The Weight of Ink, Rachel Kadish, author; Corrie James, narrator
Written with the majestic prose of yesteryear, with a vocabulary that enchants on every page, the book takes the reader on a journey between centuries introducing the history of Jewish oppression, the Inquisition, the Church, and the Plague as major players. It carries the story into the present day, a time in which many of the themes recur, foremost being for me, anti-Semitism and the inability of Jewish people to be treated fairly or perhaps, even understood, but equal opportunity and anti-Semitism still remain problems.
Ester Velasquez was from Amsterdam. When her parents were killed in a fire she and her brother were ostracized because of a shadow that hung over her mother’s reputation and the curse upon them that must have caused the fire from her brother’s lantern. They were placed under the protection and care of Rabbi Ha-Coen Mendes in London. He was kind enough to take them in, although his wife Rivka, was not as welcoming to them. He, blinded during his brutal Inquisitor interrogation, is under the care and protection of Rabbi Benjamin Ha-Levy. They are all dependent on others for their welfare now. The Mendes family is wealthy and the children are arrogant, carrying themselves with an air of superiority. They are trying hard to fit into the Christian culture of the times in order to prevent their exile or death. Many convert, or pretend to do so. Others assume the haughty demeanor of their tormentors.
Ester was born during a time when women were trained to be good housekeepers, to care for their husbands and to bear children. Often, marriages were arranged. She, however, dreamed of more. Her father had allowed her to learn to read. She wanted to write, to become a philosopher, presenting her theories to the world, but as a women she would not be accepted or allowed to participate in that profession. It was forbidden to think about or to ask certain questions as well, and Baruch de Spinoza is an example of one ostracized not by the Inquisitors, but by his own people. He was forced into exile as a heretic because he raised questions about G-d. Ester was intrigued by his questions and wanted to correspond with him. Of course that communication was forbidden for all Jews and most especially forbidden to women. Well bred women were only allowed to engage in work dealing with the home. Her brother Isaac was trained as a scribe and she wished she could be; he, however, wanted to be a dockworker, which was an unacceptable occupation for a young Jewish male who studied the Torah. Both Velasquez children were independent in their desires.
When tragedy struck the life of Esther again, she was allowed to become the temporary scribe for the Rabbi until a more suitable male scribe could be found to take her place. She thrilled at the thought of being taken away from the household chores she shared with his wife Rivka and dreaded her return to rough and chapped hands from the washing and mending. When events interceded, requiring her to scribe for him for a longer period, to her delight, it turned into a more permanent need. Her life during that time is a subject of the investigation.
The history of the era, with the terror and violence of the Inquisition and the sickness and death wrought by the Plague is intensely interesting and detailed. The brutality and hatred wrought by the overt anti-Semitism is writ large on the page and the reader will learn of many heinous activities that they might not have known before, that Jews were subjected to, even in places where they were supposedly accepted. The ugly head of anti-Semitism from the Church and the populace seemed always ready to rear its head. Intolerance existed on both sides of the aisle, however, with rules for behavior that disadvantaged not only Jews, but non-Jews and all women as well.
The parallel story, some three and a half centuries later, is that of historian Helen Watt, a gentile whose specialty was Jewish history. It begins at the turn of the twenty first century. Helen’s right to engage in her profession as a non-Jew had often been tested. Professor Watt, in failing health and now about to retire, was asked by a former student Ian Easton, to take a look at a trove of documents found hidden under the stairs of his home, built in the 17th century. As it was undergoing renovation, papers had been found, possibly in what was called a Genizah, (a storage area in a Jewish synagogue for the purpose of storing old documents and books that mentioned God, until they could be buried). Helen was told that the documents, written in Portuguese and Hebrew, seemed old and were possibly written in the Hebrew language, perhaps to a Rabbi. She was enthralled with the idea of one last major discovery and decided to immediately go and investigate them before the university and/or Sotheby’s got their hands on them, possibly removing her access, but surely her great opportunity to discover and present the history and authorship of the documents. Helen suffered from Parkinson’s disease, so a post-grad student from her university, Aaron Levy, was asked to help. He was arrogant and often rude, but he worked with her and matures under her tutelage. Their relationship causes both of them to grow in different ways.
Soon after she and Aaron gained access to the documents, their study was also given to a group of post grads in the school, who were younger, had more influence and were more powerful than she, who was now being relegated to the old and feeble category. She was forced to work more slowly with only Aaron to help her. Still, they made many interesting discoveries which they, perhaps unfairly, withheld for themselves to investigate. The competition in their field was fierce and often a rush to judgment led to incorrect conclusions
The parallel stories enlighten the reader as to the early lives of both Ester and Helen, their lost loves, their challenges, their mistakes and their secrets. Though separated by three and a half centuries, their history, revealed in these pages, shares many similarities. Both women suffer from illnesses, both from unrequited love, both from a desire to learn and both face an environment not fully welcoming to the education and acceptance of women, although in the 21st century, much has changed.
At the time of the discovery, Helen Watts was working on a project she hoped would lead to the discovery of the whereabouts of Jews who had left England during the time of the plague from 1665-1667 and had not reappeared until a few years later. Where had they gone? She was not fully absorbed in the research. Aaron was working on his dissertation which was an investigation concerning the possibility of a connection between Shakespeare and Jews escaping the Inquisition in Elizabethan London, but he was unable to find the impetus to provide the energy or creativity to finish it. Could this discovery of a possible Genizah provide Helen and Aaron the answers to their own personal quests? Would the life of Esther Velasquez shed light on research projects for both of them, and in so doing alter their lives and views.
The history is very well researched and enlightening. There are many questions raised for the reader. Although the story is not true, many of the characters mentioned are real and many that aren’t are based on real people. The history is accurate, although the story is fiction