Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Tunneling Under Jerusalem

Talia in a 1900 kitchen yard (The Old Yeshuv Museum)

(Featured lead article, The Red Room, May 2011)
            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 how she scraped the inside of a red candy wrapper in order to blush her cheeks. She taught me to sew pouches from old sheets and stuff them with beans and rice for our Shabbat cholent. Once she took me on a long bus trip from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and we walked in the yard of her English-language all-girls’ school. “Elegant” she called the place that at her time had been 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, in which I excelled, in addition to some Talmud. Our Hebrew literature was often 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, shortages, 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 with men in either the new agricultural communities (Kibbutzim) or whose voice was heard in politics. Israel’s late Prime Minister Golda Meir was the product of such Zionist venture and aspirations.
            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, called “hatzer,” courtyard: the residents shared the oven, well, laundry shed, outhouses, 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 young 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,” which included less observant Jews. Adherence to a strict modesty precluded speaking to men, beyond the absolute necessary exchanges with merchants who ventured into their courtyard. Furthermore, the women were sheltered by rules, Commandments, dictates, norms and social expectations—as well as by ignorance: while one-hundred per cent 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 strolled with 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 in the obscure past. I needed to dig a tunnel into history.
            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….
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Talia Carner’s novel, JERUSALEM MAIDEN, was published by HarperCollins (2011)