Rachel is restlessly awaiting the return of her travelling
merchant husband, Eliezer, after a six-months’ absence. It’s summer 4851 (1091
CE) in Troyes, a town in northeastern France along the Seine. Over the course of
the next 14 years, when the book ends in 4865 (1105 CE), the world changes
radically for Rachel and for European Jews.
Those 14 years are the twilight of a golden age of peace, prosperity and
acceptance for Jews in Christian Europe. It’s a period in Jewish history we are
rarely exposed to: a time when a woman could be not just a midwife, but also a
mohel. . . . when a traveling merchant husband left a conditional get in
the hands of his wife so she could remarry if he never returned. It was a time
when Rashi, who had no sons, could train his three daughters to study Talmud
– and to help him write responses to distant Jewish communities’ questions.
The first Crusade (1095-1099) is an earthquake whose aftershocks transform life
– for Jews and Christians alike. The Christian pious, the criminal and the
opportunistic band into armies marching to Jerusalem to wrest it from the
Muslims. They steal or extort their provisions along the way. They massacre
Jewish communities in Germany, viewing them infidels as much as the Muslims of
the Holy Land. Entire academies of Talmudic scholars were extinguished in their
In a more indirect and culturally transforming fashion, the Crusades also
shatter the edge that Jews have on international trade. Veterans of the Crusades
now have connections, knowledge, languages and introductions to products of the
For some Jews, such as Eliezer, enthralled by Moorish astronomical studies in
Spain, the massacres are a sign that it was no longer safe to be a Jew among
Christians. He urges Rachel to go with him to live in Toledo. She’s torn between
the husband she loves and the ailing father she adores, Rabbi ShlomoYitzhaki (Rashi),
who dies in 1105.
Reading Rachel is like being dropped into medieval Troyes with
mishpocheh in Sepharad and Germany. You can feel the fatigue of your muscles
as you prune Rashi’s vineyard, listening to Talmudic debate all around
you. Your pulse quickens with the marauding outlaws, the philandering count, the
excitement of Rachel’s entrepreneurial efforts to consolidate the chain from
sheep to fine woollens into a profitable business. The life of the times flows
around you in this third and final book in Maggie Anton’s trilogy, Rashi’s
We may be called “the People of the Book,” but when it comes to well-researched,
historical romance novels, there are quite a few gaps on the shelves. Rashi’s
Daughters – Joheved, Miriam and Rachel – help fill those gaps well. . There are
some vividly described passages of love between husbands and wives, but readers
can savor them or skip them according to personal tastes.
The historical research is impeccable and thorough. The way in which the
research is used in the telling of the story is organic and delightful.