Rashi’s Daughters and My Guardian Angel both explore the little-known lives of the daughters of Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, the famous Torah scholar and commentator known today as Rashi. The first, Rashi’s Daughters (Banot Press, 2005, $15.95), is a labor of love by new author Maggie Anton. Anton brings the world of medieval French Jewry to life, touching upon everything from parchment-making and Talmudic discourse to midwifery and grape harvests.
She relates that Rashi’s three daughters, Joheved, Miriam and Rachel, studied at their father’s knee and became highly learned. These women really existed, and although we know little more about them than their names and the fact that they studied in their father’s yeshiva, Anton creates characters who engage us with their ideas and their struggles. In the tradition of Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, this is historical fiction that brings our heritage as Jewish women closer to home. Rashi himself, one of the greatest Jewish scholars of all time, leaps off the margins of the Talmud page to take shape as son, husband, father and grandfather.
With a compelling combination of drama, suspense, and romance, Anton takes her readers on a journey to Troyes, France, during the eleventh century. While the frequent references to ghosts, amulets and magic potions remind us that we’re in the medieval world, the characters also experience timeless concerns: pre-wedding jitters, a grandmother’s dementia. the problems of religious coexistence, and the struggle to balance individual goals and family needs.
Rashi’s granddaughter Elvina is the subject of Sylvie Weil’s My Guardian Angel (Arthur Levine Books, translated from the French by Gillian Rosner, $16.95) Like Rashi’s daughters, Elvina is also educated, and she also wishes for more than a life of housework and babies. Her story brings us into a different aspect of medieval French history: the Crusades. In this short novel, the town of Troyes, like so many of the Jewish communities of France and Germany, is swept up in fear of the impending Crusader army. When a young Christian boy flees the battle in the hopes of being allowed to study in a monastery, Elvina gives him food and shelter, a great risk that ultimately pays off. This book, written for younger audiences, introduces a spirited heroine and a chapter of Jewish history likely unfamiliar to most young teens.
Rebecca Schwartz is editor of All the Women Followed Her A Collection of Writings on Miriam the Prophet and the Women of Exodus. She works for the Union for Reform Judaism’s Department of Family Concerns.