What’s the connection between Hasidic Jews and diamonds? History tells us that many Jews, after being prohibited from most professions in medieval Europe, became financiers or diamond merchants. British author Jeanette Winterson, in her acclaimed 1998 novel Gut Symmetries, has a loftier answer.
“To a Jew,” she writes, “stones have meaning beyond value. The 12 jewels of the High Priest‘s breastplate were energy, not hoard. The stones live.”
The protagonist in Winterston’s book, Stella, is born out of a strange relationship: Her mother is German; her father is Jewish. After escaping the Holocaust, the couple comes to the United States and rooms with the husband’s Hasidic family–all of whom are diamond merchants. Diamonds, they believe, are a holy science. Refining a diamond, they say, is akin to completing the work of God’s Creation. While pregnant, Stella’s mother accidentally swallows a valuable diamond, and baby Stella’s bones grow around it.
As an adult, Stella is free of the Hasidic world. However, a Hasidic diamond merchant follows her, waiting for her to die so that he may reclaim his property. The diamond becomes a metaphor for Stella’s relationship to Judaism: Something buried deep inside her that doesn’t quite fit, but will always be a part of her.