Tuesday, January 17, 2017
BOOK REVIEW - Master of the Name: The Story of the Ba'al Shem of London
Over the years I've come across a handful of fascinating short biographical summaries of the powerful cabbalist-mystic known as the Ba'al Shem of London, Dr. Hayyim Samuel Jacob Falk. Most notable were the descriptions written of him within Nesta Webster's work Secret Societies and Subversive Movements, in Charles Mackay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, and in the highly-praised 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia edition, with all works revealing a figure consistent with the mystic rebels that thrived during the Age of the Magicians of his time. Arguably, Dr. Falk may have been the greatest of them all.
In addition to having great personal charisma, connections with the Freemasons, access to enormous sums of wealth from an unknown source, and the ability to perform "miracles," Dr. Falk was also one of those very rare magicians to have earned the title "Master of the Name" or "Ba'al Shem" in Hebrew. As the title suggests, Dr. Falk was able to perform his most impressive miracles by writing the revealed characters of the lost Name of God -- the Name having being revealed to him through a special combination of his exemplary piety, and his mastery of the cabbalist sciences. I always found the bio summaries about him to be frustratingly short as they displayed the legends and rumors of the amazing feats Dr. Falk possessed, so when I saw the book Master of the Name: The Story of the Ba'al Shem of London by Irene Roth available in Amazon I pounced on it.
Irene Roth happened to be an actual descendant of the title character of her book, and she used the opportunity to play with the possible relations within the Falk household she imagined in a novelization of her ancestor's life. Unfortunately for me, the gossip, scandals and intrigues of the mundane civilians she wove AROUND the Ba'al Shem were far more important to her than the powers and abilities he commanded. Roth also gave the impression that she was uncertain whether to present him as a charlatan grifter, or the skilled mystic he presented himself as. The end result was a novel that lacked any of the interest generated by the original bio sketches of Webster and Mackay, and despite the potential for a truly great speculative genre work such as Jack Vance would've penned, Ms Roth's book came across more like the fan-fiction novelization of a period piece soap opera.
For a much better treatment of similar historical figures authored by a top-notch scholar, please check out Mystic Rebels by Harry C. Schnur instead.