By Talia Carner
Yad Ben-Zvi library held several preserved hand-written, personal journals. I also discovered barely legible fourth or fifth copies Ph.D. dissertations typed on manual typewriters decades ago. I spoke with historians, recorded oral histories of old female relatives, and walked the streets of Jerusalem aided by a 1912 map that showed most of the buildings-sometimes whole neighborhoods-unchanged.
My mind's eye stripped the streets and buildings of all modern accoutrements, for in the Ottoman era even the thoroughfares remained unpaved as in biblical times. Running water, electricity, and sanitation were only added gradually by the British after taking over the mandate of the Holy Land in 1917. The first car arrived in Jerusalem a decade earlier, during the time my story was set-but the rabbis forbade looking at this abomination. With no news broadcast, no music, and no vehicular traffic, streets and markets sounds were much different. But what was the cadence of life that early-1900s Jerusalem women heard? What were the smells?
The breakthrough in my research came in The Old Yishuv Court Museum in the Old City of Jerusalem. With donations of old tools, utensils, beddings, furniture, books and mementos, the founder had turned her parents' old home into a museum that showed life in Jerusalem in the olden days. Here I was able spend time in a replica of the cramped kitchen in which my protagonist and her mother had toiled and, holding the washboard in the adjacent handkerchief-size yard, I bent over a knee-high tub and imagined scrubbing clothes with recycled water.
I stared at the one tight bedroom with its high vaulted ceiling, where a lace curtain separated the parents' sleeping nook. The stack of mattresses, I knew, would be spread on the floor at night. I just hadn't realized how small the mattresses were and how few of them could actually fit in such a tiny space. In the center of the next bedroom, which didn't exist in the average dwelling of the time, stood a four-poster maternity bed. It moved from home to home when women gave birth, which was often. Unfortunately, I had learned, almost half the birthing mothers eventually died. My own grandmother's mother had borne fourteen children, eight of whom survived to adulthood-a rare achievement.
I studied the jobs women kept in order to support their husbands' studies while bearing and raising all their children-in printing, millinery, bookbinding. Women, the guardians of home, served both as the carriers of the future of Jewish people as well as the prisoners of this aspiration.
A friend arranged for a thirty-minute interview with Rivka Weingarten, the founder of the museum, who was old and sickly. We talked for over two hours. She knew my family that lived in Jerusalem for ten-generations and after whose members some streets were named. She described a scene I later used in my novel, in which my protagonist Esther ironed clothes with a heavy press iron, heated by sizzling embers inside. Her sister's blew through a straw into a hole on the side of the pressing iron, thus raising the heat....
Emerging outside into the bright Jerusalem sun reflecting back from the cream-colored chiseled stones, I followed my protagonist, a budding artist with passion for painting. Since visual expression was forbidden by the Second Commandment "Thou shall not make any graven images," where would she quench her thirst for art? It dawned on me that I, a secular Jewish woman, had never set foot in a Jerusalem church. There had been occasions when my job required me to accompany a group of tourists to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I always I hung back just inside the doorway, queasy with a vague sense of my betrayal. How much weightier would my protagonist's apprehension be? How sinful would she feel, with God crouching in her head and registering everything her eyes saw?
For the first time in all my years and frequent visits to this holy city, I entered my protagonist's shoes and, moving inside a bubble of foreboding sense of transgression, I set to explore the city's churches and their magnificent art.
After that, when I examined photographs of women shelling broad beans or standing in line at the single street faucet for the scarce water distribution the Turks failed to maintain, I did so with the tension derived from my protagonist's wish to break away from a life of unceasing labor, squalor, and worries, to let her soul soar as high as the angels floating in a church's mural. As I peeked in Me'ah She'arim into the still-standing vaulted ceiling, crowded rooms where whole families of ultra-Orthodox Jews still lived in poverty, subsisting on women's small enterprises and charity while the fathers studied all their days, I knew that-except for the running water and toilet facilities in the yard-I was looking at history.
Once, on a blistering summer day, waiting at the intersection by Me'ah She'arim for the traffic light to change, I glanced at a fully covered woman standing next to me. She was very young-and pregnant. In the stroller and hanging onto her long, ample skirt were four more children. Although under Israeli law she probably married at seventeen rather than at thirteen, I wondered how much freedom she had had as a teenager to assess her world and her future. Had she dreamed of living in Paris instead?
My protagonist, Esther, did, and she was determined to follow her heart. And she did. I had no choice but to follow her to Paris....
–Talia Carner's novel Jerusalem Maiden was released on 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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