Story of a Roman freedman and a Jewish girl explored in new book

Exploring the mystery of a cryptic gravestone in southern Italy

Tourists at Masada in 2008. The novel takes place during the Great Jewish Revolt against Rome, a war that ended at the battle of Masada. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Tourists at Masada in 2008. The novel takes place during the Great Jewish Revolt against Rome, a war that ended at the battle of Masada.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 When a book grabs your attention from the start and maintains its grip to the very end, you could justifiably call it a very good read. Rebel Daughter – Lori Banov Kaufmann’s first published novel – fulfills those criteria, and is a very good read indeed. 
Covering the five years from 65 to 70 of the Common Era, the story is set against the backdrop of the Jewish rebellion against Roman rule, its ruthless suppression, the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple. These historic events impact directly on the life of the main protagonist, Esther, daughter of a Temple priest.
Kaufmann tells us that it took her 10 years to produce Rebel Daughter. For much of that time, she was immersed in researching the minutiae of daily life in first century Jerusalem and Rome.
Her study certainly paid off, for she succeeds in painting a picture of day-to-day living nearly two thousand years ago that is infused with authentic and convincing detail. The sights, sounds and smells of the time permeate her pages. 
The idea for Rebel Daughter stems from an inscription on an ancient gravestone discovered in southern Italy. It commemorates the death, at the age of 25, of “Claudia Aster, captive from Jerusalem,” and was erected by “Tiberius Claudius Masculus, freedman of the emperor.”
Kaufmann began to speculate about the sort of events that might have brought these two people together – a Roman freedman and a Jewish girl originally named Esther (Aster is the Romanized version) who was taken captive during the uprising in Jerusalem and brought to Italy.
So she conceived the Jerusalem family life of teenage Esther in the turbulent period when hotheaded Jewish rebels were plotting to throw off the shackles of the Roman occupation, and the sequence of events that plunged Esther and her little brother Matti into the very heart of the tragedy that overtook Jerusalem itself.
Two men feature in Esther’s story – a Jew named Joseph, who abandons the Jewish cause and becomes Josephus the historian, and a Roman named Tiberius, who finally rescues Esther from captivity. 
Esther emerges from the novel as a fully rounded person, motivated by her deep religious and spiritual heritage, and moved by an intense desire to acquire knowledge and understanding of the world around her. As we accompany her through traumatic incidents that would have broken a weaker personality, we witness also her growth and development as an individual. 
Kaufmann has chosen to present her story in the form of short and succinct chapters, some as short as one page. In all, the novel consists of 96 of them, appropriately numbered in the Roman style.
This form of presentation, as well as the theme of the novel and her lucid writing style, allows Rebel Daughter to be classified as a “crossover” young adult/adult novel.
The young adult (YA) classification, which originated in the 1960s, now merits its own section in public libraries. YA novels are known to appeal also to many adult readers. The most famous example of the genre, perhaps, is the Harry Potter novels by J.K. Rowling. 
A VALUABLE feature of this book is the six-page historical note by Jonathan Price, professor of ancient history at Tel Aviv University, which is appended to the novel. It provides the reader with the historical context for the events that so shaped the lives of its main characters. As he says, those events “transformed Judaism permanently and contributed to Christianity’s eventual emergence as a world religion.” 
Price describes the extent, the wealth and the power of the Roman Empire in the first century. He specifies both the benefits that Rome brought to the multitude of different peoples and cultures under its sway, but also the burdens it imposed which chafed particularly on the Jewish nation-state that it had conquered a century earlier.
Another contributory factor to the revolt, he explains, was the widespread belief at the time that the End of Days was nigh, a mighty battle was imminent, the Children of Israel would emerge triumphant and the Messiah would appear.
As Price puts it: “It was this unshakable faith in God’s plan and purpose that the Jews, people of a tiny nation, took into battle against the mighty Roman Empire.”
Rebel Daughter provides a highly readable insight into one of the most turbulent episodes in Jewish history. Kaufmann brings the period to vivid life, and we gain a unique view of first century Jerusalem and life under Roman rule.
But it is Esther herself, her courage, her loyalty to her family, and the ordeals she undergoes in order to hold fast to her spiritual values, that will live in the memory long after the reader has turned the final page. 
By Lori Banov Kaufmann
Delacorte Press
400 pages; $16.99