Title: The Thirteenth Gate
Israel Bookshop Publications
In The Thirteenth Gate, Ester Zirkind takes us through a gripping journey of one family’s inter-generational turmoil. The novel opens with the mystery of a run-down vehicle abandoned on the side of the road near Jerusalem; an unseen phone beeping from within. This scene serves as a backdrop for a series of haunting encounters from both past and present-day.
This is a brave book, and a very important one. Perhaps it should come with a warning that it may trigger a strong reminder of the work we need to do to accept our perfectly imperfect lives.
The author shows us the complexities of parents raising their children while still in the grips of their own secrets and regrets. (And who, among us, is free of them?) We meet characters who are so alive on the pages, it’s easy to forget that The Thirteenth Gate is a work of fiction. Because, on many levels it isn’t.
Ester Zirkind shows us what happens when the-things-we-just-don’t-talk-about implode relationships. She also makes it clear how critical it is for adults to craft good memories for the children they influence.
The Thirteenth Gate weaves seamlessly between past and present. A recurrent theme is that even when we move across the world, sad histories and the damage they caused can stain even the most ambitious fresh start. Unless one is willing to ask hard questions and face uneasy truths.
We meet Aaron as a preschooler on a chair, reaching for a brightly colored package and tumbling to the floor. A furious teacher, “‘Thief!” she cries, in a pitch too high to bear. “This is what you are, Aaron Bulman! A little thief.” And, “If you don’t watch out, that is what you will grow up to be!’”
We see how desperately a father pins his hopes on his only son and how quickly everything he builds can be destroyed “…He bashed the bedroom door and found his son still in his bed, blinking as he sat up, unready and unwilling to play a role in whatever was supposed to happen… ‘I wish you had never been born.!’ Thwack, the third strike. ‘Oy, Tatte, Tatte!’”
The author’s skill at portraying multiple layers of trauma gives this book great depth. We see the long-lasting effects of the shame imposed on family members for something they didn’t do. “Sima remembered slinking off to the side, forever left wondering if Mrs. P. simply hadn’t seen her or if she had been deliberately turning her into a persona non grata.” And a generation later, her teenage daughter’s sense of betrayal. “Deep down, I think, I have always known that there was something wrong with us. With our family…”
We follow the family across continents, through dramatic twists and rich discoveries. One of my favorite quotes is when Aaron once tries to explain his childhood, “‘Y’know that moment when you’re a kid, and someone pushes you in the recess yard and knocks you over? That instant when you have not yet made contact with the ground. You know what will happen, yet you cannot escape… and there’s not a thing you can do about it…’”
The Thirteenth Gate takes its title from the gateway that will be opened for those who are unsure which of the twelve gates – for the twelve sons of Yaakov and their families – they should walk through. In the days of Moshiach, this gate will be filled with those who are learning, in Ester Zirkind’s words, “…how to use failings as a mechanism for growth and connection.”
This book is both a thriller and a work that evokes contemplation, which is why I read it twice. The first time, I turned the pages quickly, eager to find out what happened next. The second time, I read carefully, savoring the language, the brilliance of the interactions, and the skillful buildup of tragic events against enduring love and hope.