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Beyond the Ghetto Gates: The Liberation of Jews in Italy

Michelle Cameron: I enjoy writing about periods in Jewish history that aren’t as well-known. It started with my first novel, The Fruit of Her Hands, about my 13th Century rabbi ancestor, Meir of Rothenberg, who lived through the rise of antisemitism during the Middle Ages. After writing about the horrors he and his family lived through, I was consciously searching for a joyous time in Jewish history to write about. They’re not so easy to find! But then I encountered the story of Napoleon and the Italian ghetto gates while reading Michael Goldfarb’s Emancipation: How Liberating Europe’s Jews Led to Revolution and Renaissance. I was instantly hooked and knew I had discovered the moment in history that I wanted to explore. 

YZM: I loved reading about the ketubah workshop; was there really such a place in the Ancona ghetto? If so, would a woman have worked there?  What kind of ketubot were they known for? 

MC: Ancona was the first place where ketubot were illuminated and the city became the world center of ketubah creation during this period. In addition to gorgeous colors and exquisite designs, the ketubot from Ancona had a distinctive shape, using what is called an ogee arch – an arch that comes to a point at the top, reminiscent of Gothic architecture. That specific form meant I was easily able to identify ketubot made in Ancona while visiting exhibitions of Judaica in such far-flung places as Toronto, Edinburgh, and New York. 

There were probably several small workshops in Ancona producing these ketubot, or even individual scribes and craftsmen, but for the purpose of simplicity and drama, I focused on just one. As for allowing a woman to work there at this time – no, that almost definitely did not occur. Which is why the rabbi makes such a fuss about forcing Mirelle back to what he would consider an acceptable role as a homemaker, wife, and mother. Times, thank goodness, have changed, and I’ve been fascinated to learn that today many artists creating ketubot are women.  

YZM: There is a lot of wonderful description of the marketplace and Italian Jewish delicacies; is food writing a special interest of yours? 

MC: Thank you – I’m so glad you enjoyed those descriptions! I love reading about food in novels myself, and sadly for my waistline, love eating it, so perhaps that’s why they were so evocative. But my only experience writing about food aside from my novels was a piece I wrote for Edible Jersey about book launch menus. (With the crisis and the postponement of my own book launch party, that article won’t appear for a while.)

YZM: Mirelle feels doubly trapped —as a Jew, and as a woman.  But then she realizes that all women, Gentile or Jew, essentially share the same condition.  Care to comment? 

MC: Women at that time period were always subject to men – fathers or husbands – unless they were widowed or, if Catholic, became nuns. For the most part, they were considered a form of property, raised, like Mirelle, to marry advantageously. And if you were married off to the wrong man, to an abusive husband, as Francesca was, it was nearly impossible to escape. There were always a few women – Mirelle’s friend Dolce comes to mind here – who managed to manipulate, charm, or bully their way around these religious and social confines. But they were the exception. 

YZM: The novel explores a romance between a Jewish woman and a Catholic man. How common would such a thing have been and why did you choose to highlight it? 

MC: Up until the French Revolution, such a marriage would have been unheard of unless one of the parties converted – generally the Jewish partner. The only marriage rituals performed were religious ones. (As a current-day example, a Jew and a Gentile can’t marry in the State of Israel, where weddings are strictly controlled by religious institutions.) But when the French Revolution threw out all vestiges of religion, marriages became civil affairs rather than rites performed by priests, ministers, or rabbis. And because they were secular ceremonies, intermarriage became easier. 

But you asked about romance, not marriage. While not common – since the two communities were generally kept separate, especially when the Jews were locked behind ghetto walls – it was known to happen throughout the centuries and was certainly the subject of several other instances of literature. Consider Jessica and Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice, or instance, or the attraction between Rebecca and Ivanhoe. 

As to why I chose to focus on it, one of the themes I explore in my writing is the tug-of-war between religious tradition and assimilation, and nothing cuts to the heart of this issue more poignantly than intermarriage. I recently saw the brilliant Yiddish version of Fiddler on Broadway, where Tevye gives in to his daughters’ romantic notions, chipping away at his notions of tradition – that is, until his younger daughter marries a Gentile in a church. For Tevye, that was a line that could not be crossed. In our day, intermarriage is far more common and certainly more acceptable than it was in the 18th Century. But even so, the idea of wedding outside of your faith can be difficult for families of the bride and groom to accept.

YZM: Mirelle is forced to wear a yellow hat and armband—how long did this practice continue in Italy? 

MC: The practice of identifying Jews through badges, hats, and armbands actually began in the 1200s in Europe, and I wrote about its origins in The Fruit of Her Hands, where Shira, Meir’s wife, struggles to sew the yellow “Jew hat” that was mandated by the German authorities. These were often deliberately designed in such a way that they made the wearer look ridiculous. It often depended on the individual community whether the rules that required Jews to wear these insignia were enforced or not, which is why Napoleon can be surprised when he first spots David Morpurgo in his foolish-looking yellow bonnet. And while Napoleon did away with the practice in Italy, it would return afterward – and certainly be forced upon the European Jews subject to the Nazis during Hitler’s regime. 

YZM: You’ve created a character in Mirelle who goes against the prevailing norms of her time—she wants to work, is not so eager to marry and appreciates the “elegance and magic in numbers.”  Did you have a model for her in mind when you wrote her? 

MC: Mirelle’s personality and desires underwent some significant changes as I revised the novel several times. She never accepted the idea that all a woman was good for was marriage, but at first, she was much more obedient to her parents’ wishes.

What’s interesting in writing a historical novel during the 21st Century is that current-day readers have a hard time identifying with passive women who were the 18th Century’s social ideal. One of my favorite Jane Austen characters, for instance, Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, is the epitome of a downtrodden and obedient woman. But if you look at any modern-day adaptation of the novel, Fanny asserts herself in ways she did not in the original text. Which is why Mirelle grew more “feisty” with each revision. 

Mirelle always wanted to be part of her family’s legacy in the ketubah workshop, but exactly where her own skills lay shifted dramatically. At first, I gave her artistic abilities, but soon realized that it didn’t serve the plot well. Her passion for mathematics came about as I conceived of her in more of a management role. I’m personally known for being bad with numbers – constantly messing up dates and inverting digits – but I have a son who is a gifted mathematician. So I used him as my model for Mirelle’s love of numbers – though not for anything else!