Book review: From Iran to the U.S. from Yemen to Israel

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

For some American Jews of Ashkenazic origin, Sephardic Judaism still seems exotic and foreign. Religious customs – from holiday foods to life cycle events – are just dissimilar enough for many to be fascinated by the differences. That’s partly the attraction of two recent novels – “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.” by Gina B. Nahai (Akashic Books) and “Henna House” by Nomi Eve (Scribner) – although each work stands on its own merits.

The family complications that form the plot of “The Luminous Heart” are dizzying in number, following the Soleymans through good times and bad in Iran and the United States. The impetus for the action is the murder of Raphael’s Son, who is universally disliked not only by members of his family, but the Los Angeles Iranian community-at-large. For 40 years, Raphael’s Son (which is his legal name) has claimed to be the true heir to the Soleyman fortunes, something the rest of the family has denied. The Los Angeles detective in charge of the murder case – who hides his own Iranian heritage – has far too many suspects and an agenda of his own.

Although the novel begins with a mystery, the whodunit aspect is the least interesting part. In addition to the fascinating, convoluted family history, Nahai does a wonderful job discussing her characters’ feeling of cultural shock when faced with a new world. For example, “the poet who forsakes the language in which he writes, the writer who becomes uncomprehending and incomprehensible in his new country. What do they find in their place of refuge, in the eyes of their neighbors, but a blank slate? A pencil sketch of a person with no name, no past, no way to define himself without the colors and hues in which he had been painted before.” Some immigrants seeks to reinvent themselves, while others attempt to reproduce Iranian culture in the U.S.

The gap between families increases as the older generation of Iranians clings to the concept of aabehroo. Nahai defines the term as “the impression that others hold of an individual’s virtue and respectability. To have aabehroo means that the world holds the person in high esteem. To lose it – or, more literally, have it leave the person – means he will live in shame unless he somehow manages to get his aabehroo back. You may be born with aabehroo because of your family history, bu holding on to it requires a great deal of restraint and self-sacrifice.” The generation that came of age in the U.S. treats the concept with disdain, believing that personal happiness outweighs what they owe to the community.

“The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.” also contains aspects of magical realism – from a curse caused by a “widow’s sigh” to the mysterious disappearance of dead bodies. None of this distracts, though, from the very human emotions that run through the tale. In fact, I was surprised to discover just how much I came to care about the Soleymans. It’s the family connections – the true Iranian heritage – that is the luminous heart of the novel.

While Nahai’s Los Angeles and Tehran feel modern, the 1920s Yemen featured in “Henna House” belongs to another era – a medieval one. Its first-person narrator, 5-year-old Adela Damari, lives with her ill father and unloving mother in a small village. Adela dreads each of her father’s coughing spells and lives in fear of the Orphan’s Decree: If her father dies, she will be forced to leave her family and convert to Islam – that is, unless she is married. Attempts to find a match for Adela fail – in fact, some believe she’s cursed – until her male cousin, Asaf, comes to the village with his father. Then another cousin – this time a girl named Hani – arrives with her family and introduces Adela to the mysteries of henna – the temporary dyes Middle Eastern women use to decorate their skin. The plot follows Adela as she matures, focusing on the sorrows and joys she experiences over the course of her life, including the establishment of the state of Israel.

Although the opening of “Henna House” drew me into the story, the plot bogs down in the central part of the novel. The sections focusing on henna – its different uses, designs and styles – were interesting at first, but soon grew repetitive, except for those that dealt directly with the plot. Readers do learn a great deal about the antisemitism found in 1920s Yemen, the depth of which might surprise them: For example, “the Iman’s Dung Carrier Decrees relegated Jews to the jobs of refuse and carrion collectors. The Donkey Decree forbade the Jews of the North from riding horses. Instead, my father, brothers and our friends could ride only donkeys, and they couldn’t even ride our donkey, Pishtish, like hearty men; instead they were forced to ride sidesaddle, which limited their ability to travel. There was also the House Decree, which forbade us from building houses as tall as the house of our Muslim neighbors. And the Walkers Decree, which forbade us from walking on the same side of the street as a Muslim.” These paled, though, beside the fear caused by the Orphan’s Decree, which gave Jewish or Christian children without fathers to Muslim families. These historical sections are among the best parts of the novel.

“Henna House” may find its audience with book groups, particularly those interested in women’s lives and unfamiliar customs. It would be an excellent match for a combined book review/henna party evening.