Malka Sabatto, the central character of Ariel Kahn’s debut novel, is the teenage daughter of a Rosh Yeshiva in a Jerusalem Charedi community. Intelligent and independently minded, she struggles against the restrictions of her upbringing. Solace appears in a surprising form: she meets Moshe, a brilliant yeshiva student, and joins him in a passionate exploration of Jewish mysticism, in particular Kabbalah.
This undertaking is risky. As they delve into esoteric learning, Malka and Moshe encounter stern, if sometimes hypocritical, opposition.
Their experience bears out the view of Gershom Scholem, the great Kabbalah scholar, for whom the mystical tradition was a repository of magical and mythic thought, marginalised by mainstream Jewish culture.
The consequences for Malka are tumultuous. She leaves home on a quest for enlightenment, taking in Safed by the Galilee, the historic centre of Jewish mysticism, and Jaffa, a fulcrum of Israeli-Palestinian tension.
Malka’s journey is driven by Kahn’s exuberant engagement with Kabbalah. Extraordinary occurrences accumulate: visions, wild coincidences, explosions, miraculous healings. In the magical-realist manner, the narrative does not deal in naturalistic explanations.
Yet the novel is not naïve about Kabbalah. Besides some satirical jabs at New Age fads, its darkest passages consider how mysticism can be exploited for sexually and psychologically abusive purposes. Traditionally, Kabbalah was to be studied only by learned men over 40 years of age and married with a family; Kahn sidesteps the proscription, but understands its protective motivation.
Introducing Kabbalah to general readers is a formidable challenge. In Raising Sparks, the necessary work of exposition is delegated to the characters, running the risk of turning them into mere mouthpieces. Kahn avoids this by excellent characterisations.
Malka is a superb creation: a visionary ingénue, with seemingly endless reserves of compassion and resilience. Other strong characters include Shira, a student of Kabbalah, whom Malka meets in Safed, and Mahmoud, a gay Arab-Israeli she befriends in Jaffa. One minor worry: perhaps Moshe’s traumatic back-story needed further development.
Kahn is a skilful, imaginative writer, adept at working with symbolism in prose. Here is one character’s remarkably lucid and sympathetic account of the concept of Tikkun:
“There is a spark hidden inside everything and everyone in the world – every encounter, every experience, and every sensation. If you can be really present in the moment, you can set a spark free and return it to its source.”
Readers must decide for themselves about Kabbalah, especially its religious or spiritual value, but Kahn has made a case for its fascination as a literary topic.
Alun David is a freelance reviewer