Off the Shelf: Women’s roles and history by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Ever wonder what would happen if characters from different novels were to meet? In the case of those featured in this review, there would be arguments about the role women should play in public and private life. However, that is not their only purpose: the authors also portray Jewish life in different time periods – showing how Jews were viewed by the surrounding culture. 

“Beyond the Ghetto”

What is the place of Jews in the larger world? What role should women take within the Jewish world? Those questions are among the many asked in Michelle Cameron’s “Beyond the Ghetto Gate” (She Write Press). The novel takes place in Italy from 1796-97 during the French conquest of the country. France has offered equality to all its citizens, although it frowns on religious practice. Religion, however, still plays a major role in the lives of Catholics and Jews alike in Ancona. When the French troops – including the Jewish Daniel who volunteered for the army – rip down the walls of the Jewish ghetto, not everyone is pleased, especially when Jews are given a role in the new city government.

Equality is not offered to everyone, though. Mirelle is forbidden to work at her father’s workshop because the local rabbi thinks it is inappropriate for a young woman to be in the same building as the men who write religious documents. Yet, Mirelle is far better with numbers and bookkeeping than her father and has often prevented him from being cheated. When disaster hits the family, Mirelle is expected to make a good marriage. Unfortunately, she finds herself in love with a French soldier, a Christian friend of Daniel’s. Her choice is not only between duty and love: neither religious community would accept their marriage. At the same time, the Catholic Francesca is faced with her own religious dilemma, although in her case, the lives of many will be affected by her decisions. 

“Beyond the Ghetto Gate” definitely had a feminist feel, although Cameron never lets that negatively affect the action or get in the way of the multifaceted plot. While this kept me turning pages to learn what would happen to its many characters, I didn’t find myself emotionally engaged. The novel is very well done, though, and perfect for book clubs because it offers a great deal of food for thought. 

“A Ceiling Made of Eggshells”

Some women feel productive working outside the home; others long for family and children. The latter opinion expresses the desires of Loma in Gail Carson Levine’s tween novel “A Ceiling Made of Eggshells” (Harper), which takes place in Spain in from 1483-92. According to Loma’s grandmother, Spain is a safe place for Jews who have lived there for more than 1,000 years. However, Loma discovers that the place of Jews in Spain is far more precarious than she thought when she begins to accompany her grandfather on visits across the country, including audiences with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. The monarchs not only want money from the Jewish community, but wish its members would convert to Christianity for the good of their souls. Balancing being friendly with the royal court and remaining true to Judaism is not easy, but Loma helps her grandfather deflect potential problems. However, as the years go by, she not only misses her nieces and nephews when she travels, but longs for children of her own. Do her personal desires outweigh what her grandfather accomplishes, or should she be satisfied with helping the community? 

Although aimed at younger readers, “A Ceiling Made of Eggshells” offers much to adults, particularly when asking what is more important: the community or personal desires. This question arises not only with Loma’s hope for a family of her own, but about whether to convert and remain in Spain, or remain Jewish and leave the only home one has ever known. The last section of the novel was very suspenseful, but to reveal why would spoil the surprise. Parents and tweens may want to read this work together and discuss the decisions that Loma and her family make.

“The Book of V”

The most unusual novel in this review is Anna Solomon’s “The Book of V” (Henry Holt and Company). Taking place in three time periods, it offers an original take on the book of Esther. The section focusing on the biblical Esther is unlike any other reading of the megillah I’ve seen, although parts are based on rabbinical discussions of the text. However, none of the characters and little of the action closely resembles that found in the Bible.

The other two characters live in more contemporary times. Vivian’s story begins in the 1970s and readers soon discover her connection to the megillah. As the wife of a rising politician in Washington, DC, she resembles Vashti, since she is also asked to do something horrible. That one action changes the course of her life. Then, in contemporary times, Lily struggles with her role as a wife and mother, hoping to retain some sense of herself as a writer and a human being. The community is preparing for Purim and, although Lily dislikes the children’s version of the megillah she reads to her daughters, she’s promised to make them costumes for the Purim parade.

Solomon keeps readers guessing about the fates of her characters and wondering if there is any connection between them. “The Book of V” is not any easy book to read because, at first, there seem to be no connections between the three sections. Esther’s story contains magical realism that felt out of place. Yet, Solomon managed to pull all the strings together and create a satisfying ending, one that kept me thinking about her work long after I read the final page.