RSS Feed

Tag Archives: literary fiction

The Jewish Question: Jerusalem Maiden, by Talia Carner

This is not an incantation of the hateful rhetoric that is associated with the title. Rather. it is us Jews that ask the question, “What limits are justifiably placed on our lives by our laws?” For more than half, probably far more than half, of all Jews, this is no archaic throwback; it’s a real issue. Many Jews, Muslims, and animists – practitioners of any “traditional” faith except Christianity – must choose whether or not to be bound by a tradition that is written in the Voice of God. What if who God authentically created you to be is at absolute odds with the laws that your culture demands that you practice?

This is the question asked of Esther, the Jerusalem Maiden of the title. Esther feels her senses, acutely. She tastes things in color. She sees colors in action on paper, and the sensations of womanhood will roll over her in four dimensions. Every instant pops, washes, dances, tickles, or cries itself across her senses as the thing and its derivative in time. As a young girl in Meah Shearim, the most hateful corner of the most rigid city outside the Caliphate, her father lets her learn secular (horror!) subjects at the hand of a Mlle. Thibaux. Her best friends, Ruthi and Asher, also fight against the strictures of the Haredi vise grip. Ruthi fughts by committing suicide, and Asher, by exiling himself to Europe where he becomes one of its most celebrated conductors. As for Esther, she battles against her artistic talent and passionate nature. She tries, really tries, to honor her husband, with whom she has three (he believes four) children. But she winds up in Paris, meets her tutor and the tutor’s illegitimate but brilliantly talented son, who is just a few years her junior. There, she dicovers that a painting of Jerusalem that she did as a child hangs in the Louvre.

There is a shift in voice that occurs when the book flashes forward to present day. The poignancy of being free to be who you are, but choosing obligation over integrity, practically drenches the pages of this imporrtant literary novel with its tears and its blood. History, and the might-have-beens, will leave any perceptive reader moved. I’m no stranger to this discussion myself, having pursued a fine arts career only to leave a broken marriage and financial ruin in the wake of that vessel. Did Esther have regrets at the end? You will wonder – because the answer is never given. Neither is the answer to the only question that matters more than the “Jewish question” of this book. The only question really worth sacrificing for is the question of love.

If I have one minor beef with the book, it is that the author, Talia Carner, is uncompromising in her hostility to the people of Meah Shearim. The only person in the whole novel for whom the mores of the Haredi hold any joy is the person whose fate it is to escape from them. Still, this book is a great achevement. I think that I will remember it long after my own output has been forgotten.


Hope: A Tragedy, by Shalom Auslander: A Review

What would you do if Amelia Earhart showed up, aged in real time, in your parents’ house when you here a kid? What about if it turned out that the groundbreaking female aviator had been smuggled off the atoll where she had landed, and brought her to your parents’ attic before they bought the house, and that you couldn’t possibly throw out Amelia Earhart even as she became more and more claustrophobic, eccentric, and unsanitary? Take the thought experiment a little further, and imagine that you and your parents came from a long line of aviators, dating back to a decade after the Wright Brothers managed to get an engine powered aircraft to fly in 1903 Now let’s say that you’re Jewish, the year is 2012, and you find that the woman in the attic wasn’t Amelia Earhart, but rather Anne Frank, the girl who died at Bergen-Belsen in 1945. Or so you thought.

Shalom Auslander does just this kind of a thought experiment with the Kugels (nu, you expected the Murphys?), who buy the house from the Messerschmidts, who hid Anne, who had become accustomed to hiding in attics. In the words of the senior Messerschmidt, no matter that he was the fifth generation of Messerschmidt to own that farmhouse, he was certain that the headlines would have read, “Fifty Years after Hitler, Germany claims its 6,000,001st victim,” or some such nonsense, and believes that the new Jewish owner will be able to do what he could not. Fat chance, Senior. As Solomon Kugel’s mother, living in a room that Solomon and his wife Bree were counting on renting, told him, “You want I should give you Elie Wiesel’s address next, and you can turn him out too?”

Auslander turns the entire novel into two meditations. First, what is death? And how does one greet it? Dozens of last words are quoted by Auslander’s protagonist Solomon (Auslander’s first name, Shalom, is nearly eponymous with the Hebrew name for Solomon, “Sh’lomo”) who muses again, in sometimes rough language, what his own last words and epitaph would be. Second, Auslander explorer our responsibility to the past and to each other. In particular, he seems to treat Solomon’s wife, who shrilly opposes Kugel’s mother living with them and doesn’t accept Anne Frank’s presence for a minute, with kid gloves, as if she held the opinions and made the demands that even Solomon thought were right and just – but impossible.

Auslander’s style is so satiric that it is difficult to treat his writing seriously, but serious it is. This is literary fiction that entertains, introspection along with knee-slapping, profundity spoken with profanity. The author of Foreskin’s Lament covers some of the same territory as Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (, but does so in a way that the book can be enjoyed in the context of Sara Silverman-style in-my-own-face humor.