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Inspired by an ancient tomb, a Jewish love story puts the Roman in bildungsroman

Lori Kaufmann’s debut ‘Rebel Daughter’ brings serious research to a tale of family and survival, from Jerusalem to southern Italy

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

A composite image showing the cover of the book "Rebel Daughter," by Lori Kaufmann, and a Late 1st century epitaph for Claudia Aster. (Courtesy Delacorte Press and Museo Archeologico nazionale, Naples)
A composite image showing the cover of the book "Rebel Daughter," by Lori Kaufmann, and a Late 1st century epitaph for Claudia Aster. (Courtesy Delacorte Press and Museo Archeologico nazionale, Naples)

It was an archaeological artifact that first stirred Lori Kaufmann’s imagination.

About a decade ago, Kaufmann read about research being carried out on a first century CE gravestone discovered in southern Italy, the burial spot of a young woman from Jerusalem. How, Kaufmann wondered, did a Jewish girl end up in ancient Rome?

The fictionalized tale of that young woman became “Rebel Daughter” (Delacorte Press), Kaufmann’s debut young adult novel about Esther, who survives the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans in 70 CE.

“I hadn’t ever been interested in ancient history,” said Kaufmann, 61, who describes herself as retired from a career as a strategy and marketing consultant. “But as I learned more, I couldn’t believe I didn’t know any of this. ”

Lori Banov Kauffman, author of ‘Rebel Daughter,’ a young adult novel about the destruction of Jerusalem in ancient times (Courtesy Lori Banov Kaufmann)

The tombstone that intrigued Kaufmann was dusted off in the basement of the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, with a Latin inscription that read: ”Claudia Aster, captive from Jerusalem. Tiberius Claudius Proculus, imperial freedman, took care of this epitaph. I ask you to make sure through the law that you take care that no one casts down my inscription.”

Italian scholars suggested that Aster may have been a Latin or Greek version of the Jewish name Esther. The inscription was also considered the first archaeological corroboration of Jewish captives shipped by their Roman conquerors from Jerusalem in the late first century CE.

The cover of ‘Rebel Daughter,’ Lori Banov Kaufmann’s debut young adult novel about a young woman living through the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem (Courtesy Delacorte Press)

The research involved in fictionalizing the story of Claudia Aster became a deep dive for Kaufmann into the worlds of ancient Jerusalem and Rome.

She took a 10-year journey with local historians and archaeologists in Israel to learn about life in those times, from the intense battles, politics and intrigue to the lives of ordinary people like Esther.

Esther is the daughter of Hanan, a high priest in the Second Temple, doted on and schooled by her father in reading and writing while helping her mother run the household.

Readers are offered an engrossing dip into Esther’s childhood, with glimpses at weaving cloth, farming and foraging for medicinal herbs, as well as the relationships between Esther’s parents, among her elder brothers, and her own with her sister-in-law and confidante and her younger, beloved brother.

Esther is a young maiden on the cusp of womanhood, about to be betrothed, but she casts her eye on another fictionalized version of a real person: Joseph, a swashbuckling Israelite who later changes his name to Josephus Flavius, the complicated Jew who later wrote the history of the great Jewish revolt against the Romans.

Tourists look at a model of the Second Temple on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Tourists look at a model of Jerusalem during the Second Temple-era on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

There is also a Roman freeman named Tiberius, named in the real tombstone, who is friends with Esther’s father and who plays a central role in Esther’s life.

“I felt like Esther, Tiberius and Josephus were the people I wanted to tell the story, as eyewitnesses who survived the destruction of Jerusalem. I thought seeing it through their eyes would make it come alive,” said Kaufmann. “Jerusalem was a small place back then. They would’ve known each other.”

The book offers a stab at answering Kaufmann’s initial question, how Esther wound up in southern Italy, but to reveal any more would be a spoiler.

The depths of Kaufmann’s research is apparent in the 374-page book, which brings ancient Jerusalem alive for the reader. She spent hours speaking to professors and archaeologists, reading dissertations and conference proceedings and “totally went overboard on research that was a labor of love,” said Kaufmann, who worked closely with Tel Aviv University historian Jonathan Price throughout the project. “I felt this obligation to get this right. These were real people with real lives.”

There’s a level of detail in “Rebel Daughter” that is apparent to anyone who’s ever spent time in Jerusalem’s Old City or City of David, the controversial archaeological site in the Arab neighborhood of Silwan, just outside the Old City gates.

Visitors walk at the City of David in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan on August 31, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As the fictional Esther makes her way to the market, goes with her father into the Temple, or walks into the forest to gather the herbs needed for her mother’s facial creams, readers familiar with the ancient city can easily imagine her surroundings.

Kaufmann didn’t intend “Rebel Daughter” as a young adult novel, but as Esther’s coming of age component became apparent, she switched gears in her writing, developing the story of the young woman approaching adulthood during a difficult period and finding herself in spite of challenges.

“I still think about how many parallels there are with our world today,” said Kaufmann. “The characters struggle for survival and love as they’re caught in war zones, which is so relevant today.”

Kaufmann, an American-Israeli who grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, married an Israeli and raised four children in the suburban town of Raanana, found that the research shook some of her assumptions about ancient Jerusalem.

“It’s not a light rom-com,” said Kaufmann, who is already working on her next book, about Jewish sisters growing up in Charleston, based on her own family history. “This was a period with genocide and slavery and torture, with animal sacrifices. It was a very violent time and I wanted to be historically accurate but without gratuitous violence.”

A fan of historical novels, Kaufmann wanted this book to ring true, despite being a work of fiction.

“I realize now that because I was working with historians, I felt that I better get it right, but they weren’t my end reader,” she said. “I may have overshot it for fiction, but it was fun.”

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