Rashi's Daughters, Book II
Miriam: A Novel of Love and the Talmud in Medieval France (Rashi's Daughters Series)
The engrossing historical series of three sisters living in eleventh-century Troyes, France, continues with the tale of Miriam, the lively and daring middle child of Salomon ben Isaac, the great Talmudic authority. Having no sons, he teaches his daughters the intricacies of Mishnah and Gemara in an era when educating women in Jewish scholarship was unheard of. His middle daughter, Miriam, is determined to bring new life safely into the Troyes Jewish community and becomes a midwife. As devoted as she is to her chosen path, she cannot foresee the ways in which she will be tested and how heavily she will need to rely on her faith. With Rashi's Daughters, author Maggie Anton brings the Talmud and eleventh-century France to vivid life and poignantly captures the struggles and triumphs of strong Jewish women.
Praise For Rashi's Daughters, Book II: Miriam: A Novel of Love and the Talmud in Medieval France (Rashi's Daughters Series)…
“A compelling combination of drama, suspense, and romance.”—Lilith magazine
Plume, 9780452288638, 496pp.
Publication Date: July 31, 2007
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
The author, Maggie Anton, opens her novel with a prologue that explains the social, political, and financial status of Jewish men and women in eleventh-century Europe. Also, it summarizes events that we might have read about, in detail, in Rashi’s Daughters, Book I: Joheved. For those who haven’t yet read Book I: Was this prologue enough? Did you find it difficult, or relatively easy, to jump right into Miriam’s story? (For those who have read Book I: Did you find any of Book II helpful in refreshing your memory?)
Similarly, Anton includes a glossary of terms at the end of her novel. Evaluate the glossary as a point of clarification—was it essential to your comprehension and enjoyment of the novel? Consider the ways in which Anton weaves the Hebrew words into her characters’ dialogue, and determine how many (and which) of the terms can be learned strictly through context.
The Talmud is a collection of Jewish laws, followed by detailed commentary on those laws by different rabbis. (For more about the Talmud and the Torah, visit Anton’s website at www.rashisdaughters.com.) For readers unfamiliar with Judaism, how did the quotations from the Talmud’s tractates aid your understanding of the religion and its laws? Did any of the laws or customs surprise you? Which of these did you ascribe to the time period (eleventh century) and its tendency toward superstition?
While the narrative is set in medieval France, its subjects and themes are contemporary in nature. In particular, discuss Miriam’s multiple roles as midwife, mohelet, mother, and spouse, and Judah’s conflict between his homosexual feelings and his religious fervor. How can we, in the twenty-first century, relate to their predicaments?
One of the novel’s primary subjects is loss: loss of loved ones; loss of choice; loss of reputation; loss of property; etc. What is Anton saying about the nature of loss, based on the different ways she presents it in this novel? Develop a statement of theme by drawing on specific examples from the book.
Miriam’s marriage to Judah is one of compromise, but—as she observes at the end of the novel—out of her sisters, she is the only woman who is able to live in the same house as her husband throughout the year. In what additional ways is her marriage to Judah positive, if not ideal?
Additionally, consider whether you believe that Miriam was truly Judah’s bashert, or fated companion. Discuss also the betrothal of Isaac to Zipporah, daughter of Shemayah, and Joheved’s belief that if Isaac and Zipporah are bashert, there’s nothing she can do to stop them from marrying, and if they aren’t, there’s nothing that she needs to do. What does the rest of the book tell us about fate? In particular, does fate have anything to do with love?
Compare Judah’s relationship with Elisha to his relationship with Aaron, and discuss your reaction as each relationship progressed throughout the book. Did you expect Judah’s story to end differently than it did? Was there a point when you believed that Judah would act on his feelings? Do you think his final decision was made because of his strength of character, one of the trappings of God’s will, or simply a matter of chance?
Compare the eleventh-century attitude toward homosexual desire to that in the twenty-first century. People at the time considered the desire to be normal while acting on it was a sin. Did this surprise you? Why or why not?
Discuss the Notzrim, or Christian, characters in the book. How do Emeline de Méry-sur-Seine, Guy de Dampierre, Count Thibault (never seen, just mentioned), and the midwife Elizabeth help us understand the relationship between the Christian and Jewish communities in mid-eleventh-century Europe? How do these characters also serve to highlight the differences between these two cultures? How do their relationships help put history into perspective for us?
Discuss, too, the ways that the three sisters represent different female archetypes, in terms of physical appearance and in terms of character and spirit. Also, do you find any other uses of symbolism in the book?
All three of Rashi’s daughters are strong-willed, intelligent women, but Miriam appears to be the sister least ruled by her emotions, and yet, ironically enough, the most empathetic. Discuss the contradictory parts of Miriam’s nature, and how they combine to make her an interesting, vivid, and realistic heroine.
Finally, how does this book compare with other historical fiction you may have read? What makes it unique, and what have you learned from it?