Galya Gerstman, author of Texting Olivia (Pleasure Boat Studio, 2021), taught French Literature at Tel Aviv University before relocating to Costa Rica to raise a family. She possesses a PhD in French Literature from Columbia University and a BA in Creative Writing from Barnard College.
Daughters of Jerusalem is a stirring story of survival against a backdrop of poverty, famine, disease and war, a saga of three generations of extraordinary Jewish women from the turn of the 20th century to the birth of Israel.
Joseph and Lili Ventura make a promise to God: if they finally have a baby that survives infancy, they will emigrate from their backwater Serbian village to the Promised Land. But Jerusalem in 1903 is not the biblical homeland they imagined. An overlooked, dusty outpost of the Ottoman Empire, Jerusalem is a city divided into religious enclaves shared by a myriad of nationalities, each speaking their own language, unified only by the pale, sandy limestone of its ancient citadels.
Joseph plies his trade as a cobbler, while Lili discovers that she has a talent for midwifing. With their daughter Mercada having survived infancy after so many tragedies, it seems God has finally blessed them. But a cholera epidemic sweeps Palestine after the end of World War I and the couple die suddenly from the disease, leaving Mercada, now twelve, alone in their tiny house, destitute and orphaned.
Mercada works for neighboring families, sleeping where she can, learning from day to day to be a survivor. She falls in love, but her boyfriend’s parents refuse to let him marry her, so she makes a marriage of necessity to an alcoholic jeweler who gives her five children, plunging them further into poverty. As the years pass, necessity makes her an entrepreneur, like her mother, yet instead of becoming a midwife she freelances as a “fixer,” putting deals together between butchers and bakers, seamstresses and scholars. She uses her connections to enroll her three surviving children, Joseph, Amos and Alegra, in private schools.
But the delicate coexistence of people in what is literally the “City of Peace” is shattered after the end of World War II. And while the Jews had initially welcomed the British as a civilizing influence after the Ottomans, they now see them as favoring the Arabs and going back on their promise to found a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Mercada’s children are torn. Amos joins the British Mandatory police force, whereas Alegra secretly joins the Haganah, the Jewish resistance fighting both the British and now also the Arabs who, though previously their neighbors, have risen against them in the battle over Palestine. Alegra, dressed in her brother’s police uniform, infiltrates a prison to rescue a comrade. When Amos is arrested she must enter the prison once again, this time disguised as a prostitute during Easter celebrations. Amos goes into hiding until Ben Gurion declares independence.
Lili and Mercada had given their lives so that the three siblings, so different from one another and often in conflict, could celebrate a new beginning. They were now Israelis. They had a country. They had a home. And they had each other.