While it’s not uncommon for novels to offer wisdom about life’s absurdities, few manage to do so while being laugh-out-loud funny. That’s what makes two new tales of woe and apocalypse, "Isaac’s Torah: Concerning the Life of Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld Through Two World Wars, Three Concentration Camps, and Five Motherlands" by Angel Wagenstein (Handsel Books) and "The Cabalist’s Daughter: A Novel of Practical Messianic Redemption" by Yori Yanover (Ben Yehuda Press), so much fun to read. My first impulse is to fill this review with quotations from both works to show just how wonderful their dark humor is, but that wouldn’t do justice to the complex and interesting plots they also contain.
While the events of "Isaac’s Torah" are loosely based on history, the same cannot be said for those portrayed in Yanover’s "The Cabalist’s Daughter." This offbeat look at contemporary messianic redemption and the end of the world starts slowly, but gathers steam as Nechama Gutkind leaves her adopted parents’ house in order to facilitate the beginning of the messianic age. On her side is a 130-year-old master kabbalist, Rabbi Lionel Abulafia, who has written "The Cabalist’s Handbook of Practical Messianic Redemption," which offers a humorous, and at times almost-fall-off-your-chair funny, look at how God created and developed the world. Against her is Samael, otherwise known as Satan, who is, as in traditional Jewish lore, an angel doing God’s bidding, even if his actions seem evil to humans. Samael has set in motion a plan to destroy the universe in order to return it to the wholeness that existed before creation. Nechama seeks to redeem humankind before his plan succeeds.
While the plot in the second half moves quickly and creates a great deal of suspense, my favorite parts are the work’s strange and wonderful theological discourses. For example, Abulafia writes that "some scholars suggest Creation is the handiwork of a sadistic celestial child, who delights in pulling the wings off butterflies and babies from their mothers’ bosoms. Soon, they surmise, God’s mother will come into the room and smack him, and thus bring an end to our suffering." (This is one of the milder interpretations of celestial behavior offered.) When explaining Abulafia’s interpretation of Samael’s behavior, Yanover notes that the unfortunate angel is only doing his job: Samael "is in charge of destroying the Jews, and so followed orders like a loyal soldier." Even though Jewish prophesies usually predict his defeat, that doesn’t stop him: "If Samael were to take every blasted prophecy seriously, he might have as well closed up shop and concentrated on his real passion, creating crossword puzzles for the New York Times."
Readers should be wary of the novel’s interpretations of Jewish history and mysticism: these sections are funny, but clearly biased. The branch of Judaism Nachama and Abulafia belong to is the Cosmic Wisdom movement, which is loosely based on the Lubavich Chasidic movement. The similarities between the movements include a rabbi who encourages his followers to open Cosmic Wisdom Houses across the world and the debate among members of both communities over whether their late leader is really the messiah.
The craziness featured in "The Cabalist’s Daughter" is closer to that of such works as "Good Omens" by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett and "The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams than it is to more traditional Jewish novels. However, it was a great pleasure to finally read a novel featuring a Jewish theological approach to the apocalypse.
Although Wagenstein and Yanover offer bleak looks at the world and jaded thoughts about the nature of God, their unflagging humor and enthusiasm prevent their novels from becoming depressing. Trying to compare these works is difficult because they each offer something wonderful. "Isaac’s Torah" is the more successful literary work and Wagenstein the better writer. However, for sheer fun and weirdness, "The Cabalist’s Daughter" excels on a scale with which the other novel cannot compete. Fortunately for me, I don’t really have to choose. Both books are welcome additions to my shelf.