Unlike my previous novels, set in places I had merely glimpsed, with characters that were entirely fictional—albeit quite alive in my own head—JERUSALEM MAIDEN was inspired by my grandmother and her untapped artistic genius.
Born in Jerusalem, my grandmother Esther was an astonishingly gifted artist who confined her talent to knitting, crocheting, sewing and embroidering—the only artistic expressions permitted women of her time. She was also an angry, frustrated mother to her children, but grew in time to become a devoted grandmother.
When I was sixteen, I was sent by my Tel-Aviv-based French high school for a month to Paris. As I walked the cobblestoned alleys of Montmartre, I took in the street artists working their craft to the tunes of French folk songs pouring from surrounding cafés and suddenly I had a vision of my grandmother as a young Bohemian living there. In a flash I understood that my grandmother should never have married, had children, or become my grandmother. Instead, she should have been set free in Paris to explore her true calling.
Decades later, in the “what if” fashion of fiction writing, I asked myself what could happen to a feisty, artistic girl, born a hundred years ago into an ultra-Orthodox religious society in the Holy Land, who, propelled by her untapped artistic genius, tried to rebel? What if her talent compelled her to break God’s Second Commandment, “Thou shall not make any graven image?” What would it take to fight the restrictions, dictates, and prohibitions so deeply ingrained in her mind and heart? Could such a girl permit her passions to defy God and risk His wrath?
The historical facts of the Ottoman Empire’s rule of the Holy Land are well documented: by the early 20th century, when my book is set, the government was corrupt and decaying. Also, much of my family’s ten-generation history in Jerusalem is documented through books and names on street signs. But most historians were ignorant of women’s lives of that era. To support my grandmother’s stories, I read hand-written journals and letters at a specialized Jerusalem library, consulted historians, and used rare maps to walk the old neighborhoods. Interviewing aging women about the nuances of their mothers’ lives, I found that Jewish women in the early 1900s believed that Jerusalem’s pestilence, hunger, and burying half their babies were facts of life—or their due suffering meant to hasten the Messiah’s arrival. Through these oral histories and primary documents, I constructed Esther, the young woman whose yearnings for individuality and freedom forever clashed with her faith.
JERUSALEM MAIDEN is not my grandmother’s story, but rather my fictional alternative life I’ve created for her. Equally important, in the years-long process of shaping the material into a suspenseful novel, I realized that Esther’s story is still universal. Many Western women, even today, are bound by self-imposed social and psychological constraints that hold them back. Is it ever possible to reconcile between a woman’s yearning for individuality versus the demands of traditions?