By Talia Carner
Thomas Carlyle said, "What is knowledge but recorded experiences?" However, I could find no recorded experiences when I set out on the road to writing a novel inspired by my grandmother's untapped artistic genius.
I had a sense of the world she grew up in. She regaled me with stories from her childhood in Jerusalem in the early 1900s—her father's roll-top desk that served as a bank and the inside of a red candy wrapper she used to blush her cheeks. She taught me to sew pouches for beans and rice that cooked in the delicious Shabbat cholent, and once she took me on a long bus trip from Tel Aviv to show me her English-language all-girls' school attended by only three hundred privileged girls. But these experiences were the outside scaffolding holding up the soul of a woman who, I was certain, had been born in the wrong time and place. What was the inner life of my feisty young protagonist trapped in a religious society and compelled to follow a predetermined path?
Although my core family was secular, my Tel Aviv neighborhood was mixed: I played hopscotch with Orthodox girls, and on Shabbat was careful to keep my music down. Throughout my twelve years in secular schools I studied Bible and some Talmud and read Hebrew literature steeped with religious overtones.
Yet, digging into the nuances of the more extreme faction of an Orthodox Jewish woman's life one hundred years ago in Jerusalem, I hit a wall. Historians, all male, never covered women's concerns, while ultra-Orthodox Jewish women of that era rarely documented their own daily existence. They believed that suffering in Jerusalem—starvation, maggot-filled water cisterns, or fifty percent children's mortality—wasn't just a fact of life, but helped hasten the messiah's arrival.
There were short stories, articles, letters, and journals—and eventually some academic research—about Zionist women who, driven by ideology, immigrated to the Holy Land in the early part of the 20th century to seek equality in the new agricultural communities (Kibbutzim) or in politics. Israel's late Prime Minister Golda Meir was the product of such venture and aspiration.
But the ultra-Orthodox Jewish women in the Holy City remained invisible.
At the end of the backward Ottoman rule, Jerusalem was a strategic city that attracted foreign embassies jostling for power by filling the void in governance. As they built hospitals and settled local disputes while their missionaries served hot meals and opened schools, the insular ultra-Orthodox community further closed itself off from their influence.
A typical neighborhood in Jerusalem featured a large communal space lined by rows of identical one- and two-room houses that clung together, their back walls bordering the thoroughfare to form an impenetrable blockade. Life took place in the central common area: the residents shared the oven, well, laundry shed outhouse, yeshiva, mikveh, and synagogue. Even as overcrowding crisscrossed the open space with alleys, that's where the women worked, cooked, gossiped, and watched over their playing children. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish women were hidden not only behind the thick stone walls, but also underneath heavy clothing and hair coverings-and behind a fear of "others." Adherence to a strict modesty precluded speaking to men, beyond the absolute necessary exchanges with merchants who ventured into their streets. Furthermore, the women were sheltered by rules, Commandments, dictates, norms and social expectations—as well as by ignorance: while one hundred percent of boys studied from dawn to dusk, starting at age three and well into adulthood, most girls were not schooled at all.
One late fall day I checked into a Jerusalem hotel on the same ancient road leading to Bethlehem that my protagonist took when traveling to visit Rachel's Tomb. Like a detective returning to the scene of a crime for more clues, I explored anew the city I had known and adored, but whose secrets I sought to expose.
When I had lived there as a student at the Hebrew University, my fingers had turned blue in the freezing winters in centuries-old rented rooms. On warm summer nights, I had walked in the Old City (it was safe then) to the Arab bakery for pre-dawn freshly baked pitas. I attended a male cousin's ultra-Orthodox second wedding to a mature woman he had never met, arranged by the rabbi and witnessed by five hundred disciples. I had kissed a boyfriend on the ramparts of David Citadel, and on blistering hot days, had waded in the cool water of Hezekiah's Tunnel, hugged by its tight walls and its biblical history.
Yet, none of this had opened a window into the mystery of ultra-Orthodox Jewish women's lives, present or past. I needed to dig a tunnel into history.
–Talia Carner's novel Jerusalem Maiden was released May 31st, 2011. It tells the story of Esther, a woman who, in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem ruled by the Ottomans a hundred years ago, sets out to challenge God.
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