By – September 29, 2021

Esther Bat Hanan, the hero­ine of Lori Banov Kaufmann’s new his­tor­i­cal nov­el for young adults, Rebel Daugh­ter, is the daugh­ter of a Tem­ple priest in Jerusalem dur­ing the trag­ic Jew­ish War against Roman occu­pa­tion. Between 66 and 70 C.E., the colony of Judea was torn by inter­nal fac­tions but ulti­mate­ly chose to fight against the over­whelm­ing pow­er of the Roman Empire. This for­ma­tive episode in Jew­ish his­to­ry unfolds from the per­spec­tive of one excep­tion­al young woman, whose char­ac­ter is based on an intrigu­ing grave inscrip­tion found in Italy, mark­ing the rest­ing place of a Jew­ish cap­tive brought to Rome. Esther is intel­li­gent, curi­ous, and insight­ful. She ques­tions her own motives as well as those of every­one around her, includ­ing the mem­bers of her con­flict­ed fam­i­ly. In spite of the fact that read­ers may know the out­come of the larg­er pic­ture, which cul­mi­nat­ed in the destruc­tion of the Tem­ple and the cru­el repres­sion of Judea’s inhab­i­tants, Esther’s per­son­al fate is unde­ter­mined. Kaufmann’s care­ful­ly researched and well-craft­ed nar­ra­tive draws read­ers into Esther’s role in tur­bu­lent events, as well as her full range of emo­tions and dif­fi­cult per­son­al decisions.

Con­stant­ly ques­tion­ing the cul­tur­al norms that pro­hib­it women from learn­ing, Esther con­vinces her father to teach her to read and study, not only Hebrew but also Greek. She observes him enact­ing the com­plex cer­e­monies of Tem­ple sac­ri­fice and feels vis­cer­al­ly con­nect­ed to the Jew­ish peo­ple, even more so as their lives become pro­gres­sive­ly more threat­ened. Esther’s rela­tion­ship with her moth­er, Sarah, is much more com­pro­mised by Sarah’s accom­mo­da­tion to men’s con­trol of women, as well as by her unre­solved grief at the loss of a young son before Esther was born. Esther’s sad­ness of her mother’s rejec­tion remains a loom­ing pres­ence and an unde­ni­able influ­ence on all of the young woman’s rela­tion­ships. Kauf­mann avoids anachro­nisms; Esther’s rebel­lious­ness does not extend to all pre­scrip­tive gen­der roles of her time. Rather, she strug­gles to rec­on­cile her per­son­al needs with the demands of being a duti­ful daugh­ter and mem­ber of Jew­ish society.

Some of the major char­ac­ters are based on his­tor­i­cal fig­ures includ­ing Joseph Ben Matityahu, bet­ter known as Jose­phus, author of The Jew­ish War. This first cen­tu­ry C.E. account by a Jew­ish leader, who first fought the Romans and lat­er changed his alle­giance to the win­ning side, is both deeply infor­ma­tive and con­tro­ver­sial. In Kaufmann’s nov­el, the man some­times viewed by Jews as a col­lab­o­ra­tor is pre­sent­ed from a dif­fer­ent angle, as the object of Esther’s phys­i­cal and emo­tion­al attrac­tion. The ambi­gu­i­ties of his role in his­to­ry become part of his pos­si­bil­i­ties as a mate. Esther is torn between her desire to trust this hand­some and dynam­ic man and her aware­ness that his morals might be more flex­i­ble than they should be. The idea of Jose­phus as the object of a strong young woman’s sex­u­al ardor and of her simul­ta­ne­ous skep­ti­cism cer­tain­ly offers a new per­spec­tive on this chron­i­cler of Jew­ish nationalism.

Roman and Jew­ish ideals and cul­ture are strong­ly con­trast­ed in this book. Indif­fer­ence to moral­i­ty, gra­tu­itous tor­ture of their sub­jects, and debased per­son­al rela­tion­ships are all opposed to the Jew­ish val­ues of schol­ar­ship, fideli­ty to the law, and the cen­tral­i­ty of fam­i­ly. There are even descrip­tions of Roman atroc­i­ties that fore­shad­ow the Holo­caust, such as detailed scenes of utter inhu­man­i­ty and the use of the term selec­tions” in deter­min­ing which cap­tives will be allowed to live. Yet there are some dis­hon­est and dis­loy­al Jews in the sto­ry, as well as Jew­ish polit­i­cal extrem­ists who fail to assess their polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion real­is­ti­cal­ly. At the same time, a Roman cit­i­zen, the for­mer­ly enslaved Tiberius, is one of the most nuanced char­ac­ters; he caus­es Esther to reeval­u­ate all of her assump­tions. She grad­u­al­ly learns to rec­on­cile her aspi­ra­tions for free­dom and the ter­ri­bly lim­it­ing cir­cum­stances of her time. At one des­per­ate moment, Esther com­pares her lack of free will to the sta­tus of an insect trapped in pine resin.” By the novel’s con­clu­sion, she has negat­ed this metaphor and bro­ken free.

This high­ly rec­om­mend­ed sto­ry includes an author’s note, and a thor­ough his­tor­i­cal note by Pro­fes­sor Jonathan J. Price of Tel Aviv University.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

Discussion Questions

1. At the begin­ning of the book, Esther strug­gles with her iden­ti­ty. Around women, she was a girl. Around men, she was a woman. With Jews from the Galilee or Jeri­cho, she was a Jerusalemite. In the Low­er Mar­ket, sur­round­ed by peas­ants, she was the daugh­ter of a priest, an aris­to­crat from the Upper City. With Romans, she was a Jew. But some­times she won­dered, who was she really?” 

How does Esther’s iden­ti­ty devel­op over time?

What defines one’s iden­ti­ty? Reli­gion, fam­i­ly, nation­al­i­ty or some­thing else?

2. Women in first-cen­tu­ry Jerusalem had clear­ly-defined gen­der roles as daugh­ters, wives and moth­ers. They were expect­ed to be mod­est, pious, and dili­gent in the domes­tic sphere.

Do Esther’s choic­es reflect her own val­ues and desires or are they based on soci­etal expectations?

Does the title Rebel Daugh­ter accu­rate­ly apply to her? Why or why not?

3. Esther believes that Joseph is the one she loves and Tiberius is the ene­my, but ulti­mate­ly she dis­cov­ers the oppo­site to be true. Through­out the book, Esther is repeat­ed­ly remind­ed of Miriam’s words What you think you know isn’t always so.”

Explore the sig­nif­i­cance of pre­con­cep­tions in the sto­ry. Have there been times in your life when it was hard to let go of cer­tain assumptions?

4. Fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships are an impor­tant theme in the book. Esther basks in her father’s atten­tion and bris­tles at her mother’s crit­i­cism. How do her rela­tion­ships with her par­ents and her broth­ers influ­ence her actions?

5. The his­to­ri­an Flav­ius Jose­phus was born a Jew named Joseph. But after the rebel­lion, he moved to Rome and lived in the house of the Roman emper­or. His fel­low Jews felt betrayed and nev­er for­gave him for advis­ing the Romans dur­ing the siege of Jerusalem. Yet some his­to­ri­ans claim that Jose­phus actu­al­ly tried to save Jew­ish lives. They point out that he spent the rest of his life defend­ing the Jew­ish peo­ple in his writ­ings as proof of his loy­al­ty. Was Jose­phus a trai­tor or a hero? Why?

6. The ancient Jews lived accord­ing to the laws of the Hebrew Bible, which empha­size puri­ty and holi­ness. These laws affect­ed all aspects of dai­ly life, includ­ing food, per­son­al hygiene, and sex­u­al rela­tions. Is there a con­nec­tion between spir­i­tu­al and phys­i­cal purity?

7. Archae­ol­o­gists have deter­mined that dur­ing the first cen­tu­ry, Jews in Jerusalem col­lect­ed the bones of the dead in small rec­tan­gu­lar box­es, called ossuar­ies, so that the deceased could be phys­i­cal­ly res­ur­rect­ed in the future.

How does belief in an after­life influ­ence the char­ac­ters in the story?

8. Both Miri­am and Zahara play impor­tant roles in Esther’s life. How are female friend­ships por­trayed in the book? Does Miri­am remind you of any­one in your life?

9. At var­i­ous points in the sto­ry Esther is forced to choose between her own inter­ests and those of her family.

Does Esther makes the right deci­sion when she agrees to mar­ry Lazar even though she doesn’t love him?

Dur­ing the siege of Jerusalem, Tiberius offers to help her escape, but Esther refus­es to aban­don her fam­i­ly. Does she make the right choice?

10. Esther strug­gles to under­stand how the Almighty could have allowed the destruc­tion of his Tem­ple and the death of so many inno­cent peo­ple, but she nev­er ceas­es to believe in God. Dis­cuss the role of faith in the book.

11. Esther feels con­flict­ed about her love for Tiberius. Why? What caus­es her to over­come her reser­va­tions and agree to marriage?

12. At the same time that the Jews were defend­ing them­selves against the Romans, they were fight­ing each oth­er. In fact, ancient Jew­ish sources claim that the real cause of the destruc­tion of the Tem­ple was sense­less hatred” among the Jews them­selves. Do you see any par­al­lels in oth­er peri­ods of his­to­ry, includ­ing your own?

13. Quotes from con­tem­po­rary sources appear before each sec­tion of the book. Did you find these quotes inter­est­ing, or did they take you out of the sto­ry world? Did you find your­self want­i­ng to know more about any of the real-life events or peo­ple in the book? If so, which ones, and why?

Lori Banov Kaufmann’s Rebel Daugh­ter, inspired by the dis­cov­ery of a 2000-year-old inscribed tomb­stone in Italy, is remark­ably researched and imag­ined. Esther Bat Hanan, a live­ly four­teen year-old liv­ing in Jerusalem in 66 CE, finds her­self at the cen­ter of mul­ti­ple strug­gles: the war blood­y­ing and threat­en­ing to destroy her home and peo­ple; her fight to sur­vive loss, cap­tiv­i­ty, and vio­lence; and the uni­ver­sal project of mea­sur­ing the dis­tance between who she is and who she most wants to be. Esther and her sto­ry are made time­less by her resis­tance to injus­tice, intel­lec­tu­al and emo­tion­al curios­i­ty, will­ing­ness to fight for her fam­i­ly and her­self, and vast capac­i­ty to love.