Rashi's Daughters: Book One - Joheved
Rashi’s Daughters: Book One – Joheved is a book I never would have picked up had I not received it, more or less by default, for review. Though there are notable exceptions, generally speaking I’m not a big fan of straight historical fiction. And this book is set in mid-11th-century France and revolves around a family of Jewish Talmudic scholars. The medieval period is not my favorite, and I knew nothing about Talmud before I read this book. But it had a somewhat intriguing cover and title – who was Rashi? – and it looked like it might be different. Lately I’ve been searching high and low for different.
First – who was Rashi? Rashi, we learn in the prologue, is a Hebrew acronym for Rabbi Shlomo ha Yitzhaki, or Salomon Ben Isaac as he is called in the story. He was the first scholar ever to write a Talmud commentary, and that commentary is still being read today. He also broke with tradition and taught his daughters, Joheved, Miriam, and Rachel, Talmud. Joheved is the primary focus of this book. The narrative begins in 1069 when Salomon is only 29 and Joheved is about ten. Salomon has recently had to give up studying abroad as his mother is ailing and he is now required to man the family’s business, winemaking. Joheved is a serious girl and has grown up reading the scriptures in several languages and learning from her grandmother the vintner trade. Salomon is a natural teacher and when he sees that his daughter is both devout and curious, he starts to teach her (and Miriam, who has no wish to be left out) Talmud. The story of their family continues over the course of about eight years, covering in detail what it was like to be a devout Jew, man or woman, in 11th century France.
Maggie Anton is both a Talmud and history scholar, and in Rashi’s Daughters it certainly shows. Medieval France as the Jews would have experienced it comes alive in her hands. Salomon, Joheved, and the others experience life through the lens of their faith and not through science or anything resembling modern understanding. When someone is ill or indisposed, they are quick to blame demons who they know by name and to use prayer, herbs, and other more superstitious means to rebuke and dispel them. They are careful to observe religious tradition in everything, lest they be punished for their carelessness or impiety. The story isn’t really plot driven, but season driven. The characters experience the passage of time relative to the Jewish calendar. In this way, the reader can see how Jews celebrated Purim, Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot, as well as the weekly Shabbat. It’s a fascinating peek into another time and culture.
Anton includes a fair smattering of actual Talmud lessons, appropriate given this is a scholarly family. The characters talk about how the Talmud relates to their lives – their work, their play, their roles within the family, even their sexual relations. Salomon was known for his refusal to be rigid; that is, if there was a legitimate debate amongst Jewish rabbis regarding a certain part of Talmud, he frequently went with the more flexible interpretation. But while faith informed the lives of Salomon and his family and they were utterly dedicated to it, they weren’t pinch-mouthed and repressed about it. Joheved is a young woman with natural desires, and the Jews regarded sex within marriage as a holy deed. Also, because privacy was not part of their communal lives, people talked about it, consulted each other if they had problems, and even joked about it. The sensuality rating of this book is warm for a reason, and there are even some rather bawdy bits.
One mistake Anton makes, however, is her use of point of view. There is rampant head-hopping throughout the book, sometimes even within the same paragraph. Anton’s goal seems to be to illuminate for the reader both this historical period and the Talmud, so we get into each of the characters’ minds as they react to the various circumstances. In this way Anton is able to give out a great deal of information about medieval France, but in doing so, she sacrifices narrative intimacy. Because we know what all the characters are thinking all of the time, none of them is more important than the others and we never have to guess what anyone is thinking. This also drains some of the natural tension out of the individual scenes.
Still Rashi’s Daughter’s: Book One – Joheved is a very good first novel. I learned a great deal and, even though I’m not Jewish, I found the passages about the Talmud fascinating. It sparked my interest in learning more about my own scripture. It was also a nice change of pace to read about a period in time in which Jewish-Christian relations were not poisoned by anti-Semitism. If I had to compare Maggie Anton to anyone I’ve read, I’d compare her to Elizabeth Chadwick. If historical fiction is your bag and you enjoy a detailed immersion into another time and place, this might just be the book for you.