Monday, March 05, 2012

Talia Carner-Jerusalem Maiden book review

Most of us refer to artistic talent, especially when it’s music or painting, as “God Given”. Talia Carner’s third novel, Jerusalem Maiden, explores the opposite question “What if you were raised to see one’s own talent as a curse or a temptation away from God?”

While Carner’s earlier novels explored the intersection of modern motherhood, feminism, and the law, Jerusalem Maiden
,the story of Esther,a Haredi girl living in pre-Balfour Jerusalem, is more personal.

Carner attempts to bridge her grandmother’s life (Jerusalem Maiden is more a projection than a biography) as a creative woman in an ultra-orthodox culture and her own in this century as a woman who not only writes novels, but who also puts on international seminars for women to teach them to become entrepreneurs and control their own economic fates and hence their lives. Nominally, the novel is about the demands of self-expression, but it’s subtext is the enormous change that just two generations can bring.

In fact, this is one of the most successful aspects of Jerusalem Maiden. Carner is the kind of writer who does her research.Because of it, she manages to recreate a convincing portrait of Jerusalem in the last days of Ottoman rule and the mindset of last generation of Jewish immigrants who came to the Holy Land before both the Holocaust and Israel. She documents the food, the clothing, and customs of the Haredi community so well that I lapsed a couple times into believing that Carner’s fictional Jerusalem was rooted in experience rather than her projection of her grandmother’s life as a girl.Even more difficult, she catches the complex political history of Jerusalem and the mindset that came with Haredi practices without making the reader feel the huge amount of research beneath. In particular, I found myself readily believing that a fourteen year old girl could expect to be married within the year and that her primary duties to Hashem, their God, were to have and raise children and maintain her household.

It’s impossible to read Jerusalem Maiden without inviting comparison to Chaim Potok’s, My Name is Asher Lev (1972), which is about a Hasidic boy gowing up in New York in the fifties who must engage the modern world to realize his destiny as a painter. Carner doesn’t back away from the comparison.In fact, she homages Potok through a musically-talented-male cousin who just happens to be named, “Asher”.

Potok, who was a rabbi, took something of an easy way out with Asher Lev’s conflict by bending Hasidic culture to fit the demands of his plot. I admire Carner for being tougher than that artistically. This may be partly because the Haredi make the Hasids look like bleeding heart liberals. Carner may write “women’s books” but she courageously did not bow to the romantic (particularly the ones about female sexuality) plot conventions of chick lit. For instance, instead of making Esther’s husband a tyrant, she make him a mensch. Esther too is forced to make choices that are not greased by happenstance. Carner’s heroine, Esther, is thus refreshingly more Job (a female version) than Julia Roberts.

“Jerusalem Maiden” is part historical novel (the section set in the Middle East), part remake of the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day with an Orthodox Jewish cast (in the section that ventures to Picasso’s post- World War 1 Paris. It also brings to mind Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris), and part rhapsody on the role of art and creativity in being human. It’s a tricky mix and I think Carner managed it well. If I have one qualm about the book, it's that I,as a reader, never quite felt like I could see Esther’s actual paintings or artistic creations and as a result they never got to speak for themselves within a story so steeped in the power of art. On the other hand, the relative invisibility of Esther's art is part of her point. Talia Carner is a skilled novelist, but more importantly she had the courage as a writer to take the tougher route of being true to her characters and their world.In that sense, she’s paid the ultimate tribute to Esther and her grandmother.I applaud what she’s accomplished and venture that her actual grandmother would have been proud of this tribute by a granddaughter who respects her grandmother’s generation enough not to “presentize” their choices.



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