Ruby Namdar: Judaism Unbound Episode 153 - Fiction Between Worlds


Novelist Ruby Namdar, author of the award-winning The Ruined House, which interweaves the stories of an American-Jewish professor and an ancient Judean priest, joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg for a conversation that straddles the Israeli and the American, along with the ancient and contemporary. The Ruined House won the Sapir Prize, Israel's highest literary honor, the first novel by an expatriate to receive the award. [1]

Image Credit: University of Illinois Program in Judaic Studies

Image Credit: University of Illinois Program in Judaic Studies

(0:01 - 15:36): To begin the episode, Ruby Namdar looks back at his life as an Israeli, and with respect to his Iranian-Jewish family background. [2] He explores how he has always questioned and straddled the divide between “secular” and “religious” Judaism. He then gives an overview of the two intertwining plots of The Ruined House, [3] emphasizing the ways in which they are sometimes parallel with one another, while at other points they exist in tension with one another. He explains why, of all the rituals of ancient Judaism, he chose to make the sacrificial rites of Yom Kippur a core part of his novel. In doing so, he argues that contemporary Jews make a mistake if they assume that there is little to learn from ancient iterations of Jewish tradition, and if they assume that a humanistic Judaism of ideas is inherently superior to a ritualistic Judaism of material substance.

(15:37 - 27:59): Continuing to ask important questions about ancient and contemporary Judaism, Namdar contrasts ancient modalities of meat consumption with those that are most common in the industrial world today. He looks at how, and why, the material Judaism of sacrifice shifted toward a Judaism revolving around words, which failed in certain ways to fully substitute for the depth of meaning that arose from the sacrificial rituals. He then turns to a frequently explored topic on this podcast — the idea of an “elite.” [4] He argues that “elites” are a necessary component of Jewish life, and of the world, and that the goal should not be to eliminate any kind of elite, but to create one that is not focused on its own privilege. He also looks at why his “insider-outsider” status, as an Israeli new to American-Jewish life, played a key role in shaping The Ruined House.

(28:00 - 45:52): Namdar takes on the question of language, arguing that we should hold two seemingly contradictory points simultaneously. First, he argues that it is challenging to lead a meaningful Jewish life without knowledge of Hebrew, and then he states that those who don’t have familiarity with the Hebrew language can and should still connect deeply to Judaism and Jewishness. [5] He clarifies that, even among Israelis that speak fluent Hebrew, there has been a widespread alienation from ancient Jewish tradition and its constituent texts. Closing the episode, he notices a seeming “slip of the tongue” from Dan in asking a question, arguing that his accidental phrase “secular religion” may actually be a profound comment, worth examining further in the future. [6]

[1] Learn more about Ruby Namdar by visiting RubyNamdar.com. Purchase The Ruined House by clicking here.

[2] Explore the history of the Jews of Iran here. For an NPR segment featuring Jews who continue to live in Iran today, click here.

[3] For a New York Times book review of The Ruined House, click here.

[4] Judaism Unbound has explored the idea of “elite” as it relates to contemporary Judaism in a number of conversations. To further explore this topic, see Episode 77: Folk Judaism, Episode 84: The Jewish Catalog, Then and Now - Riv-Ellen Prell, and/or Episode 85: B-Mitzvah Revolutions - Isa Aron.

[5] Our co-host Lex Rofeberg writes his thoughts on the conception of “Jewish language” in a Jewish Currents piece entitled “Every Language is a Jewish Language,” accessible by clicking here.

[6] For a deep look at the frame of “secular religion,” see Religion for Atheists, a book by Alain de Botton that can be purchased here.