The Arty Semite

New Novel Charts a Haredi Woman’s Struggle With Identity in Pre-War Palestine

By Daniella Wexler

  • Print
  • Share Share

Jerusalem Maiden
Talia Carner
Harper Paperbacks, 464 pages, $14.99

Those craving a fix of Jewish pulp might enjoy “Jerusalem Maiden,” the latest novel by Talia Carner, women’s activist and former publisher of Savvy Women’s Magazine. Set in early 20th century Palestine during the decline of Ottoman rule, the novel follows Esther Kaminsky — a heroine inspired by the author’s grandmother — whose ultra-Orthodox lifestyle stifles her artistic and romantic urges. Will she reconcile her appetite for adventure with her deep-seated faith before it’s too late? And, perhaps more importantly: How much stilted dialogue and clunky imagery (“The iron felt heavier than a barrel of pickles”) will readers have to weather before they find out?

Carner presents a caricatured view of Haredi culture and the characters — excepting the heroine — are fairly one-dimensional. In Esther’s community, women spit superstitiously (“tfoo, tfoo, tfoo!”), bear children and sanctimoniously pronounce judgment on others at every opportunity.

Esther lives in dangerous times, but her parents respond wickedly when Esther is beaten and molested by a spice merchant in Jerusalem’s Arab marketplace. “A shandeh un a charpeh. Shame and disgrace you’ve brought upon us. Whoever heard of a girl biting a man’s flesh?” Discouraged from scholarship, Jerusalem maidens are married off the minute they start to menstruate, while their men learn Torah and live off the charity of others.

Though portrayed more sympathetically, the novel’s secular characters display no more nuance than their religious counterparts as they nudge Esther to indulge her desires. “Our religion is about the past and present,” her wayward cousin tells her. “It doesn’t allow for the future on this earth.”

Esther grows up in poverty and squalor. Were it not for her French teacher’s insistence on cultivating Esther’s artistic talent, she might never have discovered ecstasy through the act of painting, or the bewitching eyes of Pierre, Mademoiselle Thibaux’s gentile son (“How had she missed that blue of his eyes? She had never seen such a clear, cerulean color except in the blue sky of her own painting.”) Esther almost escapes her repressive fate through Asher, a cousin and fellow outlier whom she agrees to marry, but then Carner throws an incredible plot twist — the old “chuppah swap.”

Like the patriarch Jacob, Esther is deceived by her family at the wedding ceremony and ends up married to another, supposedly more suitable, mate. How naïve Esther was to think she might have had some agency in a life so clearly not her own.

The next chapter of Esther’s life has her living in Jaffa, rearing three ungrateful children and placating her relatively innocuous husband: no more painting, no more dreaming — that is, until Esther gets an opportunity to go to Paris, where her salvation, and a less than kosher lifestyle, awaits.

Ultimately, Esther’s crisis is one of identity, a journey that requires her to think beyond the black-and-white. “I’m an artist,” she tells herself in one scene, unsure. “…I’m a Jerusalem Maiden. A Jewess. A wife. A mother. An artist. A sister? An artist. An artist. An artist.”

“Jerusalem Maiden” gains momentum as it goes along and makes a salient, albeit well-worn, distinction between religion and religious establishment. While the novel may not be a literary tour de force, it does shed light on issues of communal pressure and female vulnerability that, unfortunately, still play out in religious communities today.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover!
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.