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Sigal Samuel: The Mystics of Mile End

Claire Schwartz interviews Sigal Samuel about Kabbalah, queer Jews, and religion as literature.

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Photo by Crystal Sikma

When I met Sigal Samuel at a chic cafe in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, my first thought was that it was not difficult to imagine her as a child, perched at the edge of her seat as her father stood at the front of a lecture hall, releasing and retracting a yo-yo to illustrate the movement of the Jewish mystic’s soul. As we began our conversation, this image recurred. She is not so much serious as intent, studied—immersing each question in deep knowledge. The daughter of a Kabbalah professor, Samuel attended an Orthodox day school in Montreal, but, unlike her peers, she did not come from an Orthodox home. Instead, her Nietzsche- and Kafka-loving father circumvented the traditional directive that studying Kabbalah is permissible only for married men over the age of forty, and gave his young daughter lessons in Jewish mysticism at their dining room table.

Samuel’s debut novel, The Mystics of Mile End: A Novel, takes in this long tradition of mystic Judaism and refracts it anew. In four voices, The Mystics of Mile End tells the story of the Meyers, a secular Jewish family living in the iconic Montreal neighborhood where hipsters and Hasids meet. As David, a widowed Kabbalah professor, and his daughter Samara, an independent queer woman with strong convictions, each attempt to climb Kabbalah’s tree of life, questions about the possibilities and perils of spiritual transcendence arise with poignant clarity.

Samuel earned a BA in philosophy from McGill University and an MFA at the University of British Columbia. Her six plays have been produced in Canada and the United States. Samuel refuses to shy away from the often-elided topics of race and sexuality in Jewish communities, insisting that we behold each other in all of our beautiful and difficult complexity. Her journalism, for example, includes important long form articles about Arab Jewish identity and her search for her family’s kabbalistic roots in India. She is the Opinions Editor at the American Jewish news outlet, The Forward. When we spoke about her work, I thought of the saying, “Ten Jews, twenty opinions,” and I asked her how that’s going for her. “You get a lot of hate mail,” she laughed, and took a sip of her latte.

Claire Schwartz for Guernica

Guernica: In an interview with Israeli-Canadian writer Ayelet Tsabari, you said, “[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, The Brothers Karamazov.” I love the idea of fiction as a site of discipline and devotion, as obligation. Would you say more about what this means for you?

Sigal Samuel: Sure. It’s funny. Last week, a good friend said to me, “You don’t have any spiritual practice nowadays, right?” I just looked at him, “What do you mean? Of course I have a spiritual practice. It’s called reading and writing fiction.” I think the fiction of it is what I loved about spiritual texts all along, growing up in the orthodox Jewish world—although I didn’t realize it until much later. When I was little, I was taught that every word of these texts comes directly from the mouth of God. Even with medieval rabbinic commentators, like Maimonides—every word that he said was basically from the mouth of God.

I remember the exact moment that the shift happened for me. I was nineteen years old, studying at a Yeshiva in Israel. I was looking at this text by Maimonides, and suddenly it occurred to me: These words aren’t directly from the mouth of God. Maimonides was just a man. That didn’t take away my appreciation for his brilliance. Actually, it added to it. It was kind of like, “Oh, you’re a human being who I can work and learn and struggle with.” And later as I started to do some serious Talmud [a central text of Rabbinic Judaism] study—because I was planning to become a rabbi—I started to see the layers of editing and redacting that went into making the Talmud. I began to understand the extent to which the Talmud, too, is really shaped by human hands, human agendas. And, again, that didn’t take away from my appreciation. It was just like, “Damn. These rabbis are good editors, good writers. These are great stories.” So, when I say I feel obligated to a novel like The Brothers K the same way I feel obligated to these religious texts, I mean that any great work of literature is a point of departure for rethinking what it means to be in the world. I take that really seriously.

Love is poverty. It strips you down. It rips away everything you thought you knew about yourself. And that’s how I understand the mystical approach to meaning….You’ll have all your assumptions upended.

Guernica: In The Mystics of Mile End, each of the main characters seems to be—at one time or another and in various ways—searching for definitive meaning, Truth. Yet, they are constantly returned to the contingency and fragility of human relationships. Would you say a little bit about the relationship between truth and uncertainty?

Sigal Samuel: A lot of people have a misconception about climbing Kabbalah’s Tree of Life. They think that the higher up you get, the closer you get to the truth. But ayin, the pinnacle of the tree, is really the breakdown of objective certainly. It’s sort of like a post-modern wet dream. [Laughs] There’s no unified self. There’s no unified truth. Whereas ani, the bottom of the Tree, is all about certainty. In traditional Rabbinic Judaism, it’s not ayin but the vessel in the middle part of the tree that’s most commonly associated with divine presence. That’s still in the realm of objective truth. So when you’re searching for meaning in a mystical way, you’re reaching beyond that.

Clarice Lispector’s story “The Egg and the Chicken” has this amazing passage about love. She writes that everyone thinks love is to be desired because once you find love, you’ll have a partner in life; you’ll be stable. But, she says, love is not a certainty; love is not a prize in the end. Love is poverty. It strips you down. It rips away everything you thought you knew about yourself. And that’s how I understand the mystical approach to meaning. It’s not, “Now you know the truth, and you’ll be firmly planted.” It’s the opposite. You’ll have all your assumptions upended.

Guernica: This conception of love as a completely destabilizing force reminds me of a statement made by David Meyer. When explaining his dangerous need to keep running so that he might hear the word he believes his heart murmur to be speaking, he says, “It spurred me on in the same way and for the same reasons that desire spurred lovers to enter into disastrous affairs; because the human brain is hardwired for this sort of obsession.” What role does obsession play in the lives of your characters?

Sigal Samuel: I see Mystics as a book that is, at its base, about obsession. And I think you can relate to it whether you’ve ever had religious obsession, artistic obsession, romantic obsession—it doesn’t really matter. Really, it’s the mechanism of obsession that’s central. David feels compelled by this mystical obsession in the same way that lovers feel compelled to enter into a disastrous affair. He knows it’s going to be a disaster. It doesn’t take a genius to see that this is not going to end well, but we’re propelled by something beyond ourselves. To me, that’s the hallmark of a real mystical pursuit. And I love to imagine that’s what Clarice Lispector was thinking about as the hallmark of real love. What’s the relationship between obsession and relation? So many of the characters delve into their obsessions at the expense of or to the detriment of their human relationships.

I think a lot of people nowadays in the Jewish community—and I’m sure in other religious communities—deal with a kind of generational pendulum swing. You see the parents, let’s say, totally reject religion. And then the kids go completely the other direction: they embrace religion in a really intense, hardcore, maybe extreme manner. Then the next generation moves away again. And one of the sad things that happens often in those cases is that the person becomes so certain that their intense embrace or rejection of religion is the only right way that they come to denigrate their parents and whoever else is totally wrong in their view. I watched that dynamic happen a lot in my adolescence and young twenties, so I wanted to think about that a bit in the book: how sometimes pursuing something that we think is really honorable—mystical, divine—can come at the expense of human relationships. Does that take away from its value? Does that mean a divine pursuit is something we still want to engage in? I’m not sure there’s a simple answer.

I do think some models for mystical pursuit absolutely are predicated on the idea that you’re going to be willing to give up all your human relationships. That’s not a model that I’m personally interested in. As you probably can tell from the book, I’m more interested in the model that exists—at least at some points in the pursuit—in relationship to other human beings.

Guernica: The complexity of the characters in Mystics and the nuance with which you approach your journalistic work offers a counterpoint to this kind of denigration and dismissal. This makes me think about the article you wrote about learning, after the novel’s publication, of your family’s own deep history with Kabbalah. When you asked your grandmother why she peeled an egg so carefully and quickly, she didn’t have an answer—except that she got it from her own mother and grandmother. It turned out to be a tradition rooted in kabbalistic belief, and you learned that her grandfather was a renowned kabbalist in Bombay. We don’t always know what we’re carrying. So, even what we perceive as a wholesale rejection may actually have more continuity than we know.

Sigal Samuel: I love that: we don’t always know what we carry. There are things in our subconscious that are animating us. I’m very interested in that. Even the author’s not exempt. When I was writing this book, I didn’t know about my own family’s connection to Kabbalah—besides the fact that my dad was a professor of Kabbalah. And then I discovered that my family actually had deep roots in this semi-secret kabbalistic society in India. So, actually, it’s ironic because I put my characters through their paces in terms of trying to let you, the reader, know more about them than they do about themselves; and it turns out that I myself was enmeshed in that dynamic!

I’m very interested in these moments of misrecognition. I think this is why I love the novel as a form. It gives you space to pull this trick on your characters. Like in David’s section, you’ll have him saying, “This amazing middle-of-the-night bike ride I took my kids on, I’m sure they don’t remember that.” But in [his son] Lev’s section, you’ll see that he absolutely remembers. There are a lot of moments like that. You know, everyone thinks they’re really opaque, but they’re actually so transparent. It’s a gentle, loving mockery of the characters.

Reading the Talmud feels like you’re in an ancient Internet….The Talmud is an ancient document, but it really feels to me like a modern novel in the sense that, if you’re studying Talmud right, it sends you on this chase.

Guernica: You’ve talked before about the formal influence of the Talmud on the text. Would you say more about what this structure allowed you to do?

Sigal Samuel: There’s a push-and-pull. On one hand, there’s a rebellion against the Talmud. The Talmudic rabbis don’t believe that women should be engaging with these ideas at all, and this book loosely draws on a Talmudic story about four male figures in a mystical garden. On the other hand, Mystics is an homage to the Talmudic rabbis and their brilliant style of writing and speaking; they’re so engaged with these biblical texts and the sayings of the rabbis who came before them that they’re constantly enmeshed in an allusive web. I think I called it once, allusive hyperlinks.

Reading the Talmud feels like you’re in an ancient Internet. That really interests me. The Talmud is an ancient document, but it really feels to me like a modern novel in the sense that, if you’re studying Talmud right, it sends you on this chase. They’re always using arguments over there to support arguments over here. You’re constantly flipping between different pages of one volume and different volumes entirely. And that’s what’s most interesting to me about the novel: this kind of mental running around that it forces you to do.

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Guernica: The Talmud feels like one clear model for the text, but Mystics also feels really queer to me. Not only in the sense that there is a queer woman at the heart of the book, but also structurally. It’s not completely linear and reaches out into all kinds of unforeseen directions. How has that been taken up?

Sigal Samuel: I’m glad that you make that observation because no one has yet. To be honest, I don’t think that when I was writing, I was consciously thinking, “Let’s queer this narrative by having this fluidity, this back-and-forth that’s not going to stay comfortably in one box.” Now that you say that: yes. That feels good to me. It makes me smile that the same mode that we would associate with modern queerness, I also associate with the ancient rabbis. I don’t know that they would love that. But I do.

The queer press has started to take up the book and review it a bit later than the mainstream press, and I kind of had to push for that. I think you run into a very tricky thing when you write a book in which there’s a queer protagonist but her queerness is not the main struggle. You may not be queer enough for the queer book prizes and publications and reviewers, and you may be too queer for the mainstream commercial establishment—whatever that is, and with some exceptions. I’m very grateful for all of the writers who are doing the very important work of writing wonderful coming out stories. But I also think we need books where the queerness is not the struggle. That’s part of what I tried to do.

Guernica: As you say, it’s not a coming out narrative—and that definitely has to do with it not readily fitting in with markets scanning for “queer books”—but I think there’s also a way that Jewishness and queerness are often understood as mutually exclusive. If the book is most readily taken up and labeled as Jewish fiction, that might not be where we go to find queer narratives. But it feels like Samara’s queerness does, or can, matter for how the book takes shape.

Sigal Samuel: It’s funny that you say that. I think Samara’s queerness is why or how she engages mysticism in the way she does. It’s hard to articulate. She’s very hungry for intimacy with something outside herself that she doesn’t quite know how to name or go about. It’s translated from a romantic plane to a religious plane, but it’s the same type of psychological movement.

I had a lot of readers willfully, I think, not realize that Samara is queer. “The thing I didn’t get is: Why did Samara have to have that dalliance with that other girl?” “You mean that girl she’s in a relationship with the entire time?” I think that might be partly due to what you’re mentioning about how Jewish narratives and queer narratives don’t very often overlap, so people who are coming from a more establishment Jewish place aren’t looking to read it on a queer level. Except in some very Orthodox segments of the Jewish community, I think we’re increasingly accepted. Whether or not that acceptance is translated into a nuanced reading of queer books in a way I would like remains to be seen.

Guernica: Switching gears a bit, would you say a little bit about the relationship between the spoken word, the written word, and silence?

Sigal Samuel: I’m very partial to the written word, as you might imagine. But I also come from Jewish tradition, where the written Torah and the oral Torah are considered on an equal plane. So, you have intertexts in The Mystics of Mile End. You have David’s manuscript and other written documents. But you also have Mr. Glassman, the neighbor, telling stories—this oral narrative that’s embedded within this larger narrative of the book.

Silence is major to me, and it’s a major theme in Mystics. There’s a line in the Talmud, which I quote in the book, “A word is worth one coin; silence is worth two.” I remember encountering that as a kid and thinking, “Silence is not worth two! What horrible accounting of language is this?!” I can now see situations in which that might be true. Recognition doesn’t require language. Sometimes silence is a better conveyor; sometimes language is. But, for the most part, the characters in Mystics are silent just when they should be speaking up. They’re all, in one way or another, waiting to hear a signal. Whether it’s [Lev’s friend] Alex, wanting the SETI scientists to tell him whether there are aliens in the sky, or whether it’s David who’s trying to hear a signal from God speaking through his own heart; they’re all searching for a kind of language that will link them to greater meaning. And sometimes that really messes them up. I like the idea of taking it into our own hands and making ourselves the mediators or the vessels for this communication that people look to God for. I’m partial to that idea of human relationships of vessels for the divine.

From a really young age—even as a teenager—I was doing a lot of self-erasure when I was writing. It took me a while to get to the point when I realized I could write about anything Jewish.

Guernica: You’ve written about race in Jewish communities and about how the erasure of Jewish Arab identity from mainstream narratives is politically instrumental in that it perpetuates an idea about clear-cut opposition between Jews and Arabs. Do these conversations intersect at all with The Mystics of Mile End—either the choices you made writing it, or the conversations around it?

Sigal Samuel: Definitely retroactively. My family is an Arab Jewish family. We come from Morocco, India, and Iraq, but I grew up in Montreal in a very Ashkenazi, very Eastern European Jewish community. And the Jewish population in Mile End is really Ashkenazi, so there’s a way in which it would not have made sense to have Arab Jewish characters in this novel. Still, I purposely didn’t write the main characters in this book as definitively Ashkenazi, because why force the readers to identify someone as white when they don’t have to?

But there’s also a deeper element to it. I started writing this book in 2010, and, at that point, I think that I actually hadn’t realized that I was allowed to write about people like me. That’s partly because I grew up in this very Ashkenazi milieu, so I always just felt like the outsider—like something was subtly wrong with me, and I couldn’t place what. I just didn’t quite fit in.

From a really young age—even as a teenager—I was doing a lot of self-erasure when I was writing. It took me a while to get to the point when I realized I could write about anything Jewish. When I was maybe twenty—which is not that long ago, but it feels long ago—I thought I had to write about WASPs because I didn’t see many books that showed me I could do something else.

Then we had this spate of books come out. Everything Is Illuminated, The History of Love, and many, many more. That was a huge eye-opener for me, “I’m allowed to write about this?” So there’s that sense of “Anything Jewish.” And then there’s, “Oh, not just white Jews.” That came later for me. I think the first time I realized that I can and want to write about non-Ashkenazi Jews is when I read The Best Place on Earth: Stories by Ayelet Tsabari, which came out in 2013. I would love to write about such characters in the near future, but I also don’t believe in forcing yourself to write about something for political reasons. It will come out of you, or it won’t.

Guernica: Were you worried about the publication prospects for Mystics?

Sigal Samuel: I actually worried that no one in publishing would be open to a book about mysticism. I was pleasantly surprised because, for a lot of people, it’s a lofty, hard-to-relate-to idea. I really wanted the characters to drive Mystics because everyone can relate to a story about human relationships. Even though we have this notion that everything’s open—that we’re in a country where we can say anything—there is a sense of “forbidden literature,” those pressures of the industry that can subtly weigh on you in the back on your mind when you’re writing.

Guernica: Do the pressures of permission and prohibition still figure into what you’re writing or thinking about now?

Sigal Samuel: There’s something cooking in the back of my head—and this is prohibited in two directions. It’s been ten years since I’ve been in Israel, where my whole mother’s side of the family lives. My maternal grandparents came to Israel from Morocco. They live in a small Israeli town, and they have this almost magical garden. I really want to take a trip there this summer. I could see that being really fertile ground for fiction. When I mention this to people, on one hand, there’s this: I’d be writing about their Arab-ness as Jews. Every time I publish an article about that, I get heaps of hate mail. A lot of mansplaining; a lot of Jewsplaining; “You’re a self-hating Jew.” All of that. On the other hand, on the left, some of my friends who are Palestinian themselves or who are pro-Palestinian—a group which I consider myself a member of—there’s a tensing up at the mere mention of the word Israel. It’s such a politically fraught thing, which might be one of the reasons I haven’t even written about it in fiction yet.

My grandmother is this amazing, regal matriarch. She speaks Moroccan Jewish Arabic, so we don’t quite understand each other. We do and we don’t understand each other. I think that concern with language and communication that’s occurring in Mystics is very much in play there, and I’d like to delve further into that.

Guernica: We spoke earlier about moments of misrecognition and gaps in communication, but there are also moments where reaching across language causes the characters to reach for other ways to speak to each other—these tiny, beautiful moments that stretch outside of language. Does any of that come into play with the way you’re thinking about communicating with your grandmother?

Sigal Samuel: There’s this great poem by Adi Keissar—a Yemeni-Israeli poet who’s making waves in Israel—where she talks about her grandmother. It’s a similar situation with mine: Adi and her grandmother don’t speak the same language. And when Adi was a little girl, she couldn’t quite communicate with her, so she just cut a flower from the garden and brought it to her grandmother. It was a sweet moment. Then the moment turns, because she realizes that the flower she had given her grandmother was teeming with ants, but Adi has no way to warn her. When we don’t have language as a means of communication, we resort to body language and physical gesture, which can be generative. It forces you to get creative and communicate in different ways. Non-verbal communication can be as profound as verbal, but it also often results in these tense ant-moments.

Guernica: Anything else you’d like to add?

Sigal Samuel: I really like hearing your insights into the book because when you’re writing, a good percentage of it is subconscious. People say, “Oh, I really like that the author did this thing,” and I laugh because I didn’t intentionally do that—but now that they mention it: sure, yeah, great. Readers are telling you: here’s what you were doing that you didn’t realize you were doing. After having worked in isolation on a project for five years, it’s very nice to move into this conversational mode, where readers reveal what was, until now, actually hidden to you.

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, Electric Literature, and The Walrus. She has appeared on NPR, BBC, and Huffington Post Live. Her six plays have been produced in theaters from Vancouver to New York.

Claire Schwartz is a PhD candidate in African American Studies, American Studies, and Women’s Gender & Sexuality Studies at Yale. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in journals including Cream City Review, PMS: poemmemoirstory, Prairie Schooner, and Tupelo Quarterly; and her essays, interviews and reviews in Electric Literature, The Georgia Review, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere.

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