“The Weight of Ink”by Patricia Goldblatt November 6, 2018
I think we often look for Jewish connections and enquire of friends and family about “Jewish geography”: points from which to unravel our identity as people belonging to a particular religion with shared knowledge, ideologies, beliefs, customs and traditions.
A friend of mine remarked that a certain reviewer she knew was always looking for books with Jewish themes. Not surprisingly, that reviewer lectures mainly to book groups at synagogues, so why wouldn’t her topic revolve around authors whose interests relate to Jews? And yes, I agree it’s important to empathize and stretch, expanding our perspectives beyond one’s own realm, but oftentimes when we peer deeper into ourselves, we begin to understand others better.
“The Weight of Ink” by Rachel Kadish has been making the rounds – especially as a Jewish book award winner – it has attracted attention. The story contains two entwined stories, one in 1660, the other in 2000. Documents secreted in a hidden cubbyhole of a house are the rallying point for a story that showcases the lives of two independent women, the main protagonist, orphaned penniless Ester Velasquez from Amsterdam and Helen Watt, a historian from London. Unlike Ester, Helen is not Jewish, but has had a meaningful relationship with Dror, a Holocaust survivor in Israel. As well, Helen has lived on a kibitz around the time of the War of Independence. Life in Israel stimulates an interest and an enduring remembrance of a Jewish love. She has a sketch of Masada on her walls and is drawn to research that recalls her passion for the country.
Similar to A. S. Byatt’s construction of a historian’s unearthing important documents in the book “Possession,” Helen is the taciturn seeker who initiates the search into Ester, the young Sephardic woman, an anomaly for her times. There are many parallels between the women: their questing, intelligent minds, their unfulfilled love lives, their strong sense of self and disregard for authority, especially male imposition. Complimenting the story are other Jewish women, not side figures who are poorly written, but memorable women with their own personal ambitions, histories, desires and limitations due to the times into which they were born. For example, stoic Rivka, a survivor of Polish pogroms; flirtatious, wealthy Mary, a confused teenager abandoned by her father, whose adventures lead her to danger, Ester’s Portuguese mother whose discussions regarding love are perplexing confidences to the developing Ester. All women have deep connections to Judaism: of what is written, allowed and forbidden.
The Inquisition has damned Jews in Europe and, depending on the particular King who sits on the throne in England, Jewish lives are accepted, ruined or made miserable. In all cases, anti-Semitism is promoted. In one shocking scene in the novel, in order to save their lives, the “ Jewesses” Ester, Rivka and Mary, must turn over Mary’s family house and its contents to the Church, rather than be put to death by a mob pelting windows with excrement and stones.
Even the Jewish men in the story are multidimensional – from Aaron Levy, an American doctoral candidate who works with Helen in the rare manuscripts department to blinded Rabbi HaCoen Mendes who encourages Ester as his scribe and confesses that she is one of the two brightest pupils he has ever taught: the other being the excommunicated Spinoza. HaCoen Mendes regrets the role he has played in Ester’s life, accepting guilt on his deathbed that he encouraged her studies, allowing her to be his scribe when her brother could not – particularly in a time when women’s learning was not tolerated. Ester, distressed by betraying Mendes’s trust through her dalliance in correspondences, tells herself she would not have changed a thing.
To confound the notion of love and loyalty, is Alvaro HaLevy, whose father signs him up for the life of a sailor, and Mary’s lover, Thomas Farrow, ribald actor and disgraced son who refuses responsibility in regards to his deeds. Laced throughout are troubling writings considered heretical, some by the banned Spinoza who equates G-d and nature. For Jews in 1660, to even consider such thoughts, but even worse to put pen to paper to share these speculations, was reason for excommunication, treason and death.
But the protagonist, Ester, is fascinated and troubled, pondering ideologies and ontologies while her female contemporaries plan marriages and provocative dresses. So too, Helen is a serious scholar whose discovery of Ester as author is a breakthrough advance for feminist history.
In her 1988 book “A Poetics of Postmodernism,” Linda Hutcheon refers to books like this as “historiographic metafiction.” Such novels display a special awareness of the relationship between history and literature. They combine real events and lives from the past, unconcerned with accuracy. Kadish uses the Plague and the Great Fire of London along with real documented facts and attitudes held by the English towards Jews, even situating Ester and Mary at a play that resembles Sir George Etherege’s “The Comical Revenge: or, Love in the Tub” (1664). Her protagonist Ester is a creation, her relationships fictional, yet Ester is the readers’ gateway that brings insight and awareness into lives lived by Jews at the time, but especially of Jewish women.