|Talia in a 1900 kitchen yard (The Old Yeshuv Museum)|
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
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
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.
But the ultra-Orthodox Jewish women in the
At the end of the backward Ottoman rule,
A typical neighborhood in
One late fall day I checked into a
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
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
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
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
Emerging outside into the bright
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
My protagonist, Esther, did, and she was determined to follow her heart. And she did. I had no choice but to follow her to
Talia Carner’s novel,