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08/18/2020 11:20:09 AM

Aug18

Books & Beyond

   

 

Finding Truth in Fiction: Recovering Lives Lost to History

By Robin Jacobson

The inspiration for Rachel Kadish’s captivating novel, The Weight of Ink, was a famous essay by Virginia Woolf. If William Shakespeare had an equally brilliant sister, Woolf claimed, she would have died without writing a word, a victim of severe social constraints on women. While Woolf’s depressing assertion was probably correct, Kadish nonetheless felt convinced that there must have been some talented and determined women in the 17th Century who devised ingenious ways to live a life of the mind, even if history does not record their names.

In writing The Weight of Ink, Kadish set out to explore just “how far a woman might go for freedom of spirit and mind . . . and at what cost.” Beyond that, Kadish creates nuanced and interesting characters who struggle with perplexing questions about God, love, and history. The grim realities they face – including a pandemic – resonate today.

   

A Meeting of Scholars

The Weight of Ink weaves together two tales of scholarly women in London, one set in modern times and the other in the 1660s. In the contemporary story, Helen Watt, an ailing British professor of Jewish history, receives a phone call from a former student about a mysterious cache of old letters discovered under the staircase of his historic home. Helen swiftly ascertains that the letters are written in Hebrew and Portuguese and date from the 17th Century. She hires an American graduate student, Aaron Levy, to help translate and analyze them. Racing to stay ahead of rival historians, this literary detective duo determines that the enigmatic scribe writing the letters is a brilliant young Jewish woman, Ester Velasquez, the ward of a blind rabbi. Ester’s writings illuminate life within the first Jewish community in London established after England lifted its four-century ban against Jews.

In the 17th-Century story, we meet Ester and the blind rabbi; they are immigrants to London from Amsterdam. As the story progresses, Ester feels increasingly trapped by religious and cultural mores and covertly flouts them. She takes on a man’s identity to secretly correspond with innovative thinkers, including Benedict Spinoza, who was excommunicated by the Amsterdam Sephardic Jewish community. Ester’s correspondence enthralls Helen and Aaron as a first-hand report on a Jewish community about which little was known, beyond the disastrous impact of the Great Plague of 1165-66. More personally, Ester’s courage inspires Helen and Aaron to confront unresolved issues in their own lives.

   
 

Repairing History

Ester is a fictional character, but Kadish took pains to ensure that every piece of her story is factually plausible. In a moving and powerful essay in The Paris Review, Kadish argues that “women like Ester – women of capacious intelligence who tried to speak out despite restrictions – must have existed.” Kadish points, for example, to the Brontë sisters, who wrote under false identities, and to Fanny Mendelssohn, who composed music published under her brother’s name. It is unlikely, Kadish contends, that history’s catalog of women who masked their identities is complete:

“Logic tells us there must have been other artists of erasure: women scattered here and there across cultures and centuries who expunged themselves from the record so the work of their hands and minds and hearts could be visible. And if they were good at it – if they succeeded – we’ve never heard of them.”

Kadish believes that the writing of historical fiction, undertaken with integrity and attention to known facts, can be an act of repair, of recovering lives that slipped through the sieve of history, never recorded or memorialized. The Weight of Ink is a thrilling example of the power and pleasure of this imaginative approach.

Fri, February 26 2021 14 Adar 5781