Novel “Beyond The Ghetto Gates” Includes #MeToo Themes In A Story Set During A Defining Period In Modern Jewish History

By Michelle Cameron

In all honesty, I didn’t set out to write a historical novel that included #metoo themes. According to the strict definition of the term – women who suffered sexual assault in silence and who are finally speaking up – that’s not what ‘Beyond the Ghetto Gates’ is. But I completed and revised the novel during all the press about #metoo, and it grew clear that such abuses could thrive in my setting. When men cast women into proscribed roles, when they don’t allow them a say in their own destinies, when other women buy into restrictive conventional norms, and particularly when women are married off as property – that type of setting makes a #metoo assault all too easy to pull off.  

When I consider the historical fiction I grew up with and that I read or watch now, I realize my novel is only one of many. The very first novel – ‘Pamela’ – centered around a maid whose master lusted after her and her attempts to foil his various rape attempts. As the book progresses, he goes to considerable lengths to get poor Pamela into bed – even pretending to marry her. 

Pretending to marry a woman in order to bed her makes me recall my beloved ‘Jane Eyre’. Rochester is so hot for Jane that he’s willing to become a bigamist, literally hiding his crazy first wife in his attic. Generations have felt pity for Rochester’s plight, but what he was proposing was not only unethical, it would have damaged Jane both emotionally and socially. Despite her love for him, Jane, the strong, moral character that she is, condemns him for it. 

I struggled creating a lead female character that was both true to her time and yet represented the determination and feistiness that 21st Century readers could identify with. They don’t realize it, but I often look to my teen students at The Writers Circle, a NJ-based creative writing organization, for inspiration. These young women give me living models of the characters I want to write. Generation Z is vocal in claiming their own identity, in forging their own path. I wanted my Mirelle to do the same.

Mirelle wants nothing more than to further her family’s legacy. Her father is proprietor of a ketubah workshop, crafting exquisite Jewish marriage documents. Mirelle wants to help her father succeed through her skillful management of the business. But the local rabbi and her mother refuse to allow it. After all, both the historical period Mirelle lives in as well as her conventional Jewish faith dictates a future stuck at home, far removed from the men in the shop. And tellingly, the rabbi is less concerned with protecting her from any untoward advances than feeling that she, by her very presence, threatens the sanctity of the workshop: 

Papa cleared his throat, eyes on the floor. “Rabbi Fano and I talked last week. He reminded me that you are of an age to think of marriage. When you were a child, no one worried that you might distract the scribes. But the rabbi pointed out the holiness of their work. And that it’s forbidden that a woman might . . . You’re a very pretty girl, you know.” 
“No one in the workshop thinks of me like that,” Mirelle said, an embarrassed flush rising to her cheeks. “After all, I’ve known most of them since I was a child.” 
“But not all,” Papa replied. “We’ve brought in some new apprentices lately—and some younger workers.” 
She knew; she was the one who had drawn up the contracts for their employ. She gripped her hands in a tight knot. “Yes, but—”
“The Talmud clearly states that young men should not be placed in danger of sinful impulses,” the rabbi interrupted, eyes slitting as he looked her up and down. “They need to remain pure, especially when engaged on a holy task. You simply cannot be present here, cannot work in the same rooms as scribes.”
“I would think,” Mirelle retorted, “that if the scribes were truly committed to their holy task, they would learn to look at me without their minds straying from their paper!”

So how does the rabbi respond to Mirelle’s insistence that she should be allowed to continue to work? He does what so many men have done, both back then and now – he threatens her, forcing her into compliance.

 What both he and her mother want is for her to marry, to tend to her household, to cater to her husband and to raise children. Anyone who watched the ‘Unorthodox’ series on Netflix has seen what conventional Judaism expects of its women. And it is not just Jewish women who are forced into this barefoot-and-pregnant role. When my first novel came out, centering around the fictionalized wife of my 13th Century rabbi ancestor, my editor wanted me to use a title taken from the Bible. I decided upon ‘The Fruit of Her Hands’. Imagine my shock when I later discovered that “the fruit of her hands,” taken from Proverbs 31, is code for fundamentalist Christian wives who glory in their subservience to their husbands. (I like to imagine their shock when they buy my novel and discover a wife who is anything but submissive!)

Women can be our own worst enemies. When Mirelle discovers that she is pregnant following a consensual encounter, her so-called best friend, Dolce, is first to cast blame. Mirelle is now “ruined” in the parlance of the age. In the current TV series, ‘Belgravia’, written by Julian Fellows of ‘Downton Abbey’ fame, a pregnant girl fooled into a fake marriage is dramatically labelled “a slut” by another woman. In countless versions of historical fiction, the man who sleeps around is just “sowing his wild oats.” A woman caught in such an affair, on the other hand, is cast out and condemned. Even today, many still blame the woman first. Is it any wonder we find it difficult to speak out after an assault?

Because I wrote a novel that takes place in her time, I re-read all of Jane Austen’s novels while writing. These books are rife with #metoo themes, even if we never see the insidious assaults taking place. Servants and women of lower classes succumb to the wiles of so-called gentlemen, with many then hidden away in the country to give birth to illegitimate children. These women face a bleak future – never able to marry, living hand to mouth, sometimes even turning to prostitution to survive. Beneath these novels of manners lie a very dark reality.

Because this is fiction and not real life, I was able to give Mirelle the happy ending she deserved. She faces down the rabbi and – with the support of the craftsmen in the ketubah workshop, gives both him and Dolce an appropriately couched 18th Century middle finger. It would be wonderful if real life resembled fiction more often.  Perhaps, I tell myself watching my teenage students, they will control their futures and stand up to abuse in ways that older generations and historical characters could only do in stories.

Author Michelle Cameron, image credit Peter Vidor

Michelle Cameron is a director of The Writers Circle, an NJ-based organization that offers creative writing programs to children, teens, and adults, and the author of works of historical fiction and poetry: ‘Beyond the Ghetto Gates’ (She Writes Press, 2020), ‘The Fruit of Her Hands: The Story of Shira of Ashkenaz’ (Pocket, 2009), and ‘In the Shadow of the Globe’ (Lit Pot Press, 2003). She lived in Israel for fifteen years (including three weeks in a bomb shelter during the Yom Kippur War) and served as an officer in the Israeli army teaching air force cadets technical English. Michelle lives in New Jersey with her husband and has two grown sons of whom she is inordinately proud. Visit her website for more information


  1. Pingback: 'Unorthodox' Creator/Producer Alexa Karolinski On The Series Taking The World By Storm - GirlTalkHQ

  2. Pingback: A Fascinating Look Into The History Of Necklaces - GirlTalkHQ

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.