Rashi’s Daughters Book III: Rachel
 
March-12-10
Maggie Anton
 

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 wake.

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 East.

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 Daughters.

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.

  From Issue:11.03
Reviewed by: Jeannette M. Hartman
 
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