Ariel Kahn has written a novel, “Raising sparks”, steeped in Kabbalah, an esoteric and mystically-freighted school of thought within Judaism. It is also a refreshing coming-of-age tale set in contemporary Israel.
Malka is a 16-year-old ingénue, brought up in a loving, ultra-Orthodox family in Jerusalem (whether East Jerusalem or not is not made clear).
The draconian gender divide to which she had been subjected is sensitively portrayed by the author and it seems quite believable that someone could reach Malka’s age without questioning it.
This changes when she meets Moshe, an emigrant with his mother from Russia, who is a gifted student of the religious classes conducted by her father.
There are no unbridled scenes of sexual attraction – although they clearly like each other – and the tumult experienced by Malka occurs inside her head. It is fuelled by their shared interest in Kabbalah and leads to her momentous decision to leave her home.
What follows is her odyssey of self-becoming, first in Safed, the historic centre of Jewish mysticism, and then in secular Tel Aviv.
Mention of Israel’s occupation of Arab land occurs almost one third of the way into the story when Moshe finds a secret orange grove, surrounded by a forest and which he realises must have once belonged to an Arab farmer.
In Tel Aviv, Malka gets to know some Arabs for the first time in her life and Moshe – who is trying to track her down for most of the story – comes to see that the capital is just as segregated as Jerusalem, a division “all the more powerful for being invisible, unspoken”.
Malka makes friends with a gay Arab-Israeli, Mamoud, who paints his motorcycle helmet in the colours of the Palestinian flag. He is stopped by the police ‘but there’s nothing they can do. It’s still legal to carry it here, just about’.
Central to the novel’s story and its appeal is the focus on Kabbalah, a commixture of humanist enlightenment with a mysticism and raised states of consciousness brought about by intense contemplation.
If you’re left wanting to know more about Kabbalah, its origins in the Middle Ages in western Europe, its theoretical and meditative aspects as well as its magical dimension, Brian Lancaster’s “The essence of Kabbalah” beckons. It is a serious account and a far cry from the idea, associated with Madonna’s promotion of Kabballah, that it’s a form of self-help for spiritually-undernourished Westerners. Celebrities and influencers have dumbed-down Jewish mysticism but Lancaster treats it with utmost, though uncritical, respect. He fails to consider similarities between the intense religiosity of Kaballah and that of Sufism in Islam.
Kabbalah as a New Age fad and how it lends itself to exploitation is explored in Raising Sparks when Malka visits Safed and she finds out the hard way that there is no easy path to self-enlightenment.
“Raising sparks”, by Ariel Kahn is published by Bluemoose. “The essence of Kabbalah” by Brian L. Lancaster is published by Arcturus.