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67 pages 2 hours read

Rachel Kadish

The Weight of Ink

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2017

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

The Weight of Ink is a historical novel by the Jewish American author Rachel Kadish. It was published in 2017, and won the Jewish National Book Award in the Book Club category in the same year. The novel tells the story of two historians uncovering the secret history of a young Jewish woman living in London in the 1660s, and features alternating storylines set in the 21st and 17th centuries. The novel explores themes of resilience, agency, and forbidden love.

This guide uses the 2018 Mariner Books edition.

Plot Summary

The novel begins in England in November 2000. Helen Watt is a British historian who specializes in the history of Jews in 17th-century England. She receives a call from a former student who owns a historical house in Richmond (considered to be part of modern London, but originally its own town). When renovations in the house began, papers and documents dating back to the 1600s were uncovered. Helen immediately realizes that this is a rare and valuable find. She enlists the help of a young American graduate student named Aaron Levy to help her review the documents.

Helen and Aaron quickly realize that the documents include letters written by a notable rabbi and scholar, HaCoen Mendes. Mendes was a Portuguese Jew who fled to Amsterdam to escape religious persecution, eventually becoming an important figure in the 17th-century London Jewish community. Since Mendes was blind, he required a scribe; Helen and Aaron are astonished to realize that a young woman served as his scribe and had access to his philosophical and religious scholarship.

Helen and Aaron become allies in racing to uncover the story of Mendes’s scribe, Ester; they are both also grappling with their own secrets and regrets. Helen is coming to the end of her academic career and has Parkinson’s disease; she often thinks back regretfully to a relationship from her past. In 1954, Helen spent time in Israel, where she fell in love with a Jewish man named Dror. Despite their love for one another, Helen chose to return to England and focus on her studies because she feared they would never truly be able to understand one another. Aaron is struggling with his thesis and feels purposeless; he also pines for a woman named Marisa, with whom he had a brief relationship before she left to travel to Israel.

An alternating narrative, set in London in the 1600s, tells the story of Ester Velazquez from her own point of view. Ester was born to a Portuguese Jewish family who had taken refuge in Amsterdam. Growing up in an unconventional and often unhappy family, she received a much better education than most girls would. After their parents died in a fire, Ester and her brother moved to London in 1657 with Rabbi HaCoen Mendes and his housekeeper, a woman named Rivka. Ester’s brother, Isaac, rebelled and ran away, and Ester began to work as a scribe for Rabbi Mendes. Ester also eventually acted as the companion to Mary da Costa Mendes, the daughter of the rabbi’s nephew.

As years passed, Rabbi Mendes began to fear that he was corrupting Ester by allowing her to read, study, and work as a scribe. He encouraged Ester to marry and turn to a more traditional life. By this time, however, Ester could not abandon her autonomy and intellectual pursuits. She refused to marry, and around 1665, began to secretly write her own letters and documents, exploring her own interests in philosophical and theological questions. To protect her identity, Ester often wrote under a male name. In order to persuade the rabbi to allow her to begin scribing again, Ester even invented a supposed theological crisis in a Jewish community in Florence. Ester believed that love and marriage would bar her from the intellectual life she loved, so she repeatedly declined offers of marriage from a wealthy Jewish man named Manuel HaLevy, who admired Ester’s confidence and stubbornness. Ester also began to fall in love with a young Englishman named John Tilbury.

In the summer of 1665, plague broke out in London, and many individuals fled the city in hopes of avoiding the disease. Rabbi Mendes was too sick to travel, and Ester refused to leave him, even though both John and Manuel urged her to come away with them. Ester was also concerned about the fate of her friend Mary, who had gotten pregnant as a result of an affair with an English actor named Thomas Farrow. After the death of Rabbi Mendes, Ester moved in with Mary in an effort to keep her safe; she cared for Mary while she died of plague.

Eventually, after enduring her own illness and antisemitic threats, Ester made her way to Richmond, where a wealthy man named Benjamin HaLevy had a home. Benjamin was the father of Ester’s suitor, Manuel, and although Manuel died in the plague, Ester persuaded Benjamin to marry her to his other son, Alvaro. Alvaro was gay, so the marriage provided both Alvaro and Ester with companionship and respectability, while they protected each other’s secrets.

Secure in Richmond with her husband, Ester lived for nearly another 30 years, actively writing to many important philosophers under assumed male identities. When she died in 1691, she wanted Alvaro to burn all of her papers, but he refused to do so, and hid them in the house instead. Using these uncovered documents as clues, Aaron and Helen gradually piece together Ester’s story. They come to have great respect for a woman who defied her time and took so many risks to pursue an intellectual life.

Eventually, satisfied that Ester’s story will be shared with the world, Helen chooses to die by suicide rather than experience slowly declining health. She leaves a cache of Ester’s documents to Aaron. Aaron, who has learned that Marisa is pregnant with his child, plans to write a dissertation on Ester’s writings. He also wants to research the possibility that Ester may have been the secret granddaughter of William Shakespeare.

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