“The Ruined House” – A Collision Between Traditional and Contemporary Jewish Life

A Sapir Prize-winning novel, The Ruined House, by Jerusalem-born Ruby Namdar, is a highly imaginative and illuminating portrayal of the struggle between the spiritual and corporeal domains of mankind. It tells the story of two houses: the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, host to the soul of a people, and Andrew P. Cohen, host to the soul of a man. Both houses flourished, until outside forces and inner flaws laid siege to their protective walls leaving them lying in ruins.

The main character, Andrew P. Cohen, professor of comparative culture at New York University, is the archetypical academic. Scholarly and urbane, he was on an ascendant trajectory to the pinnacle of academia’s ivory tower when suddenly he fell from grace — a fallen angel. The ramparts of his secular New York Jewish fortress were breached, and his academic temple vanquished. Defeated and deflated, his paradise lost, only the fading shadow of his once successful career remained, along with the tormenting question: will he be able to return to his heretofore idyllic life?

The name Cohen is not the only remnant that evokes his priestly heritage. Dreams and hallucinations are his gateway to recurring visions of candelabras, sacrificial animals, purification waters, rising smoke, incense, pyres and collecting pans. All are metaphoric vessels carrying his psyche back to a time before his time. Although he delights in the freedoms secular life offers, he remains tethered to the memories and rituals of his ancient priestly ancestors.

His is a story of struggles that are as contemporary as they are ancient. Replicas of Talmudic-style text and commentaries such as “Mishna Yoma” (laws for Yom Kippur) and the Babylonian Talmud are interspersed throughout the book, adding an air of academic gravitas to Cohen’s search for meaning beyond his clichéd world of academia.

Namdar has lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for many years. He wrote the book in Hebrew, spending about a decade on the project. Now that it has been translated into English, his American-born wife is finally able to read her husband’s work.

Namdar’s artistic prose is imprinted on every page as he explores age-old recurring themes: sin, expiation, ruin and renewal. “The Ruined House” should not be read casually because the story presents thought-provoking perspectives of time-honored traditions and their place in today’s world.

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