Saturday, April 18, 2020

Beyond the Ghetto Gates by Michelle Cameron examines Jewish life in late 18th-century Italy

Michelle Cameron’s Beyond the Ghetto Gates is a novel I’ve been looking forward to for some time; I’ve been following along with its publication process via social media. The author’s debut, The Fruit of Her Hands, focusing on the wife of rabbi Meir ben Baruch of Rothenberg in the 13th century, illuminated a historical era previously untouched in historical fiction. Her new novel does the same for another untapped period: Napoleon’s Italian campaign in the 1790s, as experienced by both Jewish and Catholic characters.

Mirelle is the daughter of Simone d’Ancona, proprietor of a prestigious ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) workshop in their Italian seaport town. Their handiwork is renowned across Europe. She quietly balances the accounts while her father, younger brother, and other craftsmen focus on their designs. With a realistic blend of tradition and rebelliousness in her character makeup, Mirelle is a respectable Jewish daughter who yearns to use her mathematical gifts with her father’s business, but the local rabbi forbids her from involvement in men’s holy work, and her mother complaints that her willfulness will repel marriage prospects.

The beautiful ketubot produced by Mirelle’s family sits in contrast to the narrow, overcrowded streets of the quarter where Ancona’s Jewish population lives, and whose gates are locked at night. Outside the ghetto resides Francesca Marotti, a young Catholic mother married to an abusive bully. The women meet only briefly at the market (where Mirelle receives scornful looks from those viewing the yellow kerchief and armband denoting her religion), but events entangle and complicate their lives going forward: the city’s occupation by French troops during France’s war against the Austrians and their allies, and the sight of a miraculous weeping portrait of the Madonna. Cameron also dramatizes how the French forces’ removal of Ancona’s ghetto gates enables Jews to move more freely, while hardly erasing the city’s longstanding religious divisions.

The setting isn’t one that’s generally familiar, and I appreciate how Cameron expands the canvas beyond Ancona to provide views of military maneuvers and a detailed political backdrop to the characters’ actions and choices. Daniel, a Jewish man from France, and his Catholic friend Christophe are soldiers marching with General Bonaparte’s troops, and they first meet Mirelle at a masked ball in Venice that she’s attending with her wealthy friend, Dolce Morpurgo, and her widowed father David (a historical character). All are atypical guests at this gathering, and the relationships that form there – especially the attraction between Christophe and Mirelle – set the stage for more drama to come.

Beyond the Ghetto Gates is a solidly told story combining intercultural conflict, religious violence, and a thread of unpredictable romance, all with a young woman at its center who’s finding her own path between traditions and personal freedom.

The novel was published by She Writes Press this month (thanks to the publicist for a review copy).


  1. This sounds fascinating. I also am interested in the author's earlier book set in the 13th century. Great review.

  2. Thank you! I definitely recommend both books.