Joining the growing roster of historical fiction that aspires to give voice to Jewish women of eras past, The Fruit of Her Hands: The Story of Shira of Ashkenaz a debut novel by Michelle Cameron (Pocket Books/Simon and Schuster, $25), narrates the life of the imagined spouse of renowned 13th century authority Rabbi Meir ben Barukh of Rothenburg. Following Shira from childhood to old age and from France to Germany, to England, and back again, the author has created a portrait of medieval life, and of medieval Jewish womanhood in particular, that is both exotic and surprisingly familiar.
Cameron interlaces historical events with fanciful vignettes of daily life under the tiled roofs and in the cobble-stoned lanes of European towns and hamlets. Authoritative sources indicate that Rabbi Meir (and perhaps his wife) did indeed witness some of the incidents the author depicts, including the 1242 burning of the Talmud in Paris; others are creatively woven into the plot although they are not actually associated with the historical figure, such as the 1255 ritual murder charge in Lincoln, which Cameron imagines Shira to have experienced while visiting her married daughter. The freedom of historical movement granted to the fictional Shira affords the author and her readers an opportunity to connect these events and to add layers of drama and nuance to what is often a sparse historical register.
Several of the sub-plots in Cameron’s novel, as well as details of daily life, are cleverly culled from the vast body of legal response that form Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg’s historical and halakhic legacy. The saga of a congregant’s disputed betrothal; the 21-room building that the family occupied in Rothenburg; Shira’s decision to decline the honor of holding her grandson at his circumcision ceremony; and the tension between Shira and her husband over the betrothal of their 9-year-old daughter all have a basis in Rabbi Meir’s rulings. Although I know it’s unsuitable to the genre of fiction, as a student of medieval history and rabbinic literature, I found myself wishing that Cameron had included footnotes!
Unfortunately, a few historical inaccuracies mar the landscape, one of the most glaring in the book’s very title. I am not sure why the author called her heroine Shira — it’s a modern Hebrew name that would have been extremely unlikely for a medieval Jewish woman. Though perhaps a surface detail, this anachronism is indicative of a series of lapses in historical precision, mistakes in rabbinic terminology, and, more significantly, questionable assumptions about the dynamics of interaction between 13th century men and women, Jews and non-Jews, nobles and commonfolk. At several junctures, the reader is left sensing that were the background details to be exchanged, the same scene could be taking place in contemporary Brooklyn or Jerusalem.
In Shira, Cameron has produced a character who challenges the classic image of illogical and illiterate medieval women, yet for all her book-learning and thirst for religious engagement, Shira is far from a radical; after protesting and “flicking away tears,” she submits to the authority of the men around her on nearly every occasion. This characterization may reflect the author’s attempt at historical authenticity, but it left me wishing for more depth and complexity. Nonetheless, Shira’s story is a noteworthy attempt at reclaiming the lives of medieval women and adding their testimony to our portraits of the past.
Rachel Furst teaches Talmud and Jewish law and is working on her Ph.D. in medieval Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.