This world is a magical place, muses Rabbi Sara Brandes in Magical World: Stories, Reflections, Poems, her beautiful compilation of memoir, poetry, homily, and instruction. Brandes invites us to discover the magic of our world by witnessing the magic that’s enveloped her own. In gentle, inviting prose and buoyant, rhythmic verse, she transports us from her childhood in California to her coming of age in Israel. We join her as she meets her intended at summer camp, reawakens her spirit in India, and eventually makes a home for herself and her family on kibbutz. Along each stage of this journey, Brandes pulls back the curtain, inviting us to behold the magic behind the mundane. We glimpse this magic in childhood memories, spiraling DNA, soil, sun, and the lover’s embrace. We taste this magic in loaves of fresh baked bread kneaded with our own two hands.
Though Brandes has studied an array of wisdom traditions, she is first and foremost a rabbi. She has come to teach us Torah. Magical World is peppered with Biblical, Rabbinic, and Kabbalistic teachings, from musings on the Creation Story to essays on Jewish observance to an entire section devoted to the Jewish ritual of sefirat ha’omer. Though delivered in her typically fluid prose, some of these sections feel disconnected from the rest of the book, as if Brandes penned a memoir and then stuck looseleaf sermons between the memoir’s bound pages. Especially regarding the section on sefirat ha’omer, I longed to hear how she weaves this Jewish wisdom with the lessons of her life. If Kabbalah teaches, “to be humble is to know that you are always, exactly where you belong,” how did Brandes employ this teaching to help her during her many moments of angst, longing, and displacement? Brandes doesn’t tell us, but I imagine her answers would enlighten and inspire.
Brandes is not only a rabbi, but a religious Zionist, and Magical World serves as an ode to her Promised Land. From her early decades spent in Diaspora, Brandes describes herself as someone hungry to break the shackles of spiritual enslavement, to move towards a more authentic, embodied, and grounded existence. “I want to live in the real world. In a world where everything is real. Real Spoon. Real Chair. Real Light. Real Air,” she writes. She contrasts exilic artifice with the redemptive authenticity of her present life on kibbutz. “For me, our American dreams of personal picket fences separating nuclear family units—felt much more like a prison than a palace,” she writes. “The kibbutz environment, of little homes, surrounded by porches made for tea and visiting, redefines the privacy/openness questions entirely. Here, we are together. We just are.” For Brandes, the entire world may be full of magic, but the Holy Land allows us, us Jews at least, to get up from our seats and participate in the magic ourselves.
“Sing your song,” Brandes invites us. “You are the only one who knows the tune.” Above all, Magical World is Brandes’ song, a cascading melody that envelops the reader in wonder, warmth and compassion. Again and again, I found myself finishing a chapter of her song and looking up past the page, prose and verse echoing in my ears, my eyes soft and searching. Magical World inspires me to sing along, to engage the magic of the world myself.
(This review was originally published in The Times of Israel: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/book-review-magical-world-by-rabbi-sara-brandes/)