Sigal Samuel & Ayelet Tsabari Discuss Kabbalah, Montreal and Jewish Arab Identity

Sigal Samuel’s debut novel, The Mystics of Mile End, set in Montreal’s part Hasidic, part hipster neighborhood, tells the story of a dysfunctional Jewish family growing dangerously obsessed with the Kabbalah’s Tree of Life. Samuel — who is a playwright, a journalist, an essayist, an editor for the Forward, and also much too young to be so accomplished — has been compared to Nicole Krauss, Anne Tyler, Myla Goldberg, and even Sholem Aleichem.

The Mystics of Mile End was hailed as a “standout debut” by Publishers Weekly and called “outstanding,” and “heart-stopping,” by The Library Review. It is an ambitious first novel, remarkable not just in its effective use of four distinct and richly drawn voices, or the intricate, expansive plot it weaves, but also because it explores enormous topics first-time authors are likely cautioned against tackling, topics like religion, mysticism, and mental illness.

Sigal and I met at a literary reading in Vancouver a few years ago. In a city where very few Jews looked like me, she stood out. We have followed each other’s careers over the next few years, as I moved to Toronto and Sigal to Brooklyn. We chatted via email while visiting our prospective homes, she in Montreal, and me in Tel Aviv.

Ayelet Tsabari: You were recently back home in Montreal for the holidays. How does it feel to be home? Does Montreal still feel like home?

Sigal Samuel: Montreal always feels like home, even though I left in 2009 to do my MFA in creative writing. I realized recently that I love this city because of its preference for multiplicity over unity. You can’t take two steps without your mind being forced into a kind of split-think, a bifurcated vision, a double consciousness.

You see this most obviously in terms of language. When you’re getting on a bus or walking into a store, you can’t just assume that the bus driver or shopkeeper is going to speak to you in English. Hence Montrealers’ ubiquitous weirdo greeting, “Bonjour-hi,” a linguistic choose-your-own-adventure that you use to suss out whether the other person prefers to continue the conversation in English or French.

I love that destabilization and think it shapes a lot of the cultural products that come out of Montreal. Our writers favor a doubling-up not only in terms of language (sometimes code-switching between English/French in a single sentence) but also in terms of highbrow/lowbrow (Michel Tremblay wrote in joual, working-class French slang, about pretty intellectual stuff), sacred/profane (think Leonard Cohen) and personal/political (Mordecai Richler, Heather O’Neill, Zoe Whittall come to mind).

If a city could have a motto, Montreal’s would be, “Why have one when you can have many?”

If a city could have a motto, Montreal’s would be, “Why have one when you can have many?” and that’s a mentality that always feels homey to me, because it suits my psychological temperament. This city is the best location for a certain kind of person and a certain kind of novel.

AT: Can you tell readers who don’t know a little more about Mile End specifically and what inspired your fascination with it and made you set your story in it?

SS: Maybe more than any other neighbourhood in Montreal, Mile End captures that quality I was just talking about. Its most visible populations are hipsters and Hasidic Jews (picture a grittier version of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg) and on the streets you’ll also hear Italian and Polish and Greek and Portuguese. All these identities and ethnicities overlap and intersect, like an awesomely messy Venn diagram.

In The Mystics of Mile End, all my characters are outsiders who don’t fit snugly into any box, instead perpetually walking (and tripping over) the fine lines between conventional identities. This is as true of the main Meyer family — an atheist professor dad, his devout son, and his daughter swinging dangerously between both poles — as it is of their neighbors, who span the gamut from SETI scientists to Talmud teachers. So it felt natural to locate them and their struggles in Mile End. In fact, that setting did half the work of plot and theme for me.

AT: You grew up Orthodox. Can you talk about that? How Orthodox were you and your family? And what happened? When and how did you become disenchanted with religion?

SS: As a kid, I was the nerdiest Orthodox Jewish girl you could ever hope to meet. “National Bible Quiz Winner” is an actual title that I hold, thank you very much. In my early twenties I wanted to become a rabbi, so I went to study in yeshiva (religious seminary). Then a funny thing happened: the more I engaged in serious study of religion, the more I came to understand that I loved this stuff not as law, but as literature. The Good Book was just that for me, a really good book, and I felt “obligated” by it to the same extent that I felt “obligated” by, say, Brothers Karamazov.

But I never became disenchanted with religion! I am as enchanted as ever with Judaism’s texts and myths, only rather than embracing them as a set of laws I have to live by, I see them as cultural products that I can use to enhance my life (and give depth and dimension to my fiction) how and when I like. Basically, I treat religion like I treat thrift shopping at Goodwill: Here are a bunch of weird and old and cool and interesting things — try them on, take what suits you, leave the rest for someone else who’ll love it better!

AT: What place does this religion or spirituality have in your life today? Or in other words: So many of your characters are seeking meaning. Where do you seek yours?

Fiction is religion to me, and religion is really, really, really good fiction.

SS: In fiction. Both reading it and writing it. Fiction is religion to me, and religion is really, really, really good fiction. That’s not a diss, by the way — it’s the ultimate compliment. When I said a second ago that I feel obligated by the Bible like I feel obligated by a Dostoevsky novel, what I mean to say is: a lot!

Just like millennia-old religious texts, great fiction offers us rich and well-considered points of departure for rethinking our lives. I take those seriously, and I think other devoted fiction readers do, too. Why else would we read?

AT: You wrote before that you were exposed to Kabbalah, the ancient Jewish mystic discipline, as a child, which is unusual. For me, growing up Jewish in Israel, Kabbalah was shrouded in mystery, and even a touch of danger. So I was impressed by your choice to take it on and write an entire novel about it and do it in such a confident way. It is ambitious, courageous, and almost subversive. Did you have any concerns about writing about Kabbalah? How did people react to it? And what part, if any, does Kabbalah play in your life?

SS: My dad was a professor of Kabbalah, and he exposed me to Jewish mystical texts when I was a young girl, so I’m sort of weirdly knowledgeable about this stuff. It didn’t feel courageous to write about it, though it did feel subversive, mostly for gender reasons: Traditionally, women aren’t supposed to study Kabbalah, and the Kabbalistic texts themselves are pretty sexist.

The funniest reactions to my book have come from Orthodox Jewish men who can’t seem to help mansplaining Kabbalah to me. They love to say, “I think you got X detail wrong, did you know that Y?” Yes, dude. Yes, I did know.

For me, the act of writing fiction feels like a Kabbalistic practice.

In terms of what role Kabbalah plays in my life now, this is going to sound weird, but: For me, the act of writing fiction feels like a Kabbalistic practice. The medieval mystics’ meditations, which included letter permutations and automatic writing, were basically techniques for achieving altered states of consciousness. That’s exactly what writing fiction is for me. It’s an altered state in which I let my subconscious take over (and then later, of course, I go back and edit with my conscious mind, which is where the hard work comes in). This is maybe not so surprising when you consider that there’s a long history of artists experimenting with automatic writing and drawing — just look at what the Surrealists were doing from Paris to Montreal in the 1940s.

AT: Around this time last year you went on a trip to India in search of your Jewish Indian family past. What inspired the trip, what did you discover, and are you considering writing about it in fiction?

SS: OK, so here’s the weird thing: I wrote a whole novel about a family of Kabbalists who are all terrible communicators…only to later discover that I come from exactly such a family.

Upon hearing about the novel I’d just finished writing, my grandmother and father said: “It’s so funny that you wrote such a book.” When I asked why, they said, “Didn’t you know that your great-great-grandfather was a famous Kabbalist in Mumbai? That the Jews of the city would come to study mysticism with him? That his home was known as Beit Kabbalah, the House of Kabbalah? That legend has it he died when someone interrupted him in the middle of a dangerous Kabbalistic meditation practice?”

Well, no, I didn’t know — because nobody told me!

I decided to fly to Mumbai to see if I could track down my family’s mystical secret society. After ten days there, I didn’t manage to find any tangible traces of my great-great-grandfather’s House of Kabbalah, but I did find out that my great-grandfather had been a Freemason — and probably also a Theosophist.

They ended up initiating me into their society, calling me “Sister Sigal” and asking me to recite blessings in Hebrew.

The Theosophists are a secret society that blends the mystical traditions of many religions, putting a heavy emphasis on Kabbalah. I crashed one of their meetings and, though they initially tried to shoo me away, they were impressed when they heard about my ancestry. They ended up initiating me into their society, calling me “Sister Sigal” and asking me to recite blessings in Hebrew.

It was the most surreal experience of my life: Writing my novel not only led me to discover my own family’s roots — it also led me on an obsessive Kabbalistic search that eerily resembles the search of my fictional characters.

As for whether I’ll write about Jewish India in my fiction, the truth is, I did come back from that trip with an idea for a novel. But it’s still percolating.

AT: When asked in an interview why, as a Jew of Mizrahi (Sephardic/Arab) background, you chose to depict Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish characters you said you “only recently realized I was even allowed to write about Sephardic Jews.” Why is that? Is that something you are going to do in your next work?

SS: I’m so happy that you asked me this question, Ayelet, because now I get to reveal to you that it was your book that made me realize I could write about Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews! I read and reviewed The Best Place On Earth when it came out in Canada in 2013, and it was a major revelation/liberation for me, because I think it was the first time I’d seen people like me (Arab Jews) represented in English-language fiction.

…I have to acknowledge that I still feel a huge amount of (unspoken, invisible) pressure to cater to the dominant image of what “Jewish” means to most American readers…

Now that I’ve had this writerly political awakening, will my next work reflect it? It’s hard to say, for a couple of reasons. First, if I’m being honest, I have to acknowledge that I still feel a huge amount of (unspoken, invisible) pressure to cater to the dominant image of what “Jewish” means to most American readers: the white, neurotic, bagel-munching, Woody Allen type. To borrow a phrase from Claire Vaye Watkins, it’s tempting to pander to the market by writing toward these readers instead of challenging them.

But the bigger issue is this: I don’t believe in didactic writing. I would never write about Sephardic Jews just to make some political point; I’d only do it if that’s what the story I’m dying to write calls for. In Mystics, I was writing about a place that happens to have a very Eastern European, Yiddish-speaking Jewish pedigree. It wouldn’t really make sense to put Arabic-speaking Moroccan or Iraqi or Indian Jews in Mile End. Whether I’ll depict those characters in a future novel depends entirely on what sort of idea grips me next.

AT: Wow. That’s amazing. I’m honoured! And I totally get what you say about not believing in didactic writing; that’s something I bumped against when I wrote The Best Place on Earth. You actually addressed it yourself in said review, saying, “as any fiction writer will tell you, demanding that an author include certain types of characters in her stories is likely to backfire; if they don’t flow naturally from the author’s interests and experiences, they’re apt to come off the page all wrong.” And like you said, in Mystics, it wouldn’t have worked. I also believe a writer can write about whatever she wants, though there seems to be an expectation from writers of color to write about their heritage and their heritage only.

At the same time, I’d like to challenge the idea that you should only write about Mizrahi Jews because the story calls for it, because so often the depiction of Jews is by default Ashkenazi, regardless of what the story calls for. I think your characters can be Mizrahi because why not? We never question why white or Ashkenazi characters are white and if it serves a purpose. I’m not sure if there’s a question there. I guess I’m just putting it out there.

SS: Yes! So, I actually totally agree, and that’s why I was careful to craft the main characters in Mystics so that they can be read either way. There are little hints in the text that suggest the family is Mizrahi; for example, in the little boy’s list of “Things That Make My Sister Sad,” number five is “How her hair gets frizzy when it’s hot out.” Readers like us will see a line like that and, I hope, immediately recognize ourselves and laugh in sympathy. I also purposely chose a family name — Meyer — that could be either Mizrahi or Ashkenazi (after rejecting other possible surnames for being too definitively Ashkenazi).

…wherever I can build into the text an opportunity for non-white readers to see themselves represented, I’m going to do that rather than force them to read characters as white unnecessarily.

My feeling is that, wherever I can build into the text an opportunity for non-white readers to see themselves represented, I’m going to do that rather than force them to read characters as white unnecessarily. This reminds me of J.K. Rowling’s recent tweet about race in the Harry Potter books. “Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione.”

AT: As opinion editor at the Forward, you declared 2015 The year of the Arab Jew. Many people are not familiar with this term, and many others are not comfortable with it. You and I have spoken before about identifying as Arab Jews and how heated the discussion around it can get. Why do you think people react so strongly to this term? Why was it important to you to write that column and how do you feel about the year now that it’s concluded?

SS: People love to think of “Jews” and “Arabs” as separate enemy camps. In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it serves certain political interests to construct those two groups as Others relative to one another. How inconvenient, then, that there are people who embody both those identities at once!

I think that in 2015, the idea of Arab Jews really picked up steam. Exhibit A: The Jewish Book Council awarded your story collection (pretty much entirely about Arab Jews) the prestigious Sami Rohr prize! Exhibit B: Every month, it seems, a new Jewish band pops up with music that borrows heavily from the Arabic melodies of our grandparents’ generation. People are getting more and more comfortable reclaiming their dual Arab-Jewish heritage.

This resonates really strongly for me because over the past few years I’ve been in the process of shedding a lot of the damaging racial assumptions I grew up with, especially the false equations “Jewish = white” and “Jewish = non-Arab.” It’s important to do that sort of reckoning because it gives us permission to be our more whole, more complex selves — and for us writers, it can also make our art way more honest and interesting, because it means we’re no longer censoring major parts of ourselves. This reckoning is an ongoing process for me.

AT: I’ve been interested these days in the ways in which our identity — the multiplicities of it — shape who we are as writers, not only in terms of content but style as well. For example, as a Jew of Yemeni background, I wonder if my love for narrative summary comes from a tradition of oral storytelling, and as an Israeli, I wonder if my fondness for intensity, conflict, and drama in fiction is a result of growing up a war-torn country. How does your background, your identity, inform your work?

SS: I’ve thought a lot about how my fiction is very, very allusive and how I probably have the ancient rabbis to blame/thank for that. I mean, the Talmud is nothing if not an endless series of callbacks and allusions, a lace of hyperlinks that is endlessly self-referential and infinitely entertaining. The way the Talmudic rabbis take a biblical verse and interpret it, twist it, reimagine it to mean something wildly different or flat-out contradictory to its original meaning — I love that, and because I grew up loving it, I think I do a lot of it in my own writing, both consciously and unconsciously.

A really intricate self-referential web gives me the sense that I’m inhabiting a densely imagined world.

Mystics contains allusions to ancient Jewish texts and also to Leonard Cohen and also to Arcade Fire and also to a million other things, including itself. The novel is told in four different voices, and you won’t understand something in, say, the dad’s section until you get to the daughter’s section and then you’ll have that “Aha!” moment and flip backward, and so on. My favorite TV shows are likewise ones that make me do this sort of mental running-around — “Arrested Development” being the best example. A really intricate self-referential web gives me the sense that I’m inhabiting a densely imagined world. And it gives me the subliminally comforting feeling that I’m living inside a fractal.

AT: Related to that last point, what is Jewish fiction to you and do you feel comfortable being placed in that category?

SS: I feel comfortable with my work being labeled “Jewish fiction” to the same extent I feel comfortable with it being labeled “Montreal fiction” or “LGBT fiction.” It’s all those things at once, and labels are okay insofar as they provide entry points for people of X identity to get excited about your work. But it’s not just any one of those things.

AT: In Mystics you wrote a lot about “what you know.” When did you feel outside your comfort zone and wrote what you didn’t know? What posed a challenge? What made you want to throw the manuscript against a wall?

SS: Funny that you say that, because the most challenging parts were the parts when I was writing “what I (ostensibly) know”! I’m talking about the quarter of the book that’s written in the voice of the daughter, Samara, a twenty-something queer woman — on the surface, the character that most resembles me. I was too close to that voice, too intimate with it, so I struggled a lot with everything from structure to killing my darlings. It was much easier to write the other voices. There’s something liberating about inhabiting bodies and minds that are so unlike your own — you’re more able to let go of How Things Really Are and just let your imagination do its job.

AT: What question do you wish people would ask you?

SS: I wish people would talk to me about the fact that one of my protagonists is a queer woman — and ask what role queer politics plays in a novel that’s largely about religion. I find it telling that the book hasn’t been reviewed in the queer press yet. Our publishing ecosystem is very used to thinking of LGBT books as coming-out stories. But what happens when you have a novel that features a queer protagonist whose main struggle is not about her queerness? I was hungry for more books like that, and so I wrote one. And I would love to talk to people about it.

AT: Would you like to elaborate about it? Please do! I’m asking: what role does queer politics play in a novel that’s largely about religion?

Just because you’re queer doesn’t mean you’re exempt from spiritual hunger…

SS: Ha! Now I actually have to formulate an answer for the first time! I guess I’d say that I think we often assume an allegiance between “queer” and “secular” — but one doesn’t necessarily entail the other. There’s no reason queerness and religiousness need to be antithetical. Just because you’re queer doesn’t mean you’re exempt from spiritual hunger — hell, maybe you’re more attuned to it, because you’re strenuously seeking some form of unconventional intimacy. Maybe part of the reason Samara is more successful than any other character at climbing the Kabbalah’s Tree of Life is that she’s more of an outsider.

In the past month or so, I’ve participated in three book clubs as they discussed Mystics. In two out of three groups, readers flat-out refused to believe that Samara is gay, despite clear evidence in the text (um, basically the entire book). They said to me: “What I don’t understand is, why did Samara have to have that dalliance with that other girl? I mean, we all know she’s going to end up with Alex in the end, right?” The “dalliance” they referred to is the long-term relationship between Samara and her girlfriend, who lives/sleeps/makes out with her on the page. Alex is a male friend.

For a while, I was sort of flabbergasted by this impulse to read against the obvious meaning of the text (a very Talmudic impulse, I guess you could say!). Then I thought: Maybe the reason some readers just can’t believe Samara is gay is because she’s just…so…goddamn…religious. She spends months obsessively trying to become one with God — that’s her main struggle in the book — and for some readers it doesn’t compute that you can have that kind of struggle and also be really, really gay. But I think my character can be all those things and more because, as you said, why not?

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