When I began studying Talmud in Jewish day school, my friends and I used to act out the cases discussed in the Mishnah: “If a man uncovers a woman’s hair in public… If a man leaves his jug of water in the middle of the street….” We relied on makeshift props — a cheerleading pompom for a head of hair, or a juice box from someone’s lunch for a jug of water. I was reminded of those junior high school plays when I read Enchantress (Plume, $17), Maggie Anton’s second and final book about Rav Hisda’s daughter and the Jewish community of fourth-century Babylonia. Anton dramatizes scenes from the Talmud featuring her eponymous heroine (also known as Hisdadukh), her second husband Rava (her marriage to her first husband was the subject of the previous book), and the rabbis and sorceresses with whom they interact.
Knowledge, in this novel, is highly gendered: Men study Torah and women cast spells. That is not to say that women do not also learn Torah — and indeed, in the book’s closing pages an aged Hisdadukh teaches Mishnah to her granddaughters and their daughters, “according to each girl’s capabilities.” But for the most part, it is the men who quote Mishnah and the women who write incantation bowls, wear special rings that enable them to understand the speech of animals, and cast spells to quell deadly sandstorms and turn men into donkeys.
Midway through the book, in a scene reminiscent of countless middle-grade novels about preteen witches and their magic-making moms, Hisdadukh discovers that her mother, too, was a sorceress: “I’d thought it was Father’s study and piety that safeguarded our family all those years,” Hisdadukh relates, dumbfounded to discover that it was in fact their mother’s spells that had protected the family from harm. Several of these spells are included in the novel, as Anton draws on the astrological and demonic lore that is sprinkled like fairy dust throughout the Talmud’s pages, including vividly colorful curses such as “hot excrement in torn baskets.” At these moments the book seems to be a sort of “Harry Potter meets the Talmud,” with the Angel of Death as Dementor and other non-rabbinic Jews as muggles.
But Anton’s novel is also a romance, and quite a racy one at that. Hisdadukh and Rava have a passionate marriage, and they “use the bed” (Anton’s apt translation of the Talmudic euphemism) several times per chapter. Indeed, in one of her more daring and dubious leaps of conjecture, Anton suggests that Rava (meaning “great one”) received his epithet not due to his mastery of Torah, but on account of his spectacular endowment. Their sex life, for the most part, is charmed, except when the demon Ashmedai attempts to seduce Hisdadukh in the guise of her previous husband Rami, and Rava is consumed by jealous rage. This scene is perhaps a creative inversion of the Talmudic tale of Rava’s wife’s jealousy of his study partner’s wife Homa, an encounter which Anton surprisingly and disappointingly elects to domesticate.
Anton has elsewhere stated that her goal in writing these novels is to encourage more non-Orthodox Jews, especially women, to study Talmud. Towards this end she bridges an ancient text with contemporary academic scholarship on the Talmud’s Persian and Zoroastrian context, from magi to menstrual rituals. When at her best, she brings Talmudic characters vividly to life, as in her ingenious depiction of Rav Nahman’s imperious and importunate wife Yalta as a hawk-nosed lesbian. At times she seems merely to be dramatizing scene after scene from the Talmud, not unlike my amateur junior high Mishnah plays. But then Anton will let slip, say, that Rav Hisda’s daughter wore tzitzit, or that the rabbis gained their intimate knowledge of women’s bodies by consulting their wives, or that Hisdadukh’s vision of the world to come involved studying Torah with both her husbands simultaneously. Suddenly it becomes clear that only a twenty-first century feminist and critical sensibility like Anton’s could interpret the Talmud in just this way; and for this reader, at least, the novel succeeds in working its magic.
Ilana Kurshan works in book publishing in Jerusalem.