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Brenda Barrie

Maggie Anton


By Brenda Barrie, May 26, 2010

Like many others in the Jewish community, I’ve read the Rashi’s Daughters series by Maggie Anton, as each book has appeared.  As each book in the series has come out, I’ve heard the Anton speak  and  had the opportunity to speak to converse with her afterwards.

I’ve managed to keep my thoughts on each books separate from the fact that I’ve met  Anton and greatly admire what she has accomplished.

When I say  “meet the author”, I don’t mean meeting the author in the sense that you go to hear him or her speak and they sign your book.  That’s not really a ‘meeting.’ Rather I mean forging some kind of connection to the author, either through a friendship or through several meetings and some personal interactions.

For example, the late Carol Shields was a good friend of mine.  We belonged to the same book club, bonded over book choices, added layers to our friendship at several parties and many lunches where we discussed our daughters, illness and husbands as much as books.  Carol helped me get my first poems published in Prairie Fire, the Manitoba literary magazine, which I hope is still around.  Having said that,  I doubt that I could offer a coherent review of one of Carol’s books, which I loved.  The books got all mixed up with the fact that I knew her, loved her and mourned her as a friend.

But Maggie Anton is a different situation.  We met.  We had a few brief discussions.  She answered some questions I asked and she was never anything but gracious.  However for me, her books remain apart from her as a person, which is why I can offer this critique.

Maggie Anton is bright and a wonderful speaker.  She is tremendously disciplined. She is an ardent student of the Talmud, a process she began many years ago.  She is the kind of person who settles on a goal and cannot be denied.  These are excellent traits for a writer.

When she retired from her job as a scientist, she decided she was going to write a book that explained Talmud to people.  The first result of that was Rashi’s Daughters Book 1: Yocheved. 

The subject matter was so original, so well imagined, that the series caught on.  It caught on despite the writing, not because of it.

In later discussions I had with her, Maggie pointed out that in that first book Yocheved is a young teenager, and so she wrote in a ‘youthful’ style.  But, I doubt that was the case.  The book plot never carries the reader away, and the writing is wooden.  However -and this is a major however- the material Maggie wanted to communicate sparkles anyway.  The reader comes away knowing much about Rashi, a great Jewish commentator on Talmud who lived in Troyes, France in medieval times.  The world of mediaeval France, where Rashi and his family were wine merchants as well as Talmud hachamim, is described wonderfully well.  Anton fully explores the many domestic customs, many superstitions) and the radical idea that a man of learning, blessed with three daughters, would actually allow the daughters study with the same Yeshiva students he teaches.

It’s clear from the first Rashi’s Daughters that all this is going on, even if the writing of the book is not very promising.
But, Maggie Anton is a fast learner.  By the time of the second of the series, Miriam, Anton’s writing has improved tremendously and she tells the story of the second daughter and her husband (who has yearnings for some of the young men he studies with.)  Anton is able to navigate through a time when our ideas of homosexuality did not exist, and where relationships such as she describes between Miriam’s husband, Judah and other young men were known, although not condoned.  The cover of the book claims that the young couple would be destroyed if anyone discovered Judah’s episodic ‘gay’ activities, but, despite the biblical injunction not to  “lie with a man as with a woman,’  these affairs were not seen as sexually ‘typing’ anyone, but as taking valuable time away from Talmud study, as excessive drinking might.

Rashi’s Daughters Book ll: Miriam, is the best realized book of the series.  I wonder how many of you, reading it, found it different from the first volume.  Perhaps you found it ‘better,’ than the first book, even if you didn’t stop to analyze why it was better.  It’s unlikely most people would stop for such analysis, (except critics and English professors) because Anton keeps her book’s action moving along. The material that carries the story-- the difference of attitudes, relationships with non-Jewish neighbors, Miriam’s training in her profession of midwifery—are all fascinating.

When Maggie Anton came back to our synagogue for her third visit, to introduce us to Rashi’s Daughters, Book III: Rachel, we saw yet another shift in hers writing.   In Book III the experiences of the first Crusade and the devastation they wrought on the Jewish community are an important and bitter part of the book. Rashi has a stroke, and his idea that his family should move to a much safer country, Spain, is never realized.  This is the case, in part because of the various tragedies, and in part because of Rashi’s illness.  It is also because Rachel, the youngest of the three sisters is a business entrepreneur, working hard to keep her family prosperous and she wants to stay in France.

With hindsight we now know that many of the Jews of Germany were murdered in the First Crusade.  We also know the eventual plight of Spanish Jews, although that fate is many years in the future.  We know that the glowing communities of France and other Western European countries will eventually be carried away to Eastern Europe, where, for almost a millennium, men and boys (and one hopes the odd girl) would study Rashi as the preeminent explicator of Talmud.

When Maggie spoke about this third book there were two or three things she knew she should not have done in a work of fiction, but she did them anyway (unapologetically).

She was told that the book contains too much information on Talmud, but, Maggie said, her goal in this book was to teach Talmud, not only about Talmud.  The reader can decide if the bond of ‘fiction’ is broken by this decision, and if the book becomes too pedantic.

Also, Maggie does some odd things with her choice of point of view, in other words, her choice of which character serves as the filter of reality.  Switching point of view within a scene is a major ‘no-no’ in fiction because you confuse the reader.

Maggie has a delightful reason as to why she does this.  In her introduction when she is speaking she says that when she has a couple in bed, she wants to be in the man’s head and in the woman’s head, because there are in bed together. 

Does this work?

Well, it doesn’t destroy the book, but I wish she had not found it necessary to do this.  It takes a really experienced writer to switch point of view and Maggie is not that.  Not yet.

Personally, again, I found this third book in the series, suffered from the writing quality.

But, I suppose quibbling over a successful series of books, is like wishing that Harry Potter’s glasses had been tortoise shell, not black.  I hope that in the many book clubs who review Anton’s Rashi’s Daughters series, either in whole or in part consider the writing, not just the data.  If the data is all that is important, Anton might as well have written a text book.

Readers need to remember that the books are works of fiction.  All that is really known about Rashi’s family life is that he had three daughters and that he allowed them to study scripture (as he wrote his famous responsum) and that apparently they also prayed wearing tallis and t’fillen.

While I am aware of the shortcomings in the writing, I enjoyed Rashi's Daughters.  And every time I meet Maggie Anton, I enjoy her as a speaker.

Brenda Barrie, a native of Winnipeg, now living in Southern California, is a poet and novelist.  Her Novel, The Binding is available on Amazon—type in ‘‘The Binding by Brenda Barrie’.   Her book of poetry Full Speed, full stop will be reprinted this summer and her second novel, The Rabbi’s Husband, will soon be available].

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