THE BEST: The Ruined House

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THE BEST: The Ruined House by Ruby Namdar
Reviewed by Shira Hecht-Koller

Summary: The Ruined House is a novel set in New York City in the early twenty-first century, centered on Andrew Cohen, a professor of comparative culture at NYU, an aging American intellectual who is undergoing a midlife crisis. While Cohen is Jewishly unlettered, he somehow becomes haunted by overwhelming and unfamiliar images from Judaism’s cultic core – the Jerusalem Temple and the High Priest who officiates there. He sees visions that he barely understands, visions of priests and sacrificial bulls, of blood and fire. As these visions subtly enter his life, and he is forced to contend with them, Andrew’s secular New York Jewish lifestyle is interrupted by and blended with aspects of his ancestral religious tradition (note his family name). 

The narrative revolves around a close observation of Cohen, a highly refined and respected intellectual, going through a midlife crisis and suffering a mental breakdown and unraveling of his psyche. Namdar is deliberately ambiguous as to both why and how this happens, and invites the reader to speculate whether this is the result of mental illness, something mystical, or perhaps an inbred fanaticism. 

What results is a human drama in which past and present collide, and real and unreal merge in fascinating and often frightening ways. The novel is framed by classical texts, which add layers of meaning, symbolism and mystical resonances. Like its author it has a foot in both Israeli and American literary cultures, and mirrors the many dualisms of Jewish life: modern and ancient, secular and religious, New York and Jerusalem.

Why is this The BEST? 

The Ruined House paints many parallels between events that take place in the narrative of Professor Cohen’s life, and Jewish traditions, rituals, and taboos, drawing on a depth of understanding of Jewish culture, law, and religious practice. The more one knows about Judaism and its traditions, the more pointed Professor Cohen’s reactions and aversions become. The parallels are not always explicit, but brilliantly inserted at intervals throughout the novel is a secondary story, a pseudo-Talmudic narrative of an ancient High Priest performing the atonement rituals in the Temple on Yom Kippur. These sections are typeset like pages of Gemara, with a narrative at the center flanked by the Biblical and Talmudic passages from which the author takes his details. The “sugyot” interrupt and disrupt yet weave together the ancient texts and the contemporary narrative. The result is a work that at once reads like an epic novel and a Talmudic tractate. The classical texts are in many ways the keys to understanding the unfolding drama of the story and represent the presence of myth and historical trauma in our contemporary lives.

The connections between the classical texts and the primary narrative are at times subtle, but strikingly powerful. An example can be seen in the hosting of a dinner party by Cohen, a culinary experience that is inspired by sacrificial worship. The detailed and visceral depiction of the gourmand’s movements about his kitchen evokes the detailed and highly choreographed steps in offering a korban. The poetic description feels like performance art and connects one to the theatrics of worship in the Temple. In many ways, this “avoda” captures the imagination of contemporary readers, making a sacrificial relic relevant once more.

Sample of the pseudo-Talmud passages in “The Ruined House” / Click to enlarge

The book at its core builds upon the theme of destruction, both personal and communal, and can be situated as a type of Tisha B’Av and 9/11 novel. The dating of each chapter with the Hebrew dates (largely meaningless to Cohen himself!) telegraphs the looming destruction of the Temple (the “ruined house”), and build up not only to Tisha B’Av but to the destruction of 9/11 in 2001, a reference that is only made explicit in the epilogue, but in subtle ways felt throughout.  

The Ruined House is ultimately a book about myth-making, human frailty, dual-identities and the ways in which we are inextricably connected to a past, present, and a future outside of ourselves.

The novel was originally written in Hebrew, with its author living in English. As a result, it inhabits two distinct literary cultures which overlap and intersect both in the plot of the narrative itself and the way it is read and interpreted. 

The Hebrew version of the book received Israel’s coveted Sapir Prize in 2015 and was masterfully translated into English by Hillel Halkin. 

Shira Hecht-Koller, Esq., is Director of Education for 929 English and a faculty member at Drisha.

Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.

[Published on July 2, 2020]

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