Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Saving Rivka

Rivka was fourteen. A Jerusalem maiden, she was already married, building a home in God's Holy City according to the mitzvah to hasten the messiah’s arrival.

Alas, Rivka's young husband died, leaving her no longer a virgin but neither a mother. She was doomed to never contribute her share to hastening the messiah’s arrival through the good dead of procreation in Jerusalem.

Thankfully, to her rescue came the ancient law that would ensure saving her womb from this fate, a law that would help her bear children in her husband’s name.

No frozen sperms in a bank. Familiar only with the old-fashion route, the law simply required that Rivka's husband’s brother would impregnate her on his dead brother’s behalf, thus ensuring the closest proxy of the dead man’s seed. “Yibum,” the rabbis called this brilliant scheme, as thus saved, Rivka would not be deprived of the privilege to hasten the messiah’s arrival.

But wait! There were problems: Rivka's brother-in-law was merely a boy of eight, and he lived in Russia, Yishmor Hashem.

Poor Rivka was condemned to a lifelong widowhood, except that another Jewish law, a more modern one, came to her rescue. This law demonstrated the sages’ enlightenment by undoing the archaic law of Yibum. According to this more progressive law, called Halitza, the deceased man’s brother may relinquish his sacred obligation to his brother’s memory—but not without a great shame.

Disdained at her brother-in-law’s refusal to impregnate her, Rivka must humiliate him publicly by removing one of his shoes and spitting in his face.

Armed with this practical solution to her plight, at age fourteen Rivka set out alone on the road to Russia, on foot and on horseback, through snow-capped mountains crawling with bandits.

It took her two years to make the trip there, and two more years to return to Jerusalem, a free woman.

The messiah, who’s forever tarried, waited until at age eighteen Rivka was finally permitted to remarry and fulfill her duty to hasten his arrival.

Rivka was my grandmother’s grandmother, the grandmother of Esther, my own grandmother who inspired the protagonist in my upcoming novel, JERUSALEM MAIDEN. The novel fictionalizes an alternate life for a woman wishing to break away from the religious confinements of her society in order to fulfill her passion for art.

My grandmother passed on to me Rivka’s determination and courage. But I also took another lesson: I stopped worrying about the messiah’s comings and goings. Then, no longer burdened with carrying the weight of the world’s fate on my shoulders, I’ve become my own messiah.

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Talia Carner’s next heart-wrenching novel, JERUSALEM MAIDEN, will be published by HarperCollins on May 31st, 2011. It is the story of a woman’s struggle for individuality against her society’s religious dictates.

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