The Torah code

<strong>The Seventh Gate</strong>

Richard Zimler <em>Constable & Robinson, 400pp, £7.99</em>


The Seventh Gate, set in Nazi Germany, is a Kabbalistic Girl's Own detective story. Its narrator is a smart 14-year-old, Sophie, who becomes friendly with her mysterious Jewish neighbour, Isaac Zarco, and is drawn into a web of intrigue. Isaac is a Kabbalist, a Jewish mystic, who sees the looming danger as a fight between good and evil, and attempts to decipher his Kabbalistic texts to avert catastrophe. He is also the head of a secret organisation - The Ring - which is attempting to alert the world to the Nazi threat. When one of their number is arrested and another murdered, Sophie becomes obsessed with solving the mysteries. Her favourite book is Emil and the Detectives and, in homage to do-gooding heroines, she takes to her task with girlish gusto. Her spirit and courage are reminiscent of Philip Pullman's Lyra, who also faced evil of Nazi proportions.

But none of this quite convinces. The novel is divided into seven parts, each representing a stage in the Kabbalistic journey. The symbolism of the Kabbalah, with hidden worlds that only a Jewish mystic and scholar can decode, is a rich source for a writer, and Zimler has already written a number of bestselling novels that draw on its tradition. But in The Seventh Gate, the mystical sleuthing sits uneasily alongside the teen detective story. The two narratives are never integrated. There is also a feeling of bathos as Isaac uses the Kabbalah to make sense of the descent into Nazi barbarity. When he portentously announces, after pray-ing for 48 hours, that: "The stained glass of our world has become so fractured that it cannot sustain its own weight" and, on another occasion, that "this pact between Hitler and Stalin . . . it is the sky descending", one is reminded of the doom-mongering soothsayer in Up Pompeii!. Since the Holocaust remains the ultimate example of evil, any attempt to heighten its significance verges on the banal.

The breezy narrative tone of Sophie also robs the novel of tension - although it's clearly an original attempt at treating a dark subject in a fresh voice. The scenes of Nazi violence are neither moving nor shocking - partly because they are so familiar, but also because Sophie fails to engage as a character. She is meant to be a teenage rebel who sees through the hypocrisy and racism around her. She leads a double life - at once a member of the Young German Maidens, learning how to execute the perfect Hitler salute and a confidante of Isaac's circle of misfits. Her father is a communist who joins the Nazis to save himself and betrays his family, including his autistic son, in the process.

Throughout the novel, Sophie has a sexual relationship with her childhood friend Tonio, who quickly turns out to be a rabid Nazi. We are never given a satisfactory explanation for her tolerance of him, or any sense of inner conflict. Sexual desire, it seems, is the sole motivation. Sophie's sexual appetite is certainly meant to be an expression of her rebellion against family and society - "sex may be the only hope in a dictatorship like ours" - but she is also a stereotype of a sexually liberated female (and an underage one at that for some of the novel). Her exploits involve a great deal of diving under covers and rather too many sub-Lawrentian purple passages: "I love the power I feel when he is in my mouth, that dirt-pure sense of being a girl worshipping an altar older and far more meaningful than Hitler . . ." While love and passion may be blind, when Sophie finally breaks up with Tonio, her explanation for her past behaviour is lame: "I'd convinced myself he was hiding kinder sentiments . . ."

Sophie's detective quest, which drives the narrative, unravels into a shaggy dog story. Isaac, meanwhile, finds the Kabbalistic sign he is searching for, but it is another climax that lacks drama. Isaac's circle of misfits - including dwarves and a giant lady - and Sophie's young autistic brother, Hansi, are inevitably prime targets in the Nazi eugenics programme. Sophie's relationship with her mute brother is one of the more convincing and affecting elements in the novel. There is an unsentimental account of the fate of handicapped children and adults under the Nazis, told in shocking historical detail. It is a moment of profound horror in the novel when the narrative reaches a depth, bringing fact and fiction successfully together, that it sadly fails to do elsewhere.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia: The beggar becomes the belligerent

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.