Rashi's Daughters, Book One: Joheved, by Maggie Anton. Published 2007 by Plume. Literary Fiction.
Joheved is the first in a planned trilogy on the daughters of Rashi, otherwise known as Salomon ben Isaac, possibly the most important commentator on the Talmud, the sacred collection of Jewish law. Author Maggie Anton became intrigued with the his three daughters, who are referred to now and then in his story (which is very well-documented) as being unusually well-educated and learned women, something almost unheard-of for medieval Jewish women. In Jewish families of the time, only men were allowed to study Torah and Talmud- women only needed to know enough to run the household and participate in a limited way in services.
But Rashi, the great scholar, had no sons, and Anton portrays him as a loving, devoted father who takes great joy in teaching his intelligent, lively daughters, who do not want to be limited by their gender. He has three- Joheved, Miriam, and Rachel; this book is focused on the oldest, Joheved, as she works in the family vineyard, learns the wine trade, prepares for marriage and motherhood, and learns.
I enjoyed reading Joheved. Anton does a fine job of creating memorable, compelling characters; her historical research into the lives of medieval French Jews is impressive and woven skillfully into the narrative. There is enough material on the other two girls to whet the appetite for the sequels, but this is definitely Joheved's story. It's part coming-of-age, part feminist plea and part light fiction aimed at women. The writing is competent and accessible and I cruised through it pleasantly. There was a fair amount of 0h-my-goodness-I-can't-believe-I'm-a -girl-studying-Talmud tut-tutting but not enough to be truly tiresome, and enough homey detail surrounding the particulars of everyday life to be fun and interesting. Anton provides a timeline of medieval history and dates each chapter so the reader can situation oneself within the narrative. I don't remember (or never learned) enough about medieval France in the first place for the names of kings and such to mean much to me, but it's a nice feature.
The story includes a lively cast of characters- neighbors, nobles, yeshiva students, servants, Christian friends- and I appreciate the way she portrays French Jews as very much a part of the larger medieval French society. Fairs and holidays come and go, and the reader gets a fascinating insiders' tour of the lives of French Jews of the era- also a treat. I think the book would appeal particularly to those who enjoy light historical fiction, especially of course those interested in French or Jewish history. But Joheved is an enjoyable read in any case.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.