Talmud after dark: Maggie Anton finds the ribald in Rashi

Like many seeds for a book, the thought of writing about rabbinic discussions of sex came from an offhand comment made by a stranger.
March 16, 2016

Like many seeds for a book, the thought of writing about rabbinic discussions of sex came from an offhand comment made by a stranger. Talmudic scholar and novelist Maggie Anton was speaking to a Hadassah chapter in New Jersey last fall. The audience was entirely women, and she decided to impart some of the funnier commandments and prohibitions related to sex that she had encountered in her studies. The women in the audience were laughing and having a good time, she said, and one stood up and suggested she write “50 Shades of Talmud.”

“In the car, on the way back to where I was staying, I thought, ‘You know, actually, I could do that,’ ” she said.

Anton is the author of the popular series “Rashi’s Daughters,” based on the great medieval talmudic scholar who had three daughters and no sons. Little is known about the girls save for their names (Yocheved, Miriam and Rachel) and that they married their father’s finest students, but it’s believed that they were scholars of Torah and Talmud at a time when women were forbidden to study the sacred texts. Anton’s trilogy imagines what their lives might have been like. 

Anton continued her research into the lives of women in Jewish history by focusing on fourth-century Babylonia, where the Talmud was being created, and the prevalence of sorcery and the occult among rabbinic families. That led to her books “Rav Hisda’s Daughter: Book 1: Apprentice” and “Enchantress: A Novel of Rav Hisda’s Daughter.”

Anton was raised in a secular, socialist household in a heavily Jewish neighborhood in North Hollywood. Her parents didn’t belong to a synagogue, but they spoke Yiddish and enrolled her in one of the kinderschule in the San Fernando Valley run by the Workmen’s Circle.

“I certainly had a Jewish education. I just did not have any kind of religious education,” she said with a laugh.

Her family celebrated Passover and Chanukah, but she never learned why. She learned about Jewish religion by reading the fictional “All-of-a-Kind Family” series of children’s books by Sydney Taylor, about an early 20th-century immigrant Jewish family living in New York’s Lower East Side. 

Those books inspired Anton’s series about Rashi’s daughters. Anton wanted “to do for Rashi’s family what Sydney Taylor had done for the immigrant family, where you’re embedded with the family, and you eat with them, and go to services with them, and you celebrate all the lifecycle events and you celebrate the holidays with them.”

Anton was a voracious reader as a child. One book that changed the direction of her life was Leon Uris’ “Exodus.” Growing up in the 1950s, she rarely heard adults discuss the Holocaust. “Exodus,” which follows Ari Ben Canaan as he helps Jewish refugees escape a British detention camp in Cyprus and arrive in Palestine, celebrated the birth of the new Jewish state and helped Anton develop a newfound pride in being Jewish.

“Reading ‘Exodus’ is when I realized that if I had lived in Europe, my whole family would be dead. That people wanted to kill me just because I was Jewish,” she said. “Being Jewish was suddenly more important to me, even though I wasn’t doing anything about it. It seems silly now, but I vowed, ‘My first son is going to be named Ari,’ after the hero in ‘Exodus.’ I actually told that to guys I was dating. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

Years later, she met her husband, David Parkhurst. They married at Temple Akiba in Culver City and had a son together. And true to the vow, they named him Ari. The family moved to Glendale, and for the first time in her life, Anton didn’t live in a Jewish neighborhood.

“We realized that Jews aren’t all over the place. If we want to be part of a Jewish community, I guess we’re going to have to find a synagogue,” she said. The couple befriended Rabbi Ken Weiss and joined a chavurah he had formed. (Weiss died in 2014.) They attended a beginning Hebrew class. Her husband learned to chant Torah and served as a president of Temple Sinai of Glendale.

“I sort of got dragged along a little bit on this, and he was getting much more ahead of me in terms of Jewish education and learning. So in 1992, when I heard about a woman’s Talmud class being taught by Rachel Adler, I signed up for it, partly because I heard she was a great teacher,” she said. “Mostly I was interested because I knew women weren’t supposed to study Talmud. All you have to do is forbid something and it immediately becomes more attractive.”

Anton fell in love with Talmud. Her discovery of Rashi’s daughters and the lives of 11th-century French talmudic scholars led her to write her best-selling trilogy. She spent four years writing the first draft, and didn’t tell her husband or children that she was writing a book until it was finished. Penguin Books published the first book in 2005, which happened to mark Rashi’s 900th yahrzeit.

Talmud continues to be her passion to this day. She retired from her job as a clinical chemist at Kaiser Permanente in 2006 to write full time. “50 Shades of Talmud” is Anton’s first attempt at nonfiction. Mixed in with centuries of rabbinic teachings, Anton finds philosophical treatises, permissions and prohibitions related to marriage, intimacy and sex. Compared to her previous works of fiction, “Fifty Shades of Talmud” is far shorter — just shy of 120 pages — and filled with illustrations, pithy quotations and proverbs. It’s written in a breezy, irreverent tone, without academic jargon. In fact, the introductory section about the origins of the Talmud comes with a warning: “This section contains historical details that may cause boredom, listlessness, or lethargy.”

“My stealth goal in writing all these books is to get more women and more liberal Jews, non-Orthodox Jews, to study Talmud. I mean, Talmud has been the monopoly of Orthodox men for so long,” she said. “But now we have really good English translations. There’s no excuse why a whole lot more Jews shouldn’t be studying Talmud.”

“50 Shades of Talmud” will be released on March 24 (Purim).

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