A Princess Without a Crown by Jenna Maio
Reviewed by Sarah Pachter
A Princess Without a Crown, by Jenna Maio, is an inspiring memoir about a young woman’s journey towards Orthodox Judaism. Jenna grew up on Long Island, less than a mile away from the central hub of the Orthodox community. Surprisingly, she had no exposure to Orthodox people, nor any observant friends.
The gripping story takes the reader on a three-part journey, described as inspiration, struggle, and actualization. Visiting various cities like Hewlett, NY, where Jenna grew up, Atlanta’s Emory University, her alma mater, and Jerusalem’s Neve Yerushalayim where she began her inspiring process, allows the audience to follow her path right along with her. I loved how accurately she describes the nuances of these locations and their varying cultures. She humorously shares aspects of each through the use of colorful characters and imagery.
Jenna Maio’s resume is impressive; before graduating from the University of Pennsylvania’s Law School, she received the prestigious Dean’s Scholar Award. Later, she worked for the Supreme Court of Israel, all while pursuing a Torah-observant lifestyle.
Through the book, the reader has a rare opportunity to peek inside the mind of someone who is exposed to Judaism for the first time. She discusses the rewards and challenges of the process of becoming observant in an honest and vulnerable manner. It is her transparency that causes the audience to examine their own faith, and question for themselves why they perform the various customs and laws that Judaism demands. The answers she relays will inspire each reader to deepen his or her own relationship with Hashem.
For example, when Jenna studies at Neve, a seminary in Israel for baalei teshuva, she asks a thought provoking question:
“I don’t understand, is doing mitzvot the only way to connect to God?”
Rabbi Kass, her teacher, responds, “Torah and mitzvot do not have a monopoly on connecting to G-d, but G-d designed the Torah and mitzvot to enable a more efficient and intense relationship with him. If you want to have a connection with someone, you can do it pretty easily, but there’s a difference between simply saying ‘hello’ and buying someone their favorite candy. Each act will create a different level of connection.”
The author’s passion for truth forces the reader to face themselves and the intensity of their faith. The chapter entitled Teshuva was powerful in doing that, and brought me to tears. It is here that Jenna beautifully describes one of her first experiences praying alone in her room.
She writes, “I take a deep breath and I think, Talk to God? How do I do this? Just try.”
The scene depicts how she begins to sway back and forth, and her face becomes wet with tears. Upon finishing, she feels like G-d had just hugged her. After this first teshuva experience, she opens her eyes and expects the room to look different, but everything is the same. The only thing that has changed was her.
When she returns from Israel, Jenna describes the difficult reactions she faced from family members who didn’t understand her personal transformation or desire to seek truth. Their responses ran the gamut from indifferent to antagonistic. She relates several uncomfortable incidents, including a moment when her parents demanded that she get into a car on Shabbos. Her conviction was commendable as she describes her inner turmoil when she respectfully declined.
I was deeply impressed by how Jenna managed to hold the inspirational teachings she learned in her heart to help guide her through dark moments. I was also humbled by her ability to see G-d’s hand in everything that occurred throughout her journey.
Although this book is a memoir, it can serve as a practical guide for anyone looking to grow spiritually. Additionally, anyone with a friend or family member who is becoming more observant would benefit from reading this book. It offers a different perspective than what is often shared, and provides a greater understanding of what someone on the path of spiritual discovery is experiencing.
Jenna has an uncanny ability to grab her reader and not let go until the last page. Through sharing her riveting tale, her book reawakened my spiritual desire to come closer to Hashem. I recommend this moving story, as it holds the power to reignite or reinforce anyone’s spiritual journey.