‘The Mystics of Mile End’ Takes You Inside Hasidic Montreal

The Mystics of Mile End, Forward editor Sigal Samuel’s debut novel about a dysfunctional Jewish family, will be published by HarperCollins on October 13. Told from multiple perspectives, the story takes place in an iconic Montreal neighborhood that is home to hipsters and Hasidic Jews. In this excerpt, we see the family and their neighbors through the eyes of 11-year-old Lev Meyer.

On my way home from school, I walked past Mr. Katz’s house. Mr. Katz lived down the block and the reason why his name was Mr. Katz was not because he had lots of cats, it was because he was a Hasidic Jew.

There were lots of Hasidic Jews in Mile End. You could usually see them walking around in long black coats and fur hats, even in summer. When it rained they wore funny-looking plastic bags over their hats that looked like shower caps, probably so the fur didn’t get wet and start smelling.

Mr. Katz was religious like them but he didn’t really act or dress like them. Even though he had the same black pants, his were always wrinkled. Instead of a stiff white button-down shirt, he had a dirty white T-shirt. On top of that he wore the long white fringes that were supposed to be worn as an undershirt. Long dark curls dangled from the sides of his face, but instead of letting them bounce around, he tucked them away behind his ears like pencils.

When I turned the corner, I saw him sitting near the old oak tree on his front lawn surrounded by toilet paper rolls. He had a paintbrush in his hand and he was painting the rolls brown. I said, “Hello, Mr. Katz,” and he said, “Hello, Lev,” and I said, “What are you making?” and he said, “It’s a secret,” so I said, “Okay.” I watched him paint for a while. His clothes were all covered in brown splotches, but he didn’t care. His round face was smiling. It was really sunny and I didn’t feel like going home right away, so after a minute I said, “Can I help?”

I felt bad for Mr. Katz because other people in the neighborhood sometimes made fun of him. Even now, I could see out of the corners of my eyes that the Hasidic women pushing strollers were crossing to the other side of the street to avoid him. When their curious five- and six-year-olds tried to run toward him, the mothers pulled them back with a tug on their sleeves. Hipsters crinkled up their noses as they passed, like they couldn’t stand the smell of someone so uncool, even though they were the ones leaving trails of cigarette smoke and loud music leaking out of their big headphones. Luckily, Mr. Katz didn’t seem to notice the wide circles all of his neighbors were making around him when they passed.

Mr. Katz looked at me and said, “Sure you can help, if you want to be a good boy and do a mitzvah, grab that roll and start painting.” So I sat down on the grass next to him and started painting. It was not because I wanted to do a good deed, like they were always teaching us to do in Hebrew School. It was just because I liked Mr. Katz. I wondered what he was making.

When I got home for dinner, Sammy looked nervous and was acting weird. For one thing, she was wearing a long-sleeved shirt, even though it was a boiling hot day. Then when Dad asked her to pass the potatoes, her hand shook a little bit. She passed the bowl and he said, “Samara, is everything okay?” and she said, “Yes.” But there was something else she wanted to say, a tiny word, I could see it in the corner of her mouth.

“So,” Dad said between bites. “What did you learn in Hebrew School this week?”

All of a sudden, Sammy’s face turned red. She opened her mouth like she was about to say something, and her eyes got really bright, which made me think it was going to be something important. But then she just poked her peas with her fork and said, “Nothing.”

Dad raised his eyebrows, then asked what she was learning in Normal School. But she didn’t answer right away, so even though I know it’s rude to interrupt when someone else is speaking, I said as fast as I could, “We started a new unit in Language Arts today and the new unit is we all have to write in journals!” Then, because I knew this was a fact Dad would like, I added, “Ms. Davidson said she’s going to check to make sure we wrote in them but she won’t actually read them because a journal is a Very Private Thing!” Then, because no one else was speaking, I took the opportunity to say, “Ms. Davidson is highly intelligent and very funny and also she smells super nice,” since one time I saw Dad sniffing an old perfume bottle of Mom’s, which made me think that smelling nice was something he thought was an important quality.

“Well, good,” Dad said into his water glass.

Sammy looked at me like I was crazy.

Then he asked her again what she was learning in Normal School.

“We just finished ‘1984.’ I got an A on the essay. Now we’re doing ‘King Lear.’”

“‘Lear’! That’s great. So, maybe this weekend you and I can start going over the text together? Give you a little head start? Why settle for an A when you can get an A+, right?”

“Right,” she said.

“Fantastic,” he said. “You’re sure everything’s okay?”

“Yes,” she said, and the corner of her mouth drooped under the weight. I took a closer look at my sister. The tiny word that she wanted to say but didn’t say was No.

Every Thursday in Hebrew School we had to do a quiz. Mr. Glassman, our teacher who was also my next-door neighbor, asked us ten questions about the Torah. Instead of grades, he gave us comments like Tov or Tov me’od or, if you scored a perfect ten out of ten, Metzuyan.

One day in May, my quiz came back to me with the word Metzuyan scribbled across the top. After class, Mr. Glassman invited me over for tea and rugelach. He always did that whenever I got a really good mark in his class. I had been to his house four times that year.

I liked Mr. Glassman a lot but I didn’t really like going over because one, whenever I went Mrs. Glassman opened the door and pinched my cheeks and said, “Look at that punim!” and then spent about nine gazillion hours quizzing me on math while her husband waited on the welcome mat, and two, the air in that place had a weird feeling. I don’t mean a weird smell, I mean a weird feeling. Like it was heavier than normal air. Like if you wanted to get from the front door to the kitchen, or from the bathroom to the living room, you practically had to go scuba diving. It made you wish you had a really small oxygen tank you could carry around in your pocket at all times, which is something I definitely would have bought if I had the money and if it existed but it didn’t, I checked. The one good thing about going to the Glassmans’ was that, when Mrs. Glassman was finally done talking in the doorway, she’d say, “Now if my husband would just move his tuches into the kitchen, I could bring you boys what to nosh on,” and then she’d give you a big bowl of rugelach, which was my favorite dessert.

While I was squishing the warm chocolate out of my fourth piece of rugelach, Mr. Glassman looked up from his tea and said, “Lev, soon you will be thirteen. Bar mitzvah age.”

“That’s not for one and a half more years!” I said, licking my fingers.

“Still, for a smart boy like you, it is never too early to start preparing. Or too late. Take your sister, for example.”

“What do you mean?”

“She has been working very hard on her Torah portion.”

“What Torah portion?”

“For the bat mitzvah.”

I stopped licking my hand and put it down on the table. For a few seconds, I just stared at Mr. Glassman, his wrinkled face and straight gray hair and clear gray eyes. I knew that a bunch of girls from Hebrew School were having a group bat mitzvah in a month, but I didn’t think Sammy was going to be in it because one, a bat mitzvah was something girls did when they turned twelve and Sammy was already thirteen, and two, when she was twelve Dad told her she wasn’t going to do it since she was too young to tie herself to a religious tradition since she didn’t really know how to think about religion yet. Did she understand how ahistorical it was? How anti-feminist? No? No, see, she was too young to understand. He wanted his kids to have a grasp on their culture, to know where they came from, that was why he was still sending us to Hebrew School, but that was it. Until we were old enough to think critically we were not in a position to be making any lifelong religious commitments. Even now, I wasn’t really sure if that was true, because I was only eleven and a half but I was proud of being Jewish and I liked being in Mr. Glassman’s Torah class. But I didn’t want to tell Dad he was wrong because Mr. Glassman said the Talmud says a word is worth one coin but silence is worth two.

That night, after dinner, Sammy rinsed the dishes and I loaded them into the dishwasher while Dad put away food in the fridge. I started to tell Sammy how much I liked Mr. Glassman. Then I said, “And boy does he like you, he keeps telling me I should follow in your foot—” but all of a sudden she shot me a sharp look full of fear or maybe anger or possibly surprise or then again it could have been a warning and the sentence hung unfinished in the air.

At school the next day, I looked into the nearby park during recess and spotted Mr. Katz. He was wearing his usual wrinkled black pants and white T-shirt, and singing a happy tune to himself while he picked leaves off the trees and stuffed them into a big green garbage bag.

I wanted to ask him what he was doing with all those leaves, so after school, I walked down Saint-Viateur in the direction of his house. Even though I never usually prayed outside of Hebrew School, because Dad said prayer was just an example of magical thinking, I decided I’d try it as an experiment on my way over there. I’d ask God in my head to let me find Mr. Katz on his lawn so I could figure out what he was up to.

I prayed while the warm golden smell of bagels drifted through the air around me, making my stomach growl. I prayed while cool guys wearing skinny black ties with dark jeans climbed up twisting staircases, which were painted green and yellow and red, to get to their second-floor apartments, and girls with funky jewelry and short-shorts climbed down past them to unlock bicycles and pedal away. I prayed while teenagers listened to loud music at bus stops and old homeless men dug through the garbage searching for cans and small dogs barked outside Italian coffee shops and tourists snapped photos in front of bright graffitied walls.

The voices around me started to change: less French and English, more Yiddish. Now little boys were running past with curls bouncing at the sides of their faces and fringes trailing out from under their shirts. Their mothers, wearing long skirts and sleeves and wigs, rushed to keep up. I walked by the Judaica store, which was selling silver candlesticks and shiny Kiddush cups, and the Hasidic yeshiva, where men studied Torah for hours on end. All along the street, tiny yards and iron balconies overflowed with kids’ stuff, pink tricycles and blue toy cars. Two bearded men wearing black hats and coats stood on a stoop, arguing in Yiddish and drawing circles in the air with their thumbs. I turned the corner onto Hutchison, still praying.

When I finally got there, the first half of my prayer got answered but not the second. Mr. Katz was sitting on the grass with all the leaves he’d picked lying on the plastic bag. The funny thing was, he was painting them all green, even though they were already green. When I asked him why, he just said, “Not green enough.”

It was 8:15 on a Friday night and Sammy wasn’t in the living room. Weird. On Friday nights we always watched the TGIF lineup, which started at exactly 8:00. I tried my best to be patient, but when she still wasn’t there at 8:30 I went to her room to get her, because it was boring watching TV alone and also she was the one who always made the popcorn.

Her door was open a crack so I peeked inside. The room was dark except for two white candles burning on the windowsill. Sammy put her hands over the flames and waved them three times, then covered her eyes and started whispering.

All of a sudden, I had a memory of Mom lighting the Shabbat candles when I was really little. I could see her pressing her fingers to her eyes and saying the Hebrew words. It made me feel weird because I almost never remembered anything about her, and remembering one thing made me wonder how many other things I’d forgotten. Hundreds? Thousands? Millions? Sammy knew more about Mom than I did because she was seven when Mom died and I was only five. But she didn’t like to think about Mom, it made her cry, which was why I never asked questions anymore. Except now I could tell that she was thinking about Mom, because she was acting like her, so maybe that meant everything was different and I was allowed to ask again?

I tried to tiptoe into the room, but one of the floorboards creaked and Sammy turned around and saw me. She looked first shocked, then embarrassed, then extremely mad. She came toward me and yelled, “Haven’t you ever heard of knocking?”

Then she slammed the door.

I went back to watch TV and tried to concentrate on the show but I couldn’t because one, it was kind of boring and two, I kept wondering, why did Sammy look so embarrassed? And also how long had she been lighting Shabbat candles?

On my way home from school in the last week of May, I saw Mr. Katz sitting on his lawn in between the old oak tree and a second tree trunk that seemed to have sprouted up overnight. But when I got closer, I saw that it wasn’t a real trunk at all, it was the hundreds of toilet paper rolls that we painted brown tied together with dental floss. I went over and said, “Hello, Mr. Katz.”

“Hello, Lev.”

“Are you making a tree, by any chance?”

After a very long time, he said, “Yes.” Then he grabbed my wrist and pulled down hard so I fell onto my knees on the grass. He whispered, “Can you keep a secret?”

I rubbed my wrist and said, “Yes.”

“You promise?”

“I promise.”

“This is not an ordinary tree I am making.”

I dropped my wrist and said, “What kind of tree is it?”

“This,” he said, “this is the Tree of Knowledge.”

The next day, I decided to ask Mr. Glassman about the Tree of Knowledge, because all I knew was that it was in the Garden of Eden and that eating from it was what got Adam and Eve kicked out. I waited for Torah class to be over, and then I went up to him and said, “Mr. Glassman, I’ve been thinking about how you said it’s never too early to start preparing for your bar mitzvah, and I was wondering if I could study with you some days after school?” Smiling, he pinched my cheek and said, “Geshmack!” He told me we could start right away, so I followed him home.

When Mrs. Glassman opened the door, she said, “Two times I get to see Lev in the same month, tu-tu-tu kineahora, but if I knew my Chaim was going to be schlepping you here every day I would prepare for you more things to eat!” She told me to sit at the kitchen table and brought us hot tea even though it was a zillion degrees outside. She said, “Drink!” so I drank.

Mr. Glassman asked when my Hebrew birthday was so he could calculate when my bar mitzvah would fall during the year. That way he’d know what Torah portion I’d have to read. I said, “I don’t actually know when it is because my dad says that calendar’s based on a backwards idea of when the world was created, which scientists are still iffy about but which was definitely more than 6,000 years ago.” Mr. Glassman raised his eyebrows, then shook his head and sighed.

Since what I really wanted to learn about was the Tree of Knowledge, I asked Mr. Glassman if we could study Genesis instead. His face lit up. He said, “Begin at the beginning, excellent idea. I see you’re just as thorough as your sister!”

We started reading the first chapter of Genesis, but after an hour we had only gotten up to the part about the grass being created. Even though I wanted to ask about the Tree right away, Mr. Glassman could see the toilet paper roll version of it right from his window and I didn’t want to make him suspicious that maybe I was trying to help Mr. Katz. I had to be patient and come back as many times as it took. I didn’t mind because Mrs. Glassman’s rugelach was the best in the neighborhood. And even though she talked to me for nine gazillion hours before letting me leave, asking questions like “You are liking math class?” and “You have learned about Fibonacci numbers?” and “A syllogism, you know what it is, yes? No? How can you not know?” she only pinched my cheeks three times.

Luckily it only took me a few seconds to get home because the Glassmans’ house and our house were so close they were practically touching. Actually there was so little space between them that when we were little Dad used to always tell me and Sammy to keep it down, noise traveled easily through the windows and he was sure the Glassmans could hear us. I pointed out that we never heard any voices coming from their house, and noise travels both ways, but Dad just said that must be because the Glassmans talk very quietly. I didn’t want to tell him he was wrong, but I knew for a fact that wasn’t true, because sometimes when Mr. and Mrs. Glassman talked to me their voices were so loud I could feel it in my teeth.

As soon as I opened our front door, I knew Sammy was already home. I could hear her voice coming from her room. She was chanting in Hebrew, so I knew it was the Torah portion she was preparing to read at the bat mitzvah next month.

I crept into my room quietly so that she wouldn’t hear me and get embarrassed or mad. I clicked the door shut and held my breath for nineteen seconds straight, and she kept on chanting. But then Dad came home, and the second she heard his voice in the hallway she stopped.

He called, “Samara?” and she said, “Yeah?” and he said, “Would you help me get dinner started?” and she said, “Okay.” I heard Dad ask, “How about cheeseburgers?” so I ran into the hallway to say, “Yes!” but when I saw Sammy’s face I said, “Ye — No, could we have grilled cheese instead?” When Dad went into the kitchen, Sammy gave me a funny look, like maybe she could tell that I could tell that she was trying to keep kosher in secret.

It wasn’t until my third lesson with Mr. Glassman that we finally got to the part about the Tree of Knowledge. We spent half an hour going over it at the kitchen table while Mrs. Glassman stood at the counter baking rugelach and talking to herself. It always confused me when she did that because usually when people talk to themselves it means they’re missing a few marbles, and Mrs. Glassman was a smart woman with marbles to spare. She was muttering under her breath, “If not p or q entails not p and not q, and p is true if and only if r, then we prove that for every r…” Mr. Glassman kept right on studying like he didn’t hear anything, so I did the same.

But by the time the lesson was over I didn’t have any more answers than when I started, only more questions. At the end of the story it said: Man has become like us to know good and evil, and now lest he put forth his hand and take also of the Tree of Life and eat and live forever, therefore the Lord sent him forth from the Garden of Eden.

I’d never known that there were two special trees in the garden. I thought there was just the Tree of Knowledge. I asked Mr. Glassman what this business about the Tree of Life was all about, but he shook his head and smiled, saying it had to do with kabbalah.

“Kabbalah is the Hebrew word for ‘to receive,’ yes? It is our received tradition, passed down from one rabbi to the next. It tells us the secret, hidden interpretations of the Torah.”

“And the Tree of Life is one of those secrets?”

“The most important one. Centuries ago, it became a very popular kabbalistic idea.”

“But what does it do, the Tree?”

“You should better ask, what does it not do! The Tree of Life does everything! It is what God used to create the universe out of nothing. It has ten parts — ten vessels — and when God poured His light down into them, the whole world appeared. And so our holy sages taught that a person who wants to go back up to God has only to climb this same Tree. But this is a very dangerous idea, Lev. You are not allowed to study it until you are forty years old and married.”

“Why’s it so dangerous?” I wanted to know.

“Because, when you are studying it, it is easy to become obsessed,” he said. “Suddenly everything you see looks like a sign from above. Many of our sages, blessed be their memories, lost their heads chasing after such signs.”

“What do you mean, they lost their heads?”

“Well, it is not so clear, really. But there is a story, a famous legend, of four great rabbis who entered the Garden and found the Tree. Rabbi Akiva was one of the four. The only one who entered in peace and departed in peace.”

“What happened to the other three?”

“The second sage, Ben Azzai, died. The third, Ben Zoma, went mad.”

“And the fourth?”

“The fourth…well, the text only tells us that he ‘cut down the plantings.’ What that means, I do not know. There are many symbolic interpretations.”

“What was his name, the fourth one?”

“The text does not call him by his name. It calls him only ‘Acher.’”

“What’s that mean?”

“It means ‘Other.’”

I frowned. Other? What kind of name was that? But then I thought of another question. “If the Tree of Life is really so dangerous, like you said, then why would being forty years old and married make it okay?”

“Because, according to the sages, at that point you are already wise.”

“Oh. Well, you’re older than forty.”

“Yes.”

“And you’re married.”

“Yes.”

“Are you studying the Tree of Life, then?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because I am not wise,” he said, with a funny smile on his face.

He looked down at the numbers tattooed on his arm. I looked up. And that’s when I noticed that Mrs. Glassman had stopped talking to herself and her hands were frozen in the air, hovering over the balls of dough she was supposed to be rolling into rugelach. She stayed like that for a long time. Mr. Glassman didn’t move a muscle either. He stared at his arm for so long that I thought maybe he had fallen asleep. My head was exploding with all the questions I wanted to ask, but it didn’t seem right to ask anything else after that, so I just went home.

The Mystics of Mile End comes out October 13 with HarperCollins. The Brooklyn launch is at Park Slope Community Bookstore on October 15 at 7pm. The Upper West Side launch is at Book Culture on Columbus on October 19 at 7pm. Both events are free and open to the public. For more information, visit www.sigalsamuel.com

Author

Sigal Samuel

Sigal Samuel

Sigal Samuel is the Opinion Editor at the Forward. When she’s not tackling race or identity politics, she’s hunting down her Indian Jewish family’s Kabbalistic secret society. Her novel THE MYSTICS OF MILE END tells the story of a dysfunctional family with a dangerous mystical obsession. Her writing has also appeared in The Daily Beast, The Rumpus, and BuzzFeed. Contact Sigal at samuel@forward.com, check out her author website, like her page on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter.

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