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Micah Reader in September 2018 by Brenda Levenson
Published in 2017, The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish is a fascinating novel that drew a diversity of comments based on its intellectual level. It is “pure fiction” the author tells us, with the exception of well known figures of the 17th century such as Spinoza, Rabbi HaCoen Mendès and Menasseh ben Israel
.In the process of restoring their 17th century house in Richmond, England, the owners employ an electrician who discovers a stack of old documents hidden under the stairs. The auction house of Sotheby’s shows interest in buying the evidently ancient manuscripts, but not before finding out what they are. When it is determined that Hebrew and Portuguese are the languages used, Helen Watt, a non-Jewish historian who specializes in Jewish history, is hired to study them, a task for which she enlists the help of Aaron Levy, an American graduate student who is proficient in both languages and will collaborate with Helen in translating the papers, for the purchase of which Sotheby’s has put a time frame, adding a measure of suspense to the story which at times reads almost like a detective novel, to quote some of our readers.
The chapters alternate between two stories which are “interwoven in parallel,” switching between the present time in London where Helen and Aaron work together, and the 17th century in Amsterdam where the documents, which deal with the Torah and the Talmud, are dictated by the blind Rabbi HaCohen Mendès to a scribe who goes by the name “Aleph.” but whose surprising identity Helen discovers as having been a woman, barely plausible at the time, by the name of Ester Velasquez. Her life and that of Helen Watt add to the parallels mentioned above.
Our readers unanimously agreed upon the historic interest of the novel. Following the Inquisition in Spain, many of the survivors found refuge in Holland. As part of the Hapsburg empire ruling from Vienna, Spain had occupied the Netherlands until the middle of the 17th century. Thus, Holland’s hospitality to Sephardic Jews should be seen as a challenge to the former occupant. Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel’s meeting with Oliver Cromwell is factual. The rabbi’s request to allow the return of the Jews to England raises questions that have remained unanswered, given that Jews were either killed or expelled from England in 1290, two centuries before the Spanish Inquisition. Both Holland and England were republics of sorts. The civil war in England that pitted Cromwell’s forces against the royal army of Charles I, resulted in the latter’s beheading and of Cromwell assuming the title of Protector of the Commonwealth of England. The two countries had long competed with each other in the maritime trade.
Our readers spoke of the “intellectual ferment of the times” and of the “scholarship and the tremendous amount of research” the story reflects. Many of our readers, but not all, thought that the book was well written and “well structured.” Kadish was found to “raise issues that were relevant then and are relevant today, such as homosexuality,” the inequality of women and more. The Weight of Ink is a rich piece of literature, both historically and philosophically. A great way to start a new season of reading.