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The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish
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The Weight of Ink

by Rachel Kadish

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The Weight of Ink - Kadish
Audio performance by Corrie James
5 stars

This book had everything that I want from historical fiction. It had believable contemporary characters in a familiar academic environment. It tied the dual plotlines together in a way that made universal connections across time. It is a book about women who face challenges, choices, and the constraints of having both an intellect and a heart. I will continue to think about this one for a long time.

In the contemporary story, an aging and ill, English history professor, Helen Watt, is made aware of a long hidden cache of 17th century documents. They are written in Hebrew, Portuguese, and occasionally in English. Determined to study this historical windfall while she is still able, Helen arranges its sale to her university. Reluctantly admitting her physical limitations she accepts the help of Aaron Levy, a young American graduate student. They have an interesting, prickly working relationship that allows Kadish to fill in the background history of two complex and repressed characters.

The documents lead them to the unexpected discovery of Ester Velasquez, a female scribe to a blind rabbi, resident in London just before plague infests the city. Ester is not simply a scribe. She has an unusual intellect and has received an unusual education. Through the rabbi she corresponds with religious leaders and students of the Talmud. She is incapable of closing her mind. “I cried out then and still: why say woman may not follow her nature if it lead her to think, for must not even the meanest beast follow its nature? And why forbid woman or man from questioning what we are taught, for is not intelligence holy?”

Ester is a wonderful character. She walks right out of the constraints of her own century and into the 21st. She is a survivor. She survives fire, poverty, loss of family, religious persecution and the reality of gender roles in her time. While the English academics of the other storyline try to disinter her secrets from the scraps she left behind, lucky readers get to know everything about her as it happens. There are still some secrets. A major strength of this book is the author’s skill in revealing the inner lives of every character gradually as each document is uncovered.

This book is rich in details and connections. The characters in this book represent a wide range of Jewish history and culture; the rabbi, a martyr of the inquisition; Ester, an orphan, rejected by the conservative Amsterdam Jews; Rivka, a servant and refugee of an Eastern European pogrom; Aaron, the secular son of an American rabbi. And, Helen Watt, a gentile, whose only love was a young Israeli Holocaust survivor. Excellent characters, and very skillful writing.

I will continue to think about this one for a long time. ( )
  msjudy | Jul 29, 2018 |
I never tire learning the twists/ turns, and mysteries of history. Reading non-fiction is the best way, of course to learn. But do not underestimate how helpful fiction can be to understand historical events.

The Weight of Ink doesn't disappoint. It delivers 2 stories: one a striking narrative about the small Jewish communities in Amsterdam and England in the mid to late 17th Century (comprised of Jews who had survived and escaped Spain’s and Portugal’s Inquisition, and Ashkenazi Jews fleeing Russian and Polish pogroms and abysmal poverty. The other story takes place in modern times, in London’s academic world focused on the field of historic research.

After years of NOT being permitted to study the Holy Books of the Torah in Spain and Portugal, on pain of death, some of the Amsterdam and English Jews wanted to re-establish Jewish learning. One rabbi, blinded during torture, managed to survive, and now lives in London. He adopts a brother and sister to provide them a home. The boy Isaac acted as scribe for the rabbi, writing and copying responses to Jews who sought his deep rabbinical knowledge. But Isaac abandons the rabbi and his sister, Ester because he is burdened by personal guilt for his role in a deadly accident.

Because Ester’s father permitted her to study with a rabbi, she gladly becomes the rabbi’s compliant scribe. She is upset at having had to move from Amsterdam to London, still mourning her parents, and soon Isaac as well, avoids socializing, becoming depressed. Her only pleasure in life is learning with the rabbi and writing his responses. But soon she is coerced into going out on errands, acting as a companion to the daughter of a wealthy Jewish family, and learns English.

She is always thinking about what she was taught as compared to what she observed and felt. So when her role as scribe is jeopardized, Ester is angry, desperate and cooks up a bold, questionable scheme.

How the 2 stories harmonize and differentiate is captivating; showing how much has both changed and remained the same.

Engaging, smart, and energetic.
  Bookish59 | Jul 14, 2018 |
Labyrinthine literary mystery I couldn't put down. A cranky old professor, Helen, and the graduate student helping her. Aaron, in present-day England are trying to unravel the sense of a group of documents from the 17th century, discovered in the process of renovation of an old house from that period by the present owners. The find happens to be a cache of letters and household accounts, written in Hebrew, Portuguese, and Castilian, with some Latin. The twosome find that the scribe is a woman--very unusual!--setting down the words of a blind rabbi. The story of the young woman, Ester is set down side-by-side with that of the professor and her helper, alternating between Ester's story [nom de plume Aleph] and that of other Jews who had come to Holland, then England, to escape the Inquisition. The mystery is not as straightforward as it seems; there are blind alleys and unexpected twists and turns. It was always interesting to see how the two narratives fit together so smoothly and the crooked paths the investigators took. I liked the psychological aspects: how the personalities of Helen and Aaron changed for the better. I didn't like either of them at first, but from the start I admired Ester and her courage to fill what would have not been considered a proper female role back then and love of learning. The main characters were all strong.

Highly recommended. ( )
  janerawoof | Jul 3, 2018 |
I found this more pretentious than profound. It could have covered this young 17th century Jewish woman doesn't like being relegated to womanly duties but must be a scholar wrapped in an 21st century people with regrets discover her story through fortuitous cache finds, in about a third of the length and saved the reader a good deal of time without losing one idea.The characters and the built world of 17th century London are worthwhile, but barley worth reading the many letters full of theology/atheology which can be nothing terribly new to people receptive to the ideas and disturbing to people who are not. And to provide our scholars with such a complete revelatory document is just lazy. ( )
  quondame | Jun 7, 2018 |
Stories within stories within stories - but mainly, there are three stories, three main characters: Helen Watt, a professor nearing retirement and hiding her Parkinson's; Aaron Levy, a grad student floundering on his chosen topic of Shakespeare; and Ester Velazquez, a Portuguese Jew by way of Amsterdam, in the household of Rabbi HaCoen Mendes in London. Through long sections in each time period (the 1660s and 2000-2001), the reader receives each character's backstory: Helen's youthful romance with Dror in the newly-formed Israel, Aaron's pining after Marisa (who is also currently in Israel), and Ester's own story - of a family fleeing the Inquisition, a tragic accident that left herself and her brother Isaac orphaned, their move to London, and her own unusual education, which allowed her to scribe for the rabbi, who was blinded in the Inquisition. Through his correspondence and reading, Ester develops ideas of her own - heretical ones. And then, the plague comes to London.

Past and present(ish) stories intersect when an old student of Helen's calls her to come look at papers he and his wife have found in their 17th-century house. Helen brings Aaron as her assistant and they realize that the papers are indeed valuable - they tell a story that has not been told before. Then it's a rush to make sure the university purchases them, and that they have access - but another team is allowed access, and they rush to publish. Helen and Aaron, however, have an even bigger discovery to make [spoiler alert: there is even a possible connection to Shakespeare - the possibility that Ester was descended from the Bard's mysterious Dark Lady].

A long book, no question, but each story is equally interesting. The pacing is methodical rather than page-turning, but the descriptions of London in the 1660s are convincing enough to feel quite immersive. Some readers will revel in the detailed textural arguments and theories - letters about religion and philosophy - while others may skim them. (And the author uses one of Aaron's e-mails to Marisa to provide a lengthy exposition on the history of Inquisition-era Jewish history.)

A significant work of historical fiction, with satisfying (and subversive) discoveries.

See also: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith, The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, The Clasp by Sloane Crosley, The Last Letter From Your Lover by Jojo Moyes, Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum, Dark Aemilia by Sally O'Reilly, A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

Quotes

For learning is the river of G-d and we drink of it throughout our lives. (HaCoen Mendes' sermon, 55)

...the only words that came to him - words like holy, like sacred - belonged to things he didn't believe in. (Aaron, 93)

If we looked through the eyes of history, we'd live differently. We'd live right. (Aaron to Marisa, 95)

Here in the rare manuscripts room she felt as though she were peering through a narrow aperture at a picture whose larger contours she couldn't see. (Helen, 139)

Why, when the rabbis wished to understand God's will or Augustine the construction of man's soul, did they not reason as Descartes did, taking nothing as given? Must true inquiry proceed from texts and traditions already established, or could the mind on its own perceive all it needed to fathom the world? (Ester, 182)

"She said that standing between my mother [Lizabeta] and this man [Shakespeare?] was like standing in the current of a river. She said it was a soft, endless...push, which slips you off your feet if you're not anchored to something." (Ester recounting Constantina's story to Mary, 190)

She'd not yet learned of a woman's passion that did not exact a fearsome price. (Ester, 198)

Isaac, her Isaac, was all the proof she needed that God was either indifferent to human life, or else must have no power to alter its course. (224)

"To study with an able mind is to escape prison, for a time." (HaCoen Mendes to Ester, 227)

What would it mean to stop fighting for what none other than she believed in, and accept the shelter that was offered? (Ester, 292)

A woman's body, said the world, was a prison in which her mind must wither...
Nature gave a woman not only body but also intelligence, and a wish to employ it. Was it then predetermined that that one side of Ester's nature must suffocate the other? ...Perhaps...God was only the endless tumult of life proving new truths and eradicating old. (Ester, 293)

What obligation did one soul bear to another indeed, in such a world as this? (Ester, 328)

For every loyalty, whether to self or to community, does impose a blindness, and each love does threaten to blur vision, as few can bear to see the truth if it harm that which is dear to us. (Ester to Spinoza, 349)

People go through life trying to please some audience. But once you realize there's no audience, life is simple. It's just doing what you know in your gut is right. (Marisa to Aaron, 379)

He'd changed enough in these past months to know that his old life was hollow.
Yet not enough to see a clear path toward anything he desired. (Aaron, 383)

...[the rabbi's] goodness remained the standard against which she tested her understanding of the world. It was the highest love she was capable of: respect. Yet respect also demanded that when the very tools of logic that he'd given her argued against his beloved tradition, she must follow them toward conclusions he'd abhor. The greatest act of love - indeed, the only religion she could comprehend - was to speak the truth about the world.Love must be...an act of truth-telling... (Ester, 391)

"Perhaps one can never foresee what one hopes not to see." (John to Ester, 396)

"With someone tired of waiting for what he wants, That's how it starts. That's how every evil in the world starts." (Rivka to Ester, 433)

The world did not prevent you from becoming what you were determined to become. (Helen, 452)

A strange gladness ballooned in him. He'd never in his life felt this way: as though the safe landing of another human being could substitute for his own. (Aaron, on discovering that Ester married Alvaro HaLevy and lived a long life, 486)

"Don't turn your back just because it terrifies you." (Helen to Aaron, 488)

And he knew that he would never be able to tell her that he loved her as a foundering ship loves a lighthouse, even though the lighthouse is powerless to save it. (Aaron and Helen, 509)

Nowhere in the known world, it seemed to her, could she live as she'd been created: at once a creature of body and of mind. It was a precept so universal as to seem a law of nature: one aspect of a woman's existence must dominate the other. And a woman like Ester must choose, always, between desires: between fealty to her own self, or to the lives she might bring forth and nurture. (517)

It struck Aaron that she too had been worried - and that she was among those whose worry took the form of anger at the world for its failure to remain safe. (541)

The circumstances you were born into, the situations you found yourself in - to dodge that fray was impossible. And what you did within it was your life. (Aaron, 547) ( )
  JennyArch | Jun 4, 2018 |
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"An intellectual and emotional jigsaw puzzle of a novel for readers of A.S. Byatt's Possession and Geraldine Brooks's People of the Book Set in London of the 1660s and of the early twenty-first century, The Weight of Ink is the interwoven tale of two women of remarkable intellect: Ester Velasquez, anemigrant from Amsterdam who is permitted to scribe for a blind rabbi, just before the plague hits the city; and Helen Watt, an ailing historian with a love of Jewish history. As the novel opens, Helen has been summoned by a former student to view a cache of seventeenth-century Jewish documents newly discovered in his home during a renovation. Enlisting the help of Aaron Levy, an American graduate student as impatient as he is charming, and in a race with another fast-moving team of historians, Helen embarks on one last project: to determine the identity of the documents' scribe, the elusive"Aleph."Electrifying and ambitious, sweeping in scope and intimate in tone, The Weight of Ink is a sophisticated work of historical fiction about women separated by centuries, and the choices and sacrifices they must makein order to reconcile the life of the heart and mind"--… (more)

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