While Maggie Anton is a lover of fiction, she probably would have never believed that one day she'd be embarking on a whirlwind speaking tour as an author of her own historical novel. But early this month, this former chemist from California spoke at various educational institutes and community centers throughout Israel, including AACI in Netanya and Haifa, and ESRA Ra'anana, about book one of Rashi's Daughters, a trilogy that dramatizes the lives of the progeny of the most famous Jewish biblical commentator.
The Jerusalem Post caught up with Anton to find out how she turned from full-time clinical chemist who worked for 30 years at Kaiser Permanente hospital, to a sought-after speaker and author, with Penguin and Harper Collins waging bidding wars over her next installment. Later this year, Penguin (the winner) will release book two and the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) will release a young adult version of book one.
"To my incredible surprise I fell in love with Talmud study," Anton says of her initial foray into Talmud study with Jewish feminist scholar Rachel Adler in Los Angeles. Until then, she was little versed in Jewish scholarship or tradition, having grown-up in a secular, socialist household.
The idea of the book grew organically over several years, fueled by her independent study of Rashi's daughters and the era in which they lived.
"I was trying to find out if Rashi's daughters really wore tefillin or not," she explained. "The legend says that Rashi's daughters wore tefillin, but there is no evidence to say for sure that they did. We know some women in Rashi's time wore tefillin, tzitzit, blew shofar; they were also mohalot who performed ritual circumcisions."
Her interest in Rashi's daughters turned into a fascination about the lifestyle and oft liberal Jewish observance of French Jewish medieval women. To uncover facts and curiosities about this era, in her spare time she spent hours at local libraries, including those at UCLA and at the University of Judaism, formerly associated with the Conservative Movement.
A tour of Troyes in the Champagne region of northern France and its Jewish quarter, which is decorated with a monument to Rashi, provided her with a picture of the community - its clothing, food, and customs - all well-described in her book.
"As I was telling people what I was doing, somehow I guess someone said to me this is so interesting you should write a book," she says, then added: "My children told me to stop hoching (Yiddish for rattling like a tea kettle) them about Rashi and his daughters and told me I should write a book; they didn't want to hear me anymore."
Rashi's Daughters is a chronicle of Jewish community life in Troyes at the start of the second millennium as much as it is a story of Jocheved and her sisters, Miriam and Rachel (books one and two focus on the latter, respectively). The backdrop of Jocheved's life, from her love for Talmud study as a little girl until the early years of her marriage to Torah scholar Meir, is as central to the novel as its plot.
The novel describes Rashi's career as a winemaker, his role as a teacher and head of the Troyes yeshiva, and his family's cordial relations with Jewish and non-Jewish neighbors. Also figuring into the plot are little-known customs of the time such as annual merchant fairs, Jewish ownership of slaves and the widespread use of herbal love and healing potions. Anton was keen to illustrate the relative prosperity of Jews at the time.
"It was so different than all the oy vey stuff you get in Jewish history. I wanted to share it, celebrate it," Anton says.
Anton has found that the success of the novel is partly based on the interest of readers in a time period never explored in fiction. So far the novel has sold over 25,000 copies and is already in its sixth printing. While Anton had secured a literary agent for book one, she decided to establish Banot Press with her husband to publish the book in time for Rashi's 900th yahrzeit in 2005. She was surprised to find that the only extensive commemoration of his death occurred in his native French community. In fact, France issued a half-Euro stamp in honor of Rashi, a historical figure in his homeland.
At times, however, Rashi's Daughters reads more like a romance novel rather than an in-depth examination of the cultural, theological and philosophical issues which may have underpinned the lives of Jewish women. Steamy sex scenes between the headstrong, learned Jocheved and her young, scholarly husband are described in detail, and the central conflict deals more with Jocheved's struggles bearing children rather than her clandestine Talmud study. Although, says Anton, the sex in the book is not without its religious grounding.
"In the Talmud there are sections that talk about the quality of a child as proportional to the quality of the sex act that conceives that child. The better the child, the better the sex you had."