Local rabbi presents ancient Israel through the lens of magical realism in first book

Rena Blumenthal (photo by Lauren Thomas)

When someone publishes their first novel, the assumption might be that it’s the realization of a long-held dream. But that’s not really how it happened for Rena Blumenthal, a New Paltz-based freelance rabbi who recently published her fictional novel, The Book of Israela (Wipf and Stock Publishers, Resource Publications imprint, 2018).

“It just kind of happened,” she says of the book’s publication, noting that the first draft was written during her first year of rabbinical school, as a final paper for a year-long class on Biblical civilization. After graduating and taking a position at Vassar as assistant director of the college’s Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, Blumenthal found herself that first summer off with time to fill and the desire to work on a good summer project.

“I thought about this piece I’d written, and wondered if I could revisit it. It was more like a novella at that point, but I had a great conversation with a professor of creative writing at Vassar and he was really helpful in telling me how to take it from here to there. Every summer I would work two or three weeks on it, and it kept getting bigger and fatter, and now, many years later, here we are! It was a slow but kind of fun process.”

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To those who ask what she plans to write about next, her response is swift and decisive. “I’m not writing any more novels! People tell me, ‘Oh of course you will,’ but no, I’m not. Writing is not my field. I’m thrilled that it happened and I’m having fun with it, but I have no intention of writing another novel. I know you should never say ‘never,’ but I don’t think I will.”

In writing The Book of Israela, Blumenthal utilized elements of magical realism as well as knowledge gleaned during her first career as a clinical psychologist. The protagonist, Kobi Benami, is a middle-aged psychologist working in Jerusalem in 2002 at the height of the second intifada. His life is a mess: his wife threw him out for his casual philandering, his daughter won’t speak to him and the new clinic director where he works has placed him on probation for his indifferent work habits.

When Benami gets a new patient, Israela, he finds her story to be full of uncanny biblical references and mysteries. She has a powerful and enigmatic husband, Y, who may or may not exist. According to the book’s synopsis, “Israela hasn’t seen Y in months, but she is being stalked by his prophet-like emissaries who span a wide spectrum of Israeli society – Orthodox to secular, right-wing settlers to left-wing urban elites – united only in their harsh condemnation of Israela, fierce devotion to Y, and connection to The Outstretched Arm, a sinister organization purported to be run by Y.”

Benami’s surreal encounters with his new patient force him to question everything… “to confront his own dysfunctional life patterns, his family’s tragic past and the endless war that rages around him.”

While the story is fictional, it takes place in a real time and place and the things that happen around the characters are real events, says Blumenthal. Magical realism comes into play through the character of Israela. “She’s ancient Israel made human,” the author explains. “The main character is having an encounter with ancient Israel in the person of this woman who comes to him as a patient.”

There is a sustained bit of Biblical metaphor that runs throughout the book that readers attuned to Biblical stories will enjoy finding the parallels, but Blumenthal says the reader does not need to understand those allusions to enjoy the story and understand what happens.

Elting Memorial Library will host an author talk with Rena Blumenthal on Thursday, April 4 at 7 p.m. The reading is co-sponsored by Inquiring Minds bookstore, which has copies of The Book of Israela in the shop now, as does Barner Books. The library also has a copy available to borrow.

A reading was held recently at the Jewish Community Center to which some 30 people came, says Blumenthal, despite the frigid weather. “We had a wonderful discussion, about the nature of God and religious sexism and all kinds of big, important issues; I was really thrilled.”

Blumenthal has lived in New Paltz for 15 years and says she feels “very, very supported” here by the community’s embrace of her book. From New York City originally – she grew up in Queens and later attended Barnard College in Manhattan and Fordham University in the Bronx before living in Brooklyn for many years – Blumenthal says she always wanted to live in a small town. “And to live in such a beautiful place is a blessing. When I left rabbinical school in Philadelphia, I said, ‘I’m not even going to glance at jobs in the big cities,’ because I was determined to live someplace beautiful. No offense to New York, but I’m so happy to not be in a big city anymore.”

As a clinical psychologist, she worked with people of all ages in New York City and Jerusalem, in school settings and various types of clinical situations. Moving to New Paltz in 2003 for the job at Vassar, Blumenthal stayed there for 11 years working with the leadership of the Jewish student group called the Vassar Jewish Union and helping them develop Jewish life on campus. “We also did a lot of interreligious work, helping develop programming across groups and exploring larger issues. There was some one-on-one work with students, but it was a lot more about leadership development than traditional pastoral counseling.”

Blumenthal is now semi-retired, working as a freelance rabbi. This involves officiating at many weddings, she notes, and consulting with campuses looking to grow Jewish life or just explore the role of religion on college campuses. She also works at Marist, and will be teaching there in the fall.

In addition, Blumenthal leads a regular (almost monthly) alternative Shabbat morning service for the local congregation in New Paltz and leads the junior congregation every month. Her ordination in 2003 came from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She is a member and former board member of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, a member of the Rabbis Without Borders network, and a graduate of the rabbinic training program of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. Blumenthal authored a chapter on Jewish chaplaincy in College & University Chaplaincy in the 21st Century, a text which is used in the training of college chaplains, published in October, 2018.

For more information, visit http://www.renablumenthal.com/.

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