Sunlight barely penetrates the ghetto where Mirelle d’Ancona lives with her parents and brother, and where her family runs a renowned ketubah shop in late 18th-century Italy. The heroine of “Beyond the Ghetto Gates” (She Writes Press, 2020), d’Ancona must navigate sometimes violent anti-Semitism as she yearns for adventure beyond the Jewish ghetto and for a future outside the expectations of her traditional upbringing — she’d rather run the shop’s finances than marry.
The community rabbi has other ideas and considers her presence among the ketubah scribes as placing them “in danger of sinful impulses.” Despite her protestations, he continues, “This is man’s work — holy work — a world in which you do not belong.”
In Michelle Cameron’s third historical novel, Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Italy provides the perfect opportunity for d’Ancona; it brings the values of enlightenment, but also raises questions about assimilation, piety, hatred, and the complexities surrounding changing norms.
Cameron is fascinated by choices of assimilation. “It’s hard to decide where you draw the line,” she said over blueberry tea in her Chatham kitchen on a recent Thursday morning, surrounded by her husband’s trivet collection. A secular Jew who spent 14 years living in Israel, she observed the sharp divide between secular and religious Jews there, pointing out, “They did not always live comfortably together.”
In “Beyond the Ghetto Gates,” she takes the time to examine the questions and issues that arise when people living behind bars are suddenly free — not only the people who no longer have to live in the ghetto, but also their non-Jewish countrymen.
“When I was younger and more optimistic, I felt like the problem [of hatred] could go away if we just educate people,” she said. “But I also feel like so much of it is bred in the bone. It’s what you hear from parents. It’s what you hear from your peers. And of course, we’re seeing it today.”
She feels more pressure writing about anti-Semitism now than she did while writing her previous novel, “The Fruit of Her Hands: The Story of Shira of Ashkenaz” (Pocket Books, 2009).
“There’s a new urgency to my wanting to get my writing out in the world, with the hope that it will reach people who don’t, currently, understand the stakes and the danger that we Jews have lived with for centuries,” she said.
She set the novel at the end of the 18th century because the time period forces her characters to confront difficult choices. “It was one of the first times when the Jews of France and Italy had really the opportunity — unless they converted to Catholicism — to decide how much of the rules they were going to keep and how much of the rules they were going to break,” she said.
Among the cast of Jewish characters is Daniel, d’Ancona’s cousin and a soldier in Bonaparte’s army, who has felt the impact of France’s Reign of Terror and its rules against religion in his own family. Although he daydreams about his mother’s Shabbat dinners, compares his hunger as a soldier to that of fasting on Yom Kippur, and recites a blessing before he eats bread, he also eats plenty of treif. And he blushes when his childhood friend and fellow soldier, Christophe, discusses his interactions with women. “Despite his shorn hair and clean-shaven chin, his Orthodox Jewish upbringing still clung to him. He was accustomed to girls who were modest and covered their chests, not these lighthearted, light-skirted women who tossed roses and called bold invitations to the Frenchmen they thought most handsome.”
Cameron spent three months researching this book before writing a single word and continued throughout the writing and editing process. “Research is something I love, but I always warn historical novelists: it can be a pit — you can dive in and never want to come out.”
Research matters for getting the details right, from the clothing her characters wear to the battle scenes she describes. (She worries about experts pointing out errors.) But the research also produces gifts that can provide the right setting and details for the plot.
Cameron set the novel in the town of Ancona because it was actually the first town in Italy where Napoleon’s army broke down the gates of the ghetto. And it didn’t hurt when she learned the town was a center for decorative illuminated ketubot, providing d’Ancona’s family with their livelihood.
Of course, in the novel, a single shop replaced the many that actually existed. Cameron’s research also led her to a “miracle” portrait of the Virgin Mary who would “look” at viewers, sometimes crying, sometimes with a glare, and she knew she would incorporate it into the plot. Other historical figures dot the tale, including David Morpurgo, a wealthy Jew who foiled an attempt to melt the town’s church bell into a cannon in a riot that pitted the Italian Catholics against the Jews and the French.
Beyond the details, Cameron describes the challenges facing writers of historical fiction, especially when a woman is the main character. “I call it the ‘feisty heroine’ struggle,” she said. “You are writing about people in one time for people reading in the 21st century,” she said.
People don’t want to read about passive women, even if it’s questionable whether someone like d’Ancona would really have been able to hold some of the ideas and attitudes she does, living in the 18th-century ghetto. But as Cameron pointed out, one of her own favorite heroines is Fanny Price from Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park.” “If you wrote a Fanny today, no one would read it,” she said.
One thing is for certain. Cameron, director of the Writer’s Circle, a New Jersey writing community offering workshops for children and adults, is no passive Fanny. When it comes to writing about Jew hatred from centuries ago in an age of rising anti-Semitism, she said, she won’t be changing anything she’s doing. “I’m refusing to do anything differently. [It’s] the Israeli in me, unwilling to alter my approach as a result of these very real threats.”
If you go
Michelle Cameron has numerous local appearances in the coming months, including the following:
April 16: Bernardsville Library, Bernardsville, 7 p.m.
April 22: Conversation with Short Hills author Dara Horn at The Book House, Millburn, 6:30 p.m.
May 3: Kahal Chaverim: NJ Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, Mt. Freedom, 9:30 a.m.
May 7: Morristown Jewish Center Beit Yisrael, Morristown, 7:30 p.m.
May 17: White Meadow Temple, Rockaway, 2 p.m.
May 20: Bnai Keshet, Montclair, 7:30 p.m.
May 31: Congregation Beth Ohr, Old Bridge, 1 p.m.
June 17: Caldwell Public Library, Caldwell, 6:30 p.m.