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Tag Archives: literary

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.

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The Great American Novel?

It is difficult to write the Great American Novel. F. Scott Fitzgerald did a good job with The Great Gatsby, but that novel is in its dotage, requiring extensive sociology to appreciate fully. Jonathan Franzen engages society in the 21st century with brilliance and aplomb in Freedom,(http://www.facebook.com/notes/ronald-fischman/franzens-freedom-in-free-verse-a-review/10151435422153420 for my review in free verse) but derogates his working-class characters to the extent where they beat up or murder the members of the middle class. John Steinbeck is of a different era in The Grapes of Wrath, and therefore his formula of opening each chapter with something like a sermon feels like an anachronism, but at least his treatment of the working poor is ennobling, even though haunting. Now comes David D’Aguanno, writing under the pseudonym of David Dennis, with his entry into the fray, Why She Left Us.

 The central family is headed by a mother, Jean, who seems more than anything to be a sex addict, with nondescript employment and a taste for nondescript men. Jean’s sister, a forty-year-old spinster, can’t get through a diary entry without mentioning how horrid men are because of her one adult relationship that ended badly.  Jean’s three daughters, Monica, Betsy, and Ellen, are the real story here. At novel’s dawn, Monica is in an asylum, Ellen is in a wheelchair, and Betsy, well, that would be a real spoiler if I tell you what she is doing. None of the women have last names, even though the men, Carl Peters (Monica’s husband) and Wayne Brown (Senior and Junior, significantly) carry these badges of pedigree.  Leave it to the sociologists to put this in its perspective; from my middle-to-working-class background, this rings true even today that women from low socioeconomic status backgrounds might find their identities through the men in their lives.

Each girl struggles to find fulfillment in their own way. Monica wants the ring and the fantasy, marrying Carl Peters, the Most Popular and Most Likely to Succeed from their high school class. Ellen inherited the propensity for sexual addiction, and Betsy, who writes with literary flair that befits someone whose route to the middle class will come through her apprenticeship at the library, seeks true, holy, passionate love. Though she finds everything she prays for in the arms of illiterate but basically noble Wayne Brown Jr., her outcome is the darkest of all the characters.

D’Aguanno’s gift to the literary world is that he dignifies and honors the struggles, travails, and passions of these humble people for whom college attendance would be like completing a marathon for most of us. There is no sermon anywhere in here. Even the most spiteful act is understood; lust is accepted, and when coupled with a rush of spirit, is honored. Only one character shows ill throughout, and that is Carl Peters, who lives in resentment that the world hasn’t given him his every whim. Carl shows a horrid dark side, which will allow this book to be used as a study in psychopathy. However, even Carl’s malevolence evolves over the course of the book.

Why She Left Us is a dramatic book. I don’t envision it on the silver screen, but I can imagine an effective staging of the book as theater. A director would have to manage the parallel timelines between the crucial summer of 1985 and its grim aftermath in 1986. The author crafted the ’85 and ’86 scenes with absolute precision. At 428 pages, this qualifies on some Goodreads lists as a “big book,” and I found that it required work to get through. However, I found the characters accompanying me through my work day, reacting to events in my own life. The absolute surprise at the end wouldn’t be enough if the characters weren’t so lovingly treated, so don’t read this like a whodunit. But if you want to experience real life, with real emotions and a unique take on the eternal question of love, then you should make sure that Why She Left Us is part of your world.