Rashi's Daughters, Book III: Rachel
A Novel of Love and the Talmud in Medieval France
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Rabbi Salomon ben Isaacís three daughters are all married, adult women now, with babies to raise and businesses to run, in addition to helping their father with his vineyard and yeshiva. This is particularly true for Rashiís youngest daughter, Rachel, who has long been his favorite and, as such, is used to getting her way. The world around her, however, is changing quickly, and Rachel soon meets with more adversity and challenges than she would have ever thought possible.
Her husband, Eliezer, must travel to Sephardic Spain in order to conduct his familyís business, and while there he becomes engrossed in the secular study of astronomy. Rachel, determined to bring him home to Troyes and back to study of the Talmud, takes it upon herself to start up a woolens business that would make enough money to support her family and keep her husband home. The venture is fraught with obstacles, however, and begins to test more than just Rachelís wit and business acumen. It threatens to undo her marriage altogether.
In addition to the turmoil in her personal life, the whole of Europe is being taken up in a wave of new Christian fervor, as the pope calls upon rich and poor alike to fight in the First Crusade. This revival of spiritualism ends up doing more harm than good, however, as the poorly organized Christian masses wallow in poverty and chaos, while watching their Jewish neighbors prosper. Anti-Semitic rancor reaches a fever pitch when Jewish communities in the Rhineland fall under brutal attack and their great yeshivot are destroyed. In France, Rachel must strive with her family to keep peace with their Notzrim neighbors, while continuing to record her fatherís commentaries, or kuntres, before his health fails completely and his great wisdom is lost forever.
Rashiís Daughters: Book III: Rachel by Maggie Anton is the third installment of her trilogy about the fiercely talented progeny of ďRashiĒ, a widely revered Jewish scholar of the 11th century. Rachel picks up where Miriam left off, revealing the last years of Rabbi Salomon ben Isaacís life and the fate of his famous school and large, gifted family. Just like the first two novels, the story of Rachel combines historic fact and Talmudic wisdom with romance and drama, and the result is a breathtaking, page-turning story that reveals Rachel to be, like her sisters, a woman extraordinary and ahead of her time.
Maggie Anton was born Margaret Antonofsky in Los Angeles, California. Raised in a secular, socialist household, she reached adulthood with little knowledge of her Jewish religion. All that changed when David Parkhurst, who was to become her husband, entered her life, and they both discovered Judaism as adults. In the early 1990's, Anton began studying Talmud in a class for women taught by Rachel Adler, now a professor at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. She became intrigued with the idea that Rashi, one of the greatest Jewish scholars ever, had no sons, only three daughters. Slowly but surely, she began to research the family and the time in which they lived. Legend has it that Rashi's daughters were learned in a time when women were traditionally forbidden to study the sacred texts. These forgotten women seemed ripe for rediscovery, and the idea of a book about them was born.
A CONVERSATION WITH MAGGIE ANTON Q. Youíve gained quite a loyal following with your depiction of Rashiís daughters. What is your favorite part, or what is the most rewarding part, of having inspired such devotion to your books, and to the story of these young women in particular?
Q. Youíve gained quite a loyal following with your depiction of Rashiís daughters. What is your favorite part, or what is the most rewarding part, of having inspired such devotion to your books, and to the story of these young women in particular?
The most rewarding part of having such a loyal following is when one of my readers becomes inspired to study Torah or Talmud because of my work.
Q. How much of your Torah study has influenced the direction of the novels? How much of your personal experience studying Torah were you able to draw upon when writing about Johevedís, Miriamís, and Rachelís experiences? What was the most important aspect of Torah study that you wished to convey to your audience?
All the Talmud passages that Rashiís daughters study are ones I have wrestled with myself, and I strove to make those scenes as exciting and interesting as Talmud study is for me. I hope to convey to my readers that Torah and Talmud study can be fun and fascinating, and that these texts are not merely boring, lengthy, and detailed debates that have nothing to do with a modern womanís life.
Q. Did your own secular research for the novels ever create conflicts with your Torah study, as it did for Eliezer in Rachel?
No. I was a scientist first, and then a Talmud student. I gave up chemistry for Torah study.
Q. In the acknowledgements for this book, you mention that you have no plans to write Rashiís Granddaughters. Why? Have you discovered a new Jewish heroine to write about? What book or books can we expect to see from you in the near future?
For me, writing a book is hard work, an excuse for doing the research, which is what I truly enjoy. At this time I feel that I have mined the lives of medieval French Jews as much as I can and so I have begun researching a new historical setting. I do have a new Jewish heroine in mind, a nameless (for now) woman who lives around 300 C.E. in Babylonia, during the time when Persia defeats Rome to become the wealthiest, most powerful empire in the world, when Constantine makes Christianity the official religion of Rome, and when the Babylonian Talmud is being composed. This time period, crucial to Jewish history, yet one that very few people today are familiar with, will set the scene for my next historical novel.
- Discuss the ways that the opening scene of this novel foreshadows what will come in the pages that follow. What motifs dominate this book? What does Rachelís life teach us about life and love (not just in medieval France, but in contemporary times as well)?
- In the first two books of the Rashiís Daughters trilogy, we donít see much racism or bigotry between the Jews of Troyes and their Notzrim counterparts. Then, in Rachel, we see the advent of the Crusades and a wave of religious unrest across Europe. What were some of the more terrifying and/or significant examples of anti-Semitic behavior during the latter half of the 11th century? What kind of perspective did these scenes give to you about Jewish life as a whole, across the centuries?
- In what ways did Jewish law allow women of the 11th century more freedom than their Christian counterparts? In what ways was it also very constrictive? Discuss how Rachelís life especially parallels that of women today Ė did you ever forget you were reading historical fiction? What character traits made Rashiís daughters, and the youngest in particular, seem ahead of their time?
- Rachel is the only one of Rashiís daughters to marry for love Ė both Miriam and Joheved entered into arranged marriages. What does Rachelís marriage to Eliezer say about marriage based on love? Does it make any kind of argument for arranged marriages?
- Early in the novel Rachel is almost forced to have sex with the count in order to protect her family. She postpones the act by engaging with the count in a drawn out game of courtly love (and escapes her predicament when the count is murdered). Joheved uses the rules of this ďgameĒ as well in order to retain the services of her estateís talented steward without encouraging his infatuation with her. Discuss the sexual politics of the time as they are represented in these two situations, and in this novel in general (like Eliezerís ability to have more than one wife under Muslim rule in Spain, but not under Christian rule in France). How else and where else is sex used as a means of power and control? What similarities exist in contemporary relationships between the sexes, and those of the 11th century?
- While a lot of Jewish law is very practical and resists mysticism, and part of Torah study involves questioning and debating interpretations of that law, the Rashiís Daughters trilogy does reveal a certain amount of rigid and unfailing devotion to superstition and mythology (concerning demons) in medieval Judaism. The Jews of Troyes often use stories about demons to explain common and uncommon illnesses or physical peculiarities. Discuss whether you think this use of mythology and superstition made occurrences like sudden infant death syndrome or the small pox epidemic easier to explain in a world where they were supposed to be protected by a God who loved them.
- Do you think Rachel matures in this novel? Do we see her grow as a person? If so Ė what incidents throughout the novel really change her, and in what way does this change manifest itself? Consider in particular her position as Rav Solomon ben Isaacís youngest and favorite daughter, as well as the deathbed wish of her mother regarding his care. Also discuss the ways in which her relationships with her sisters evolve over the course of the novel (and consequently, her lifetime).
- By the time Rashiís daughters are having children (and grandchildren), they no longer have to hide their knowledge of Torah study. Discuss the ways Johevedís, Miriamís, and Rachelís daughters and daughters-in-law carry on the legacy that they began Ė in what ways do these young women defy tradition as female scholars and members of the Jewish community? (Consider Zipporah and Hannah in particular.)
- What did you think of Eliezerís attraction to secular study and his refusal to live in Troyes with Rachel? In particular, what did you think of his determination to prove that the earth orbited the sun? Evaluate the way the author integrated the prevalent theories and scientific discoveries of the time into this subplot.
- Likewise, Rachelís determination to establish a woolens business consumes her like few other things do Ė did you believe that she was doing it entirely with Eliezer in mind? What else may have motivated her to establish the business?
- Because she has turned in her get to the beit din, Rachel is granted a divorce from Eliezer at the end of the novel. And when Solomon ben Isaac dies, Rachel is finally freed from the deathbed promise she made to her mother. She becomes, more or less, independent and free of familial and marital obligation. What did you think of her decision at the end of the novel to return to Eliezerís side? She wouldnít marry Dovid because of his missing brothers, but as a successful business woman, she was one of the few medieval women of France who didnít need to marry for financial security. What does her decision to return to Eliezer say about her? What kind of tone does it set for the end of the novel, and for the end of the series?
- Compare this book (and if you can, the entire series) to other works of historical fiction that you have read. What makes this book, and its prequels, stand out from the rest of the genre? What did you learn from this book, and/or the others, that was surprising, interesting, and valuable?
Maggie Anton is available for book group phone chats. Please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org