My political statement this week was to go see the new Ghostbusters movie in the theater rather than wait for it on Netflix. Such an excellent relief to laugh so much after sturm und drang from the RNC. It definitely helped to have watched the original Ghostbusters the night before on DVD; the new Ghostbusters is actually an homage to the first film. I actually preferred the new movie because the beginning scenes were such an improvement over the old one. Then the Bill Murray character is such a creepy scumbag and the scene does nothing to get the story going. Now we get some scary ghosts right away, not to mention some sliming.
For those who want a detailed list of how the new Ghostbusters riffs on the original movie, check this out
No matter who wins in November, it seems that lots of people may be interested in this "election insurance" in case they want to move to Canada.
Now that I’ve organized a busy fall book tour, some of the groups want to read Fifty Shades of Talmud in advance, so the audience can enjoy my talk more and be ready with questions. I appreciate that they ask me about this in advance and here is why.
The reason I generally don’t ask for speaking fees when I’m on tour promoting a new book is because I want to provide copies of my books to sell/sign at the event [or prior to the event for those who want to read it first]. It is usually a surprise for readers to learn that I make almost nothing from bookseller sales because those monies go to the publisher. I’m not complaining; Penguin paid me a nice six-figure advance for both my Rashi’s Daughters and Rav Hisda’s Daughter series. But that is an ‘advance’ against sales, for which I am credited 7% of the list price per book.
In other words, if my advance is $50,000 and the list price is $17, then each book sold is a credit of approximately $1.20. Thus over 40,000 copies would have to sell before I’d pay off the advance. Even after that unlikely event, I’d only receive $1.20 per book sold. Bottom line – the vast majority of authors earn nothing more than their advance.
Then why sell books BOTR [back of the room]? Because publishers offer authors substantial discounts when we buy our own books. Then I can sign these copies and sell them at list price after a book talk. So if the list is $17 and I get them at half price, I make $8.50 a book selling them myself. Obviously making a living this way requires good speaking skills and large audiences, but it can nicely augment any advance money.
If you want to see if I’m speaking anywhere near you this fall, click on
this link to my web schedule.
Two years ago, just before Enchantress was published, I tried a new publicity technique–an online book tour. That means I arranged for interviews, reviews and guest posts on as many websites as possible. I’d done this with Jewish sites for my previously novels, but hoping to break into a new, larger audience, this time I targeted sites that promoted historical fiction as well. Now the number of general historical fiction readers is indeed huge, but I can’t say if I gained many fans there or sold more copies of my novels, despite appearances on about 30 historical novel websites. My target niche remained Jewish women.
Now, with my nonfiction Fifty Shades of Talmud, I’m trying to reach out to Jewish men as well. Thus I did an interview in HUC blog, and a series of three Q&A sessions with Rosner’s Domain. I also wrote a guest post for the JOFA blog, which I mentioned last month, and I’m trying, without success, to break into some of the more mainstream Jewish online media. Alas, there are lots more websites devoted to historical fiction than to Jewish literature.
Recently I watched the movie "Bridge of Spies" on Netflix, which made me recall that Leon Uris, author of Exodus, had written a novel about post-war Berlin titled Armageddon. It was published in 1964, and I read it for the first time in the mid-1960's after discovering and devouring the same author's Exodus, still one of my favorite novels. I recall enjoying Armageddon back then [yikes, that was 50 years ago], so I decided to re-read it. And boy, was I disappointed.
Sadly the book really shows its age now. Yes, the plot is fast-paced and exciting, but the characters are completely one-dimensional. And pretty much all the women are sex objects, which I found rather offensive this time around. The Americans and British are nice and heroic, the Russians evil aggressors, and the Germans unrepentant Nazis. At least the historical details were mostly correct. [Spoiler alert] Leon Uris reuses his usual plot device where the young romantic couple never gets together because one of them dies at the end and the old romantic couple doesn't get together either because of baggage from the past. This was fresh and tragic in Exodus, but it was predictable and old hat here.
Usually I like rereading books I enjoyed in my youth; the All of a Kind Family and Little House on the Prairie series come to mind. But I guess I need to be more careful.
While at Limmud Bay Area, I attended a presentation there by a delightful, and sometimes hilarious, new duo called YidLife Crisis [aka Jamie Elman and Eli Batalion]. Based in Montreal, they do a web series where they debate and discuss all sorts of Jewish subjects, many involving food and bizarre circumstances, all in Yiddish. Their Yiddish conversations are fun enough, but the English subtitles are the really hilarious stuff, because they can be quite different from the Yiddish meaning, especially when the Yiddish involves something racy or rude. The more Yiddish you know, the funnier their shpiels become.
There are two seasons now up on Youtube, each with 4 short [less than ten minutes] episodes. I recommend watching them in order. In addition to the two seasons are episodes filmed during visits to foreign countries [NYC, London, Tel Aviv]. These are mostly in English, rather than Yiddish, and I found these less entertaining than the regular seasons. But you should decide for yourself at their YouTube Channel
After teaching and learning at Limmud Bay Area last weekend, I came to realize that many Jews don’t know the difference between Talmud and Torah. Part of this difficulty comes from two distinct definitions of Torah, one of which includes Talmud. Succinctly put, Torah primarily refers to the first section of the Tanakh–the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. But the term is also used in the general sense to also include both Judaism's written law and oral law, encompassing the entire spectrum of authoritative Jewish religious teachings throughout history, including the Mishnah, the Talmud, the Midrash, and more. The Talmud is a record of rabbinic discussions of Jewish law, ethics, customs, and stories, which are authoritative in Jewish tradition. It is the fundamental source for rabbinic legislation and case law.
Interestingly, when I googled “define Torah and Talmud,” I got: According to Jewish tradition, God handed down the Torah directly to Moses, who dutifully recorded it word for word. It is the Written Word. On the other hand, the Talmud is the Oral Word of God - handed down at the same time and repeated by generations. Now this is a VERY traditional, dare I say ultra-Orthodox, definition – one I personally do not subscribe to. Although I do agree that Torah generally means the Written Law while Talmud refers to the Oral Law.
Here is another explanation that may help you understand better. The Talmud is a massive collection of law, commentary, exegesis, philosophy, legend and myth. It is also a blend of unique logic and shrewd pragmatism, of history and science, of anecdotes and humor. The Talmud is the repository of thousands of years of Jewish wisdom. Passed down and expanded orally by generations of rabbis, and only committed to writing in the early Middle Ages, the Talmud became the ultimate arbiter of Jewish life and practice for communities from Spain to India. Today, almost without exception, Judaism is Talmudic Judaism. Even Jews who reject Judaism are in effect rejecting a religion cast in the Talmud’s mold.
Don’t even get me started on the two different Talmuds, the Bavli and the Yerushalmi. That’s for another post. Shabbat Shalom.
Hopefully you recall that I blogged about how our Talmudic Sages viewed rapes. That was a preview of a longer post I wrote for the JOFA [Jewish Orthodox Feminist Assn] blog on My Jewish Learning website. There I explain how the Rabbis completely overturn what the Torah says in Deut 22:28-29, where the rapist pays the victim’s father 50 shekels and must marry her [while her redress isn’t even mentioned]. Clearly this text, which is unfortunately what the average person might think is the “official” Jewish position, offers no advice or consolation for women today. Thus I try to fully explain, with links to my sources, how the Talmud interprets the Torah into something entirely new – monetary damages paid to the victim herself. And of course, she needn’t marry the rapist. To read the whole article, here is the My Jewish Learning link.
Lately I’ve been busy organizing books tours for "Fifty Shades of Talmud." After sending out e-blasts to my 4000+ email contacts before and after the pub date, I received invitations to speak to quite a few Jewish groups. Thankfully a few on the East Coast came with offers to pay my travel expenses, no small matter since I live in Los Angeles. Even better, these groups were okay if I piggy-backed their event with others in the region. Thus I have planned an East Coast book trip between Oct 28 and Nov 16 that starts in Baltimore and takes me north through Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York [Manhattan, Long Island, Westchester]. You can find my jam-packed schedule here and see if you live near any of my speaking venues.
I am also scheduling programs in California, where travel expenses are less of any issue. Tomorrow I’m flying up north to teach two sessions at Limmud Bay Area, which takes place over the weekend at Sonoma State Univ. I’ve heard they expect almost 400 attendees. I do my first presentation, “Fifty Shades of Talmud: How and Why I wrote this Book,” on Friday night. Here’s the description: Maggie Anton will discuss how the research behind her "Rashi's Daughters" historical novels, which take place in 11th century France in the household of the great Talmud scholar, led her to start studying what our Sages had to say about sex. Surprised and impressed at their comparatively progressive views, she decided to share the best of what she'd learned in her newest book.
My second presentation will be a grand finale on Sunday afternoon, “What the Talmud Actually Teaches about Sexual Relations.” The description: Any Talmud student knows that our Sages debate all sorts of subjects in great detail. So it should come as no surprise that they also discuss every aspect of sexual relations—how, when, where, with whom—often in startlingly explicit fashion. Author Maggie Anton reveals how Jewish tradition is progressive in many respects—and more bawdy, than one might think.
For many Jewish communities, including my synagogue, Shavuot ended tonight. Others celebrated Shavuot for only one day, so the festival ended last night.
Briefly, Shavuot is one of the three major festivals detailed in the Torah [Pesach and Sukkot are the other two], when Jews gathered at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem for special sacrifices and ceremonies. After Rome destroyed the Temple and killed most of its priests, the Talmudic rabbis instituted new ways to observe Shavuot. One of these is to link Shavuot with the giving of the Torah; thus we read the Ten Commandments in synagogue and may even stay up all night studying Torah.
Another Rabbinic innovation was to read one of the Ketuvim [books found at the end of the Hebrew Bible] along with the Torah portion at each of the festivals. Pesach got Song of Songs, Sukkot got Ecclesiastes, and Shavuot got the Book of Ruth. In addition, to cement the importance of new [non-biblical] “holidays” established by the Rabbis, the Book of Esther was read at Purim and Lamentations at Tisha b’Av. These five books are now known as the Megillot [plural of Megillah], but in honor of Shavuot I’m focusing on only one, Ruth.
I assume [and hope] that everyone here has read Ruth. If not, you can read a summary and lots more info at that Internet fount of knowledge, Wikipedia. What I want to deal with is the problem of Ruth the Moabitess marrying an Israelite and after his death still regarding herself a member of his family so that she then marries another Israelite and bears him a son who becomes King David’s grandfather. The Talmud considers Ruth a righteous convert, and today converts to Judaism quote Ruth, “your people shall be my people and your God my God,” as part of the conversion ceremony.
It is Ruth’s origin in Moab that raised problems for the Rabbis, since in the rest of the biblical literature Moab is associated with hostility to Israel, sexual perversity, and idolatry. Deuteronomy 23:3–6 goes so far as to exclude an Ammonite or a Moabite from "the congregation of Adonai; even to their tenth generation." Despite this, we have Ruth the Moabitess being King David’s great-grandmother. This Mishna proposed a simple remedy: “An Ammonite and a Moabite are forbidden to marry into the congregation and their prohibition is eternal, however their women are permitted immediately.” [Yevamot 76b]. This starts a debate over how the Mishna was derived, with the some saying the Torah’s use of the masculine for Ammonite and Moabite thus permits females, and others saying that the males were excluded because “they did not greet the Israelites with bread and water on the road from Egypt” – which could only apply to the men since the women would have safely stayed inside their tents. Ultimately, Ruth the Moabitess is, retroactively, permitted, making King David a kosher Israelite.
Scholars today consider Ruth a counter-narrative to the message of Ezra-Nehemiah [neither of whom rate their own biblical book], where marriages between Jewish men and non-Jewish women were broken up. The Babylonian rabbinic community welcomed converts, so it’s not surprising that they canonized the book of Ruth, thus teaching that foreigners who convert to Judaism can become good Jews, foreign wives can become exemplary followers of Jewish law, and there is no reason to exclude them or their offspring from the community.
Because of the shocking situation in Santa Clara, there has been a big media focus on rape recently. Although my new book FIFTY SHADES OF TALMUD: WHAT THE FIRST RABBIS HAD TO SAY ABOUT YOU-KNOW-WHAT is mostly a light-hearted look at our Sages discussions on sexual relations, I do have a serious section on rape, some of which I share with you here.
To the Rabbis’ credit, they treated a sexual assault victim the same as anyone else injured during an attack. They did not hold her responsible for somehow encouraging the assault (for example, how she dressed or where she walked). The rapist, like other assailants, had to pay compensation for her medical expenses, time she was unable to work, any permanent impairment, her shame and embarrassment, and the pain she suffered. While deciding how much a rapist paid his victim as recompense for pain, one rabbi proposed none at all since the maiden would ultimately have suffered the same pain on her wedding night. But his idea was angrily rejected because, the Talmud declared, “There is no comparison between losing her virginity under the bridal canopy and losing it on a dung heap.” (At least one would hope not.)
[Bava Kama 83b84a, Moed Katan 8b, Ketubot 39b, Yevamot 34a]
Bad judgment and carelessness are not punishable by rape.
Unlike most societies, even modern ones, the Rabbis forbid marital rape. To clarify that a couple should only use the bed if the woman was willing, the Sages agreed that between a man and a woman, if she said yes she consented, and if she said no she didn’t. Silence was not consent. The Torah verse from Proverbs 19:2, “he who is hasty with his feet is a sinner,” was interpreted to mean that it is forbidden to force your wife in marital relations, the result being children of bad character. [Kiddushin 13a, Yevamot 53b54a]
Another section of Talmud teaching about “bad sex produces bad children” condemns several sexual circumstances that the Rabbis believed did cause bad children, including: (1) the woman feared the man, (2) he forced her; (3) one of them hated the other, (4) they were drunk, (5) and one of them was asleep. Note that the first two would be considered rape today and the last two are problematic because consent is impossible. [Nedarim 20b]
Today is Election Day here in California. Hillary Clinton is now the Democratic nominee, but we don’t know the California results yet. I haven’t posted for a week because I’ve been spending most of my free time making phone calls for Hillary Clinton at my nearby Westchester campaign office, including today [although most people I talked to had already voted]. Until this week, I hadn’t done any of this kind of hands-on campaigning for almost fifty years. During my teens I was active in Young Democrats. My father was on the Democratic County Committee [you know, that list of people near the top of the ballot where you have no idea who they are and what exactly they’re running for] and I spent quite a few elections getting out the vote and then partying with the victors.
Then came 1968, my freshman year at UCLA. I was still too young to vote, but definitely old enough to party. Thus I was celebrating Robert Kennedy winning the California presidential primary at the Ambassador Hotel downtown when he was assassinated there almost exactly 48 years ago. That trauma ended my political activism [although I never missed voting once I was 21] – until I grasped the enormity that Trump would be the Republican nominee. I had voted for Clintons whenever they were on a ballot, so I gave Hillary a few small donations. But after the misogyny and rudeness displayed by Bernie Bros in Nevada, I bit the bullet and signed up to volunteer. It seemed bashert that there was a Clinton campaign office less than 2 miles away.
I was frustrated that I wasn’t able to help out last Friday when Hillary spoke in Culver City and Bill in Santa Monica. So when they asked for volunteers to work Hillary Clinton's rally at Long Beach City College yesterday afternoon, I jumped at the opportunity. The night before I couldn’t sleep because I was haunted by flashbacks of the Ambassador Hotel and terrified that I might witness a similar disaster in Long Beach. But I refused to give in to such magical thinking, and ultimately spent 5 hours Monday afternoon and evening volunteering at the event. First I walked the long line of people waiting to enter and handed out instructions on how to make "get out the vote" calls at home. Then I did "crowd control," walking the now even longer line to update people about security, probable wait times, and trying to answer questions even though I wasn't sure of the correct answers. Finally we got inside the gym, where Hillary gave a rousing speech to her enthusiastic supporters – made more memorable when the AP declared her the presumptive nominee in the middle of her talk. Like everyone else, I took photos with my cell phone. I don't know how she does it; I came home exhausted.