by Rita Charleston
Before the age of 50, Maggie Anton (born Margaret Antonofsky in Los Angeles, where she still lives) was perfectly content working as a chemist and never imagined herself a writer. But after finding herself in a women’s Talmud class taught by feminist theologian Rachel Adler in L.A., she was hooked.
Maggie knew little about the Jewish religion until David Parkhurst, who was to become her husband, entered her life, and they both discovered Judaism as adults. That was the start of a devotion to Jewish education, synagogue involvement and ritual observance. In 1997, as her children Emily and Ari left the house and her mother was declining with Alzheimer’s Disease, Anton began considering a career change. In 2006, she finally retired after more than 30 years as a clinical chemist in Kaiser Permanente’s Biochemical Genetics Laboratory to become a full-time writer.
Fast forward to the present where Anton is now the award-wining author of the historical fiction series, “Rashi’s Daughters.” Anton will be in our area to discuss her new book, “Rav Hisda’s Daughter Book I Apprentice: A Novel of Love, The Talmud and Sorcery,” on Tuesday, April 30, 7:30 p.m., at the Germantown Jewish Centre, 400 W. Ellet St. (at Lincoln Drive) in West Mt. Airy; on May 1, 7:30 p.m., at Melrose Bnai Israel in Elkins Park; and May 2, noon, at Reconstructionist Rabbinic College in Wyncote.
“In the days I began my studies, there was no place women could go to study the Talmud. It was essentially a closed book to women, so I think my original plan in signing up for the class was to find out why women were forbidden to study it,” Anton, 63, explained. “But to my amazement, I soon fell in love with the Talmud, and it became my passion.”
And so began her first series of books, “Rashi’s Daughters: Life, Love and Talmud in Medieval France,” books about Rashi, a legendary Talmudic scholar who had three daughters and no sons. “And the more I studied Talmud from a feminist perspective, the more curious I became about Rashi’s learned daughters and how they managed to study Talmud in the Middle Ages when such study was supposedly forbidden. That research ultimately led to my current work.” (Rashi, nee Shlomo Itzhaki, was born in 1040 and died in 1104.)
“Rav Hisda’s Daughter” shows that although life and society have changed dramatically since the early centuries Anton recreates in her books, modern women still face some of the same challenges and uphill battles trying to reconcile religious traditions and faith with their desire for independence and love. Concentrating on the character of Hisdadukh, Rav Hisda’s beautiful and learned daughter, who is precluded from Torah studies because of her gender, she embarks on the torturous path to become a “charasheta,” or enchantress.
“While researching the book, I soon learned that magic was pervasive throughout the Roman Empire,” Anton said. “There was ordinary pottery with inscriptions inside whose purpose was to protect the people under whose home the vessels were buried.” (“Rav Hisda’s Daughter,” which takes place in 3rd-century Babylonia as the Talmud was being created, was selected for the 2012 National Jewish Book Award for Fiction and Library Journal’s choice for Best 2012 Historical Fiction.)
The chemist-turned-author also leaned that the Talmud contained discussions of spells, amulets, demons, the Evil Eye and other occult subjects. “Magic was clearly an integral part of life in this world, and some of the rabbis, including Rav Hisda, performed what we would call acts of magic themselves. But rabbinic sages agreed that sorcery was mostly the province of women who were able to practice freely.”
Anton said all this came as a surprise to her in that she had not even intended there would be any magic or sorcery in her book other than a passing reference. “But unlike other supernatural novels like ‘Harry Potter,’ ‘Witches of Eastwick’ and the ‘Twilight’ series, where the magic in those stories is clearly fictional, the product of the novelist’s imagination, I use actual, historical spells and procedures from incantation bowls, magical instruction manuals and the Talmud.”
Another surprise that came Anton’s way was her realization that others were drawn to her books. “I discovered there was definitely an audience for my books, including Jewish women, Jewish men and even non-Jews. During the talks that I give, including a Q-and-A, there’s a curiosity about how I got involved in writing, which I try to minimize.
“I try instead to focus on the book and to explain that what they are reading is real. The lives of the women I talk about are documented in the Talmud. Indeed, these are real people with real personalities, and I hope that when people read the Talmud through the lens I created, everything will come alive.”
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