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June 13, 2011

Talia Carner: Unveiling the Jerusalem Maiden

Posted by Stephen

Author Talia Carner takes readers on a behind-the-scenes look at her research for her latest novel, Jerusalem Maiden. Visit her website, to learn more and learn how your group could win some special prizes from the author. The book is in stores now!

jerusalem.JPGToni Morrison said, “If there's a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.”

Who else was going to tell the story of my grandmother’s untapped artistic genius? The goo of her unlived life had seeped into the veins of her daughters, and I struggled to drain it out of my own.

In my family, people joked that they could never balance a plate on my grandmother’s tablecloths. Each of the flowers she embroidered was raised out to full bloom in richness of colors, creating a field of soft sculptures.

I didn’t laugh at the sight. I always thought that my grandmother should never have married and should never have had children. Instead, she should have been a Bohemian, living in Paris during the avant-garde era, where she would have become an internationally known artist.

Her daughter, my mother, Reviva Yoffe, eventually became a famed artist who, without ever taking a single art class, has sold thousands of painstakingly detailed paintings in her life. 

It was not hard to imagine that my grandmother had been held back by social expectations of the time. But I needed to crawl inside the skin of such a trapped young woman, to go back to the time her talent and passion were formed --- and immediately stifled. But how could I unveil the mystery of Jewish women’s lives in the ultra-Orthodox society of Jerusalem 100 years ago? What was the inner world of my feisty young protagonist compelled to follow a predetermined path?

Historians, all male and ignorant of women's concerns, failed to document the daily lives of ultra-Orthodox Jewish women of the early 1900s, while these women believed that suffering in Jerusalem --- pestilence, starvation, squalor, maggot-filled water cisterns, and burying half the children they bore --- hastened the messiah's arrival.

The Zionist women who immigrated to the Holy Land in the early part of the 20th century sought equality with men in the new Kibbutzim or were driven by ideology to politics, (such as Israel's late Prime Minister Golda Meir.) They wrote letters home, kept journals, and penned poetry and stories. Not so the ultra-Orthodox Jewish women in the Holy City in the same era, who remained invisible behind the walls of their insular neighborhoods, underneath modest clothing and hair coverings, and behind fear of "others." Moreover, they were isolated by religious decrees, Commandments, dictates and social norms --- as well as by ignorance: while all boys studied from dawn to dusk starting at age three, most girls were not schooled at all.

I had lived in Jerusalem as a student at the Hebrew University and traveled there for work. I had waded in the cool water of Hezekiah's Tunnel and kissed a boyfriend on the ramparts of David Citadel. Now I returned there to record oral histories of old women about their mothers’ lives, interview historians, and read hand-written journals at a special library. I discovered a museum that replicated a typical one-bedroom home down to tools, utensils, linens, furniture, books and mementos, and lingered at the primitive kitchen nook and its attached yard, where women toiled their entire lives.

As I walked the streets of Jerusalem aided by a detailed 1912 map that showed most old buildings intact, in my mind's eye I stripped the streets of all modern accoutrements, for in the Ottoman era even the thoroughfares remained unpaved since biblical times. Nor had there been any running water, electricity, or sanitation. Once, waiting for the traffic light to change at the edge of Me’ah She’arim, Jerusalem’s most religiously strict section, where my protagonist lived, I glanced at the woman standing next to me. Fully covered in spite of the blistering heat, very young and pregnant, she had four children in the stroller and hanging onto her long, ample skirt. I wondered, how much freedom had this young mother had as a teenager to assess her world and her future?

Just then, a car stopped, blasting pop music through its open windows. And I thought of my protagonist, even more sheltered than this woman, for without electricity or even cars, there had been no news broadcast, no music, no sense of inventions, and therefore of possibilities. My protagonist Esther knew only the Bible --- and whatever she was being told was her destiny: to hasten the Messiah’s arrival. What if she dreamed of being an artist in Paris instead?

My Esther, as I was certain my grandmother should have done, was determined to bolt and follow her talent and her heart.