This book was one of those little finds where your (at least my) expectations were low and you’re pleasantly surprised. This is the story of Esther, a 12 year old Haredi Jewish girl growing up in Jerusalem in the early 1900’s, who has a gift for drawing and painting which she’s forbidden, according to her strict religious dicta, to indulge. When she sneaks out to paint with her French, non-Jewish teacher, and creates images that can be construed, in her mind, as idols, she finds that bad things happen to her family and she perceives these things as punishments for her sins. She struggles to quell this urge in herself as she grows older, all the while also experiencing the other ways in which this restrictive sect forces her to be who she is not.
This book gives the reader an interesting lens through which to view the life of the Haredi Jew. This sect, even more restrictive than the Chassidic sects with which we’re more familiar, sees its own strict adherence to the Torah as the only possible means of redemption of the Jewish people via the coming of the Messiah. The State of Israel does not exist in their eyes, as it will only exist when the Messiah actually arrives. It is an insular community and is cut off from most of the rest of the world. Women’s rights and really anyone’s rights besides those of the white, Jewish, Haredi male, are non-existent.
The story moves the reader also through some of the early history of the Jews in the land of Israel, from the rule of the Turks to the British Mandate to the establishment of the State of Israel. We are privy to the poverty and deprivation the Jews experienced during the Ottoman Empire as the Turks were losing their war. We also learn of the advances brought by the British as they came into power over the land. And the struggles between the varying factions, whether religious, philosophical and/or political are just beginning to fester.
The story is intriguing and the history and the perspective this book offers make it that much deeper a reading experience.