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At the center of this fascinating novel is Beth, who at age thirty-nine longs to be married but despairs she ever will be. When she finally meets the man of her dreams, he has what she believes to be an insurmountable flaw. Can she overcome her repugnance in order to forge a new life? Binyamin, a talented painter...
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At the center of this fascinating novel is Beth, who at age thirty-nine longs to be married but despairs she ever will be. When she finally meets the man of her dreams, he has what she believes to be an insurmountable flaw. Can she overcome her repugnance in order to forge a new life? Binyamin, a talented painter and student, lacks the humility to identify a worthy wife. He strains the matchmakers' patience until his search for perfect love finally becomes ridiculous, even to himself. Tsippi and Judith, the matchmakers, are stumbling themselves, with marriages that need propping up. In this land of miracles, seeking the right match, whether between singles, husband and wife, student and teacher, or man and God, becomes a quest that opens the Bible to us in a new way.
- Library Journal
"A gentle evocation of love and faith in Jerusalem's Orthodox community....King then seems, like a Jewish Jane Austen....Much of the story's strength rises from King's generous description of Jerusalem....A tender enlightening debut that, urban setting aside, reads like a comedy of provincial manners."
"Two Orthodox Jewish matchmakers strive busily to marry off their neighbors in this bustling debut novel set in modern-day Jerusalem...her richly detailed descriptions of Jerusalem (the reader can almost smell the falafel frying) and her sympathetic characters make this a fully realized novel."
- Publishers Weekly
"It shimmers...Its setting is suffused with the glint of Jerusalem light, its characters infused with the city's spirituality....In short, a gem of a novel." —Jewish News of Greater Phoenix
"Ruchama King successfully marries the romantic and the religious, the ancient and the modern, in a captivating tale about modern day match-making among the newly pious Americans who have made Israel their home. What I loved most about this spell-binding first novel, was the reader's total immersion in a world of ritual and longing."
-Helen Schulman, author of P.S. and The Revisionist
"With warmth, wisdom, and an abundance of affection, Ruchama King opens up a fascinating world. Mining the everyday moments of her characters' lives, she expertly explores love and marriage, belief and hope." -Tova Mirvis, author of The Ladies Auxiliary
"Arranged marriages will never look the same. Ruchama King transforms the life of Orthodox Jerusalem into the universal terms of love and courtship—and yes, real intimacy and self-fulfillment. A perceptive and charming book." -Risa Miller, author of Welcome to Heavenly Heights
"Ruchama King is herself a great matchmaker—between the sensual and the ethereal, between subtle storytelling and startling revelation. Her novel moves with a grace I have not encountered. What a loss it would have been to have never read it, or for her to have never written it." - Stephen J. Dubner, author of Turbulent Souls and Confessions of a Hero Worshipper
What she had first noticed about the American woman was her hair. The hair itself was an anomaly in this street of yarmulka, scarf, wig, and black hat wearers. Either she was not religious, Tsippi surmised, or maybe not as pious as the block's Ashkenazi Orthodox residents, or else she was simply not married and had no reason for covering her hair. This American woman-she had to be an American: Who else would pay three times the price for StarKist Tuna instead of opting for the serviceable Israeli brands? And anyway her accent betrayed her-this American brought her moods to the grocery store. Sometimes she walked down the aisles, poking, turning a cereal box in her hands, groping, squinting, yearning for something Tsippi's shelves couldn't deliver; sometimes she seemed annoyed, scowling at an eggplant, shrugging at a tomato; and sometimes her hands moved with a happy efficiency, like the hands of a regular ba'alabusta whose years of list-making had already been absorbed into her very fingertips.
Tsippi tucked a strand of gray hair under her paisley scarf and busied herself ringing up the items of a customer, a young boy with blond-haired peyos wrapped delicately behind his ears. She cut him a hunk of pumpkin squash for his mother's chicken soup, threw in a free bag of chocolate dreidels (leftovers from her Hanukkah stock), and recorded the entire amount in a shiny green notebook. The boy's family paid at the end of the month, though only the Almighty knew how. They always rushed for the two-day-old bread on sale, the rotten bananas nobody else would buy. Lately, things had gotten worse with the recent cuts in food subsidies. Though when it came time for Mr. Weinshtock to pay the bill, he'd crisply lay out the shekels on the counter as if nothing was amiss. Other customers who had more were always wringing their hands and asking for extensions. Not him. She wondered about his wife and how scraping by had affected their marriage. Then she shook her head. What business did she have thinking about other people's marriages? Better to save her speculations for the unwed.
Now this American woman with her bare head of hair (possibly the only uncovered woman over twenty on the block) intrigued her with her dreamy way of walking and her forlorn, slightly aggrieved air. She looked about thirty-five, educated, attractive-well, attractive enough. Tsippi wondered which street she lived on and why she had only begun to come to the store in the last month. Maybe she had just moved to Kinnor Road. There could also be another reason. Lately, a flock of Moroccans, Iraqis and Yemenites had been making their way to her store, along with other assorted Sephardim, and she had finally figured out why. Her store was not far from a small Sephardic courtyard of houses, Harp Court, which for years had its own Makolet grocery store, but recently it had closed down. Perhaps the American woman had come in on that wave, though it hardly seemed possible that she lived there, in the ramshackle Sephardic area, with people who did not seem to be the educated type, though it was unfair to judge. Tsippi had begun stocking more of the spices the Sephardim liked: the cumin and cardamom and turmeric, the hawajj and hilbe. Gradually she would accommodate the Sephardim. But before she went around rearranging her shelves she wanted to know these customers were here to stay.
As for the American woman, she would have to go through her list more carefully to see if anyone sprang to mind. Her sons (all five of them married, thank God, with children of their own) were always asking about her methods, how she decided to put so and so with that one and not another. How could she explain? She liked to juxtapose two people in her mind, imagine them eating a falafel together, or setting a table. If no sparks flashed, she dropped it cold. Still, the hard part wasn't coming up with a match, but executing it, and there was the real secret of making a shidduch: chutzpah, pure nerve. Because many people could come up with good ideas. It annoyed her the way acquaintances would say, "Oh yes, I thought of Yossi and Miriam, too," and she would always restrain herself from asking, "So why didn't you, then?" She knew why. They were frightened. She, Tsippi, normally on the timid side, for some reason was never upset if the parties were insulted (Me with him? Do I look fifty pounds overweight? Do I?) and abused her with their complaints, their How-could-you's, their wounded expressions. She brushed them off and did her work. She had conceived this idea, that she would make matches, after she had been liberated from the camps, at Treblinka. All around her, Jews-the few that remained-were stretched out, dying of Red Cross rations consumed too rapidly, their shriveled stomachs unable to bear the onslaught of nutrition, and a great murderous rage rose up inside her. She would get even with Hitler. She would make matches, shidduchs. Every couple she brought together-saliva in Hitler's stupefied face. Every child born-more dirt and worms on his grave. The best revenge in the world. This was how she had started long ago. And God had blessed her with the chutzpah to make matches that others might only dream of, in a land that had been dreamed into existence less than four decades ago.
"Tzippalah, Tzippalah, whatever are you thinking?"
"Shlomo," she said, almost reproachfully. Her husband had emerged from the little room in the back and had caught her unaware. He knew how to move quietly for a large man. She stared at the reddish tips of his white beard and offered him a small oval plum from a wicker basket on the counter.
"Any new deliveries?" Shlomo asked. He muttered a blessing and ate the plum whole.
Tsippi pointed to the bins in the back of the store. He took out a pen and paper and a small coin, and began to make calculations, sorting through the potatoes and yams and leeks and kumquats, measuring, removing a portion for the poor and other groups. All fresh produce that arrived went through the same tithing ritual. Then he returned to the little room where his chevrutah study partner sat waiting for him in front of an open Talmud. They had been learning together now, almost every day, for over ten years. Before this, Shlomo had been a kosher slaughterer, a shochet, but as he got older he no longer had the stamina for the bloody work, and so she'd opened this Makolet grocery store. In this way, she had enabled Shlomo to study-not just a few hours, but full-time, like a regular yeshiva student.
Throughout the day little bursts of Aramaic pierced the grocery-ein haki nami, l'afookay, ma chazis dedamach sumak tfey?-sounds that settled over the fruits and vegetables and canned goods like some exotic spice. She didn't understand a word of Aramaic, but the men's Talmud study nourished her. What they were doing back there was important, and so she felt important and holy, too, even while involved in mundane matters like cleaning out the freezer or balancing the books. She was lucky, luckier than most. Others had far less. Why should she complain?
* * *
"Can't you stay longer, Bet?" said Zahava, pronouncing her name minus the "th," like most Israelis.
Beth shook her head and saw the young woman's features visibly sag. "Sorry, Zahava. Shabbat's coming and I have to go." She shrugged guiltily toward the sun. Actually, it was a fat three hours until sunset, and she could've spared an extra twenty minutes, but she didn't feel up to it. The psychiatric ward, with its cloying overmedicated smell, gave her a headache where once the place had charmed. She had been volunteering for a year now at the psychiatric ward of Healer of the Broken Souls Institute. At first she'd been entranced by the magical-schizophrenic utterances of Zahava, the disturbed woman she regularly visited. The first time she met a patient who thought she was a Biblical prophetess, Beth couldn't get enough details. But the place was filled with such characters. Eventually the Deborahs and Miriams, the Ezekiel wannabes, all lost their shock and entertainment value (for unwittingly, she acknowledged, she had turned the patients into entertainment) and became just everyday emotionally-disturbed persons in need of care. And she did care, particularly about Zahava. But she had to pace herself or she'd sap out completely. Beth slung her batik knapsack across her shoulders and began the walk home.
The stretch along Kveesh Darom extended for three miles and should've been considered the most morbid in Jerusalem. At the farthest end was a prison buried in the trees of the Jerusalem Forest, then a rifle range, followed by the geriatric-psychiatric institution where she volunteered, and then as the road curved closer to the residential blocks, a tombstone factory. But Beth paid no attention to these grim landmarks. Her walk home took fifteen minutes and she enjoyed every moment of it. Few cars came this way and even fewer buses. The sky, even now in the post-Hanukkah rainy season, had its days of vivid, optimistic blue. When the day gave forth clouds, they piled on dramatically in gigantic swirls. Olive and acacia and fig and carob trees grew on one side of the winding road, giving way to a downward sloping hill dotted with occasional boulders.
Down below, the Jerusalem Forest stretched on, an endless wave of evergreens. Israel was strange that way. In the summertime trees drooped, and now in the winter they came to life, helped on, no doubt, by the five months of rain. On the other side of the road, a hill rose sharply and became a more sedate, manicured forest, its prickly eucalyptus trees steepling into the sky.
Just past the tombstone factory, Beth wound her way down a thin dirt path and settled under her favorite tree. She pulled out an Egozi chocolate candy bar, her reward for her good deed at Broken Souls, and drank a can of mango soda, also a treat, resting the items on a flat-topped boulder. Good ole Jerusalem Forest. She could always count on the forest to restore her and, lately, she was in sore need of it. The past year she'd been undergoing a crisis of faith. Not enough to abandon the mitzvahs or her way of life, but enough so that she'd stopped attending Torah classes at a women's yeshiva where she'd been a part-time student. A skepticism had seized her. Verses and sections that had made sense now mystified or even outraged her-animal sacrifices, the laws about Canaanite slaves, that disturbing verse: "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." It got to be she couldn't pick up a Bible. She might've asked a rabbi or teacher to help her interpret these verses, but she never could bring herself to approach anyone. It was like sharing her mess, opening up the fridge for the world to see the spilled juice, the rotting, moldy food. So she had settled into a chronic religious anxiety while staying connected by whatever means-more meticulous observance of the laws, increased prayer-until, she hoped, she would feel differently. Prayer had always been something of a struggle for her, but here in the Jerusalem Forest, talking to God came more easily. The Hassidic masters said a person should pray to God like a child pestering his mother or father. The forest was the place she pestered God-for clarity, for direction, for some Divine attention.
The forest was also mildly dangerous. Sometimes a boulder from the tombstone factory came lurching down the mountain. Sometimes strange men wandered through. Once, on Lag B'Omer National Picnic Day, she'd settled herself into an isolated campsite with lunch and a booklet, Outpouring of the Soul. In the distance she saw a small truck full of Arab workers coming at her, screaming, rakes and axes jutting out through the open windows. They'll pass by, she thought, clutching her booklet, they're headed somewhere else, but the truck came to a dusty screech ten feet away from her. Still screaming and shouting, they took their rakes and stamped out a still-smoking fire that had been left by the previous picnickers. Just as quickly, they piled back into the truck and left. Beth still hadn't moved from her spot. It occurred to her then that the Arab workers had saved her life and prevented a massive forest fire. But what if the truck had carried a bunch of rapists or escaped convicts or terrorists? She was defenseless in the forest. Anything could happen. She continued to come anyway, but sometimes she'd carry a big rock she happened to find along the way as protection.
She crumpled her candy bar wrapper into her purse, wiped her fingers and recited a Psalm, "I Lift My Eyes Unto the Mountains." She couldn't linger, though. The sun had dropped lower. Shabbat was coming.
She entered Kinnor Road, the black-hat rigorously Orthodox block consisting mostly of Jews of Eastern European Ashkenazi origin, and then made a sharp right up the hill on Levites Street. Another right into Harp Court, with its red-tiled slanting roofs, the Sephardic enclave-home to Jews from Iraq and Morocco and Yemen and Algeria. On the other side of Levites Street loomed "Belt Morris," the huge American apartment complex built of Jerusalem stone, named after a philanthropist from Florida who'd donated money for the playground. That's what she liked about Israel. She'd only walked three blocks, and here she was, traversing civilizations. She was the lone American who lived in Harp Court, which was fine with her. She hadn't traveled six thousand miles from Pittsburgh just to be with Americans. Still, she liked having her compatriots fairly close by, on the other side of Levites Street.
Excerpted from SEVEN BLESSINGS by Ruchama King Copyright © 2003 by Ruchama King
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
1. In Seven Blessings, the Torah is practically a character in its own right. Sometimes the Torah becomes a barrier to intimacy, and sometimes an enhancer of intimacy. Discuss. What other roles does the Torah play in the characters' lives?
2. Beth's religious issues first get sparked when she considers the idea of teaching. How does the theme of public versus private play out in various areas of her life - particularly public shame and private shame?
3. Both Binyamin and Akiva are playing a self-image game - call it impression management. Who is more self-deceiving - Binyamin or Akiva?
4. All the characters come to Jerusalem for different reasons. Compare and contrast the reasons.
5. Is falling in love a skill that can or even must be learned?
6. Can the Yetzer Hara - unbound illicit desire - be a positive and necessary force in the life of a pious person, or is it always to be subdued and/or stomped out? By the end of the novel, what insights might Tsippi have come to about 'the secrets of desire'?
7. Even though all the women in Seven Blessings lead a traditional religious lifestyle, how might their Torah observance have differed from their grandmothers' observance of the Torah?
Posted September 13, 2003
I loved this book. It's about a world very different from my own, but the characters King has created are complex and touchingly real, and the book's theme -- the challenge of people truly connecting, whether they're single or have been married for decades -- is one that can resonate for any thoughtful person, regardless of his or her religion. I especially loved the ending of the book. King didn't fall into the trap of tying it all off in a neat, everyone's going to be happy forever, bow; it was true to her characters, and true to life, that they clearly have a chance at happiness, but that more ups and downs still lie ahead of them.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 24, 2003
The ethereal Jerusalem light captured so convincingly on the cover of Ruchama King's dazzling debut novel mirrors the luminosity of the story that unfolds on the pages inside. Ms. King is a brilliant and gifted storyteller, one of the best and the brightest new stars to emerge on the Jewish literary horizon, and her novel can only be described as 'enchanting.' Jews and non-Jews alike will be utterly charmed by the cast of quirky characters that inhabit the pages of 'Seven Blessings' - characters who endear themselves to readers immediately, despite their obvious flaws and foibles. Actually, perhaps it is the very existence of their warts, wounds and idiosyncracies that makes them so lovable, and so very real. Ruchama King's characters are three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood characters, fully and enviously drawn, unique yet recognizable, and extremely authentic indeed. We care about them and drawn into their respective trajectories and dramas. I must confess that I found the book so compelling that I finished it in one sitting! The characters in 'Seven Blessings' are, for the most part, lovable seekers - seeking both to suck the spirituality of Jerusalem out of its walls and into the very marrow of their bones and seeking, on a more earthly level, a soulmate with whom to travel the journey. Towards the second end, they visit a riotous melange of Jerusalem matchmakers, hysterically funny in both their approach and appearance. Ruchama King clearly knows jerusalem, spiritual seekers, matchmakers and lonely singles well. Her descriptions of Jerusalem ring true for any one who knows the city, and her knowledge of Jewish customs and traditions shines through every page. She is very respectful of her subject matter, and clearly loves her characters as much as the reader comes to love them too. I finished the book with a huge smile on my face, and felt a glow inside all day long. 'Seven Blessings' is a positive, beautiful and wondrously enchanting novel, and introduces a great new author whom surely we will hear more from soon!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.