Review: Tarot and the Tree of Life: Finding Everyday Wisdom in the Minor Arcana by Isabel Radow Kliegman 
Review by
Diane Wilkes

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Tarot and the Tree of Life is a highly personal book, chochma-full of idiosyncratic quotations and stories spanning Ram Dass and the Little Prince, Chogyam Trungpa to Kliegman herself. The author's ostensible intent in the book is "examining the cards in the context of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life." You could measure my knowledge of Kabbalah in a thimble and have room to pour a small shot, but others who have more knowledge on the subject have expressed that Tarot and the Tree of Life is, at best, Kabbalah-lite, and not necessarily the Real Thing.

This may be true--I have already avowed my inadequacy to judge the book on that basis. As a lover of stories and tarot, however, I feel more than able to declare that this book is eminently accessible and boundlessly helpful in explicating the Rider-Waite-Smith deck in discriminating and insightful detail. This is one of the very few tarot books I've read that I can actually refer to as a "page-turner"--I eagerly kept reading "one more court card" description until I read the whole suit.

The structure of the book is fairly simple. Kliegman gives a bikini-bra-sized introduction to Kabbalah, acknowledging that the subject is too deep for such brevity. Her intention is to introduce the subject in a basic way as it pertains to tarot, and I think she succeeds in the endeavor. Let me put it this way: I have seen the Tree of Life before and aimed to commit it to memory. But being somewhat childlike, I needed the various examples and stories provided by Kliegman throughout the book. Now I know all of the Sephirah by name, and plan to read more books on the subject. I think this, in and of itself, speaks to the fact that some of us NEED Kabbalah-Lite before we go dipping into the hard stuff.

The next four sections of the book deal with the suits in the following order: Pentacles, Cups, Swords, and Wands. Kliegman announces her partiality for the suit of Pentacles early on, and I suspect this accounts for the ordering structure, which deviates from the standard Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles.

She is very detail-specific in delineating the cards by discussing subtle and overt symbolism in the Universal Rider-Waite-Smith deck; this is limiting in that, while the most popular deck in the United States, R-W-S is not the only deck in town. If you are using R-W-S, or a very similar clone, this book is more keyed to your needs than if, say, you use Thoth or Marseilles. Still, within the confines, she shares many valuable stories that help with understanding the nuances of each card. When describing the Ace of Wands, Kliegman observes that not all of the leaves are attached to the wand. They are not falling off because they are old and dead, but they are vibrant, living leaves "exploding off the bough because they're so full of sap." This gives a vivid example of the power and energy of the Ace of Wands. Kliegman notes that "we see someone who stands with his head literally in the clouds" in the Seven of Cups, which ties a familiar phrase into the tangible image on the card. Yet she she mentions the positive aspect of the card as one of creative imagination.

The author frequently shows versatility in pointing out both positive and negative manifestations each card can possess. The Five of Wands can signify competitive or combative behavior--but also it can symbolize cooperative effort, using the metaphor of a barn-raising.

Her even-handedness in describing the Minors fails when she gets to the Court Cards, though, and this was the biggest disappointment to me with this book. Kliegman leaves the Court Cards to the end, and writes less about them, because she says we each have to develop our individual, intimate knowledge of them, but, despite that, shares hers. She flaunts an anti-Wand prejudice that I don't appreciate, even though she warns us in advance of her feelings. I would be just as disgusted by a comedian who says he has an aversion to Poland and then tells ten Polish jokes in a row.

Perhaps you think I am being too sensitive? Having used the Queen of Wands as my personal significator for many years, I was a bit taken aback to read (in the very first sentences!), "If I had a friend like the Queen of Wands, I wouldn't sleep nights... This is a totally amoral person." Priding myself on my loyalty to friends and my high ethical standards, I found this description bizarre and not remotely helpful. Then again, the Knight of Wands is the "flakiest card in the deck" and the King of Wands is "an awful parent to have, a cold, unavailable father, an unfeeling mother, someone who is emotionally unattainable." Maybe the Queen of Wands, slut that she is because her legs are open, according to Kliegman, escapes lightly.

I recommend this book to anyone who is using the R-W-S or a R-W-S clone deck. Actually, it's good reading for anyone interested in tarot, or someone who enjoys a personal, idiosyncratic approach. Unless, of course, you are a sensitive Queen of Wands. Just read up to the part about the Court Cards, though, and you'll be captivated by Kliegman's ability to share a yarn.

You can read another review of this book here.

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