My friend, who ordered Rashi’s Daughters, Book I: Jocheved by Maggie Anton for our book club, asked me to read it and tell her my thoughts. Not having read any reviews I didn’t know what to expect.
Anton introduces us to the life of the renowned classical Biblical and Talmudic commentator Rabbi Salomon Isaac of Troyes (Rashi) and his family. The oldest daughter, Jocheved, studies Talmud with her father and borrows her father’s tefillin (phylacteries) to say morning prayers.
We learn about the family’s meals, bathroom habits (they collect moss to use for toilet paper), menstrual cycles, parchment making and wine-making (Anton assumes that Rashi is a vintner, although this may be a myth).
It’s fascinating to speculate on the daily life of an important Jewish family in the 11th century, even though the portrait of Rashi’s family is too intimate and completely unbelievable. But as Anton states in the afterword, “. . . because I am writing fiction, I can say whatever I like.”
The second half of the book, leading up to the wedding of Yocheved and Meir, includes long discussions about the characters’ sexual frustrations and quotations of what appear to be every existing Talmudic passage relating to sex. Anton throws in some quotes from Tractate Kallah (Bride), which her readers probably think is an ancient sex manual. In fact, after reading this book you might think the Talmud is entirely about women and sex with a bit of winemaking on the side.
In one scene, Rashi catches Meir and Yocheved kissing. (The yeshiva bachurim, or unmarried students, board in Rashi’s house.) After he orders her to review the fourth commandment (either Anton means the fifth commandment, honoring one’s parents, or she assumes her readers follow the Christian numeration), Jocheved blames Rashi for both delaying her wedding and being away so much when she was small. Thus chastised, Rashi takes Meir aside and shares in graphic detail the difficulties he experienced on his own wedding night, because he had relied on texts with no father or brother to explain things. Finally, Rashi indicates to the engaged couple that he will look the other way if they fool around in the future.
I couldn’t finish this book.