My husband and I both read The Second Half of the Night, by Shifra Cornfeld, in one breathless week, so excited about it that I can’t even recall who read it first and who passed it on to whom. Then we gave it to a friend. Then quickly took it back so we could give it to our mothers. It was a gift that had to keep moving, making the rounds, so that no one would be left out.
Cornfeld’s personal history is quickly becoming the stuff of lore to young Israelis. Before she became a published author, she was the winner of the first season of the Israeli version of the reality show Big Brother. On the show, she was always kind and friendly, but often ostracized as being too high-brow, intellectual, and sensitive. She exercised by climbing up and down the steps of the house the group was locked in; she cut her own bangs; she baked cookies and stored them away while saying things like, “There’s nothing that makes me happier than a cookie jar.” Contestants were not allowed to bring any entertainment into the house with them, so she knit tree-cozies in the back yard and used her hair clippers to cut up cornflakes boxes and make board games. Needless to say, I was enamored with her. She managed to tread the line between pop culture and counterculture. Her official reason for being on the show was that she needed the prize money, but she had star quality, and I’m sure she wanted to perform. After winning the contest, that’s what she did.
The Second Half of the Night is inspired by Cornfeld’s childhood in a closed-off, ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem. The novel is set on a mountain near the Wailing Wall, upon the rubble of a ruined Arab village, where Isruel Weisglass, a self-proclaimed rabbi, builds a settlement for his sect of Jewish believers. An expert in fundraising and finagling, he preys mainly on American Jews visiting Jerusalem, be they young travelers looking for adventure or aging hippies searching for an answer. He lures them to join his community of believers and Torah learners through the seductive powers of spiritual validation, donation-based living, and an ongoing supply of marijuana, nicknamed simches—from Yiddish: joy, good times—by the mountain dwellers.
Slowly but surely, the believers gather and families are formed. Shimshon, one of the first men to join the community, and the rabbi’s second-in-command, subsists on simches and sex. He welcomes each new woman to the mountain by taking her to bed, issuing a warning upon her departure to keep the encounter to herself, lest she ruin her chances of finding a husband. But Shimshon gradually loses his mind. He becomes obsessed with Deborah, one of the only truly free-spirited and happy girls in the community. Deborah isn’t interested in Shimshon, though. She’s interested in roughhousing with boys, reading secular novels in hiding, and in Ruben, the son of Rabbi Weisglass from a previous marriage, come to join the community after being deserted by his father back in Brooklyn.
While the plot is engaging and moving, the true magic of this book, to me, lies in its magnetic atmosphere and its brilliant language. The book straddles a dichotomy: on the one hand, the fantastical setting of the mountain overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem—surrounded by jackals and moonlight, the evocative music of prayer, and a sweet cloud of weed—sounds like the closest one could get to heaven. But like any cult, what lies beneath are the rotting, wretched self-interests of its leaders—in this case, the development and expansion of the community at the expense of its individual members. The plot would be outrageous if I didn’t know, as an Israeli, that such zealous religious sects, putting the purported will of god over the basic rights of its followers, are very much a part of reality.
The language is also cross-cultural: often a mélange of Hebrew, English, and Yiddish within the same sentence—the language of observant American Jews uprooted to the Holy Land. “Ma mekomo ba-history shel ha-Jewish Nation?” (“What is his place in the history of the Jewish Nation?”), for instance, or “Ze lo she’ata kaze groise catch, Mister Isruel!” (“It’s not like you’re such a groise (great) catch, Mister Isruel!”). New York becomes New Yerk, the Yeshiva Pitchon Olam becomes pishoyeshiva, the Ashkenazi Hebrew pronunciations cloaking even the most modern and shallow things in mysticism.
The narrator seems to be the entire community—involved, engaged, perceptive. The narrative voice is opinionated, too. This is apparent in statements such as: “… the number of offspring running around the rabbi’s wife—we won’t count them now, kein-eyne-hure, against the evil eye,” “He was especially fond of the Asian girls, mostly because no Jews hail from China, and for several other reasons—but the honor of the rabbi he is about to become prevents us from elaborating.” This narrative device is reminiscent of European shtetl tales. It pulls readers in with the innocent, naïve voice, only to then make them accomplices to the corrupt and inhumane nature of the cult. Traditional folk tales of small town Jewish life become the story of disillusionment about ultra-Orthodox Israel.
Shifra Cornfeld was a surprise—it would have been so easy to write her off as just another celebrity writer, using her clout to get published, had she not turned out to be so brilliant. Just as she elegantly crosses and recrosses the boundaries between pop culture and her own complicated heritage and craft, so does this book shift readers between the fantasy and reality of sacred life.