Montreal novelist peers at Kabbalah in an old hood

Writer Sigal Samuel is something of a world traveler. After graduating from McGill University in her native Montreal, she journeyed cross-country to Vancouver to earn her MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia.

Before that, she studied for two years in Israel — first at a yeshiva, then at Hebrew University — and then this past year, she was drawn to Mumbai to learn more about her family’s ties to the old Baghdadi Jewish community of India.

But perhaps Samuel’s biggest journey has occurred over the past five years, when she immersed herself in writing “The Mystics of Mile End,” her just-published first novel that tackles an expanse far wider than that of Canada and India combined: the universe.

Sigal Samuel

But it takes place closer to home in the half-Hassidic, half-hipster Montreal neighborhood of Mile End, several miles from where Samuel grew up in the largely Jewish suburb of Côte-Saint-Luc (“Côte-Saint-Jew,” she joked).

Samuel will discuss her book and her literary odyssey at San Francisco’s Jewish Community Library on Wednesday, Oct. 28.

In lyrical, soulful prose, she combines the story of the sad, broken-down Meyer family, characters who are seeking answers to life’s meaning some years after a personal tragedy, with a serious inquiry into the practice of Jewish mysticism, or Kabbalah.

This would be a heady topic for even the most seasoned of fiction writers, but at 28, Samuel, now based in New York as the opinion editor at the Forward, seems to have the right street cred. She grew up attending Jewish schools and studied philosophy and religion as an undergrad, completing a dissertation that compared the theory of art in the writings of German philosopher Martin Heidegger with that found in the rabbinic Midrash.

“They are astoundingly similar,” said Samuel, who has also worked as a Talmud tutor.

“The Mystics of Mile End” by Sigal Samuel (William Morrow, 320 pages)

Academic qualifications aside, the study of Kabbalah is in her blood. Her father, Michael Samuel, is a former professor at Montreal’s Concordia University, where he taught Jewish mysticism. And in an incident worthy of kabbalistic scrutiny, she recently discovered that one of her great-great-grandfathers was a revered Jewish mystic scholar who ran the Beit Kabbalah in Mumbai.

 Was this newly acquired information a mere accident or coincidence?

“There are things we’re not always conscious of,” she said, “from the moment we are born.”

While Samuel may wax philosophical and encourage others to dig deeply into the beauty and mysteries of the Kabbalah, she also understands why many traditional Jewish scholars have advised against studying it before the age of 40.

“The Kabbalah is so sacred as to be considered dangerous,” she said. Kabbalists are on a quest to “ascend to God, to be one with God, and that can mean shedding human relationships.”

In “The Mystics of Mile End,” Samuel explores these kabbalistic dangers among those who love each other but choose divergent paths in their quest for the divine, whether it’s climbing the proverbial Tree of Life or investigating gematria, the practice of ascribing numeric values to the Hebrew alphabet. But the writer never loses sight of the earthiness of her characters, which not only include a son and daughter and their widowed father, but also the Mile End neighborhood itself.

For Samuel, Mile End is something of a heaven on earth, where hipsters in paint-splattered T-shirts and holey jeans share quaint streets with men in long black coats and fur hats and women with sheitels (wigs). It’s a place where you can nosh on the best bagels in the country while imagining that you’re walking the same blocks as some of the city’s most illustrious Jews, past and present (think Mordecai Richler, Leonard Cohen and William Shatner).

The juxtaposition of Hassid and boho appealed to her because it allows her as a self-avowed outsider — a Mizrachi Jew in an Ashkenazi world, an Anglophone in French-speaking Quebec, a Canadian in New York — to peer more closely at others on the fringes.

“I have straddled a lot of fences,” she said.

Sigal Samuel
will appear at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 28 at the Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. Free.


Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.