Let me begin with a small confession: I bought "The Weight of Ink" by Rachel Kadish because of its beautiful cover and its intriguing title. Admittedly, the story, itself, also sounded intriguing, but the cover and title were simply too lovely to resist.
Now, after having read the book, all I can say is, “Wowza, what a story!”
It’s set in two time periods of London. In the 1660s, a young Jewish woman named Ester Velasquez does the forbidden — she serves as a scribe for an old, ailing rabbi who was tortured and blinded in the Spanish Inquisition. In the early 2000s an ailing historian named Helen Watt and her reluctant assistant, a floundering American Jewish grad student named Aaron Levy, are summoned to a grand old home on the outskirts of London to look at a genizah that was found walled up under a staircase.
A genizah is a repository for timeworn sacred manuscripts in Judaism. The genizah that was discovered in the old house takes Helen and Aaron on a journey through the ancient words inked upon the pages contained in the cache.
We readers are taken on a wonderful journey, too, into a past and its people, both real ones like Sabbatai Zevi, Julian of Norwich, Baruch de Spinoza, and William Shakespeare, and fictional ones like Ester and her beloved rabbi as well as the rabbi’s devoted servant, Rivka, and many others who helped and hindered Ester as she toiled at her forbidden passion of learning. While the modern portions of the story concerning Helen and Aaron attempting to make sense of the wondrous find are indeed interesting, the real story belongs to Ester.
She fled Amsterdam in the care of the rabbi after her parents’ deaths, she wrote and learned (both of which were forbidden to Jewish women then), she survived the plague that killed roughly a fifth of Londoners, she endured and survived the continued persecution of Jews, and she found a way to pursue doing what mattered most to her — learning, thinking, philosophizing, writing, and corresponding — even after the rabbi’s death.
“A womans’ body, said the world, was a prison in which her mind must wither.” Thus was the sentiment of the timeframe and religious constraints in which Ester lived. However, through her quill, ink bottle, and parchment, Ester’s mind soared, and her words survived, hidden away for more than three hundred years, until they were set free by two historians whose lives would never be the same.
Words matter. Being able to read, to write, and to think freely all matter more than some people realize. The title of the book comes from a passage on page 196 when the blinded rabbi tells Ester what he truly lost when he lost his sight. “... I came to understand how much of the world was now banned from me — for my hands would never again turn the pages of a book, nor be stained with the sweet, grave weight of ink, a thing I had loved since first memory.”
The Weight of Ink is a weighty tome itself at almost six hundred pages, but I was sad when the story came to an end. For now, I will simply gaze once more upon its lovely cover and remember the wonderful story that lies within.
Contact Marshall at firstname.lastname@example.org. Next month’s reading selection is Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis.