Talia Carner, 2011
Esther Kaminsky knows that her duty is to marry young and produce many sons to help hasten the Messiah’s arrival: that is what expected of young ultra-Orthodox women in Jerusalem at the end of the Ottoman Empire’s rule.
But when a teacher catches Esther's extraordinary doodling and gives her art lessons, Esther wonders if God has a special destiny for her: maybe she is meant to be an artist, not a mother; maybe she is meant to travel to Paris, not stay in Jerusalem. However, Esther sacrifices her own yearnings and devotes herself instead to following God’s path as an obedient “Jerusalem maiden.”
In the coming years, Esther struggles between comfort and repression in God’s decrees, trusting the rituals of faith while suppressing her desires—until a surprising opportunity forces itself into her pre-ordained path. As her beliefs clash with the passions she has staved off her entire life, Esther must confront the hard questions: What is faith? Is there such thing as destiny? And to whom must she be true, to God or to herself? (From the publisher.)
• Where—Tel Aviv, Israel
• Education—B.A. ,Hebrew University (Jerusalem); M.A.,
State University of New York, Stony Brook
• Awards—Forward National Literature Award
• Currently—lives in Bridgehampton, Long Island and New
York City, NY
Before turning to fiction writing, Talia Carner worked for Redbook magazine and served as the publisher of Savvy Woman magazine. An adjunct professor of marketing at Long Island University and a marketing consultant to Fortune 500 companies, she was a volunteer counselor and lecturer for the Small Business Administration and a member of United States Information Agency missions to Russia, teaching women entrepreneurial skills.
Carner’s activities in women’s organizations led to her participation at the 1995 International Women’s Conference in Beijing, where she learned of the atrocities of The Dying Rooms—the Chinese orphanages where the documented death rate was 80%—and about the U.S.’s courts betrayal of molested children.
Helping African women to develop a campaign against clitoridectomy, she was exposed to the plight of women in societies that subjected millions of girls to this brutal mutilation. Her education about violence against women continued when she assisted Indian women in a campaign to end the burning of brides over dowry disputes. A sought-after keynote lecturer at renowned organizations, Carner speaks on both universal and culture-specific issues facing today’s women across the globe.
As Carner researched and wrote about the difficulties women face, she examined her own family’s ten-generation history in Jerusalem. Because her grandmother, with whom she had been close, had been blocked from developing her extraordinary artistic talent, Carner set out to explore the religious world in which obedient 12- to 14-year-olds were expected to hasten the Messiah’s arrival and save the world Jewry by procreating. Her novel Jerusalem Maiden (2011) depicts a woman’s struggle for self-expression against her society’s religious dictates.
In the early 1980s, while at Redbook magazine, Carner was the first to define the characteristics of female baby-boomers as having a later marriage-age and being more educated, career-oriented, and health- and civic-conscious than their older counterparts. While the publisher of Savvy Woman magazine—then one of only four females to head a major American magazine—she was the first to document the demographics of female business owners.
Launching her own marketing consulting firm to Fortune 500 companies, Carner commissioned independent research and challenged both public perceptions and the U.S. government’s definition of entrepreneurship, a debate that ultimately established the White House Oversight Committee and brought changes to the way the Office of Labor Statistics gathered and analyzed data about husband-wife business ownership.
In 1993, on Carner’s second U.S. Information Agency (USIA) mission to Russia, she was caught in the uprising of the parliament against then-president Boris Yeltsin. Her report to the USIA about her escape was the seed for her first (unpublished) novel and the start of her fiction-writing career.
Carner’s first published novel, Puppet Child, launched The Protective Parent Reform Act, a law now passed in several stares and under consideration in many others, and has become the platform of two State Senatorial candidates. Her second novel, China Doll, was the platform for her 2007 presentation at the U.N. about infanticide in China—the first in U.N. history.
In addition to published articles on issues of family court, infanticide in China, and women’s plights in developing societies, Carner’s award-winning personal essays have appeared in the New York Times, Chocolate for Women, Cup of Comfort and Chicken Soup anthologies, as well as The Best Jewish Writing 2003.
Her short stories have been published in literary magazines such as Midstream, Lynx Eye, River Sedge, Moxie, Lilith, Rosebud, Confrontation, North Atlantic Review, Litro, and Midwest Literary Magazine. An excerpt from Jersusalem Maiden is included in The Best New Writing 2011 as the “Editor’s Choice Award” and was nominated to the prestigious Pushcart Prize. The book-length novel Jerusalem Maiden won the Forward National Literature Award in the “historical fiction” category.
A 7th generation Sabra born in Tel Aviv, Israel, Ms. Carner served in the Israel Defense Force (IDF.) She received a B.A. degree from Hebrew University in Jerusalem in Psychology and Sociology and a Master's degree in Economics from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
Talia Carner is a board member of Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, (HBI) the Jewish women research center at Brandeis University. She is also an honorary board member of several anti-domestic violence and child abuse intervention organizations.
She and her husband, Ron Carner, (president of Maccabi USA) have four grown children. The couple lives in Bridgehampton, Long Island and in Manhattan, New York. (From the author's website.)
A fascinating look at a little-known culture and time.... Tuck Jerusalem Maiden in your beach bag.
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Talia Carner uses beautiful language, exquisite storytelling, and detailed research to transport the reader into the world of old Jerusalem.... This is a book to savor and discuss.
Jewish Book World
Engaging.... Carner renders Esther’s world with great authority and detail, revealing intimate familial rituals within the larger political and socioeconomic context.
A welcome glimpse into a little-understood world.
1. “The Greenwald girl” represents a concept of a young woman who followed her heart—and her non-Jewish lover—and brought a chain of disasters upon her family. Discuss Esther's action in light of this concept. Did she become “A Greenwald girl?”
2. Girls’ innocence and purity are sacred in the ultra-Orthodox world of Jerusalem Maiden. Even today, many women in religious societies—Jewish, Christian, Hindu or Islam—live in even worse oppressive enclaves both in the West and in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. What are the tools used to control them in various places? Do these women share responsibility for their own insulation? Can they change their fate? Should we interfere in their cultural or religious practices?
3. In Esther's ultra-Orthodox society, adherence to all Commandments and decrees is paramount. Discuss the difference with what you know of today’s Jewish Orthodox societies in the USA—their child-rearing practices, education and the status of women.
4. Esther does not desert her faith. She only rebels against the religious establishment. Have you experienced that gap?
5. What kind of medical practices were available at the time of the story? Discuss the role of the midwife as a medical practitioner.
6. Discuss the relationship between Esther and her mother during Esther's adolescence—and her view of that relationship as an adult. What were her mother’s expectations, and what were Esther's?
7. When Aba recites Woman of Valor from the Book of Proverbs, Esther finds the expectations unattainable. What expectations exist today that reflect an unfeasibility similar to that of the Woman of Valor?
8. Esther felt she never belonged in her world—neither in Me’ah She’arim, nor in Jaffa. Was there anything she should have done differently? Was it “her, or them,” as Nathan asks?
9. Twice in the novel Esther physically emerges from a dark place where she connected with her ancestors—at Rachel’s Tomb and at Hezekiah Tunnel. Discuss the physical and spiritual illumination. Have you had similar experiences?
10. Was Mlle. Thibaux an early feminist, or was she just a “back-street” mistress? Discuss her character and her life’s choices. Would she have been a different person had she been married?
11. Esther's marriage to Nathan was not a bad one. She was comfortable and safe. Yet she was willing to throw it all away. Discuss her character and her dissatisfaction with what would have been many women’s dream.
12. Esther’s relationship with guilt fluctuates as she ages, accompanying rebellion, acquiescence, indignation and impetuousness. Throughout her life, how do her desires produce guilt, and how does she reconcile it at each step?
13. Chaim Soutine is the one true-to-life character in this novel. Read about him and check out his art—and if possible travel the Philadelphia-based Barnes Collection.
14. Esther's sojourn in Paris is supposed to be a vacation. Discuss the point at which it turns to abandonment of her children. Also, is her settling in Paris a betrayal of the Holy Land?
15. Even in today’s open, free society, many women do not follow their hearts or their dreams to discover “The Primordial Light.” Why? Discuss what it takes for a woman to focus and to fully develop her talents.
16. Relationship between sisters can be complex. Discuss Esther and Hanna’s, starting in their childhood and how their different personalities and choices played a role.
17. In the end, Esther gives up the only two things she loves and which let her be who she is. Discuss her double sacrifice. What kind of a woman will she be in Jaffa and what life will she have back there?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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