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March 27, 2017

As a Benjamin Franklin Award finalist, I was queried by the IBPA Magazine editor for an article on book awards. Here are her questions and my answers, which certainly made me think about the subject.

Q: Do you submit to book publishing awards often?
A: No - at least I don't think so. To which ones do you submit? My four historical novels published by Penguin have each been submitted for a National Jewish Book Award, but that is the only one. I submitted my recent nonfiction book, published by my own small press, only for a Ben Franklin.

Q: What value do you gain from submitting to (and/or winning) book publishing awards?
A: Considering that Penguin paid for submitting the books they published, I had nothing to lose. But the value was in getting my novels in front of Jewish book mavens, and thus increasing the buzz. My fourth novel was chosen a National Jewish Book Award finalist, but I didn't see any increase in sales, and nearly all my fans only learned about this award because I told them about it. I think Ben Franklin Awards are even less well known.

Q: Tell me about your submission(s) to this year’s Benjamin Franklin Awards.
A: I submitted Fifty Shades of Talmud: What the First Rabbis Had to Say about You-Know-What, a small light-hearted nonfiction look at sexuality in the Talmud, in the Humor and Religion categories. I didn't have great expectations, and was curious how it would do with a predominantly non-Jewish group. If nothing else, the judges might tell others about it and add to the buzz. I was pleasantly surprised that my book was chosen as a finalist.

Q: What tips, if any, do you have for those interested in submitting for an award?
A: Even if your book wins, don't expect to see anything more than a modest increase in sales; after all, you're not getting a Nobel or Pulitzer. Most readers will learn about your award [if they do] from your own promotional efforts, not from any mainstream media. Think of submitting for an award as just another way of getting your book in front of more eyes.

March 19, 2017

In case you didn’t know, back in 2004 my then literary agent was unable to interest a publisher in my first Rashi’s Daughters novel. However I was so determined to get the book out for Rashi’s 900th yartzeit in July 2005 that my husband and I started our own small press to do so. We called it “Banot Press,” Banot being Hebrew for “daughters.” With help from a book shepherd, Sharon Goldinger of PeopleSpeak, we hired editors, cover and interior designers, a printer and a distributor.

The result, Rashi’s Daughters: Book I – Joheved, was impressive enough that Sharon suggested entering it for a Ben Franklin Award in three categories: Historical Fiction, Best New Voice: Fiction (first book by a new author), and Best First Book: Fiction (initial title from a new publisher). At least those are the three categories I recall entering, mainly because my book was chosen as one of three finalists in them.

Back in 2006, the Ben Franklin Awards were given out at a dinner ceremony at the end of BEA [Book Expo America], which was held that year in New York City. I was in town anyway on book tour, and since the award dinner was free for finalists, I figured I might as well attend. Boy was I amazed to walk into a grand ballroom with tables set for over a thousand people. An elaborate buffet lined two walls, and the food was clearly levels above the “rubber convention chicken” I’d expected. As the room grew more crowded by the minute, I frantically looked around for a place to sit.

Suddenly I heard someone calling my name, and thank Heaven, there was Sharon, waving me over to her table. I had no sooner gotten my meal and sat down to eat than Sharon asked if I’d written my acceptance speeches. What?! I was supposed to get up on stage and give a speech if my book won? In front of a thousand publishing mavens? She pulled out the program, which I hadn’t taken time to look at, and to my horror, the first awards to be announced were those for Best New Voice in Fiction, Nonfiction, and Children’s/Young Adult.

Dinner was forgotten as I desperately cribbed some notes on a napkin. Thankfully the Children’s and Nonfiction awards came first so I could hear what those winners said. It was an impressive ceremony. First the category was announced, then each finalist was described as its cover appeared on a large screen above the stage. Finally, as the winning book title was named, its cover grew and the others shrank until only the victor’s cover remained, occupying the entire screen. It was an awesome moment, and I don’t know if I was more afraid of winning or losing.

If you read my last post, you know Rashi’s Daughters: Book I – Joheved won Best New Voice: Fiction. My book’s cover gradually filled the screen, and the enormous ballroom echoed with applause as I slowly made my way to the stage, total strangers stopping me to offer congratulations. It was like the Academy Awards. I even received a large, and heavy, trophy.

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March 16, 2017

Oy gevalt, it has been an entire month since my last blog post. Yes, I was away in Arizona for almost two week and then off to another book tour in Sacramento, but I’ll be honest and admit that I remain in such a funk from the election that it is difficult to get motivated.

But now I have some good news. Last fall I entered "Fifty Shades of Talmud" for both the National Jewish Book Awards [in the Women Studies and Book Group categories] and the IBPA Ben Franklin Awards [in the Religion and Humor categories]. I didn’t expect to become a Jewish Book Award finalist since neither category was a particularly good fit for my book. However I figured the entry fees were worth paying because it would get "Fifty Shades of Talmud" read by many judges, all movers and shakers in the world of Jewish books. So I was more relieved than disappointed when others books were nominated instead, especially since winning would force me to use my own funds to accept the award in NYC in the dead of winter.

To my surprise and gratification, "Fifty Shades of Talmud" is one of three finalists for the Ben Franklin Award in the humor category. Most of my readers have probably never heard of IBPA [Independent Book Publishers Association] despite it being the largest nonprofit trade association of independent and small publishers since 1983. Given in 55 categories including subjects like travel, cookbooks, children, poetry, LGBT, as well as some for various kinds of design like interior and cover, a IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award for excellence in book publishing is regarded as one of the highest national honors for small and independent publishers.

Eleven years later, I am still proud and honored that my very first book, "Rashi’s Daughter: Book I – Joheved", won the Ben Franklin Award for “Best New Voice: Fiction” in 2006. The beautiful [and heavy] trophy enjoys a prominent place in my living room to this day. My next blog post will continue with what it was like to receive such a prestigious award. For more in IPBA, here is their website

February 16, 2017

After complaining about the lack of Jewish Romance novels, I received several recommendations from friends and fans. One of them, calling herself Shomeret on Goodreads, had good things to say about Miss Jacobson's Journey by Carola Dunn, a novel from a very obscure historical fiction genre - Regency Romance with a Jewish heroine. Finding an e-copy in the Los Angeles public library system, I downloaded it. I am almost finished reading this delightful tale, and I admit I enjoyed it more than I expected.

True to the Regency genre, the heroine Miriam is spunky and determined not to marry the wimpy scholar her parents have chosen for her, so she runs off on an adventure to help her widowed uncle, a doctor, in his research. She meets up with two attractive young men, both of who come from once wealthy families. One is a Jew whose banker father was bankrupted when too many of his noble clients didn’t pay back their loans; the other an impoverished Earl whose father made one too many imprudent investments [of course no Regency romance is complete without a handsome, eligible nobleman]. Love is in the air, but which suitor will Miriam chose?

Shomeret writes a book review blog, and has favorably reviewed my novels, which is how I discovered her. To read Shomeret’s review of Miss Jacobson’s Journey, here it is on her blog.

February 09, 2017

Back to Valerie Rhein’s class, you may notice that I left out any mention of modern scholarly reasons why women are excluded from time-bound positive mitzvot. Also attending this session was Rabbi Judith Hauptman, Talmud professor at JTS. Prof Hauptman points outs that the Talmud mentions time-bound positive mitzvot only in connection with women. Indeed, this distinction between mitzvot exists solely for the purpose of differentiating between a woman’s ritual obligations and her exemptions; it has no other use. She postulates, and both Prof Rhein and I agree, that it is no coincidence that the exemption of women from Judaism’s essential ritual acts dates from after the Second Temple’s destruction.

When the Temple stood the social hierarchy of Jews was, from highest status to lowest, was Kohen, Levi, Israel, slave. Those who served God were at the top. But without the Temple, the distinction between slaves and everyone else was all that remained. How could the old order where those who served God were highest be maintained? Women from priestly families didn’t serve in the Temple, so it followed that with no Temple, they would still have a lesser obligation to perform rituals that took the place of Temple service. After all, women already had lower status than men in society.

However exempting women from a small number of ritual mitzvot wasn’t enough of a difference in status to satisfy the Rabbis. The cemented a woman’s lower standing by exempting her from Torah study, what they saw as the most valuable use of a Jew’s time. Leaving women ignorant of how Torah was interpreted also had the beneficial effect, for men, of making women completely dependent on how rabbis interpreted Jewish Law.

Which is why I deem it more important to study Talmud than to don tefillin. For some historical background, see this article in the Jerusalem Post

February 05, 2017

So why, following on my previous post, are women exempt from time-bound positive mitzvot? The Talmud explains that a woman’s time belongs to her husband and he might need her to do something at the same time she’s supposed to perform a mitzvah. But what about a widow or divorcee then? Why is she exempt? And if you say she needs to be attentive to her children and household, then what about the woman without children or whose children are grown? In any case, some time-bound positive mitzvot take little time to perform, like saying the Shema or hearing the Shofar. Others, like dwelling in the sukkah or taking the lulav, can be done anytime during the week of Sukkot; especially dwelling in the sukkah, since the woman has to eat somewhere that week. And since medieval times, woman have increasingly taken on these four mitzvot, to the point where the question today isn’t whether women should perform them but whether they should say the blessing when they do.

Some more modern reasons popular with the Orthodox include: [1] women are naturally more spiritual than men, and therefore require less demanding religious mitzvot; [2] women’s menstrual cycles give them a natural rhythm of time, and therefore they don’t need the time-bound mitzvot; [3] In God's infinite wisdom, God delineated different responsibilities for men and women according to their respective metaphysical and physiological needs. Reform and Conservative Jews are egalitarian and believe that it is discriminatory for men and women to have different ritual obligations.

However, these assume that everyone agrees what constitutes a time-bound positive mitzvot. Some rabbis in the Talmud do not accept that tefillin and tzitzit are time-bound, and therefore women should don them. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi declares that despite the Mishnah exempting them, women are nevertheless obligated to eat matzah during Pesach, hear the Megillah read at Purim, and light the Hanukah lamp – each clearly a time-bound positive mitzvah. And of course a woman must observe Shabbat and afflict herself on Yom Kippur, which the Rabbis justify because those holidays have both positive and negative mitzvot associated with them.

The bottom line is that even Orthodox women today are obligated to more time-bound positive mitzvot than they are exempt from. For more on the subject, from Orthodox and non-Orthodox viewpoints, click on the highlighted links.

February 02, 2017

Yes, I know it has been over a week since my last post. Whether I call them reasons or excuses, I’ve been occupied with caring for a sick granddaughter, being sick myself, organizing financial records to prepare for income taxes, and in between all those, doing research for my next historical novel. But I still have more to report about Limmud UK.

One of the presenters was Valerie Rhein from Bern, who spoke about women’s exemption from TIME-BOUND POSITIVE MITZVOT. The division of commandments into these categories comes from the Mishnah, with no specific mention in the Torah. Thus the Rabbis had to figure out which mitzvot fell in which category [easy], and then come up with reasons why women should be obligated in some and exempt from others [not so easy]. Prof. Rhein focused on the 21 commandments mentioned in the Talmudic discussions found in Kiddushin 33b-35a and Berachot 20b. Seven of these mitzvot are non-time-bound, woman obligated [e.g. mezuzah, returning a lost object], seven are time-bound, woman not obligated [e.g. sukkah, shofar], four are time-bound, woman obligated [e.g. matzah, Kiddush], and three are non-time-bound, woman not obligated [e.g. procreation, Torah study].

She listed each commandment, the Torah verse on which it is based, and which group is addressed. For example procreation is commanded to both Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:27, while eating matzah at Pesach is directed at the whole congregation of Israel in Exodus 12:3. The reason this topic is so interesting, and so full of apologetics, is that there are too many exceptions to the rule that women are exempt from time-bound positive mitzvot and obligated to non-time-bound positive mitzvot for the Rabbis to ignore. Not to mention why women should be exempted from mitzvot based on time.

I will get to some of the arguments, both Orthodox and Progressive, in my next post. For more on the subject, see this My Jewish Learning article

January 22, 2017

The last session I presented at Limmud UK was actually an interview by Gilad Halpern of TLV 1, a Tel Aviv radio station. Interviews, especially those in real time, can be a challenge since I rarely get the questions in advance. Thus I have to be quick on my feet to give what I hope will be an erudite and entertaining reply with a minimum of hesitations. And Heaven forbid I can’t come up with an answer.

He questioned me about my new book for about 15 minutes, during which I explain that, among other things: [1] the Rabbis came to the astonishing conclusion that if a man wants to have sons, he should ensure that his wife comes to orgasm first; [2] the Talmud teaches that a father and mother each provide seed to create a child, unlike the Greeks and Romans, who believed than a man’s semen contained an entire miniature infant while the woman merely furnished a place for the baby to grow, [3] the big difference between Jewish positive and Christian negative views on sex arises because for Jews it is a mitzvah, a commandment, to procreate, while for Christians the ideal is to be celibate like Jesus.

To learn more, you can listen to the entire interview on a podcast from the Tel Aviv Review.

January 18, 2017

Back to what I learned at Limmud UK in December, this from Zev Farber, who attended my presentation on “Talmud After Dark,” which focused on some of my favorite sections from Fifty Shades of Talmud. One of these was a discussion from Nedarim 20 of how parents’ bad sex is responsible for their bad offspring, where the Ministering Angels inform us that “children are born lame because their parents overturn the table.” Apparently the Talmudic rabbis weren’t sure what ‘overturning the table’ meant because they made several suggestions, each of which refers to some unapproved sexual position [i.e. woman on top, from behind, anal]. From this one can assume that, according to the angels, normal/approved sex takes place in what we would call the ‘missionary’ position.

We have another piece of Talmud where a woman consults a rabbi because she “set a table for her husband, but he wanted to overturn it.” The rabbi tells her that this positions is permitted to them, and the woman departs without another word. Whether she was objecting to her husband’s desire or merely wanted to make sure it was authorized, the text doesn’t say. It also doesn’t say what exactly ‘overturning the table’ is.

However, Zev Farber introduced me to Noah Bickart, who addresses this very subject in his article on “Turning Over the Table.” He posits that, judging from Greek and Roman erotic artwork from this era, the most common sex position was from behind. In addition, because this was how animals mated, it was considered the natural position. Furthermore, it is in this position that the woman would appear most like a table.

Based on this, I am now skeptical that ‘man on top/woman facing him below’ was the normative position of sexual relations for the early Rabbis, particularly those in Israel and other lands ruled by Rome. This may have changed hundreds of years later in Babylonia, or was in the process of changing. In any case, we should all be wary of placing assumptions from today’s perspective on another culture in the past.

For those who want to read the entire 19-page article, here is a link to the PDF

January 15, 2017

The new winter issue of Lilith Magazine is out, and it contains both an excellent article by my teacher Rabbi Benay Lappe and a nice review of Fifty Shades of Talmud. Of course I want to share some quotes from the review:

“It is worth finding a place to peruse this slim volume in which Anton compiles fifty Talmudic discussions about every aspect of sexual relations. These discussions are interspersed with black-and-white cartoons featuring Adam and Eve and rabbis in togas, as well as pithy quotes about sex, many of them—like many of the statements in the Talmud—anonymous, and others attributed to luminaries ranging from Voltaire to Gandhi to Woody Allen … for those who would not otherwise open a volume of Talmud, Anton’s book offers, perhaps, a titillating way in. ‘Rabbis are men, too,’ she asserts, laying bare many rabbinic views on sexuality that may seem surprisingly progressive to the uninitiated. She shows how the rabbis were encouraging of good sex, and very permissive when it came to what a married couple may do in bed.”

To me, however, the most astonishingly progressive thing the Talmudic rabbis do for women’s sexuality is, by exempting us from procreation, they therefore permit a woman to use contraceptives without having to ask her husband’s permission or even inform him. Thus our Sages give women control of their reproductive lives. Something we do not have in this country even today.

Click on this link to Lilith's complete article.

January 13, 2017

For all my LA folks who wondered when I’ll be doing programs near home. Well, starting on Monday, Jan 16, I'll be speaking about "Talmud After Dark" at 8 venues in and around Los Angeles and the SF Valley. Some events are in the evening and some during the day, most are free but those serving food will cost you a donation. All will include book sales/signings of my new book. I hope I see lots of my local friends and fans.

Here are the details:
Jan 16 - 1 pm. Women of Leisure World meets in Clubhouse 3, Room 2. 1421 Northwood Rd, Seal Beach, CA 90740
Jan 17 - 10 am. Long Beach NCJW luncheon. The Grand, 4101 E Willow St, Long Beach, CA 90815
January 18 - 7:30 pm. Shomrei Torah Synagogue, 7353 Valley Circle Blvd, West Hills, CA 91304
Jan 21 - 11 am. Shabbat drash at Temple Emanuel Beverly Hills, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills, CA 90211
Jan 21 - 7 pm. Lev Eisha winter retreat. Brandeis Bardin, 1101 Peppertree Ln, Brandeis, CA 93064
January 22 - 1 pm. Temple Beth Ami, 23023 Hilse Lane, Santa Clarita, CA 91321
Jan 23, 2017 - 7 pm. NaAmat Women Mitzvah chapter. Location tba at private home, San Fernando Valley, CA
Jan 28 - 3 pm. VBS Sisterhood retreat. Brandeis-Bardin, 1101 Peppertree Ln, Simi Valley, CA 93064

January 12, 2017

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2 by John Tiffany

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I actually liked this "book" more than I expected to, judging from all the critical reviews I read on Amazon and Goodreads. This is NOT a novel, but the script of a play. That means we get no interior monologues, not a whole lot of action, and no detailed descriptions of people, places, clothing, etc. Most of the text is dialogue, with only a hint of what the characters are thinking or feeling [that is the actors' jobs, which is why the same play can seem quite different with different actors]. And, unlike the books with their myriad characters, we have only a minimal cast here.

But the plot, always J. K. Rowling's strong suit, is as good as ever. It was so compelling that I read this book in two days, needing only a few hours each day because, this being a script, most pages have less than 100 words and some have less than 30. Without giving away any spoilers, I think it is a great plot device for a couple of characters to use a Time Turner to go back in time [to when Harry Potter was at Hogwarts] to try to prevent some bad thing from happening, but of course there are unintended consequences.

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Maggie Anton

More sites to read

Erika Dreifus

The Talmud Blog

The Forward Sisterhood

Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance

Whole Megillah