Publisher: HarperCollins (Harper Paperbacks)
Pub date: 31 May 2011
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Esther Kaminsky is a young girl in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family in Jerusalem. Set at the decline of the Ottoman Empire, Jerusalem Maiden tells the story of Esther’s lifelong struggle between her God and her passion.
This is a great story, very well-written with so many details of the daily lives of the people. Carner has made the story more than about a religion or even religion – it has a universality. When we are brought up being told something is right and the only way, it takes a lot of courage and introspection to go a different way. It’s hard to decide what is right and good and what can lead to destruction. And religious faith has a hold like nothing else – the fear and guilt that comes from breaking the rules have very dire consequences.
For those who don’t know much about this time and the Orthodox Jews, (like me) this story is an eye-opener.
Esther knows that according to her religion, her duty is to get married and produce many sons to hasten the Messiah’s arrival. But when her French teacher discovers that Esther has brilliant artistic talent, she comes to a fork in the road. Her love for art is so strong that Esther only wants to paint and draw. But she is torn: between her faith which says it is a sin to create graven images and her drive to paint and draw.
She is a rebel in her own way – she quietly questions the tenets by which her family and the community lives. Women do all the hard labour while the men pursue religious studies. She is an intelligent girl, capable of having academic discussions, but as a girl about to become a woman, she is required to focus on learning to run a home. As Esther grows up, this rebellious streak gets her into trouble. In any Orthodox society it is very hard for a young girl to maintain her reputation. Esther goes from being beloved daughter that her father is so proud of to a troublesome unmarried girl and a burden. But through it all, Esther’s faith in God stays strong.
When tragedy strikes the family, Esther sees it as a warning from God. She locks up her desire to paint and devotes herself to becoming an obedient Jerusalem maiden. But long-suppressed desires rise to the surface and she once again has to make a decision: is it her destiny to follow her passion? Why would God give her his talent and if He did not mean for her to pursue it? Esther tries to interpret her religion for herself. Her belief and courage takes her a long way from home and a long way from her beliefs.
Jerusalem Maiden is clearly Esther’s story, but it is peopled with some very memorable characters. I loved going with Esther on this journey. If there is one drawback to the book, it is that this struggle does feel a little repetitive. But I grew to care so much about Esther that throughout I was rooting for her to find peace.
Highly recommended. Even those who have no strong feelings about god/faith or religion will be pulled into Esther’s story.
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