Book Review: Raising Sparks by Ariel Kahn
Ariel Kahn’s Raising Sparks is a paean to Israel and to the esoteric teachings of Kabbalah.
This is the world in which Raising Sparks is set; a delightful foray into the colliding worlds of various Jewish traditions in Israel where the protagonist is forced to reckon with new surroundings and cultures from the old quarter in Jerusalem to the modern settings of Tel Aviv.
Malka Sabatto is a teenager living in a small family in the ultra-orthodox Haredi community in Jerusalem where the outside world is as odd as the decision her father makes to teach her about Jewish scripture during her school years: an area usually closed off for female adherents of orthodox Judaism. Expected to marry and procreate, the life of a Haredi female has few career options within the community.
Kahn also introduces the reader to Moshe, a rabbinical student at a Yeshiva (where Jewish religious scripture is taught) of which Malka’s father is the dean. Moshe, a Russian immigrant and outsider provides a peculiar foil for Malka even if he is in love with her. They are brought together by happenstance in the house of a recently deceased but still controversial Kabbalah teacher and it is from here that Kahn weaves Malka’s exploration of Kabbalah and the ever-present tree of life – the cosmology and esoteric symbol of Kabbalah.
For many Haredi Jews, Tel Aviv is the bastion of modernity’s excess and Safed another city outside Orthodox Judaism. Then there are the spaces and locales that Kahn’s Muslim characters inhabit which form a somewhat surprising bridge to Malka’s life prior to her flight from Jerusalem.
Raising Sparks may be ostensibly a narrative of Malka’s journey but the themes that resonate and are at the fore throughout Kahn’s novel are ones that have echoed for many inhabitants of Israel and Palestine, both ancient and modern: exclusion, exile, and exploration. This is where Kahn excels, in fleshing out the shared themes that many of his characters have at the fringes of their respective societies; such is the culture and history of the area Israel inhabits that Raising Sparks is a novel of many layers of ethnographic fiction.
Kahn’s prose is at its best when expressing these connections on the fringes of Israeli society, particularly in moments when he elicits the various culinary delights of Israel, and such is the lucidity of Kahn’s writing one can’t help but wonder whether Malka’s journey is as much a gastronomic expedition as it is a religious journey.
It may be unsurprising to learn that Kahn himself was once a rabbinical student in Israel given the detailed information of the Israeli landscape. While he has publicly indicated this is not a political novel, it veers close to one not just by the rare allusions to the political conflict but the novel’s overall sentimental call for shared human values to be explored and realise that they transcend the societies we find ourselves in.
There is a sense of pace to Kahn’s prose as the reader is thrown straight into the religious and cultural milieu of Jerusalem before quickly moving from place to place. I found this particularly interesting as a novel to be indulged in, but not too quickly and certainly not all at once. Raising Sparks may not be to everyone’s taste but it is certainly one of those rare novels that attempts to cut across genres and will most certainly go onto my ‘to re-read’ shelf.
Raising Sparks is published by Bluemoose Books and available to buy now
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