Inventing Rashi’s Granddaughter

I was born into a family who, during the Second World War, had indeed become “strangers” in the land of France. After the war, my family returned to France, as did many French Jews.

Growing up in Paris during the fifties, attending one of the best girls’ lycees, I did not, most of the time, feel like an outsider. However, I certainly remember being upset when, at age ten, I was the only girl in the class not invited to a birthday party because the girl’s mother did not “want any Jews in her house.” But I had read the Diary of Anne Frank so many times I practically knew it by heart. What was a birthday party compared to her fate? In later years, there were sporadic negative comments on my (Jewish) physique, vague threats (“You people will soon be wearing the yellow star again”) or, once, pictures of Auschwitz passed to me during class. Most often, classmates would just remark that I was not “like them.” This upset me, but also made me proud.

There was not just the Shoah, there was the Resistance. I liked to think that I would have fought in the Resistance, as several relatives of mine, men and women, had done.

Unfortunately, I did not grow up with any other positive identification with Judaism. My family did not practice Judaism, the case with many Jewish families after the war. I began my Jewish studies very late, in New York. I discovered Rashi, the master and guide for any person who studies Torah, at any level. I soon became curious about his world, which happened to be France!

I first wrote a novel about Rashi for adults. Then, reluctant to leave behind the world of medieval Judaism, which fascinated me, I decide to write about Rashi’s granddaughter. Nothing is known about her, apart from her name. But it was easy for me to identify with her: she was the granddaughter of the Great Commentator, and he had educated her. My father, an academic famous in his field, had also wanted me to receive exactly the same education he would have given a boy.

I transposed situations of my own youth (in school and in the rather “medieval” village where I spent my holidays) to medieval Troyes and Elvina’s neighborhood. I imagined my young heroine passionate about learning, constantly surrounded by a group of friends, impulsive, generous, somewhat daring and unconventional, yet bound by tradition, within family and community. Dreaming up Elvina, I was really becoming once again the girl I had been, and placing this girl in a new setting: medieval France at the time of the First Crusade.

Novelist Sylvie Weil has taught French literature in France and in the U. S., most recently at Hunter College, New York. Her three novels about Elvina, granddaughter of Solomon ben Isaac, have been well received in France, even in non-Jewish milieux. The first novel, translated as My Guardian Angel (Scholastic, 2004), received the Prix Sorcieres, which is the French Newbery Award.