Author delves into lives of Jewish medieval heroines

One cannot engage in Talmud study without coming across Salomon ben Isaac, commonly referred to as Rashi.

And while much has been researched and written about the great Talmudic scholar and commentator, hardly anything is known about his three daughters.

Who were they? What were their lives like? Did their father teach them Talmud since he had no sons?

Maggie Anton, a Los Angeles-based chemist, became curious about those questions. So curious that she spent around seven years doing research on what life for his three daughters would have been like. The result is “Rashi’s Daughters,” the first historical novel of a trilogy about these three women.

Anton will discuss her novel as part of the Jewish Book Festival of Contra Costa County on Sunday, Nov. 6.

Anton grew up in a secular Socialist household and only came to her Judaism as an adult. As she began studying Talmud with a group of women, she began wondering more about Medieval times, and more specifically, about women’s lives during that time.

In her Talmud study, she came across the names of Rashi’s daughters. But except for their names and their dates of birth, she could find little else about them.

At first, Anton thought her writing would remain a personal project.

“I was always a voracious reader, and liked books with strong heroines. I thought [Rashi’s daughters’] lives would make a really good story, but I wasn’t sure I would write anything except for my own pleasure.”

She had several family members who were ill at the time, and she needed a good distraction. But what began as casual research, took her on a quest throughout all the research libraries in Los Angeles.

Once she knew she was writing more than just something for herself, she visited Troyes in France, where Rashi lived, so she could visualize the place she was writing about.

With each little piece of information she learned, Anton became more and more interested.

“I realized that the little bit I knew about the Middle Ages was not at all what it was really like,” she said. “I thought it was full of pogroms and blood libel and ghettos, and it really was not like that.”

Because of the growth of women’s studies as a scholarly discipline, she said she was able to find a wealth of material about women’s lives in the Middle Ages and could fill in historical details in her book.

For example, wealthier women had their servants collect moss for them to use as toilet paper, while poorer women collected straw.

“A lot of these books are relatively recent,” she said. “I couldn’t have done this kind of research 10 or 15 years ago because these kinds of books weren’t out there yet.”

While Anton’s book focuses mostly on Joheved, Rashi’s eldest daughter, who shows much more of an interest in learning Talmud than giving birth or what are typically considered “women’s issues,” Anton has the outlines of the next two books already in place. The second one is partially written.

Perhaps inevitably, “Rashi’s Daughters” is being compared to “The Red Tent,” Anita Diamant’s retelling of the Biblical book of Dinah.

While Anton said she would like to emulate Diamant’s success, at the same time, her work of historical fiction required more adherence to what was actually happening at the time.

“I don’t consider the characters in the Bible real historical figures like Rashi’s daughters are,” said Anton. “[Diamant] didn’t have to worry that about a Canaanite historical document that will discredit her, while I very carefully made sure I didn’t have Rashi or his family do anything they wouldn’t have done in real life.”

At the same time though, she feels her book will find the same audience as “The Red Tent.”

“Jewish women are looking to read about Jewish heroines,” she said.

Maggie Anton will speak about the lives of Jewish women in the Middle Ages at 10 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 6 at the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center, 2071 Tice Valley Blvd., Walnut Creek. $6 for one workshop, $36 for all day, including lunch. Information:

“Rashi’s Daughters Book 1: Joheved” by Maggie Anton (369 pages, Banot Press $15.95).

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."