Rashi’s Daughters, Book I: Jocheved

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.

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Comments

  1. This one’s a bit of a cheat, no? 😀

  2. mominisrael says:

    Baila, I stayed up late but decided not to publish the second post in the end. Anyway, even one paragraph takes time to write and edit.

  3. I wonder if the shiurim will be available as podcasts.

  4. I don’t mind that these books are written (fiction based on biblical stories–The Red Tent also comes to mind). I think that they have the potential to give fascinating insight into what daily life was life back in those days, as long as you understand that they are fiction, and not obviously Torah. But why do they have to be so sexualized? Doing so cheapens these novels. If I want to read a cheap, trashy novel, it doesn’t have to have the giants of my heritage as the main characters (awkwardly put, I know, but you get what I mean). I finished this novel but felt much as you did.

  5. Safranit says:

    Ick…

  6. Another ridiculously over sexualized piece of historical fiction that everyone should go out of their way to avoid is People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. Among other things, a sofer’s teenage daughter regularly performs oral sex on a married man and Jewish refugees sell their small children into prostitution. I realize that observant Jews don’t always do what they’re supposed to do, but practically every character depicted in the book is having illicit sex. It was totally over the top.

  7. mominisrael says:

    Rafi, it’s clear that she did a lot of research both on daily life at the time and Jewish life. I guess she chose to be selective about certain halachot and mores of the time.
    Fern, thanks for the warning.
    Baila, I couldn’t read The Red Tent either.

  8. but Baila, how can they give all that insight if it is purely fiction and not base don any research other than a few Talmudic statements?
    Looks like I won’t be buying this book…

  9. I actually enjoyed the book a great deal and didn’t find it too “raw.” I thought that it was well done and like any historical fiction, it gave a story that was interesting enough to hold my attention while clearly being fiction. Of course we don’t know what went on in their personal lives, but the depiction of the period and some of the issues that Jews were struggling with at the time was engaging– at least from my point of view. As my sister likes to say, “chacun a son mishegas.”

  10. Well, Mother in Israel, you know your readers. This post did get strong responses! I’ve come to the conclusion that I’d rather read a post about Nechama Leibowitz. And if I want to read romance, I’ll stick to Jane Austen.

  11. mominisrael says:

    Dr. Savta–I agree with you that the part that was really “historical” was interesting. I don’t feel there was much of a story, but I could have lived with that if she hadn’t sexualized the characters so much.

  12. Went to read the book because a student asked me what I thought of it and I couldn’t answer without reading it first. I couldn’t get through it and put it down unfinished. The writing isn’t stellar and the author broke many rules of writing fiction about real historical people–make it believable. What did this author add to the world of great literature? Not one blessed thing, in my opinion. What did she add to our knowledge of Rashi and Yocheved? Nothing believable, unless you are looking to see Rashi and Yocheved as supremely sexually frustrated individuals.

  13. Just one more chance to propulgate the myth of Rashi’s daughters wearing tefillin. I’d be happy to be corrected but there is no source anywhere for it. Check around

  14. Lion of Zion says:

    “But why do they have to be so sexualized? Doing so cheapens these novels.”
    yeah, but its the only way to get people to read them. otherwise they just stick to sexualized movies.

  15. I enjoy reading novels (especially 19th cent. British) but prefer that they not pretend to be biographies. Obviously, we know it is fiction, but I think that some people may believe “that’s how it really must have been” when they read such stuff.

  16. what does “chacun a son mishegas” mean?

  17. mominisrael says:

    THanks Leora for translating.
    Brad, the author admits in the afterword that she doesn’t have a source for it.

  18. Baila, my mother, z”l, used to say “chacun said the man as he kissed the cow.” It’s French for “to each his own.” The “a son mishegas” means Each has his own craziness. Or however you want to translate mishegas.

  19. Helene Rock says:

    Mom in Israel, I beg to differ with you on this. I’ve heard Maggie Anton speak at least twice at our shul. She is indeed a very learned Talmud scholar now. She researched her books very very carefully. The whole point is to portray Jewish life in France during Rashi’s time. It was an incredible rich and fertile time for women! I didn’t particularly care for her second. There’s no evidence that RAshi’s second daughter was married to a homosexual. (we don’t know this!) However, as she discovered, homosexuality was present during Rashi’s time at his Yeshiva. She adds that to make her story more enticing.
    Yes, sex sells. But her portrait of Jewish life in FRance during Rashi’s time is as accurate as any historian can attest. Ms. Anton is a BT herself and after spending a large part of her career in the Health care field (She has a Ph.D. in Pharmacy I believe), I’m delighted that she’s decided to focus her efforts to educating others via her books. If you have any questions about the accuracy of any of the historical facts in her books, please please send them to her and she’d LOVE to respond.
    Helene Rock
    Los Altos, California

  20. mominisrael says:

    Thank you, Helene, for your response.
    I did enjoy the part about Jewish life in medieval France. But Anton admits that she had to make up almost everything about Rashi’s family. I don’t feel that the way she portrayed them is realisitic–that’s my opinion. A Talmudic scholar should know that kissing before marriage is a pretty serious thing, from a halachic point of view. So either her knowledge of Jewish law is poor, or she knew and didn’t care. Either way makes the book unrealistic. I don’t need to write to Anton to ask this.
    Intriguing about the second book, which I haven’t seen. Weren’t at least two of Rashi’s daughters married to famous rabbis? Was she suggesting that one of the rabbis could have been homosexual? Also, in the first book the second daughter gets involved with one of the yeshiva students and he sure doesn’t act homosexual. . .

  21. Just because kissing before marriage is a pretty serious thing doesn’t mean that Rashi’s daughter didn’t. I’m not saying that she did, but I don’t think that the fact that it’s assur is a strong argument for her not having done it. People have been having full-term babies seven months after weddings for a heckuva long time…
    Anyway, thanks for the review. I actually enjoyed The Red Tent, but I think I’ll skip this one.

  22. mominisrael says:

    AM, of course it’s possible that they kissed. My point is that in the book, *Rashi* didn’t think it was a big deal.

  23. Funny you should post this now. I’m preparing a class for Sunday morning on “Rashi’s Daughters: Myths and Facts.” There are many, many blatant errors in this book, and many, many misrepresentations of information on matters great and small, from the issue of the blessing on candles to the accounts of Rashi and his wife in her Afterword to the demonology pervasive in the text.
    I was actually in touch with Ms. Anton two years ago, after she published an article on women’s candle lighting, and from that email exchange I expected to find much more serious scholarship in her book. I was sorely disappointed.
    I might post my findings on Sunday or Monday, after I teach the class; we’ll see if I can find time.
    To AM – The problem with portraying Yocheved as kissing extensively before marriage is that she simultaneously portrays Yocheved as personally pious in the extreme – not just for show, but at heart.

  24. mominisrael says:

    TRH: Thanks for your comments; I hope you have a chance to post more on the subject.

  25. Selena says:

    I read this book a while ago and wrote about it on my blog as well. I liked it overall, but agree that the love scenes were totally unnecessary.
    http://livingoutoftown.blogspot.com/2006/05/historical-fiction.html

  26. I made the mistake if read The Red Tent. I didn’t find it to be particularly well written to begin with and I found using well-known Biblical figures in what amounted to a Bible bodice-ripper to be rather offensive.

  27. Got around to posting my critique.
    Frankly, though, after reading what you have on Keren, well, let’s just say that’s a whole different level of outrage.

  28. Ariella says:

    Just a note on the French: “Chacun a son gout” is the expresssion that means each to his/her taste, so this was modified by the writer.

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