 17-year-old Satmar Chasid, who is an exceptional student and expected to become a great rabbi like his grandfather. Joel's sister, Ada, helms a booming business adapting designer clothing for more modest Chasidic standards. Joel begins reading the "Book of Tales" covertly, and as he does so he pulls away from the yeshiva and the community and becomes fixated on a kabalistic idea of creating a woman out of Hebrew letters.
Twenty years later his nephew, JakobJoel, Ada's son, is studying artificial intelligence at M.I.T. and attempts to create a woman robot out of binary code. The spiritual wonders these men encounter are as illuminating as they are dangerous, and ultimately one survives and one does not. The book reads as a parable about the joy and danger of creation, and the analogy between the power of letters and numbers is intentional.
"The Spanish kabbalists believed that God created the world with the Hebrew alphabet," Abraham explained. "This idea that the world was made with letters gives the letters themselves much power. Chasidism's exegetic use of the Gematria, in which every letter stands in for a numeric value, continues giving the letters great value. That artificial intelligence uses the digital 0s and 1s to create beings, or robots, furthers the notion of the power of the alphabet or numbers."
"You could also say with some certainty that all novels are made with the alphabet," she continued. "And that will lead you to ask whether the world as we know it is any more real than the fictive worlds we know, say Tolstoy's world of St. Petersburg."
With "The Seventh Beggar," Abraham takes on these ideas of reality and creation of worlds both literary and mystical, and offers an insider's perspective of the closed world of the very religious.
Ruth Andrew Ellenson is a journalist and the editor of the forthcoming anthology, "The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt" (August 2005, Dutton).