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Jerusalem Maiden: A Novel
William Morrow Paperbacks, 2011
464 pp., 16.99
Naomi Schaefer Riley
It is hard for most of us to understand life in another era. More difficult than trying to picture days without running water or electricity, television or laptops, is trying to imagine the constant presence of death. It was once, we like to forget, a common occurrence for women to die in childbirth, for children to lose more than one sibling before adolescence, for fathers and brothers to be killed in war or seemingly random acts of violence. Did people in these situations become inured to the kind of pain caused by a steady stream of loss? Perhaps. But it also probably led our ancestors to think more of God. Even we, in our comfortable lives, are particularly likely to think of the active presence of God in times of our loved ones' passing. What if death were more frequent?
The narrator of Jerusalem Maiden, a girl named Esther Kaminsky, living in an Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem during the decades before Israel's independence, experiences death too often. And she is convinced that each of her transgressions, no matter how small, is being punished directly and severely by God—with the loss of one brother to cholera, one to kidnapping Turkish soldiers, and her mother and the twins she was carrying to childbirth.
After secretly visiting the home of her teacher, a gentile Frenchwoman who is nurturing Esther's talent for drawing, she lists the sins she has committed:
On her way home under darkening arid clouds, she shivered in the wind. The feel of the impure teacup remained imprinted on her lips as if it had become visible. Today she had heard words unsuitable for virgin ears [that her teacher had a son out of wedlock], allowed her mind to be polluted by the blasphemous name of a banned arts academy, signed God's creations [her paintings] as her own, and she sipped from a non-kosher cup. That was how sins happened, Aba [father] often said, "You open the door a crack for one, and others climb over one another in their rush to tumble in."
Other sins do eventually ...