[Reviewed by Cara Diehl]
There is a palpable vibrancy in the language of Talia Carner’s Jerusalem Maiden, and from the opening chapters I found myself completely captivated by young Esther Kaminsky’s journey of self-discovery. Carner’s ability to weave together a narrative of personal and spiritual struggle amidst the backdrop of Palestine and Paris in the second decade of the 20th century is powerful. The historical geographical descriptions are at once knowledgeable and welcoming—reading it, I was not a stranger peering into the life of something and someone unknown; rather, I had the pleasurable experience of feeling present at each moment along the way. Esther’s struggles, revelations, and heartbreaks reflected, became, my own—and I was rooting for her through to the very end.
Jerusalem Maiden begins in Jerusalem in the fall of 1911, in a moment of a thrilling defiance: coloring with pencils on a blank page. Esther Kaminksy belongs to a very ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, Me’ah She’arim, where art was forbidden, and where reverence for Hashem, God, and a devotion to the procreation of his chosen people through marriage was the only culturally acceptable norm for a woman to preoccupy herself with. As the Ottoman Empire is slowly declining around her community, Esther finds herself challenged daily by the inner urge to create—to draw, paint, and vividly represent the world she sees around her. She is encouraged by her forward thinking, proto-feminist French instructor, Mlle Thibaux. The lasting, though removed, friendship that is formed between these two characters is the real cornerstone of the novel. The care that these two widely different women have for each other and the interplay of cultural differences that is explored through each of their developing storylines is truly encouraging.
I’ll resist hashing out the particular plot points that move the story along, because discovering Esther’s own self-discovery is part of the delight that comes with reading this finely written tale. Esther is an intensely relatable girl (and young woman) precisely because the issues she grapples with are in many ways our own: who are we? How faithful to our culture, our customs, and our communities should we be, especially when they conflict with our own inner urges for individualism? What will Esther choose to be? What have we chosen to be? Lyrical, engaging, and expressive, Carner’s Jerusalem Maiden is a book I want in the hands of every person, young and old, who has a passing interest in the way art can reflect and shape our own paths of self-discovery.
You can contact the reviewer, Cara Diehl, at firstname.lastname@example.org.