Synopsis (from Goodreads):
In the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, a young Orthodox Jewish woman in the holy city of Jerusalem is expected to marry and produce many sons to help hasten the Messiah’s arrival. While the feisty Esther Kaminsky understands her obligations, her artistic talent inspires her to secretly explore worlds outside her religion, to dream of studying in Paris and to believe that God has a special destiny for her. When tragedy strikes her family, Esther views it as a warning from an angry God and suppresses her desires in order to become an obedient “Jerusalem maiden.”
But when a surprising opportunity forces itself on to her preordained path, Esther finds her beliefs clashing dangerously with the passions she has staved off her entire life forcing her to confront the most difficult and damning question of all. To whom must she be true, God or herself?
I read Jerusalem Maiden as part of this month’s reading group selection for my local library. This story was very enlightening and riveting, documenting life during Jerusalem towards the end of the Ottoman Empire through the eyes of Esther Kaminsky. Being 11 years old, Esther is destined to marry and produce many sons to hasten the arrival of the Messiah, a woman great gift to her community. Esther has other wishes in her life that don’t involve marriage (such as her budding interest as an artist), yet she struggles between these hidden loves ans her devotion to God, while keeping true her religious precepts.
Esther goes through an eye-opening journey as she experiences many joys and sorrows with her friends and family, as she and her close friend lives through the shock of betrothal, and the life-altering events that changes each girl’s life afterward. Along her growth is a mentor from the unlikeliest of places: her art teacher Mlle. Thibeax, who believes in Esther’s artistic gift and presents her with an offer to experience another country, outside her sheltered life in her community. Throughout the novel Esther experiences flashes of growth and risk-taking, matched only by life challenges so severe, Esther sums up these moments as true tests from God in her journey.
Jerusalem Maiden holds so much history about life in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire, and I was so captivated in learning about Esther’s community’s way of life under the Orthodox Jewish customs. It’s also eye-opening to learn about a woman’s role in a community: a woman reaches her coming-of-age moment upon marriage, and everything she prepares for in life builds up to nurturing the male members of her community. Seeing Esther challenge these social constructs in life makes you wonder how far she’ll go to achieve her own personal happiness while seeking that harmony in her faith.
If you enjoy reading a stories that tell a story of rich cultural and religious history, then you will love this story!
Rating: 4/5 Stars