Recently Rabbi Rachel Adler of HUC in Los Angeles sent me a link to an article about the controversy over what to do with the many Babylonian Incantation Bowls, now in collections throughout the world, which may have been looted. As part of the research behind my Rav Hisda’s Daughter series of historical novels, I learned a great deal about these artifacts that date from the fourth to sixth century. Thus I am well aware that the majority of the incantation bowls we have today were unearthed as a result of the various Iraq wars that started in 1991, "in the political chaos and economic collapse that followed the first Gulf War." Indeed, one of the points I bring up when I talk about them is a comment somebody made years ago when I spoke at the UCI Faculty Club: "That explains the whole debacle in Iraq since 1991. They dug up all the bowls and let out all the demons."
The article asks, “What do ethics and decency demand? While some are adamant that the incantation bowls should be returned to Iraq, other scholars argue that Jewish Aramaic bowls are part of Jewish history, not of the modern Iraqi state.” Personally, I am unequivocally opposed to returning them to Iraq, where no Jewish scholars would be permitted to study them. Just because we don't know the exact location where each bowl was found doesn't negate their value as the only archaeological evidence we have for the Jewish community that produced the Talmud. It is what's written on these bowls that's important, especially since we know where enough of these bowls have been dug up to say that they were buried under the periphery of houses throughout Babylonia. It probably doesn't matter if they were found in what was Nineveh, Machoza, or any number of towns along the Euphrates River.
Thousands upon thousands of these bowls are now in the hands of museums and private collectors, so many that the price has gone down sufficiently that nobody counterfeits them anymore. I own two such bowls myself, which I bought from a reputable antiquities shop in Old Jaffa in Israel. If the Iraqi government, such that it is, wants some, they can send their own archaeologists to dig up more themselves. There are apparently plenty more bowls where those in the Schoyen collection came from. To read the entire, quite lengthy article, here is the link
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I found this novel an unforgettable look into the private lives of "ordinary" [i.e. not royalty] women in early 19th-century China. The foot-binding scenes were fascinating and horrific, yet these are exactly the kind of things that men's history ignores, details that would be unknown if not for historical novels like this. The only reason I didn't give Snow Flower and the Secret Fan five stars is that I had difficulty accepting Lily's inability to understand and forgive her childhood friend; their estrangement seemed more like a plot point that something that would actually have happened.
Still, the friendships among women in a world where men were paramount, their relationships with their natal families before and after they married, the clothes and marriage rituals - these are the details I look for and savor in historical fiction. And the importance of describing details of women's lives in times when we only have men's recorded history is exactly why I write my historical novels. To bring forgotten and ignored women of the past to life again.
View all my reviews
Wednesday night I had the bizarre experience of arguing with half a dozen young male Bernie Bros who I encountered as they were putting up a lighted sign saying “Vote Bernie” on an overpass fence over the 405 Fwy. I couldn’t resist stopping my car and challenging them by accusing them of helping elect Trump. One man kept saying that Trump was a boogeyman; I think he liked the word without knowing what it meant, since Trump is very real, not imaginary, evil. They all insisted that Clinton was the menace. They pretty much regurgitated every Republican smear I’ve heard against the Clintons for twenty years, but gave me no arguments why I should vote for Bernie. When I questioned where they got their information, one told me to “Google it.” I immediately chided them by asking if they believed everything they read on the Internet, and getting no answer, I drove home.
The next afternoon I did something I haven't done for almost 50 years. I spent several hours at the local Democratic headquarters cold-calling registered Democrats in my area, reminding them to vote in the upcoming California presidential primary. Fifty years ago I was making calls to help Robert Kennedy; Thursday I was urging Democrats to vote for Hillary Clinton. Interesting that all the people I spoke with had voted or intended to vote for her, except for one sharp 96 yo who told me it was a secret ballot.
Not one person preferred Sanders, and several told me how much they feared Trump becoming president. Between the misogynist bombast spewing from Trump and the Bernie Bros’, I admit I’m pretty scared too. I intend to come back to make more calls in the upcoming days leading to June 7.
Want to volunteer too? Here's the link
Last week, when I was in Scottsdale AZ for the brit milah of my newest grandson, I was interviewed about my new book, Fifty Shades of Talmud: What the First Rabbis Had to Say about You-Know-What, for almost an hour on Skype by Eve Harrow for Land of Israel Radio. This week I finally had time to listen to the podcast, which she expertly edited down to 36 minutes, so expertly that I can’t recall what she left out. Here I explain how I came up with the idea for Fifty Shades of Talmud, how I researched it and compiled the sugiot [Talmud discussions] that comprise it.
Much of what I say here is similar to my talks to Jewish groups, so if you are considering inviting me to speak, I suggest to check out this podcast. You can listen either at the Land of Israel Radio website, or from a link at this week’s issue of The Jewish Press.
When my children were young, we went on summer vacation at a Family Camp run by the Reform Jewish movement called Camp Swig in Saratoga, California. The four of us shared a cabin for a week, doing normal camp pursuits like hiking, swimming, arts & crafts, playing games, and singing – but with a Jewish flavor. Some activities were segregated by age like when adults studied Jewish texts with a camp scholar while the kids were otherwise occupied. Everyone attended services and ate meals together, which included lengthy song sessions. Today some of our best friends are those we saw every summer at Camp Swig
We loved those weeks at Family Camp and missed them when our children grew too old to attend. I consoled myself that eventually we might be able to return with our grown children and their kids. Camp Swig, having been replace with Camp Newman, is only a memory, but this weekend I had my first taste in twenty years when we spent the weekend with our daughter’s family at Temple Akiba Family Camp high in the hills above Malibu, along with 17 other families [and Akiba staffers]. It was the same camp where my daughter attended many Jewish weekend sessions as a teenager.
The location [far from civilization with awesome views of the hills above and ocean below] and the weather [sunny with enough gentle breezes that the temperature was never too hot or cold] were perfect. The seven of us [me, my husband, daughter, son-in-law, and three grandchildren ages 9, 6, and 3] shared a large cabin that sleeps 16 campers during the summer. Our large bathroom had sufficient showers, sinks, and toilets that nobody had to wait. The kids loved the bunk beds where they could sleep on top and play on the bottom. The meals were very good, although I confess that I’m partial to any food that I didn’t have to cook.
Shabbat services were outdoors, with lots of singing and stories. There were games, and challah making, and lots of fun activities shared with very nice and interesting people to get to know. It was wonderful to see how the children almost immediately made friends with age-mates, to the extent that they ate meals with them instead of us grown-ups and often disappeared together to do their own independent things. No helicopter parenting here. Best of all, they are now looking forward to Jewish summer camp. I can only look forward to a week or weekend of family camp, but after waiting twenty years, I’m glad to be back.
The Book with No Pictures by B.J. Novak
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I had my doubts when my 3 yo and 6 yo grandkids insisted that I read this book to them, but their enthusiasm and my curiosity [and seeing how short the book was] won me over. It was a blast making weird noises, coming up with songs, and all the other silly things the reader is asked to do.
Their copy came from the library but I might just buy one for myself.
View all my reviews
Years ago I signed up for Google alerts to notify me when my name or any of my book titles appeared on the Internet. When Google alerts became unreliable a few years ago, I added Talkwalker alerts as well. Usually I would get one or two a week, maybe more when I was on book tour and my venues publicized their events. Recently, alerts about actual online articles about me or my novels have been overtaken by those offering free downloads of my books.
Obviously these were violating US copyright law, so I would forward them to my publisher’s legal department. Increasingly, however, I noticed that the download website ends in .ru [for Russia] or something else other than .com, so it became clear there was nothing me or my publisher could do. I wondered how these sites managed to obtain a pdf of my novels, and it seemed odd that someone would take the time to scan every page and then give it away. But when three such alerts arrived in my email inbox in one day, I googled “free book download” for an explanation.
And found something more insidious than copyright infringement. According to Writersweekly.com, “the good news is, they probably don’t really have a copy of your book. They may simply be tricking people into downloading a virus. And, if someone is trying to download a free copy of your copyrighted book, and they get a virus instead, I call that karma.” Just like those spam emails that offered Viagra but instead just stole the would-be buyer’s credit card info. Here’s the entire article if you’re interested.
I promised I’d share Avishay Artsy’s review in Jewniverse and here’s an excerpt:
“Who knew that medieval rabbis had so much to say about sex? The Talmudic sages compared the size of their ‘limbs,’ mandated that couples engage in foreplay, and decided how often husbands of various professions should have sex. The writer Maggie Anton (perhaps best known for her trilogy Rashi’s Daughters) packs some titillating details into her irreverent new book 50 Shades of Talmud: What the First Rabbis Had to Say About You-Know-What.
Jews are commanded, generally, to ‘be fruitful and multiply,’ but the many requirements and prohibitions around sex point to some areas which are remarkably–and disturbingly–specific … On the plus side, the rabbis considered sex a wife’s right and a husband’s obligation. While some faith traditions view sex as sinful, rabbinic Judaism extols sex as a commandment for women to enjoy as much as men.”
In addition, KCRW radio’s Avishay Artsy interviewed me for another article in the Jewish Journal, “Talmud After Dark.” I like that title so much I plan to use it for my book talks as well. We talked for over an hour and I was amazed at all the additional research he did about me: like who, where, and when I married; how reading Exodus changed my life; what inspired me to write Rashi’s Daughters. If I ever decide to have a Wikipedia biography, Avishay has done most of the work already. [
It is now almost six weeks since Fifty Shades of Talmud came out and I left for vacation in the Galapagos Islands. In the meantime my book has been reviewed twice that I know of, at length by Amos Lassen in Boston’s Jewish Advocate and on his blog, and briefly by Avishay Artsy on Jewniverse. I’ll get to that review in my next post, along with his impressively researched interview with me in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal
Here’s an excerpt from Lassen’s review: “Anton takes us on a tour of sexuality within the Talmud as we see that Jewish tradition is progressive in many respects and is even racier than we could have imagined. While I did not really know about this aspect of the Talmud (although I had heard a few things), I did know that Maggie Anton is a terrific writer and I have read all of her books and … I had great confidence that she could make reading the Talmud fascinating, which she does with her own knowledge of Jewish history and a bit of humor … It is as if Anton has awakened the Talmud that has been sleeping for a long time … Just look at it from this perspective—-the first commandment we meet in the Torah is to be fruitful and multiply and as far as I know there is only one way to do that. It is a man’s obligation to have sex with his spouse yet there are times when this is not allowed. The original text has no specification as to how, when or where to be fruitful…. That came later and along with that came the Talmudic rabbis who not only filled in the blanks, they created them.”
Why was Friday night, the first night of Passover, different from all other nights? Because Jory Prum, our daughter’s first boyfriend and first love, died that night from injuries due to a motorcycle accident. He and Emily met at a Jewish camp when she started high school and were together through her first year of college. He was a music major at Cal Arts and we were quite fond of him. Emily kept in touch with him, and after the advent of Facebook, Jory and I followed our adventures as I became a success in the book biz and he in the music and sound biz, with Jory eventually winning an Academy Award. To see his many accomplishments, visit his Wikipedia page.
Now it's sad when someone of my parents' generation dies in their 80's or 90's, and it gets scary when one my baby boomer friends or colleagues dies. But what a tragic loss when it's one of my children's friends, and Jory was the first of them. After knowing him for over half his short life, I can't believe he is gone. My belly still feels like there's a rock inside there.
Unlike the Talmudic rabbis, I have little confidence in the existence of a World-to-Come. I see all these posts on Jory’s Facebook page with pictures of heavenly clouds and beautiful landscapes from folks who believe he’s at peace in some better place, but I am not comforted. I expect the pain to lessen eventually, but right now he will be dearly missed and mourned.
The Galton Case by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
As a novelist myself I always appreciate excellent plotting, and this is especially important in a murder mystery. I foundThe Galton Case to have one of the finest, most carefully crafted plots I've read. And I'm a long-time mystery fan. I actually went back and reread the book to see how Ross Macdonald set up all the clues and red herrings, how he slipped in crucial facts so nonchalantly that they were easy to miss the first time around. Yet at the end, all the puzzle pieces are there and fit together perfectly.
I only gave 4 stars because of what I thought was gratuitous violence, although apparently that's a hallmark of these kinds of hard-boiled noir detective stories. One pleasant surprise for this genre was that the female characters were well-drawn real people and not mere stereotypes.
View all my reviews
[4-3-16] This Sunday would be our last full day, and as with our first itinerary, they’d saved the best for last – Floreana. First we stopped at Post Office Bay, a nice beach where whaling ships used to drop off letters addressed to home in an old barrel, and pick up letters for a place they were going. The tradition supposedly continues today with postcards, although it seems silly in this day of airmail. Anyway we put one addressed to our daughter in the barrel, but I don’t expect her to receive it anytime soon.
Then it was on to some fantastic snorkeling at Devil’s Crown, a volcanic crater eroded down so we, and lots of sealife, are able to access the coral reef in the center. The water was incredibly clear and filled with sea lions and large schools of fish. Some saw sharks and rays, but I was preoccupied with fighting the strong ocean currents rushing through the crown and avoiding the sea lions.
Late that afternoon we concluded our cruise at Cormorant Pt, where we took a short hike past a lagoon that was home to at least fifty pink flamingos. I’d seen flamingos at the zoo, but to view them in real life, along with their fluffy white chicks, was incredible. Soon we arrived at a so-called “Green Beach,” which was really more olive-khaki colored. Whatever its color, the broad beach was lovely and the sand beyond the high-tide level was pockmarked with sea turtle nests. The air above was filled with soaring frigates waiting for sunset, because once darkness set in turtle hatchlings would attempt the hazardous passage from nest to ocean, providing a meal for the birds.
A few great herons also stood guard over the nests, alert for any movement in the sand. Just as it was time to leave, to our dismayed amazement, we witnessed a heron thrust its long beak into a sandy nest and come up with a newly hatched baby turtle. For almost a minute the tiny creature flopped around trying to get loose, but the heron held on tight and eventually swallowed the poor thing whole. For those who want to share the experience, I posted the video on YouTube