CONTACT Magazine is pleased to present an excerpt, in both Hebrew and English translation, of Reuven Namdar’s recent novel, The Ruined House, for which Namdar won the 2014 Sapir Prize, Israel’s most prestigious literary award. The protagonist of this novel, set in contemporary New York, is Professor Andrew Cohen, an American Jew, which is a first for a Hebrew novel written by an Israeli albeit one who makes New York his home. This is also the first time the Sapir Prize has been awarded to a writer living outside of Israel, making a statement about the possibilities of contributing to the development of the Hebrew language and its literature with experiences influenced by American Jewish life. The Hebrew of this work is rich in classical Jewish allusions in a way that stands in contrast with the standard fare of most contemporary Israeli fiction. As the Israeli expatriate literary community grows, the Hebrew language reflects broader Jewish sensibilities and has the potential to become more of a bridge than a divider.
— David Gedzelman
Reuven Namdar is a Hebrew author and translator who was born and raised in Jerusalem to a family of Iranian-Jewish heritage and now lives in New York City. His first book Haviv (a collection of short stories) won Israel’s Ministry of Culture's award for the best first publication of the year 2000.
Azzan Yadin-Israel received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. He is a professor in the departments of Jewish Studies and Classics at Rutgers University. His most recent book is Scripture and Tradition: Rabbi Akiva and the Triumph of Midrash. (University of Pennsylvania Press). His articles are publicly available at Academia.edu.
The Ruined House
by REUVEN NAMDAR. Translated by AZZAN YADIN-ISRAEL
On a clear morning, on the sixth of Elul, in the year 5761 by the Jewish reckoning, corresponding to the sixth of September, 2000 AD, the gates of heaven opened above the great city of New York and, behold, all seven heavens were revealed through them, stacked one atop the other like the rungs of a ladder set upon the earth — squarely above the 4th Street subway station — the top of it reaching to heaven. Stray souls slipped phantom-like between the worlds, passing through like unnoticed specters, and among them a luminous, almost translucent figure — its form the form of a priest, on his head a linen headdress, and in his hand the golden firepan. No mortal eye beheld these sights; no one grasped the magnitude of this moment of divine favor in which all prayers are answered. Only an old homeless man, who lay filthy and bloated with hunger on the subway bench, half-hidden beneath a pile of rags, only he, who sought only to die, was abruptly gathered up to meet his maker, dying in a divine embrace. His dead face was frozen in a happy smile, the smile of one who has borne his iniquity and whose soul had completed its migrations and has been granted eternal rest.
At that precise moment, not far away, in the recently constructed cafeteria of the Levitt Building, overlooking Washington Square Park, sat Professor Andrew P. Cohen of NYU’s Department of Comparative Cultural Studies. He was preparing the opening lecture for his course “Cultural Criticism or Culture of Criticism: An Introduction to Comparative Analysis,” a required course he offered every fall. Cohen was expert at crafting elegant titles for his creative and consistently overenrolled courses that drew students from a wide range of disciplines. The courses’ content, no less than their titles, was elegant — rounded ideas, brilliant and polished. They possessed, to be sure, real analytic force, but their true power lay in the exemplary beauty of the interpretive models they constituted: broadly relevant and masterfully presented, the models were easily grasped and easily assimilated. Indeed, “elegant” was the adjective most commonly associated with any and all matters that bore the mark and presence of Professor Andrew Cohen. Elegance permeated every aspect of his being: his physical appearance, his wardrobe, his body language and intonation, his writing and his ideas — all were governed by a gossamer, aristocratic lucidity that radiated a festive golden hue on everything it touched and stirred anyone who came in contact with him. Many had attributed this effect to Andrew’s “charisma” though they immediately recognized the inadequacy of the term. He possessed charisma, of course, a rare and supremely refined charisma, but there was something else, something elusive that resisted facile definition. One of his students, Angela Morenti, a brilliant young filmmaker specializing in advanced visual technologies, had once managed to capture in words what his presence evoked in her: “He has a halo.” She had said this in the cafeteria, right after the weekly graduate seminar in which a guest lecturer from Gender Studies examined the hidden gender biases of the virtual world. Cohen did not lead the discussion that week, but rather sat attentively with his students. “Look,” Angela explained to the doctoral student who had accompanied her on a covert smoking excursion, “I don’t mean ‘halo’” (her fingers signed scare-quotes in the air) “in the way new-age pseudo mystics use the term. It’s more of a cinematic halo, no — a television halo. It’s like when you bump into a celebrity, especially when they’re not in the spotlight, and you get a glimpse of their private lives, say, at a party or a restaurant or a gallery opening... they’ve got this halo, as if they still have their TV makeup on and the spotlight is shining on them — their skin glows, you know, it’s just radiant, and they...” Her voice trailed off. “Let’s just head back.” She flicked the burning cigarette butt on the sidewalk and headed back into the building, the doctoral student scurrying to keep up. “They don’t look real. Yeah, that’s it! They look fake! Like their own wax figures — like some glamorized representations of themselves, all illuminated and perfect. I guess that counts as some sort of achievement — to become an icon of yourself, a symbol of who you are, or, actually, of what you are. You know what I mean!” The young doctoral student, who, truth be told, had a little crush on both Angela and Andrew, nodded vigorously, though she wasn’t the least bit sure she knew.
In honor of the new semester, Cohen was wearing a white morning-suit with a faux retro cut. On another man, it might have looked pretentious and distasteful. A green tie with scarlet embroidery rounded out the celebratory yet bemused look he favored. The same sophisticated, almost theatrical sartorial flair — a flair that scrutinizes its own limits, but always from a safe distance — was in evidence throughout: in his vintage wristwatch , the thick-rimmed, cartoonish reading glasses, and the Warholian shock of grey hair that lent his appearance a playful touch. The table at which he was seated was set at a slight remove from the others, framed by a bright triangle of sunlight that made it appear to levitate subtly . Two beautiful undergraduates, stared at him from afar and giggled, aflutter with admiration. Cohen smiled to himself as he leafed through his notes — he had grown accustomed to the warm caress of the female students’ adoring gaze. Yes, he could seduce more or less any female student he desired, but he was a man of strong moral convictions, who almost never deviated from the professional ethics that govern academic life. He continued to review the notes to his introductory lecture. He was not one of those professors who prepared obsessively before each lecture. He had full command of the material; his ideas were clearly structured; the position of teacher was natural to him. And besides, he was at his best when he improvised. ■