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Talmudic temptation

From a glass-enclosed cabinet in her Westchester home office, historical novelist Maggie Anton removed a small clay pot. Indicating the Hebrew characters inscribed on the pot in the same Aramaic text as in the Talmud, she noted the rough outline of a demonic form inside the “incantation bowl.” She explained during an interview that during the fourth to sixth centuries, the same time that the Talmud was being created, the bowls, purchased in an antiquities store in Israel, were ubiquitous in Iraq — once known as Babylonia — the setting for Anton’s latest novel, “Enchantress.”

One of the many types of archaeological evidence of Jewish sorcery — “they call upon Jewish angels, they mention the four matriarchs, they quote Torah, some even quote Mishnah” — the discovery of these bowls represented a high point in Anton’s research for her love story set in fourth-century Babylonia. Until then, the Talmud had been her only primary source. 

“Sorcery is a very important thread in the Talmud that most scholars have preferred to ignore until recently,” Anton said. “Illness was caused by demons or the evil eye, and Jews had a reputation for knowing the secret magic that did healing. In the Talmud, you’d go to a healer to be cured, and they would write a spell for an amulet that you would wear. Or they would do an incantation on a bowl, and they would bury it under your house. Everything was from demons and the evil eye.”

The Talmud also claimed a major presence in Anton’s earlier trilogy, “Rashi’s Daughters.” A former clinical chemist for Kaiser Permanente, Anton said that she never could have written “Enchantress” without first telling the story of the great scholar who lived in 11th-century France. The availability of historical documentation on Rashi helped greatly. Teasing out the basic information from just the Talmud about the characters in another book, “Rav Hisda’s Daughter,” was much trickier.

And none of these would have occurred if she hadn’t decided to study Talmud in 1992 with feminist theologian Rachel Adler. Drawn to the intellectual rigor of talmudic study, Anton, who comes from a secular Jewish family, said, “I was 42. My mom had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. My kids were mostly out of the house. I had worked at the same job for a lot of years. I needed to have my brain doing stuff it hadn’t been doing before.”

But there was another reason. “I knew women weren’t supposed to study it; that it was forbidden at that point. And, of course, all you have to do is make it forbidden, and you make it much more attractive.”

Anton’s research into the life of Solomon ben Isaac (one day to be known as Rashi) and his family began “just for fun.” However, she grew increasingly fascinated once she started learning more about the vintner and scholar. “He was really a feminist, considering that he lived in 11th-century France. I was very surprised that 900 years ago, women in his community did wear tefillin and wear tzitzit and blow shofar. This was a kind of a black hole in Jewish history ignored by everybody.”

Four years later, she had completed the first draft of her novel. After making 12 copies of the manuscript, she showed it to her husband, daughter, some close friends and four rabbis. They all thought it should be published. 

Among the many surprise twists of her literary trajectory, Anton’s publishing experience has been the most surprising of all. Although she had a literary agent, publication eluded her. Outside of Anita Diamant’s 1997 “The Red Tent,” there didn’t appear to be a market for this kind of fiction. 

Many aspiring authors might have given up at this point. Not Anton. Hiring a literary shepherd, she and her husband, Dave Parkhurst, a patent attorney, became publishers themselves.

“I knew how to reach Jewish women, and I knew there was interest. I did a lot of cold calling of [synagogue] sisterhoods, Hadassahs and National Councils of Jewish Women chapters. Then I went all over the country and Canada and hit the Jewish talk circuit — sold books in the back of the room. They would tell their friends. There was buzz.” In 18 months, 26,000 books had sold.

When the big publishers caught wind of that phenomenal figure for a self-published novel, a bidding war ensued between HarperCollins, Penguin and Crown. “This was the first book in a trilogy, and they wanted the rest of it,” said Anton, who chose Penguin. To date, close to 150,000 copies of the first volume of “Rashi’s Daughters” have sold, and it remains her strongest seller.

Meanwhile, the memory of a piece of Talmud she had studied long ago still resonated. When Penguin asked if she had anyone else in mind, she remembered the girl whose rabbi father had given her the choice of marrying one of two teenage boys, his best students. The daughter’s answer of “both,” she said, “just blew my mind. I thought, ‘What courage, what audacity.’ And I immediately thought of her.”

The author reports that all of the books have received starred reviews from the Library Journal. In addition, “Rav Hisda’s Daughter” became a National Jewish Book Award finalist. 

Nevertheless, Anton acknowledged there have been losses. Chief among them was the hit taken by her love of reading fiction. “I was a voracious reader. I devoured thrillers, murder mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, romance, kids’ books,” she said. “As the author, I now see the scaffolding, the craft. I’m much more fussy. My pleasure in reading novels is sadly diminished.”

As for the future, Anton will go only so far as to say, “There’s a story banging around inside my head. It haunts me at night. It’s there, lurking.”

However, with four grandchildren and a husband who might enjoy traveling in retirement, the 64-year-old Anton is clear about one thing: “I’ll write it on my own time. I’ll write it like I wrote the first volume of ‘Rashi’s Daughters.’ I’ll write the book I want to read.”

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