Tag Archives: Coney Island

Highly original novel explores the damage that false spiritual gurus can inflict

The Kabbalah Master, by Perle Besserman. Monkfish. 202 pages. Trade paperback $15.95.

Besserman has penned a fascinating portrait of an insecure Jewish woman, Sharon Berg, who in her mid-thirties becomes infatuated with a somewhat charismatic spiritual leader. Rabbi Albert Joachim is the head of The Center for Mystical Judaism; Sharon studies there and becomes a slave to her “Kabbalah Master.” She works long hours for little pay and scant attention. 

Sharon’s life had run aground. Divorced, with two children, and with few prospects, she is easy prey to her own imagination. Her needs are projected on an imagined version of a caring Rabbi Joachim who seems to be simply using her. Sharon fantasizes that he will return her love. Perhaps divorce his wife and marry her.

Unable to properly parent her children, she had invited her mother to move in and help out. This situation has an upside and a downside.

Set in Brooklyn’s Coney Island and other sections of New York, The Kabbalah Master offers a rich ethnic taste. Its temporal setting is 1972, a time of social change and continuing experimentation initiated in the 1960s. Perle Bessemer knows the territory and handles it with authority.

Sharon, a somewhat time-worn nice Jewish girl, is desperate for validation. Enter Junior Cantana. Junior is seven years younger than Sharon and gives the first impression of being much younger than that. Their meeting is fortuitous. To Sharon’s eyes, he has movie star looks. He is polite, caring, and alternates between seeming vulnerable and sure of himself. There is a genuine attraction between this couple.

However, they have backgrounds that put pressure on a possible relationship. What is Sharon doing, she imagines others saying, flirting with this younger man. She wonders herself. The image of Rabbi Joachim flits through her mind, his gravitas, learning, and remarkable allure so much in contrast to Junior’s aura. Lots of little things define him. “He smelled pleasantly of trees in the rain.” Sharon has always believed her destiny is to marry a Jewish man, to raise Jewish children, and to deepen her Jewish knowledge and identity.  She had already attempted that life, and though the Jewish children are still there, the husband is gone.

Can she really flourish in a relationship with this Italian-American Vietnam War veteran? Is her attraction to him a counterbalance to her adoration of Rabbi Joachim? Won’t she always seem an old lady in his circle of friends?


Rabbi Joachim is not present for a substantial part of the novel. He is off visiting his wife and children in Israel. Jewish mysticism, however, continues to be represented by a neighborhood occult book store owned and run by Seymour Priceman. He is also Rabbi Joachim’s publisher. An astute businessman, he admits to having absolutely no personal interest in the concerns of the books he sells and publishes.

Ms. Bessemer, through Priceman’s stance, suggests that most who dabble in mysticism, Jewish or otherwise, are charlatans. Clearly enough, in the author’s view, many are. And in that group, perhaps, is Rabbi Joachim, whose writings on the curative powers of herbs are under attack. The “clover cure” has caught the attention of the FDA.

And yet Priceman, who is as publisher is likely to be sued, is willing to believe that Rabbi Joachim is sincere, although misguided in his enthusiasms.

There is a lot to like about this book. Many chapters read like detachable vignettes of New York life, the main characters peripheral to others who populate these scenes. These sections are not at all distracting; rather they set Sharon into a larger, richer, and more complex cultural environment.

Moreover, though the story’s main thrust aligns with serious current concerns about false, manipulating gurus taking advantage of women, readers will find a smile on the author’s face. The book is rich with a wise and unexpected humor.

Will Sharon be able to build a new life for herself? Read the book and make your own decision.

About the Author:

Recipient of the Theodore Hoepfner Fiction Award and past writer-in-residence at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Artists’ Colony in Jerusalem, Pushcart Prize-nominee Perle Besserman was praised by Isaac Bashevis Singer for the “clarity and feeling for mystic lore” of her writing and by Publisher’s Weekly for its “wisdom [that] points to a universal practice of the heart.” Houghton Mifflin published her autobiographical novel Pilgrimage, and her short fiction has appeared in The Southern Humanities Review, AGNI, Transatlantic Review, Nebraska Review, Southerly, North American Review, and Bamboo Ridge, among others. Her books have been recorded and released in both audio and e-book versions and translated into over ten languages. Her most recent books of creative non-fiction are A New Zen for Women (Palgrave Macmillan) and Zen Radicals, Rebels, and Reformers, coauthored with Manfred Steger (Wisdom Books). Two novels, Kabuki Boy, and Widow Zion, and Yeshiva Girl, a story collection, are available from Aqueous Books, Pinyon Publishing, and Homebound Publishing, respectively.

A Q&A with Perle Besserman, author of The Kabbalah Master: A Novel

When did you start writing?

I published my first story when I was 9.

What inspired you?

I was trained as an actor, singer, and dancer from an early age, so my life as a performer influenced my vision of life as a narrative filled with multiple characters and situations calling for expression.

Where do those characters and stories come from?

They are enacted on the stage of my imagination, my dreams, and my memories, similarly to what William Butler Yeats described as a sort of mediumistic trance.

What was your childhood like?

My parents were both storytellers.  Books, movies, and the arts in general were the basis for the life drama enacted at home—a perfect maelstrom of love and conflict between creativity and Jewish orthodoxy.

Why write about Kabbalah? 

It was part of my spiritual search; I also made trips around the world and wrote books about “Oriental Mysticism”, and women’s spirituality (The Way of Witches). I sat with Tibetan and Sufi teachers and found my home, finally, in Zen.

How do you feel about writing in the digital age?

I start out with a problem, so I can’t answer that question objectively.  Years ago, when first working on a computer, I discovered that my electromagnetic field was antithetical to computers and most digital devices. Things got so crazy, when I was teaching at Illinois State University, that my department chair had to bring in the IT staff to see why I was killing the list serve, and why my syllabi couldn’t get downloaded. Anyway, the IT people tested me (a couple of Bell Labs physicists had studied the problem years before) and found that I was among 4 % of the population with that electromagnetic field problem.  So, all I can say, is that, my creative urge, the characters and situations demanding to be written, are still alive and well–despite my fraught relationship with the digital age.

 Who are among your favorite authors? 

James Joyce; Flaubert; Dickens; the Brontes; Alice Munro; W.B. Yeats; Homer . . . In spite of his solipsism and sexism, I kind of like Karl Ove Knausgaard; and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to name a few.

 Where do you get your material?

The stage of my imagination is filled with characters and stories needing to be told.  I tune in and listen.  Sometimes that stage is bare, so I have to stay quiet and respectfully wait for the characters and their stories to enter.

This review, along with the biographical information and interview, appear in the June 2018 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).




Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

Grandpa Jake (from “Bookbinders”)


Originally published in WordWrights, Fall/Winter 1997. See also “Butterfly Dress,” the first in the series: https://philjason.wordpress.com/2010/10/03/butterfly-dress/

Grandpa Jake

Two or three of his fingers were missing. Just nubs remained. He had lost them, so I’d been told, over the long years working in butcher shops. These nubs were not scarred or ugly, but smoothly rounded over. I imagined how they helped him knead the muscles of clients in the Turkish baths where he worked. He had for some time now been a masseur in Manhattan and Coney Island, going down into those primitive caverns of rejuvenation whose tiled walls echoed Yiddish in the dizzying heat. How do I know this? Surely he had taken me into them, places with names like Luxor, airless rooms that looked like flooded subway stations. Steam, clouds of huge white towels, glistening tiles, rumbling voices of business and prayer and the pleasure of pampered muscles. Places without women.

But I didn’t visit him in the city very often. And he wasn’t always easy for my mother to find. Separated for a long time from Grandma Ida, he drifted from one rooming house to another near the Coney Island boardwalk. He wouldn’t stray too far from the baths that were his source of livelihood, and others who worked there knew his whereabouts. He was often drunk, his eyes misty, and even when marginally sober, his liquored breath made me want to back away – and he saw it, the bit of fear in my eyes; and I saw him seeing it, the pain in his.

My mother was the oldest child and the first to escape the city. Soon after the close of WWII, she and father had bought a small house in Oceanside on the south shore of Long Island. It was one of those many communities that sprang up to accommodate returning veterans. We still had the pre-war Buick through the remainder of the 1940s.

When the days began to grow warm, my father would come back from the city on Friday nights with Grandpa Jake in tow. I’d jump up on the running board to greet them. When Grandpa picked me up and took me around in a big Romanian hug, I’d feel the nubs pressing into my back, wondering whether they had some special power. He’d grin his teary grin, and I’d stretch my neck and turn my face away from his mouth. Sometimes he’d stay for a week or two. Mother had set up an attic guest room for him.

I don’t how we talked or what we talked about. Even at 7 or 8, a bright American kid, I had treasures of school fact that would mean nothing to him. I had baseball, scouts. He had memories. You could tell that he had memories, but no language. His English, which carried no nuance or detail – no full sentence structures – was less than my skeletal Yiddish. Yet something flowed between us, and I learned his songs and jokes, whiles his eyes filmed over and I swam in them.

We’d go fishing together.

As I watched him rebait hooks, heft sinkers, and cast his line, I also watched those damaged hands in all their deftness. He worked an odd magic. And when he’d take out his fishing knife to filet and clean the catch, my head swam and I’d grasp the railing on the fishing pier. I knew how he lost those fingers, and yet he took no special care as he severed heads and drew out spines. Sometimes the fish went home heads and all. He was from a world in which fish heads were good eating.

Several summers passed like this: days at the beach; days with friends on bicycles wandering (without permission) up toward the distant, mysterious North Shore; afternoons running lemonade stands or engrossed in comic books; evening hours in friends’ homes as one and then another neighbor got that new miracle – the television set. And days with Grandpa at some favorite fishing spot – a bridge or pier stretched over an ocean inlet. Wordless companions in the damp salt air, our shadows moved in tandem under the slowly arcing sun.

By the early 1950s, we saw Grandpa Jake less and less. He was pretty much a vagrant by then, and mother was busy enough with her husband and children. In 1951 we got a sleek 1950 Plymouth and she learned to drive. Soon after, I had paper routes and started Junior High. By the time we left Oceanside in 1954 and moved to the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., Grandpa had vanished into a cavern of vapory memories, an eerie dream of piled towels, truncated fingers, fish, whiskey, and Roumania, Roumania, Roumania resounding off the tiles.

There is a picture of Grandpa Jake in my 1962 wedding album, hunted down and cleaned up for the occasion, a tuxedoed stranger in our midst. But I knew something had ended for us back in 1949.


Filed under Musings