Between Heaven and Earth
A Story of Nineteenth-Century Jerusalem
By Sue Kerman
Gefen Publishing House, 2011, 185 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - September 23, 2011
Sue Kerman introduces her readers into the behind the scene view of Israel and especially Jerusalem during the mid-nineteenth century when various Christian groups vied for the souls of poor Jews who were suffering in the then desolate land. Her protagonist Zara Rubens is fictional, but Kerman has Zara meet and deal with significant nineteenth century people, including a British governmental consul and his wife and roguish members of the Russian clergy. She has a parallel and contrasting story of Zara's great grandniece who visits Israel at the present time with the goal of uncovering the truth about Zara's life and displaying her life by means of pictures and documents as an exhibit for the Jerusalem Museum. This exhibit would give a picture of the time that Zara was in Israel. The book has a surprise ending.
We read, for example, how Zara, a non-religious Jew who feels attached to Jewish culture and history, decides to go and see Palestine, as Israel was called in those days, after her husband died. One of her reasons is her hope that she might once again see the boy who fascinated her so many years ago. The two had been born in Russia. She went to live in America and she suspects that he might have gone to Palestine. Zara finds a "stony, dry land with hardly a tree or shrub to relieve the monotony. Only a few olive trees, some prickly pears, thistle and tumbleweed seemed to have remained loyal to this infertile soil." Zara needs to join an armed caravan to travel from Jaffa to Jerusalem. The barren lands are not barren of Arab robbers and murderers. Baksheesh is paid to these cutthroats yearly to stop the crimes, but the bribes only reduce the numbers slightly. People can't walk out of their houses at night in Jerusalem and elsewhere because of the threat of harm. Until the British consulate was established in 1838, the first consulate in the country, "there was no rule of law in the land beside the corrupt, self serving administration of the Moslems."
Kerman writes how Zara finds the land filled with beggars and how people want to leave the disease infected city of Jerusalem and live outside its walls in clean air. She tells us about the conflicts between various Christian Protestant denominations that clash with each other and use all kinds of strategies, including "teaching Jewish men a trade in the hope, of course, of converting them to Christianity." The Orthodox and Catholic churches, in turn, fight with the Protestants and do not let their youth attend Protestant schools because they are afraid they would convert the pupils to Protestantism.
Kerman depicts quaint customs such as drinking tea and coffee by slurping it up through a lump of sugar between the teeth, resulting in decayed front teeth. She also describes the enormous amount of political intrigue during mid-nineteenth century Palestine between the "British, Americans, Germans and Russians (as they) were all trying to grab as much land as they could," and the affect that this had upon Zara.
In short, readers of this novel will not only be introduced to two stories of two women, from the mid-nineteenth and the twenty-first century, but also to a description of how Israel was during the earlier period when it was called Palestine.