By Cantor David E. Reinwald
The rabbis throughout the Talmud often used the term ‘davar acher’ to make note that they were offering a new and different perspective. Thus, I am using this term to introduce my monthly blog post this month and when it is not one of the regular divrei Torah. Instead, it is a new and differing perspective on something Jewish.
Exactly two years ago, my still fairly new adult b’nei mitzvah class received their second reading assignment of what I called the ‘adult b’nei mitzvah book club.’ We had an amazing time reading three books together as one component of many throughout our two-year journey. We began with Mitch Albom’s Have a Little Faith, and then I assigned Maggie Anton’s first installment of her Rashi’s Daughters trilogy, book one: Joheved. The twist was that I had not read the book either, and I told the class that I was excited to read it with them. It came as a highly recommended read.
The Rashi’s Daughters trilogy is an exciting, dramatic exploration of medieval history. The medieval French rabbi Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak (abbreviated as RASHI, using the first letters of each of these names and title) is one of the most revered scholars of Torah to ever exist. Rashi was a linguist and a strict interpreter of Torah through his connection to language. He was a literary critic to the max. The funny thing, though, was that Rashi was not always a scholar of Torah. He actually was a professional vintner, living in Troyes, France, who decided in his adult age to travel to the scholarly city of Worms, Germany to go and study Torah and Talmud. Because so many of his teachers were killed in the crusades and pogroms, our inheritance of Rashi’s expansive wisdom is seen as a collection of all that he learned from his teachers—a collection of teachings throughout the ages.
Rashi had one main issue, and this was that he never had any sons. The only son that he had died at an early age. He had three very bright daughters: Joheved, Miriam, and Rachel, and notably, these are the subtitles of each of the volumes of Anton’s trilogy, where each book focuses on a separate daughter. The first book of the trilogy establishes the historic context, and we learn a lot about winemaking and then see how Rashi becomes the great scholar he is to be. We then see his dilemma—he wants to pass on his knowledge to the next generation, but the idea of teaching women Torah and Talmud is risky and dangerous among the mindset of the traditionalists who surround him. Rashi follows his heart though, knowing that this is what he must do. He doesn’t venture along this journey without careful approach, and he studies and learns what he needs to know to ensure that the path he is taking is one that actually will be viable and wholesome. We see Joheved grow to be a Torah scholar herself, and there is worry that she will be off-putting to any suitors, when she, perhaps, has greater knowledge than them. The story takes us on a lot of interesting turns, with surprising elements and suspenseful conclusions.
Anton’s research in crafting these books is impeccable. We were so honored in our adult b’nei mitzvah class to be able to spend an hour with Anton on the phone. We asked her any question on our mind, and she explained how she organized the creation of the books and detailed the many areas and aspects of her research. We were so impressed. Her research often went far and beyond just the elements of the Jewish history and Talmudic texts featured. She really has a grasp of the reality of medieval culture and society. There is nothing in the books that is not historically accurate, even when we found many elements to be shocking or surprising. This was also one of the first times for me that I was ever able to ask an author of a book I had just read each and every question that was lingering in my mind. So fulfilling for any bookworm!
I can’t recommend reading these books enough. If you are looking for an enjoyable read, where you will walk away and feel like you have had an incredible experience reading and learning a tremendous amount of our great Jewish history, these are for you. Whether you know little or a lot about this period of Jewish history, you will find the books captivating. I am currently over halfway through reading book two of the trilogy, which ventures into a different dramatic spin of the history of Rashi’s family, now with the focus on the second daughter, Miriam. I look forward to sharing with you my reactions in the months to come!
Here’s to great books and captivating reading…