Beyond the Ghet­to Gates: A Novel

By – August 17, 2020

In her new his­tor­i­cal nov­el Beyond the Ghet­to Gates, author Michelle Cameron fash­ions a sto­ry that is both time­less and deeply root­ed in the social, polit­i­cal, and reli­gious mores of its time. Set in the Jew­ish ghet­to of Ancona, Italy in 1796 – 1797, dur­ing Napoleon’s march through Europe, the book fol­lows two promi­nent fam­i­lies — the Mor­pur­gos and the d’Anconas. The Mor­pur­gos are the wealth­i­est fam­i­ly in the ghet­to, with a his­to­ry of lead­er­ship, busi­ness part­ner­ships across Italy, and — impor­tant for our sto­ry — financ­ing the world-renowned Ketubah work­shop of the d’Ancona family.

The Jews were able to lead active reli­gious lives with­in the ghet­to, free to prac­tice as they wished, where­as when they ven­tured out­side they had to endure polit­i­cal and social con­straints because of their Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. Forced to wear the iron­i­cal­ly sun­ny yel­low scarves and/​or caps when they stepped beyond the ghet­to walls, Jews were rou­tine­ly sub­ject­ed to abuse, rang­ing from the pas­sive-aggres­sive behav­ior of Chris­t­ian ven­dors who often ignored their Jew­ish cus­tomers to the bla­tant insults of those who called them ver­min and Christ killers.

Cameron intro­duces us to the wealthy teenaged socialite Dolce Mor­pur­go and to Mirelle d’Ancona, daugh­ter of the scrib­al art mas­ter Simone d’Ancona. Mirelle has been deemed a prob­lem” by the local rab­bi because she wants to be a book­keep­er in her father’s busi­ness, which she has helped sta­bi­lize due to her busi­ness acu­men. The ghet­to rab­bi has declared that a young woman of mar­riage­able age is for­bid­den from work­ing in a male envi­ron­ment. Should she con­tin­ue this activ­i­ty, the rab­bi would decree a boy­cott of the work­shop and declare that any Ketubahs they sold would be unkosher.

Mirelle feels restive and dis­placed. Ban­ished from her family’s Ketubah work­shop and pressed into acquir­ing skills to become a good wife and moth­er, she accepts an invi­ta­tion from her child­hood friend and con­fi­dante Dolce Mor­pur­go to join her and her father on a trip to Vien­na, where the elder Mor­pur­go will be con­duct­ing busi­ness while Dolce and Mirelle attend a masked ball. For the first time, the young women ven­ture out­side the ghet­to with­out their yel­low iden­ti­fiers and are able to engage with soci­ety as equals. At the masked ball, their own hid­den­ness, while not unlike the oth­er atten­dees, was unique­ly sep­a­rate since they are also mask­ing their Jew­ish identity.

Two of Napoleon’s sol­diers, also child­hood friends and one of whom is Jew­ish, and who hap­pen to be sta­tioned with a French bat­tal­ion in Vien­na, also attend the ball. Through a series of unusu­al cir­cum­stances, the sol­diers and the two young women meet, nev­er expect­ing to see one anoth­er again. Yet short­ly after the masked ball, a troop of French sol­diers is sta­tioned in Ancona to quell unrest pre­cip­i­tat­ed by an epiphany of a local Chris­t­ian woman who attests that a por­trait of Mary wept and smiled at her dur­ing a church ser­vice. Word of that event quick­ly spreads to oth­er com­mu­ni­ties and leads a group of extreme Chris­tians to vil­i­fy and attack Jews. At the same time, Napoleon orders that the ghet­to walls be tak­en down, frees the Jews from their yel­low sym­bols of deri­sion, and declares that Jews are now full cit­i­zens. Jews are still being attacked and killed, while polit­i­cal­ly and social­ly they have sud­den­ly become cit­i­zens. Empow­ered by the new­found free­dom grant­ed to her com­mu­ni­ty, Mirelle steps out­side her reli­gious and polit­i­cal con­fine­ment, as her fam­i­ly bears incal­cu­la­ble loss.

The sto­ry high­lights the per­sis­tent issues of iden­ti­ty, class, social expec­ta­tion, and stereo­types. Cameron’s char­ac­ters evoke empa­thy espe­cial­ly as the read­er clear­ly sens­es that eman­ci­pa­tion is lead­ing to dis­as­ter and chaos. Ulti­mate­ly, how­ev­er, Mirelle’s fam­i­ly and the work­shop sur­vive, and while the fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ty of our sto­ry and Europe are changed after Napoleon, we are left with hope that heal­ing is pos­si­ble for both Europe and for the com­mu­ni­ty that Cameron has cre­at­ed for us.

Rab­bi Reba Carmel is a free­lance writer whose work has appeared in Jew­ish Cur­rents and The Jew­ish Lit­er­ary Jour­nal and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. Rab­bi Carmel is a trained Inter­faith Facil­i­ta­tor and has par­tic­i­pat­ed in mul­ti­ple Inter­faith pan­els across the Delaware Region. She is cur­rent­ly in the Lead­er­ship Train­ing Pro­gram at the Inter­faith Cen­ter of Philadelphia. 

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Michelle Cameron

  1. Like many girls of her time, Mirelle was raised to be wed to a wealthy suit­or. Yet some Jew­ish women were allowed to work, par­tic­u­lar­ly if their hus­bands were Tal­mu­dic schol­ars. Do you think Mirelle’s par­ents – espe­cial­ly her moth­er – were jus­ti­fied in their expec­ta­tions? Why or why not?
  2. Do you think Mirelle’s father should have giv­en in to the rabbi’s demand that she be forced out of the work­shop? What could he have done instead?
  3. Francesca’s hus­band is abu­sive, bru­tal, prej­u­diced, and even­tu­al­ly mur­der­ous. Yet the Church and Catholic soci­ety dic­tate that she should stay with him. What would you have done in Francesca’s place?
  4. Daniel is often uncom­fort­able as a sol­dier, par­tic­u­lar­ly when it comes to tak­ing food, loot­ing wealthy arti­facts, and, of course, killing ene­my com­bat­ants. But he also yearns to be con­sid­ered a hero. How does he rec­on­cile this quandary? Do you agree with his rationalization?
  5. Mirelle makes a promise to her broth­er to main­tain her fam­i­ly lega­cy yet con­sid­ers aban­don­ing it out of love. How would you have han­dled this choice?
  6. Both Mirelle and Daniel have to con­tend with the new sense of assim­i­la­tion that the French Enlight­en­ment brings them yet rec­og­nize that it can con­flict with the tra­di­tions they’ve been brought up with. How do you deal with this issue in your own lives?
  7. Do you feel Christophe’s feel­ings for Mirelle were genuine?
  8. Napoleon’s reac­tion to the Madon­na por­trait is extreme. Mirelle and Daniel have their own expla­na­tions for why he was so affect­ed by it. Do you agree with them, or do you have anoth­er pos­si­ble reason?
  9. Napoleon used the press to pro­mote him­self as France’s great hero. How does the media today play a sim­i­lar role for our politi­cians, no mat­ter what your per­son­al polit­i­cal leanings?
  10. What do you make of Francesca and Daniel’s rela­tion­ship? Francesca was raised to despise Jews, yet she grows to trust and pos­si­bly even like the young Jew­ish sol­dier. Do you believe that get­ting to know some­one per­son­al­ly can help over­come taught prej­u­dice? Why or why not?
  11. Dolce starts out as Mirelle’s best friend – some­thing which changes dra­mat­i­cal­ly by the end of the nov­el. Was Dolce ever tru­ly Mirelle’s friend? Should Mirelle have con­front­ed her ear­li­er than she does?
  12. Mirelle is pur­sued by two – pos­si­bly three – suit­ors. Who do you think she should have end­ed up with?