We who inhabit the boomer generation think we’re the luckiest generation on earth. Which makes it easier to write about earlier generations whose struggles were more difficult, even epic. Harper Collins has just published a new novel called “Jerusalem Maiden,” by veteran writer Talia Carner, about a woman’s struggle for self-expression against her society’s religious dictates. It takes place a century ago, but read this excerpt and you will see things that even today are all too familiar.
When the custodian’s bell rang the end of the school day, Esther ran to Damascus Gate in the Old City wall. Adjacent to the Jewish Quarter, branched out the alleys of the Arab souk, a world of “others” filled with temptations unsuitable for the mind of a virgin. No Jewish girl was permitted to venture there. But how else could Esther buy colored pencils, so she could capture the magic of God’s creations?
She entered the souk amidst braying goats with ropes tied around their necks, trachoma-blinded beggars extending their open palms, squawking chickens hanging by their feet, and women in Levantine, ground-length dark dresses with rich embroidery who balanced huge baskets on their heads. Esther’s eyes devoured the eclectic merchandise in the small stores spilling onto the sidewalk as the merchants announced their wares at the top of their lungs. Colors and movements and noise and flies and waves of smells both pleasing and foul filled the market. She skipped over animal droppings and wound her way around donkeys laden with sacks of vegetables and handcarts weighed down with earthenware jugs.
Soon, in the Byzantine Cardo, the ancient covered bazaar, the crowd streamed toward some action at the end of the alley. The river of people pressing forward now carried her. She crossed her arms to reduce immodest contact with bodies, then tried to turn back, to escape. But the people were all larger than she, all closing in on her. The sour odors of men and beasts permeated the air.
Panicked, she managed to disentangle from the crowd, pushing her way out in front of a store lined with open sacks of colorful, aromatic spices. With no fresh food, fewer flies hovered about. Esther climbed on a barrel, and the view in the square just past the Cardo opened up to her.
Two Turkish policemen were flogging a man in a light blue shirt. With each lash of the braided leather whip, the man screamed and a gasp rose from the crowd. “Pity your hearts,” the man cried in Arabic. “Pity—” Blood streaked his sweat-stained shirt.
Esther covered her mouth in horror. “Poor man.”
“A thief. Better than chopping off his hand for a first offense.” Stepping from the shadows of his store, the spice merchant said. Esther glanced at him, uncertain she understood. He smiled, revealing tobacco-browned teeth. “Second offense, not so lucky. Two hands.” His fingers made a chopping gesture over his other wrist.
Her expression must have shown her shock, because he chortled. “Third offense, hanging.”
At another collective gasp from the crowd, Esther turned back to the square, peeking through the gaps between her fingers. The dark red stains on the thief’s shirt covered most of the blue. He sprawled on the ground, writhing, and his begging had turned to a monotonous wail.
Esther’s stomach tightened. She swooned.
“Hey! Don’t faint in here.” The spice merchant offered her taffy, but she shook her head. The candy had surely been cooked in a traife kitchen.
“This?” He peeled sugarcane, chopped a section, then quartered it. Esther wiped her nose with her sleeve and accepted the stick. As the sweet flavor filled her mouth, the beating in the plaza stopped. The man lay in the dust, motionless except for the occasional jerking of his left leg.
Two nuns in habits broke through the crowd and stepped toward the man. Would they carry the criminal to one of their hospitals? Rumors claimed that miracles happened there, though the Haredi rabbis excommunicated any Jew who accepted Christian charity—
Suddenly, strong arms pulled Esther backward. She yelped, but a hand clapped her mouth. Choking, she was dragged into the darkness of the store. The aroma of spices thickened the air. “No!” She wailed as the spice merchant pushed her against the shelves of fruit cans, knocking her breathless. In the shock of terror, her mind froze with the thought: this was why she was forbidden to come here.
Talia Carner is an author, activist, former publisher of Savvy Woman magazine, and a lecturer at international women’s economic forums. She is a committed supporter of global human rights and has spearheaded ground-breaking projects centered on the subjects of female plight and women’s activism. She lives in New York. Please check www.TaliaCarner.com.