For the first 12 years of her life, Pearl Abraham moved between the Hasidic communities of New York and Jerusalem, living two years here, a year there, alternating schools, studying first in Yiddish, then in English, and then again in Yiddish. As an adult she would come to understand that her personal linguistics had undergone a major shift when the characters in her dreams—people who would normally speak Yiddish in real life—began to speak in English.
Abraham’s first novel, The Romance Reader, shows us into the insular Hasidic world—a complex and little-understood society—through the eyes of a contemporary young woman, Rachel Benjamin. Rachel’s first entry into the wider secular realm with its freedoms and desires is through surreptitiously reading the novels of Barbara Cartland, Victoria Holt, and others. Elegant and understated, The Romance Reader is an accomplished literary feat, in which Abraham renders Yiddish rhythms and culture without the dissonance one sometimes finds in writing about the immigrant experience, where the English language becomes alien and obtrusive.
In Giving Up America, Abraham’s second novel, a young woman from a Hasidic family falls in love and marries a non-Hasidic, orthodox man against her father’s dire predictions based on Kabbalistic calculations of the engaged couple’s names, Deena and Daniel. In this ancient mystical system, letters and their corresponding mathematical equivalents are the secret underpinnings of the universe. They contain the seeds of creation and even the forces of destruction. Indeed, the marriage will eventually fall apart under the weight of conflicting means of faith and Daniel’s unexpected betrayal of his wife.
Abraham understands an unchanging truth: it is upon letters and language that the greatest of human creativity is founded—and may founder. This is especially so in Abraham’s latest work, The Seventh Beggar—a novel of stunning ideas and range, and delicious storytelling. Set in modern times, this novel finds its center in the tales of the 18th-century Hasidic master, mystic and storyteller Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. For Nachman the tales served as a garbed instrument for teaching his disciples about cosmic mysteries, messianism, the relationship between man and God, and transcendence. Scholars consider Nachman to be the first modern Yiddish writer, and indeed the Yiddish writers who followed—Scholem Aleichem, Der Nister, I. L. Peretz and others—read, responded to and parodied Nachman’s work. The complicated interweaving of myth, mysticism, folklore and theology in Nachman’s tales identify them as modernist in impulse, and strands of his literary DNA are discernible in the work of later masters including Franz Kafka, Italo Calvino, and Jorge Luis Borges.
In The Seventh Beggar, the first of two central characters, young Joel Jakob, becomes fatally obsessed with meditative Kabbalistic thought and its powerful subtexts of creative power and sexuality. Midway through, the novel shifts to his nephew, JakobJoel, a student at MIT, and with him to a world of computer science and artificial intelligence, the latest in man’s attempt to imitate divine work. Using the form of the novel in its most expansive capacities, Abraham investigates the potential and limitations of human creativity. With wisdom and often delight, she lays the world before us in the only way we might truly know it, somewhere in the borderland of dream, storytelling, and madness.
Aryeh Lev Stollman The Seventh Beggar begins with a central character, Joel Jakob, who dies midway through the novel. Another central character takes over, his nephew JakobJoel, born after his uncle’s death. This is a very daring move, I think, and succeeds wonderfully. Would you talk about how this idea came to you? Are there literary antecedents for this? Did you worry about it?
Pearl Abraham I’ve been trying to think of the novels in which this happens and the only one I’ve turned up so far, though I’m quite certain there are others, is Wuthering Heights; Cathy dies. I read the book when I was about 15, so I can’t talk about it in great detail. But the other corresponding detail that’s of interest, is that one of the dead, not Cathy, haunts the house, the characters, the book. And Wuthering Heights belongs, of course, to the Romantic tradition in literature.
ALS The work of the Hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, which inspires The Seventh Beggar, seems related to the Romantic tradition as well.
PA Yes, Nachman’s work also can be said to come out of that tradition. In her dissertation, Tradition and Fantasy in the Tales of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, Ora Wiskind-Elper reads Nachman’s tales as “romantic dramas” complete with all the stages—separation, loneliness, search and reunion—the “romantic quest.” Wiskind-Elper and others before her have made the case that the Hasidic movement itself is part of the Romantic tradition, coming as it does in reaction to the Haskalah or the Enlightenment, in much the same way European romantic theory came as a response to the Age of Reason. Have you read Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower?
ALS Yes. I loved it.
PA I mention it because it’s based on the life story of the poet and thinker Novalis, who defined the word Romantiker, which was then coined for literary theory, as a person who experiences life poetically, as romance, and who creates a literary expression of the experience. I bring up Novalis and The Blue Flower because Sophie, the girl with whom the poet falls in love, dies in the story, and this is formative in the poet’s life. So that’s another example of a character dying within a novel. Novalis, indeed Nachman too, later died of tuberculosis, common in the late 18th century.
When I first wrote Joel’s death, it seemed so inevitable I didn’t think about it in any way except that it was right. Then my editor Cindy Spiegel read the first 80 pages and pointed out that it was a huge risk—later I learned that it was a risk she applauded—which made me question the wisdom of killing off a character with whom the reader has engaged so early in the book. I went back and tried to keep him alive, but it didn’t help the book or the forward momentum or anything. And it didn’t allow me to proceed with the story as I wanted to, so I returned to the original draft.
ALS The narrator of The Seventh Beggar frequently shifts from distant third person to one who engages with the reader more directly. Can you talk about this?
PA What an intrusive narrator does, in essence, is yank the reader out of the fictional dream—this breaks one of the rules of graduate workshops in fiction writing. Of course whenever there are confining rules, and usually they’re helpful on some level, they’re also there to break. But a narrator that addresses the reader isn’t a new feature of fiction; it’s a throwback. In the 18th- and 19th-century English novel—think of Thackeray, Trollope, Fielding, Laurence Stern—it was quite common to come across a sentence addressed to the “Dear Reader,” in which the narrator cozies up to the reader and leads her by the hand, so to speak. I never minded the intrusions; I love Fielding’s narratorial asides in Tom Jones, which are very funny. It’s only in the 20th-century modern novel that the chatty narrator was banished. And I agree an intrusive narrator is rather old-fashioned, at least the way it was done in the past. But there have been other approaches: for example Joseph Conrad’s Marlow, who acts as a narrator-agent for the writer. As soon as you begin writing from a particular angle of vision, that point of view becomes your agent. But there are more and less conspicuous narrators. And many books depend on the intrusive, guiding narrative voice; Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler couldn’t live without the prominence of the narrator.
ALS Robert Alter says in his introduction to his new translation, The Five Books of Moses, which you recently reviewed for the Forward, that the Torah is a “manifestly composite construction, but there is abundant evidence throughout the Hebrew Bible that composite work was fundamental to the very conception of what literature was, that a process akin to collage was assumed to be one of the chief ways in which literary texts were put together.” I sense that your novel recapitulates this method of collage in some ways, that you had the intention to emulate it. The Seventh Beggar has the illusion of a composite narrative, which enriches the experience of reading the novel. Comments?
PA One of the themes of The Seventh Beggar is the Creation, hence the echoes of Genesis. And, even about the creation of the world, God’s work, so to speak, the Kabbalists speculated about whether and /or how much God collaborated with the angels in this task. It’s possible to think of the creation of humans as composites of sorts since in order to make Adam, dirt had to be created, and to make Eve, Adam’s rib was used. If you believe in primordial man, someone pre-Adam and an earlier version of Eve, Lilith, then surely Adam and Eve were based also on the first experiments, and so on, each part acting as a building block for the next.
One of the reasons The Seventh Beggar isn’t a historical novel is that I got excited about the mix of old and new, the use of disparate sources, both Jewish and not, that informed the writing of this book. The mix felt right, modern, dynamic, a way to create something new, in other words to truly create. And indeed the energy of the most creative work in history—the Five Books is one example, the Zohar is another—seems to come from a kind of combinatorics. In the history of the Jews, the most important works came out of communities that weren’t isolated, and from individuals who were multi-faceted. The Spanish Sephardic poets studied music, medicine and mathematics, and engaged with local philosophies and culture. Nachman didn’t write his tales in a vacuum. He read Ukrainian folk tales, studied and debated the ideas of the Enlightenment, as well as philosophies foreign to the Hasidic world, and also brought to bear on the stories his knowledge of the Kabbalah, of its cosmic ideas. You can also trace the opposite, a downturn in creativity when a community or a people grow too insular. The Hasidic community became less original and less creative as it turned more inward. That’s been changing in recent times in America and I believe we will be seeing the results.
ALS You grew up the third of nine children. That is an experience foreign to many Americans, though of course not all. How did that influence you as a writer?
PA One of the advantages of a large family is the constant back and forth, the give and take, both in conversation and in daily life. The dynamic of this lends itself to a creativity that’s attuned to the give and take, that responds, and the multiple responses end up informing the composition or the decision, or whatever it is that’s taking form.
For example, when I was writing the Winterfox section of The Seventh Beggar, I wanted to use a legend I remembered; in the novel it’s titled the Tale of the Wife of Ben Dosa, but I couldn’t recall it precisely. I placed a call to my brother Chaim; he wasn’t at home. So I called my sister Miriam, and she related the story as she remembered it, and she was quite confident in her version, though I questioned it because it differed a great deal from what I remembered. Then my brother returned my call and related a different scenario. So now I had two versions, and though I was quite certain that my brother’s was the correct one—he’s immersed in the material—I remained fascinated by the spin in my sister’s version, which made the women in it come off in a more positive light. In any case, this notion of variation seemed so in keeping with the rest of the novel, I decided to feature both versions, then wrote a third. Of course the third is a real descent, since it takes the grandeur of the legend and strips it. I won’t give it all away, but the point is that this was indeed composite work and I felt that I was playing a role similar to the biblical Redactor’s, and it was enormous fun.
ALS How were you educated, early and late? What were the influences in your early education that affected your writing?
PA I was fortunate, in most ways, to have grown up at a time when my family lived in a community that didn’t have Hasidic schools. This meant that I attended an orthodox yeshiva school—we called it Litvish, which means it’s from the Lithuanian non-Hasidic tradition—that taught girls the texts and commentaries in their original languages. Satmar Hasidic schools don’t teach or encourage girls to read and learn biblical Hebrew or Aramaic. When I was in the tenth grade, the school hired a new teacher, a young newly married woman who had graduated from one of the better Hebrew seminaries for women, and she taught us Genesis, complete with the commentaries that discussed and debated various philosophies.
This was the first time I was required to consider profound ideas and questions, the meaning of tohu vavohu—Alter translates it as welter and waste, the possibility of what existed before creation, perhaps before God. I loved that class, loved reading the commentaries, and this was a surprise for me because previously I’d loved only my English literature classes. Thinking back to that time, I’m not at all certain that Genesis was as popular with the other students, but for some reason it was for me the right text at the right time, and I’ve loved Genesis ever since. When Aharon Appelfeld came to NYU for a semester and taught it as a novel in a craft of fiction course, I delayed my graduation in order to attend.
ALS Tell me about your later education.
PA At Hunter College, I took foundation classes in Western Civilization, where we read the Iliad and the Odyssey—Harold Bloom considers them the Greek bible. And I took classes in Chaucer, Shakespeare, the Age of Satire, Greek and Latin roots. It was at Hunter’s library that I read for the first time parts of the New Testament—coming as I did from the Hasidic world, it was amazing to find myself holding and reading the book; at the time I thought of it as my gravest sin. These classes at Hunter turned out to be the perfect way to open up or continue my education in the Hebrew bible, the foundation of literature. So although I think of my education as spotty, which it was, at Hunter, I was, if not informed of, at least introduced to, much of literature. And I think of myself now as an autodidact. I’ve learned the most, or I’ve learned how to put it all together, on my own, just reading.
ALS We both grew up in very orthodox worlds that to the outsider might seem the same. I grew up in a non-Hasidic orthodox yeshiva world. But you grew up in a Hasidic world, which is somewhat alien to the non-Hasidic orthodoxy that I was raised in. I sometimes think of them as almost anti-matter worlds, worlds that combust when they encounter each other, though that is a gross exaggeration. Originally they were at great odds with each other sometimes with violent overtones. They each have different philosophical underpinnings though both are based on adherence to the laws of the Torah and a belief in the divine nature of the Torah.
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, a Hasidic figure, plays an important role in your novel. Would you talk about why you chose him, on the differences between Hasidism and standard yeshiva orthodoxy, how these differences might influence one’s religious thinking, and what might be the literary implications of these differences? I think also that maybe one of the alien things to the yeshiva orthodox is the idea of the Rebbe, maybe you could say something briefly about the role and concept of the Rebbe in Hasidic life since I’m sure I have misconceptions.
PA To characterize the difference(s) between Hasidim and Yeshiva Orthodox, perhaps it’s most useful to begin the traditional way, quoting from the Shema, the prayer derived from verses of the Pentateuch, which directs every Jew to both love and fear God. Well, it has been said that the Hasidim err on one side, they love God, and this, amazingly enough, despite all the terrible things He’s done or allowed to happen, more than they fear Him; the orthodox fear Him more than they love him.
There are also the standard ideas about their differences that have become stereotypes, and probably at one time there was some truth to them. Some of these ideas are that Hasidim are more mystically inclined and irrational, not as strict about law, nor as rigorous in scholarship. Do you agree with these characterizations?
ALS Only partly, in a broad sense that is sometimes how the groups see each other, but I think the boundaries are certainly blurred.
PA Yes, it should be said that the milieus we are both referencing really existed some 20 years ago, when we lived in them. Even then there were no longer such marked distinctions as there were say one hundred years ago. The two worlds have come closer, Hasidic boys are now sent to yeshiva orthodox schools, it probably still doesn’t work the other way around; there’s even some intermarriage now.
When Hasidism first became established, one criticism of the movement had to do with the role of the rebbe, who offered miracle cures, amulets, and advice on every aspect of life. Hasidim venerated and believed in these rebbes in a way that was previously unknown to Judaism. Only perhaps the Pope was similarly revered. Indeed, it might be of interest here to say that Christianity picked up the mystical, ascetic trends of ancient Israel and established a religion based largely in that. As it happens, Hasidism also refers back to an older mysticism, and perhaps there is some foundational similarity. The problem is that the mystical life opens one up to a certain solipsism that the yeshiva orthodox finds objectionable. It’s an interesting dialectic, though: a religious people, whose faith requires a belief in mystery and miracle, then counters that mystery by remaining as rational as possible in every other aspect of their lives, in their scholarship, their interpretation of the law, and so on.
And it’s also of interest that Nachman, great grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov (also called by the acronym BeSHT), founder of Hasidism, criticized the miracle rebbes and refused his disciples such easy comforts. He wanted to take Hasidism back to its original aspirations and he went at it with an ascetic discipline that was rare in Hasidism at that time. Nachman was born in 1772 and died in 1810. The BeSHT is thought to have lived around 1700 to 1760.
But Nachman is known to have experienced extreme emotional states—today he’d probably be categorized as manic. He was, at his best, exuberant and self-delighted, these were his most creative times, or he was in a dark depression. During his exuberant moments, he spoke of himself in grand ways that would turn off most people.
ALS I have a good example, quoted in your book: “Never has there been such a novelty as I.” He could be quite outrageous!
PA Yes. Interestingly, in these outrageous phases he seems to resemble every messianic figure in history. Shabbetai Zvi, Jesus Christ, Joseph Frank, Joseph Smith—I don’t especially want to honor Sun Myung Moon by including him—they all seem to follow distinctive patterns, as if they studied a book titled how to become the next messiah figure.
Significantly, though, and this can’t be said of all of them, Nachman left behind a body of work that’s still read and studied today. You could say that to some extent for Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith, as well. Jesus Christ’s aphorisms and Nachman’s tales come to us from an oral tradition; in other words, their disciples wrote or quoted what they remembered, therefore much of it has to be thought of as ideas that have been weighed and interpreted.
ALS In your first two novels, the main characters, Rachel in The Romance Reader and Deena in Giving Up America, move from the insular Hasidic world to the wider, outside world. There seems to be a need to understand one’s place in the outside “infinite” universe, and also, I think, to explore sexual desire and love. One senses that you have traveled a similar path in your personal life. In The Seventh Beggar, the direction of the characters has shifted and this search for greater understanding has returned to the more esoteric sources of Hasidism. Interestingly, these sources contain within them a kind of infinity, or at least the illusion of one, and the sexual component is there as well, in the work of Nachman of Bratslav, for instance. Of course, I don’t want to oversimplify; the book also explores cutting-edge science, especially computer science, among other things, but I want to ask, was there a shift in your personal life that mirrors the one that takes place between these books?
PA You can draw some parallel lines between the books and my personal life, though the books seem to me always years behind. In other words, I had come a lot farther by the time I wrote those books. The Seventh Beggar, which had a longer gestation period than Giving Up America, for instance, began with a realization that I could learn more about who I am by studying where I came from. But this understanding arrived while I was reading and studying secular literature, not Hasidic tales. Which means I had to step outside before I could see inside.
But even when research isn’t required, the writing of a book is a learning experience for me. The books begin with an urge to know and the process takes me into deeper study. With The Seventh Beggar I also wanted to do more with form and structure, which I did to some extent in the earlier books. In The Romance Reader, I parody the romance novel—the book is punctuated by these flights. The Seventh Beggar explores the fairy tale, legend, personal histories, as well as oral forms of entertainment, like the badkhn’s or wedding jester’s rhymes, and finally storytelling in general, and all this informs and complicates the structure of the novel itself.
ALS The literary sources your characters seek also differ between the books. In The Romance Reader, Rachel reads Barbara Cartland and Victoria Holt; in The Seventh Beggar Joel reads the tales of Rabbi Nachman. Do these kinds of literature have something in common, or do you see them as fundamentally different?
PA If I have to consider how the literatures that inspire the two novels are similar I might say that the lure of both the romance novel and the tales of Nachman—I’m wondering how they got to be in the same sentence—for the protagonists in both books, is the holy grail of becoming. Of course, the promise of the romance novel, which is love, if I may be an anti-romantic for a moment, is a lightweight illusion. Nachman’s tales hold out far more, a kind of cosmic redemptive wisdom, I think, even if it’s also in the end unattainable. And then I have Deena of Giving Up America, a book inspired by Miracle at Philadelphia, which is a book about America’s “becoming.” Of course the gender of my protagonists determines the literature they have access to, and therefore their aspirations. The limitations Hasidism places on the education of women leaves Rachel, and perhaps you could say this of Deena as well, with lesser sources.
ALS When I first talked to Betsy Sussler, the editor of BOMB, about your novel, and the fact that it includes a translation of Nachman’s tale “The Seven Beggars,” one of the things she said was, “This sounds so fascinating; I’ve been wanting to read folktales from the Hasidim that haven’t been sanitized by Buber.” Do you think it is true that Buber sanitized the folktales, that there is something missing from his work on this? Do you know how he approached Nachman? Is this the way you approach Nachman?
PA I read Buber’s translation of several of Nachman’s tales early in my research, but I read it in an English translation, so whatever I say of his work is not entirely reliable. I do know that his work in his time provoked interest in the Hasidim and their literature; many readers know the tales only because of Buber, so he performed an important service. And I’m not sure I’d use the word sanitized, but it is true that Buber’s translation, at least in the English translation I read, doesn’t capture the colorful and spoken, therefore sub-literary, Ukrainian Yiddish. His German probably sought to make the texts palatable to literary Germans. Furthermore, as I remember it, he summarized the tales, or shortened them and didn’t translate all of them in any case. I found Arnold Band’s translation, which has an ear for the Yiddish, and is also informed by the Hebrew version of the tales, so good, it made my own translation, which I had started, unnecessary.
ALS Your portrayal of fathers is very intriguing. These are caring, thoughtful men, with flaws of course, but essentially loving and thoughtful. Reb Moshele, in The Seventh Beggar, though worried, gives his son Joel room to explore his esoteric interests. His daughter Ada is literally given space—she is given her parents’ bedroom, the largest in the house—to set up her own clothing design business for Hasidic women even though this freedom sets some tongues wagging in the community. (By the way, it’s refreshing not to have abusive parents in a novel.)
PA I try to show the fathers in all their aspects, that is, to make round characters. Even in The Romance Reader, I believe, both parents reveal their kind sides alongside their harsher ones. They believe in a way of life, that this is the way toward happiness, and wanting happiness for one’s children is a sign of love. But I agree with you that the fathers in my books are very sympathetic characters, and it may have something to do with my relationship with my father—not that it was ever ideal or perfect—we’re both human—but at difficult times my father made some noble decisions and I’ve come to admire these. He remained in my life at a time when I was bent on leaving my past behind; this wasn’t easy; it required a sustained effort that spanned more than a decade. For example, while I was at Hunter College, he proposed a study session with me at the library, as a way to balance so much secular study with something religious. We never agreed on the text, therefore it never happened. I wanted him to teach me Talmud; he insisted on the Tanya, which is a philosophical book by the old Lubavitcher rebbe. My father had a morning session of Tanya with a friend of his at the time, and wanted to share it with me. He must have thought it would be good for me. To this day, our conversations are odd. When I called from the car last week, and this was on a cell phone with wavering reception, he simply sang a post Sabbath song and asked whether I remembered it. And I didn’t stop him or point out that I could hardly hear him.
ALS In The Seventh Beggar you explore in detail the current situation with artificial intelligence. Young JakobJoel leaves the Hasidic community to attend MIT and studies robotics. He becomes involved with a robot being developed, Cog. It is surprising to me to realize how distant—despite movies and exaggeration in the media—we are from an artificial intelligence that really mimics human intelligence. You say “the human and the computer were of a different species, moving in separate evolutionary paths that would never converge. Communion between members of different species was near impossible. In fiction, however, these limitations could be transcended.” What role do human attempts to create an artificial intelligence have in this fictional work? Aside from man’s attempts to create and imitate God, which I do want you to discuss, is there any philosophical implication to the type of intelligence advanced computers in our time have or the relationship of computers to the whole notion of storytelling and narrative?
PA The Seventh Beggar seeks to understand the mystery of creation, call it talent, the muse, or the heightened mystical moments in which inspiration flows. The book begins with Joel’s attempt to know Nachman, and to understand how he made the tales. For someone who has never experienced the act of creation it’s truly filled with mystery. I can remember myself in early stages, when I’d sit down to write, but couldn’t because my mind wasn’t quiet enough for sustained concentration. We call it drawing a blank, but I think what we really mean is that the mind is too cluttered, not blank enough, that there’s no room for creation. The difficulty is that when you’re in that early stage, you don’t quite understand what’s missing.
Joel’s meditative exercises, taken from a 10th century Kabbalistic work, Sefer Yetzirah—The Book of Creation—are intended to clear the mind and make room for the sustained concentration necessary for creation. This begs the question: Is God’s omnipotent capacity then based in an ability to concentrate deeper and harder than any human?
And then one might ask why the digital creation of intelligence is called artificial? In other words, if God’s creation is made with Hebrew letters, what makes it less artificial than the zeroes and ones used in digital creation? Is it because God has gone farther, achieved more, succeeded, so to speak, that we call it human intelligence rather than artificial? This would mean that if ever humans manage something greater than the artificial intelligences we’ve come up with so far, could it rival God’s creation?
These are all open questions and I don’t see artificial intelligence approaching anything near human intelligence, but if ever we do succeed, will that make us Gods? According to various mystics, humans indeed have the capacity to be Gods. What makes advanced computer technology fascinating is that it furnishes us with inhuman power, which seems to give us a chance at omnipotence, though so far it’s a limited one.
ALS It seems to me that for the human mind, the distinction between dream, storytelling, and reality is often blurred or perhaps one should say all these things overlap and feed each other. What do you think? Your novel seems to deal with this notion or situation. In a way it’s a little scary to me because the border between all this and madness seems very flimsy! This seems to me what has happened to Joel and may be happening to his nephew JakobJoel at MIT.
PA Storytelling seems to combine dream and reality and intuition, and when the combination or proportion of all three are just right, the story might enter the prophetic mode. You could describe this as a disruption of regular rational thought, which means it might indeed enter the zone of madness. Prophets were always considered disturbed and indeed if you read the biblical prophets, their behavior was always suspect. What is said to take place in prophecy is that the intuitive is allowed prominence over other aspects of the mind, and intuition is largely irrational. It relies on dream, and dream though influenced to an extent by reality, does new things, makes unexpected combinations, which is creative.
Perhaps it’s our fear of insanity that makes us draw away from the irrational, but what if crossing these lines, allowing more mystery into our lives—and this seems to be what the ancients believed since they sometimes listened to their prophets, or so the story goes—is really what makes us more intuitive, prophetic, wise.