Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink gives us a partnership made in sitcom heaven: Helen Watt is a British gentile historian coming up on retirement age, friendless, unmarried, childless, forged in iron by decades of academic infighting. Aaron Levy is an American Jewish Ph.D. student dithering on a Shakespeare dissertation, unsure of every facet of his identity except for his canny way with women. When Helen stumbles on a trove of potentially valuable documents from 17th century London’s Jewish community, Aaron is sent by his advisor to help her translate and make sense of the find.
Their odd-couple mismatch is rather amusing, even in the early days of their work when neither of them particularly respects the other. But as Helen begins to defrost her exterior and Aaron stops trying to be charming all the time, they realize they’ve made an incredible historical find: evidence of a Jewish woman scribe and philosopher from the time of Spinoza, whose own narrative is interwoven with Helen’s and Aaron’s. Their book-long journey from terse coworkers to true colleagues, united by their investment in the history of this singular woman, is incredibly satisfying, especially for every student who has worried that their professor doesn’t like them.
At first, Aaron’s character feels almost like a parody of the cocksure, self-obsessed graduate student convinced of his own genius—as if he’s an inside joke for Kadish, perhaps based on someone she went to school with. It’s not easy to care much about Aaron early in the novel, as his first actions include flirting with the married owner of the house where the documents were found and writing an excessively long, smarmy email to an ex-flame explaining the work he’s doing with Helen. Of course, the email also functions as exposition for the reader, since the details of Jewish life in 17th century Europe are not exactly common knowledge, not to mention the minutiae of the relationships between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews during that time, Spinoza’s expulsion from the Jewish community in Amsterdam, and the relative levels of safety and status held by Jews in Portugal versus the Netherlands versus England. It’s perhaps the least painful manner in which Kadish can get all of the necessary background out of the way before digging into the real meat of her story.
And what meat it is. After all, The Weight of Ink is not merely Helen’s and Aaron’s story, set in 2001, but also that of Ester Velasquez, an orphan who writes letters for the blind rabbi who took her in and nourished her intellect, despite protestations that a woman shouldn’t be tutored in religious thinking and philosophy. As a result of having been born in the 17th century, alas, Ester’s days as the rabbi’s hands are numbered, as the Portuguese Jews living in London begin to push her to fulfill her duty to marry and have children, many of whom will likely die in infancy.
While Ester is presented as that rare gem—a young woman with her own mind who garners grudging respect from some men because she’s stubbornly different—
Kadish is careful not to condemn Ester’s eventual acquaintance with Mary, a daughter from a prominent family in the community, for not being excited by knowledge and intellectual debate. They’re both doing the best they can to survive and thrive within their unhappy situations as women in Tudor Europe; Ester by secretly reading the rabbi’s books and, eventually, writing to philosophers (including Spinoza) under a male pen name, and Mary by dolling herself up and dallying with stage actors who only want her money.
While Ester continually proclaims her lack of interest in romance and sex to both Mary and to her eventual suitor, swearing she will never marry, she’s revealed to be a quite a bit hypocritical in that regard, which, frankly, makes her more endearing and realistic. But when the plague hits London, shattering any veneer of stability, Ester has to figure out how to survive in the face of disease, and how to maintain her faith when confronted with angry Londoners looking to blame the city’s Jews for their troubles.
As Helen and Aaron translate and digest more and more of her story—told in secretive autobiographical writings written on copies of the rabbi’s correspondences—it’s clear that they become emotionally attached to Ester’s eventual triumph over the sheer impossibility of her situation, albeit in different ways. It’s perhaps unwise for historians to become so invested in their research subject managing a to have a happy ending, but it’s hard not to appreciate how Kadish fashions Ester almost as a merging of the two disparate threads that are Helen and Aaron’s lives. Helen sees in Ester a reflection of her own self-imposed isolation and love of learning for its own sake and clings to this research as one last hurrah in her academic career before she retires and becomes nothing more than a memory in her history department.
Meanwhile, Aaron finds himself relating to Ester’s own questioning and unsureness of the Jewish doctrines both have been taught all their lives, and to how Ester chafes at the expectations of those around her. Ester’s community wants her to marry and live the life of a traditional Jewish wife, while Aaron slowly becomes conscious of the pressures placed on him to play a certain role—whether it’s his rabbi father expecting him to be more pious, the aforementioned ex-flame who sees through his womanizing bullshit, or even Helen, who sees in him a reminder of the Jewish lover she left behind decades ago in Israel.
The key difference between Ester and Aaron, though, is that Ester knows who she is, while Aaron is terrified because he doesn’t know who he is, or who he will become. In the end, this research is in many ways all that Helen and Aaron have that is real, concrete, and meaningful, and so naturally, they hang their hopes on Ester’s chance at living a fulfilling life, and as the academic competitiveness merely touched upon in the beginning of the novel rears its ugly head, Kadish makes reading about people reading about history captivating and thrilling.
The Weight of Ink is a shining example of historical fiction’s best qualities: the combining of real-life events with imagination and emotion to create a story that has real “weight” and resonance. While the plot can get convoluted at times as it jumps from the 21st to the 17th century to a detour to the 20th century where we learn why Helen studies Jewish history, it’s absolutely worth following Helen, Aaron, and Ester on their journeys to self-discovery and fulfillment.
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