Rav Hisda's Daughter, Book I: Apprentice
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Hisdadukh, blessed to be beautiful and learned, is the youngest child of Talmudic sage Rav Hisda. The world around her is full of conflict. Rome, fast becoming Christian, battles Zoroastrian Persia for dominance while Rav Hisda and his colleagues struggle to establish new Jewish traditions after the destruction of Jerusalem’s Holy Temple. Against this backdrop Hisdadukh embarks on the tortuous path to become an enchantress in the very land where the word ’magic’ originated.
But the conflict affecting Hisdadukh most intimately arises when her father brings his two best students before her, a mere child, and asks her which one she will marry. Astonishingly, the girl replies, “Both of them.“ Soon she marries the older student, although it becomes clear that the younger one has not lost interest in her. When her newfound happiness is derailed by a series of tragedies, a grieving Hisdadukh must decide if she does, indeed, wish to become a sorceress. Based on actual Talmud texts and populated with its rabbis and their families, Rav Hisda’s Daughter: Book I Apprentice brings the world of the Talmud to life from a woman’s perspective.
Praise for the Rashi’s Daughters trilogy:
“Anton delivers a tour de force.“ Library Journal
“A compelling combination of drama, suspense, and romance.“ Lilith magazine
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.
Q. Parts of the novel are based in historical fact. Why did you decide to write a work of historical fiction? What drew you to this time period in particular?
A. I have always preferred novels to nonfiction, so I decided to write the book I wanted to read. When my Talmud studies brought me to the passage where Rav Hisda’s daughter, sitting on her father’s lap, says she wants to marry both suitors, I knew I wanted to write her story which would take place in the ThirdFourth Century. This time period is crucial in Jewish history, yet very few people are familiar with it. Thus it was ripe for discovery.
Q. How is writing this series different from writing Rashi’s Daughters? What new challenges did Rav Hisda’s Daughter present for you?
A. One big difference is that this series is written in first person, using only my heroine’s point of view, while the Rashi’s Daughters trilogy is written in third person, from many different characters’ POV. That presented a new challenge for me, because I could only provide information that Hisdadukh saw or heard herself. Anything she didn’t know, my readers wouldn’t know either. Another is that there are so many more facts available about Rashi’s life and times [11thcentury France] than about the Talmudic sages in Babylonia. A huge challenge was that nearly we know about this world comes from the Talmud itself, which is not a historical document, and there is no simple way to mine its vast trove of information.
Q. You state in the afterword that all of the magical scenes in the novel are also noted in the Talmud. Was there a reason why you chose not to include other magical scenes? What compelled you to write about magic in the ancient Jewish world?
A. All the magical scenes are either from the Talmud or from historical artifacts such as amulets or incantation bowls. I wanted to write about “real“ magic; that is magic that Jews in Babylonia actually practiced. I wanted Rav Hisda’s Daughter to stand out as different from all the novels today that involve magic the author made up. At first I hadn’t expected magic to play such a significant role in this story, but the more I researched Jewish life back then, the more I realized that the literate women who created these amulets and incantation bowls were likely from rabbinic families. And when I read that her father knew spells, it gave me the idea to make Hisdadukh an enchantress herself which meant I’d be writing about her training and the magic others were using.
Q. Hisdadukh is such a strong female character, despite living in a time where women weren’t given the same opportunities that men were. How were you able to work within her circumstances to create such a strongwilled and independent character?
A. Rav Hisda’s daughter is the woman mentioned more often in the Talmud than any other, one endowed with wealth, wisdom, and power. Thus she has opportunities not available to the average Jewish woman of her time. Still she is constrained by her gender in that, despite all her learning and intelligence, she can never be a rabbi. By having her learn to be an enchantress, it gives her a profession where being independent and strongwilled is an asset.
Q. What are you working on now? What can we expect from Hisdadukh in the next book?
A. I’m working on the series’ second volume, Book Two Enchantress, where she finally marries Rava and starts a new family with him. The two of them will find themselves embroiled in court intrigue as Rava becomes the preeminent rabbi in Babylonia, as well as King Shapur’s confidant. Hisdadukh will face many challenges as she continues her enchantress training and comes into conflict with other magic users who resent and fear her.
- How does the prologue set the tone for the novel? Why do you think the author reveals that Hisdadukh will marry both Rami and Abba right upfront? How does that alter the way you read the rest of the novel?
- Why is Hisdadukh embarrassed by her response to her father when he asks her whether she would rather marry Abba or Rami? How does her family react? Considering what comes to pass, do you believe there was any element of prophecy in her response?
- How does the historical setting frame the events of the novel? What techniques does the author employ to bring the sights and sounds of thirdcentury Babylon to life?
- Hisdadukh and her family believe that Rav Hisda’s piety protects them from the Evil Eye. Does the novel ever give you any reason to doubt this? How does Rav Hisda’s piety affect how outsiders perceive his family?
- How is the kind of sorcery that Hisdadukh, Rahel, Kimchit and Em practice linked to their Judaism? Hisdadukh initially wonders why Rahel’s work doesn’t make her an evil kashafa how does she come to reconcile this?
- We see in Rav Hisda’s classes that often times there can be two right answers to the same question. How does the author juxtapose the discussions of the Mishna and the Baraita against Hisdadukh’s relationships with both Rami and Abba?
- Did you expect Rav Hisda to be angry when he discovered that Hisdadukh’s grandfather was sleeping in her kiton with her? Why or why not? What did you learn about Babylonian culture from the novel that surprised you?
- Do Rami and Abba despise each other only because they’re rivals for Hisdadukh’s affection, or is there more to it than that? What did you make of Zahra and Pazi’s advice to Hisdadukh, that she should encourage the two to get along with one another?
- What did you perceive to be the difference between the rabbinic families and the amha’aretz? Does Hisdadukh’s opinion of the amha’aretz change over time? How so?
- Why do you think Pushbi treats Achti so poorly? How does her behavior change after Tabita curses her? What about Achti? What did you think about the way Achti treated Hisdadukh after Rami’s death?
- How does Hisdadukh cope with the many trials she faces? What role does her faith play? How does it change throughout the novel?
- What do you think about the laws that govern what happens to a woman’s children in the event of her husband’s death? How do they align with other aspects of Babylonian culture? Do you think they make sense within the context of the times?
- Why does Hisdadukh decide to travel with her father to Israel? What makes her decide to stay there? Would you have done the same in her position?
- Think about how upset Hisdadukh is when she learns that her father has entered into initial negotiations to betroth her to Abba. How does Hisdadukh eventually come to love Abba? Can you trace the evolution of her feelings?
- Describe Hisdadukh’s friendship with Yochani. What do the two women offer one another? Why do you think their friendship blossomed so quickly?
- Why does Hisdadukh agree to model for Salaman? What ultimately prevents her from marrying him?
- Do you blame Yehudit’s death on Sepphoris’s kashafa? Hisdadukh says that she blames herself why? What do you think of her reasoning? What did you make of Abba’s confrontation with the kashafa?
- The ending of the novel is hopeful but not definitive. What do you imagine is next for Hisdadukh? Can you imagine Abba and Hisdadukh’s marriage? How do you think it will differ from her marriage to Rami, considering what you know about each of the characters?