The Cabalist’s Daughter – A New Novel

Check it out here.

Here’s my Q&A with Yori Yanover via email:

* Why did you write this book?

Since I read the first in the Douglas Adams’s "Hitchhiker Guide to the Galaxy" series, I knew I wanted to do to Yiddishkeit what he had done to Physics and Philosophy. I’ve been a Sabbath Observer since 1983, and in all those years my take on Jewish tradition has always been enriched by my other cultural experiences. Moreover, it has always been way different from the way my friends in yeshiva or shul see Yiddishkeit. I wanted to show our tradition as this cultural vortex that sucks in values in all aspects of art and the sciences from everybody, and somehow makes it authentically Jewish. That’s what I wanted my readers to walk away with. The rest is pretext.

* How much was this book influenced by your experience of the last two years of the rebbe?

The bulk of what I know about the Rebbe and the movement from my personal involvement, first as outsider journalist researching Dancing and Crying (1994), then as editor for the Lubavitch News Service (1998-2000) — was invested in the bits of the book that describe the Cosmic Wisdomniks. The part where Nechama interviews her father is a near-verbatum pluck from an interview I conducted over three days with one of the movement’s strong men. The stroke scene is based on an interview with Yudel Krinsky, who was with the Rebbe that afternoon. Except that in The Cabalist’s Daughter I opened up the plot, to make the Rebbe’s stroke and dying intentional, to fool God and His dark aspect.

* Why did you dedicate it to her Hershy Worch and how has he influenced you?

Hershy really taught me everything I know about Sod. His understanding of Cabala is the simplest and most exciting that I have known. Usually, when you attempt to tackle Jewish mysticism, you run into graphs and diagrams and numerologies, which are all barriers hiding the real thing from the reader. Hershy’s take is almost always psychological and spiritual, depicting the real-life applications of cabalistic ideas. I read Kaplan’s work on Sefer Yetzira and I fall asleep. I read Hershy and I’m thrilled, time and again. I’ve known him for 18 years now, and I continue to learn his Torah.

* Was there any particular emotional state that helped you do your best work in this book? If so, how was it achieved? Did alcohol or drugs assist or hinder this novel?

The last time I did drugs was in 1975. I almost never drink when it’s not Shabbat or holiday. My fantasies start with staring at a page of gemorah and getting a charge from the uninhibited imagination and language of our rabbis. All you have to do is get in synch with them, the stuff just keeps flying. Likewise with some passages of the Zohar. Even the straight Chumash is packed with fantastic ideas. We just read about the children of God coming down to grab the daughters of Man — I mean, this stuff drives your imagination bonkers, doesn’t it? All you need to do is fantasize…

* Did you have any literary influences on this work?

I mentioned Douglas Adams. He charted the way, in structure, pace, daring. Otherwise I can’t point to a specific influence, except to say that my taste in everyday reading is really trashy, mostly detective novels, hard Sci Fi, and Alternate History. I don’t believe I was channeling Dostoyevsky in this one.

* Did you feel any psychic satisfaction that you were settling scores by writing this?

Here and there, yes. There was one passage which my editor, Eve Yudelson, cut out, saying it was too mean. It had to do with an ex-Cosmic Wisdom rabbi who is caught with two goy toys. He was supposed to be the Lazarus character, but Eve vetoed him.  There’s certainly some score settling with some influential Lubavitchers, but I must say it was not done for the sake of settling scores — that was merely a side benefit. Like the rich guy who runs kosher cancer hospices, or the 8th Cabalist Master — they’re all based on real people and I found them especially inviting to be used as fictional characters. Same with the Master’s secretary who is dying in the bunker in Crown Heights.

* Did writing this make you happy or sad?

Neither. It transports me to a place that is about turning dreams into text. I’m almost always silent when I write, I rarely listen to music. I write in short, frequent spurts. I break to play solitaire or backgammon, then dive back into the writing.

* How was the experience of writing this novel different from your other writing experiences?

The first version was terrible. It was mostly a set of friezes over which I planted my ideas. It took one year to write, through most of 2003. Since then it has been re-written 4 times, getting tighter and fuller each time. The most significant plot tightening was done in collaboration with Larry Yudelson by his wife’s family’s pool out in the Hamptons (not the super rich Hamptons, though). The book presents a problem in editing, namely, it’s half plot and half midrashic fun that supports the plot. Larry forced me to bring most of the midrashic stuff and the history to Book 1, which coveres the first 20 years after the death of the Master from Brooklyn; and the bulk of the mssianic resolution we brought into Book 2, which covers the final 2 days. Then Eve had to polish it down for the inevitable inconsistencies such a massive edit created. So I spend about a week with Larry, then about six months with Eve, solving plot problems over email. Many chapters were born as answers to plot issues that were caused by the edit.

* Do you think in Hebrew or English? Are you more adept at writing in English or Hebrew? How does your thinking change when you are in Hebrew as opposed to English?

I write faster in English and read faster in Hebrew. I’m sure the very fact that ideas are generated in one language or another forces many stylistic differences. All the references, all the cultural subtexts ride on the choice of language. But I’ve done a lot of professional translation work and by now I think the differences might be more subtle in my own writing. Although my wife still picks up on Hebrewisms in my work.

I hate it when people, mostly religious US Jews, pepper their English with Hebrew words for which there are excellent, accurate words in English. It’s born by some notion of being a subculture, but, really, it’s stylistically boorish. I love writing monograms on Jewish law for our local LES message board, and I avoid like the plague writing in Boro Parkese, first out of respect to non-Jews and non-Orthodox, and second because an educated person should strive for stylistic consistency. But that’s just my pet peeve (I have an entire kennel of them).

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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