This week I came across a controversy in the Jewish Review of Books over whether the increasing amount of Holocaust fiction is a good thing. Hereís my 2 cents worth:
I ďdiscoveredĒ the Holocaust in 1962, when I was 12 years old, by reading Exodus. It had a tremendous effect on me, a secular Jew who never imagined that millions of my people had been murdered merely because of their religion, as it sunk in that my family too would have been victims if my grandparents hadnít emigrated to America. For years I sought out books about the Holocaust Ė Night, the Painted Bird, and Anne Frankís Diary among the most memorable Ė but by 1980 Iíd stopped.
Maybe becoming a mother had made me too sensitive, but I could no longer bear another description of the death camps, the packed trains, the gas chambers, and the myriad stories of those whoíd somehow survived [or hadn't]. I knew I wouldnít forget; I didnít need to be reminded. I didnít need a new voice, a new viewpoint. Genug shoin Ė enough already.
So I tend to agree with Amy Newman Smith. There are far too many mediocre pseudo-survivor memoirs. Yes, many people found love in the ashes, but Holocaust romance as a genre is obscene. But I can also agree with Erika Dreyfus. If authors donít keep writing Holocaust fiction, the time may come when no one will remember or know about it. Sometimes it seems that time is almost here.
True, I study Talmud because this is my peopleís holy text and we are commanded to study Torah [which I define, like the Rabbis do, in the broad sense]. But I also study Talmud because this is the link between the Torah with its Temple sacrifices and hereditary priesthood and how Jews today actually practice our religion. My brain appreciates the Talmudís intellectual rigor and my heart its many amazing tales of life in third-fifth century Babylonia.
But most of all, studying Talmud is fun. I was interviewed in CJ Voices, the magazine of Conservative Judaism, about why I think more Jews, especially women and non-Orthodox, should study Talmud. Hereís the link
Ironically, I probably never would have studied Talmud if I werenít a woman. And I never would have noticed the encyclopedia error about Rashiís family either. Read my guest post for JOFA blog on how being a woman propelled my research for my historical novels.
Nothing makes me happier than when readers ask me how they too can study Talmud. While an easy, and evasive, answer would be to tell them to consult a rabbi, I can now tell them that Talmud study can be done online. In olden days, as long ago as in Rashiís time 900 years ago, a student began by first learning Mishnah, usually when he was about 10 years old. It typically took 3 years to mastering this Hebrew text, which was compiled in Eretz Israel in about 200 CE. Only then did he advance to study Gemara of the Babylonia Talmud.
Students today can follow this traditional path by signing up for Mishnah Yomit, where a piece of Mishnah is delivered daily, along with translation and commentary, via email. Iíve been doing this for several years and it only takes about 15 minutes a day. Whether itís bashert or coincidence, the program has just begun learning Mishnah Yoma, the tractate concerned with Yom Kippur. Perfect timing for High Holiday prep.
Want to start swimming in the sea of Talmud? Hereís the link.
Somehow ten days have gone by since the Sept 2 pub date for my new historical novel/fantasy ENCHANTRESS. Iíve heard complaints about my writing that several prominent Talmudic rabbis cast spells, despite them being real historical figures and ďmagic being against Jewish Law.Ē Iíve tried to defend myself that pointing out that I didnít invent these things; my scenes of rabbinic magic come directly from the Talmud itself.
In preparation for Shabbat, I offer more about my research into ancient Jewish magic, which I drew upon for my novel. Here's the link to a guest post I wrote for the Lilith Magazine blog. Here youíll learn why magic was so prevalent during Talmudic times and how the Rabbis got around the Torah saying ďyou shall not tolerate a sorceress to live.Ē
The review of ENCHANTRESS on this book blog, Shomeret: the Masked Reviewer, is one of the best Iíve read. And I donít mean that she thinks the book is fabulous, but rather the review is thoughtful, in depth, and discusses both what she likes and what disappoints. It impressed me that she actually read the book Ė not, like other reviewers I wonít name, who skimmed it or merely relied on my publicistís press release.
A bonus is a Q&A with me in which I answer, among other questions: What would you say to people who maintain that itís unthinkable that Rabbis of the generation that created the Talmud could have consulted astrologers?
A great blog on Historical Fiction, Reading the Past where I do a guest post titled: Historical Fiction vs. Historical Fantasy Ė Which is it? Youíll need to scroll down to get to the Sept 2 entry.
My publicist and I have made a major effort to get ENCHANTRESS onto the blogosphere, with the result that Iíve done a dozen guest posts and/or Q&A for various websites, both Jewish and book-related. Instead of dumping them here all at once, Iím going to start listing them only one a day. For Shabbat, hereís a Jewish one, where I do a guest post for Erika Dreyfus on the Three Surprising Things I learned about Jewish History while researching ENCHANTRESS.
Hurray! Yesterday was the official pub date for ENCHANTRESS. To celebrate, hereís the first review of ENCHANTRESS to appear in print media. Thank you Massachusetts Jewish Journal and reviewer Sybil Kaplan. To sum it up, here are the best blurbs: ďAntonís newest book enchants Ö this is a fascinating, meticulously researched, creative novel of Talmudic lore and ancient Jewish magic, interwoven with a beautiful love story set in the 4th century Babylonia.Ē
I will start posting more reviews as they come in, or more likely as I learn about them. Very disappointing, but Google alerts are no longer the great product they once were. So Iíve switched to Talkwalker, which appears to be better but still doesn't find everything. I suspect Iíll have to do some exhaustive Google searches myself to find all the places that me and my novels were mentioned recently while excluding my own websites [and those of booksellers].
On Caroline Leavitt's blog. I talk about my new novel Enchantress, regrets on being a novelist, and so much more.
Here's a taste of what you'll find there:
Caroline: What question didn't I ask that I should have?
Maggie: Do I have any regrets about becoming a novelist? Obviously the answer is ďyes.Ē I didnít start working on Rashiís Daughters until I was almost 50, and for the previous 40 years I was a voracious reader of fiction. No favorite genre; along with literary fiction I devoured SciFi, thrillers, murder mysteries, fantasy, historicals, even childrenís books. After I began writing, my love affair with novels soured. It became increasingly difficult to lose myself in the story as I learned to recognize the craft behind it. If a book was really good, it depressed me because I knew I could never write so well. And I lost patience quickly if it was bad or even mediocre. Worse, my style would become contaminated by whatever novel I tried to read. Before the movie came out, my daughter insisted I read The Help, but it wasnít long before my medieval characters were talking with a Southern accent.
Earlier this year I was part of an online discussion about why an author chooses to write the biography of a real person as historical fiction. The group came up with four reasons, each of which applies to one of my novels.
1. To bring out some hidden facet of the personís life or character that you canít substantiate with factual proof but have good cause to think worthwhile. Rav Hisda's Daughter - Apprentice: A Novel of Love, the Talmud, and Sorcery delves into the magic that the Talmudic rabbis practiced and how prevalent it was in third and fourth century Babylonia. Ancient Jewish magic turned out to be such as fascinating topic that I loved researching it.
2. The character may be privy to or have a particular insight about a situation that hasnít been explored before. Rashi's Daughters, Book II: Miriam: A Novel of Love and the Talmud in Medieval France has a male character who struggles with his attraction to men in a time [11th-century] when "Ganymedes" were considered normal, although sinful.
3. To exemplify a specific era from an unusual perspective. Rashi's Daughters, Book III: Rachel examines the First Crusade from a Jewish viewpoint, a major contrast to the typical historical novels that glorify the knights and crusaders.
4. A character may have become a sacred cow and it takes a totally new approach to make them human again. Rashi's Daughters, Book I: Joheved looks at Rashi [Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac], the great Jewish scholar, not as commentary on a page, but as a real man with family and financial problems.
I expect Iím a bit unusual in this, but when it comes to writing, I support American historian Salo Baronís opposition to what he called the "lachrymose conception of Jewish history." No offense to those who focus on pogroms, Spanish Inquisition, or the Holocaust, it seems to me that too many Jewish historical novels dwell on our well-known intervals of trial and tribulation Ė what I call the Oy-Veh times.
But there were many times and places where our people flourished; those were the ones I wanted to write about. And so I did. Rashiís Daughters is set in France during the 12th-century Renaissance [I never heard of it before either]. Enchantress and its prequel Rav Hisdaís Daughter: Apprentice take place in 4th-century Babylonia, where Jews enjoyed peace and prosperity under the benevolent Persians for hundreds of years.
For more, check out the guest blog post I wrote for The Whole Megillah.