The Mystics of Mile End
By Sigal Samuel
Many decades after the fictional Duddy Kravitz served his apprenticeship, the Mile End neighbourhood still looks much the same as it did in Mordecai Richler’s younger days, when the area was the centre of Jewish Montreal. But, while the buildings still have that early-20th century look, the area has changed a lot. By the 1950s, the Jewish community was moving west, and the area became home to successive waves of more recently arrived immigrant communities.
In recent decades, small but highly visible Chassidic communities have re-established a Jewish presence in Mile End (and in nearby Outremont), and the area has become home to musicians, artists, writers and other assorted hipsters. These days, it’s not unusual to encounter hip, young Jews moving into the same neighbourhood flats their grandparents moved away from.
The Mystics of Mile End, the first novel by Sigal Samuel, who grew up in Montreal but now works at the Jewish Daily Forward in New York, is set in that milieu of hipsters and Chasids and centres on members of the Meyer family over a period of more than a decade. The father, David, is a recently widowed professor of Jewish mysticism at McGill University as the story begins. His son, Lev, is 11 years old, and his daughter, Samara, is a year older than her brother.
Among their neighbours are Mr. Katz, a Chassid seemingly suffering from dementia, who is intent on recreating the biblical Tree of Knowledge in his front yard, and Mr. and Mrs. Glassman, elderly Holocaust survivors who only seem to communicate with each other through others.
Lev and Samara attend both public school, which they call “Normal School,” and a supplementary Jewish school they call “Hebrew School.” Mr. Glassman is their Hebrew School teacher.
David, despite his academic focus, is estranged from religious observance. His wife, who died in a traffic accident, had been Orthodox, and author Samuel cloaks the origins of David’s attitude toward religion in ambiguity. Was he naturally a skeptic or was he mad at God for taking his wife? In any case, her death caused him to become withdrawn and distant from his children. Despite the fact she attends Hebrew School, Samara does not tell her father that she will have a bat mitzvah and studies for it secretly.
The book is divided into four sections, and each of the Meyers narrates one section so that the story unfolds and is interpreted from their particular perspectives. We read the first section through the eyes of Lev at age 11. The second section, which takes place 10 years later, is narrated by David. Samara’s section picks up chronologically where David’s ends, while the fourth, concluding section – the only part of the book written in the third-person – unfolds through the lens of the Mile End neighbourhood itself.
Jewish mysticism – particularly as it relates to the Tree of Knowledge and the efforts of each member of the Meyer family to metaphorically climb the tree – is a theme that runs through the book. So, too, are the crises of faith each of them endures. Each, at some point, variously finds, loses and sometimes finds again their own relationship with God, religious practice, personal morality – and even with their own mind.
Death and responses to it are also themes that run through the book. Early in the story, the family is reeling from the sudden, accidental death of their wife and mother. Then, 10 years later, David’s voice narrates his own heart attack, from which he does not recover. Much of the rest of the story turns on Samara and Lev as they deal, very differently, with the death of their father. Finally, in the most poignant passages of the book’s final section, we see Mr. Glassman prepare for the impending death of his wife.
Samuel is an engaging writer and The Mystics of Mile End is an auspicious debut novel that successfully navigates different voices. The plot is carefully and cleverly developed with some of its twists and turns not fully understood until later in the book. I look forward to reading more of her work.