IN Talia Carner’s newest novel, Jerusalem Maiden, Esther Kaminsky, a young teenage girl growing up in the old world neighborhood of Meah Shearim at the turn of the last century, is gifted with a talent that, when expressed freely, goes against her community’s values. The thrust of Jerusalem Maiden becomes: Is religious devotion and expression of one’s passion irreconcilable?
To set the stage for this philosophical dilemma, Carner creates the insular world of a Jerusalem inhabited by devout, Ashkenazic Jews whose roles for men and women, and girls and boys, are prescribed; some of which are laws from the Torah, and others are the community’s attempts at controlling its adherents.
(In interviews with Carner that I read after I completed the novel she admits that the group she portrays is the Neturei Karta, a sect that interprets Torah law to the extreme, and not the Orthodox Jews by which she names her fictionalized community. This was a bit confusing since the Orthodox lifestyle is quite different from that of Neturei Karta, even today.)
Esther, the protagonist, shares a one bedroom home with her father, a sort of community banker, her mother, a woman whose entire life consists of bearing Esther’s many siblings and keeping track of dirty chamber pots. In Carner’s description there is little joy in this home, and the only salvation Esther experiences is through her desire to draw.
THE novel is divided into the sections that become Esther’s life: Maiden, Marriage, Motherhood and Artist. Each section has an element of surprise, betrayal and tragedy. Aside from the primary struggle Esther experiences, Carner introduces secondary and tertiary themes, including the never-ending musings for the simple love and pleasure of childhood; the irony that a child always looks toward the future where happiness will be found and that an adult always looks back to childhood, where happiness resided. While Carner attempts to stick to the historically accurate picture of Esther ’s life (Carner said she read many historical documents and maps to recreate this Jerusalem), she adds some facts that take the plot into the world of fiction.
Unlike almost all girls in Meah Shearim, Esther attends a religious girls school, Evelina de Rothchild, where she meets her French teacher Mdm. Thibaux. Thibaux immediately notices Esther’s artistic abilities and believes she has found an artistic genius whose soul must be set free. Between lessons and herbdaily chores, Esther begins to spend a lot of time at Thibaux’s home, where women wear proper shoesband have indoor plumbing. On one of these visits, Thibaux speaks to Esther’s inner conflict when she tells her the story of the Primordial Light.
“When G-d finished creating the world, He had one more task: to hide the Primordial Light. But where could He hide it? If He hid it in the sky, man would eventually soar up and find it. If He hid it in the earth, man would eventually dig deep enough to reach it. Then the answer occurred to G-d: He would hide the secret light inside every person. That’s the one place Man might fail to search.”
To this Esther responds, “In Judaism, the Hidden Light is found in the Torah.” Hence the conflict between art and the service of G-d takes on a life of its own, and shapes Esther’s every decision.
The urge to paint is G-d’s hand leading her, yet she believes her art is His creation, thus giving her permission to draw. Yet, should she sign her artwork? (She does, namelessly, as “Jerusalem Maiden.”) The conflict spreads, as it wraps its web around Esther’s mind and soul. Esther’s soul vacillates between Thibaux’s magical, Parisian world of art and her devotion to G-d, family and community.
THROUGHOUT the novel, Carner uses dramatic twists in the plot, almost as if needing to throw in the literary “kitchen sink.” Some of the twists bring in elements that add to the protagonist’s sense of betrayal and add new dimensions to her inner conflict.
Carner says that she based the protagonist Esther on her grandmother. Carner’s family is a 10-generation Jerusalem family, who adhered to fervent Orthodoxy. Her own grandmother Esther embroidered beautifully, but Carner believes she was someone who could have soared in art, but had no opportunity to do so.
This saddened me, since today there are many Orthodox women who attempt to express themselves in the arts and attempt to adhere to their faith with the same passion. Nonetheless, it is a struggle and a worthwhile issue to explore. Carner ’s description of Jerusalem’s landscape is intoxicating and sensory; from the silky pink flowers of the almond orchard, to the Cyclamens peeking out from thousand-year old stones, to the uncorking of the linseed oil for paint and the description of the ancient buildings surrounding the rugged hills. Esther has a special relationship with her father, and loves that he considers her an intelligent person, worthy of conversations. The intellectual value gives her a sense of kinship with her father, who supports her education, but still hopes for her betrothal by 13.
Esther, on the other hand, attempts to avoid marriage at all costs, and wonders why she doesn’t have a big celebration for reaching her mitzvah age. In this way, Carner lends too much of a feminist voice to the teenage Esther, and takes away from the accuracy of the times and credibility of the novel. Girls in that insular world at that time wouldn’t know or think about a Bat Mitzvah.
In some ways this novel reminded me of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. While the setting of this novel takes places during the same time period as Jerusalem Maiden in a totally different society, it shares the sense of a woman born at the wrong time. Carner says that her grandmother was a “bird who longed to fly, but whose wings had been clipped.”
While the end of The Awakening is tragic, I will leave it up to you to decide whether Jerusalem Maiden’s ending is also tragic.
Copyright © 2011 by the Intermountain Jewish News