Jerusalem Maiden, by Talia Carner, published on June 1, 2011 by Harper, 400 pages.
“Marriage will make me important.”
The amulet in Esther’s pocket felt cold. “You’ll work your fingers to the bone from dawn to midnight, you and the children starving, barefoot, while he studies.”
Ruth’s eyes widened in shock. “It will hasten The Messiah’s arrival.”
This is what life is like for Esther and her friend Ruthie, ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jews in 1911 in Jerusalem at the end of the Ottoman Empire when girls of their faith are expected to marry at age 12. The Sultan of the land is neglecting his subjects to the point of them eating rotting scraps of food. The Turkish police shoot starving dogs on sight because many of them are carrying diseases. Ruthi, suddenly betrothed, must now stop playing hopscotch because she’s suddenly an adult who must work to pay for her fiancee’s religious studies, while Esther, the main character of Jerusalem Maiden, wants to listen to her French teacher, Mlle. Thibaux, who urges girls to wait until they’re 14 or even 16 to marry.
Thieves are punished by having their hands cut off, or for many offenses, hung. Going into the forbidden souk, an Arabian marketplace, Esther is almost raped by a spice merchant, but she bites him, so he just kicks her and breaks one of her ribs, asking her family for money for the spilled spices (so Esther must give up her dowry). A Jewish stranger finds Ester and brings her home in a cart, where she has to be examined by a midwife to prove she’s still marriageable (though shamefully not as pure). A rabbi tries to convince Esther of her destiny to marry and have many children, but she believes that she’s been given an artistic gift and wants to “draw full scenes that conveyed what had taken place before or what might happen next.”
Mlle. Thibaux tells Esther, “When God finished creating the world, he had one more task, to hide the Primordial Light. But where would he hide it? If he hid it in the sky, man would eventually soar and find it. If he hid it in the earth, man would eventually dig deep enough to reach it. Then the answer occurred to
God: he would hide the secret light inside every person. That’s the one place man might fail to search.” Mlle. Thibaux feels that Esther carries this secret light in her artwork, and soon Esther’s cousin Asher, who wants forbidden music as she wants forbidden painting, thinks that she should marry him and run away with him to Europe, but Esther fears that he is being fooled by Satan. And then tragedy strikes. Esther’s little brother Gershon dies of typhoid (as do many children in the community). and Esther draws Gershon “pitching apricot seeds across the floor” and “the cemetery, with her father at a grave marked Yeled,” from memory, since her talent is that good. And then when her mother Dvora dies while trying to bear twins, Esther burns all her drawings, fearing that she has misinterpreted God and brought tragedy to her family.
Jerusalem Maiden is divided into Maiden, Marriage, Motherhood, and Artist – an entire life, in this case Esther’s. After the suicide of her friend Ruthi, Esther is betrothed to an unusual bridegroom, Nathan, an imports merchant who travels in Europe and Asia. At first resisting, she at least sees that she wouldn’t be wed into poverty and ignorance, as Ruthi was, so Esther does marry Nathan and moves from Jerusalem to Jaffa, and bears three children. Then, amazingly, at the age of 24, Esther goes to Paris.
Descriptions of life in Jerusalem during the end of the Ottoman Empire in this book are detailed and rousing, whether Ms. Carner is describing the port from which Nathan is leaving, the intricate embroidery on a dress, the poverty in which Ruthi is living, or Esther’s philosophic musings at the beach. Ms. Carner captures the true and universal essence of childhood (Esther’s favorite part of life) and the struggles in growing older and taking on familial and religious responsibilities, especially in the Haredi faith, in which there are hundreds of rules. Paris at the beginning of the century is also vividly portrayed. Jerusalem Maiden (which is how Esther signs her artworks) is rich and full and talks of longing and dreams and even, unexpectedly, fulfilled hopes – but always with a consequence. Reading Jerusalem Maiden has made me want to read Ms. Carver’s other two books, Puppet Child and China doll, and I high recommend Jerusalem Maiden itself as a very satisfying historical and cultural experience.
Reviewed by Christina Zawadiwsky
Christina Zawadiwsky is Ukrainian-American, born in New York City, has a degree in Fine Arts, and is a poet, artist, journalist and TV producer. She has received a National Endowment for the Arts Award, two Wisconsin Arts Boards Awards, a Co-Ordinating Council of Literary Magazines Writers Award, and an Art Futures Award, among other honors. She was the originator and producer of Where The Waters Meet, a local TV series created to facilitate the voices of artists of all genres in the media, for which she won two national and twenty local awards, including a Commitment to Community Television Award. She is also a contributing editor to the annual Pushcart Prize Anthology, the recipient of an Outstanding Achievement Award from the Wisconsin Library Association, and has published four books of poetry. She currently reviews movies for , music for , and books for .