Sunday, 27 April 2014

Rashi's Daughters: Joheved - Maggie Anton

Book two in the book bingo challenge: Rashi's Daughters - Joheved, by Maggie Anton, for the first book by a favourite author category. My copy of this book is SO dog-eared! I guess that more than qualifies it as a favourite, given it got that way from frequent re-reading.

Rashi (1040-1105) - a Hebrew acronym for Rabbi Shlomo ha Yitzhaki - is one of the greatest of the Jewish sages. The first Hebrew book to be printed was his Bible commentary, and his commentaries occupy  the inside column of ever page of the Talmud, surrounded by later commentaries by his disciples and grandsons. He lived in France in the middle ages and founded a yeshiva in the city of Troyes when he came home from studying in Germany after his mother was no longer capable of running the family vineyard alone. At that time, the tradition - as is still the case in the Orthodox Jewish world - was that only boys studied Talmud - Jewish Law. However, Rashi had no sons, just three daughters, Joheved, Miriam, and Rachel. Against their mother's wishes, in response to their interest and his need to teach prior to establishing his yeshiva, he began to teach his daughters. There is also the suggestion that all three girls wore tefillin (phylacteries) when they prayed, also traditionally only worn by men.

There were precedents for these three girls to both study Talmud and wear tefillin. It is said that Michal, daughter of King Solomon, wore them. There are also previous female scholars, one of the most well known being Beruriah - who lived in the second century CE - daughter of Rabbi Chananiah ben Teradion, one of the Ten Martyrs killed by the Romans to prevent the teaching of Torah. Rashi's own commentaries also lend support to the idea that his daughters were both scholars and possibly wore tefillin. He was, at heart, a pragmatist. One of the responsibilities of Talmud scholars is to interpret both Torah and Talmud - the ongoing discussion on Torah - to make rulings on how things should and shouldn't be done in contemporary times. Rashi's time, Medieval France, was a time of prosperity for Jews, particularly Jewish merchants, who travelled far and wide, and congregated at the great fairs twice a year to trade. Relations between Jews and Christians were cordial, but cautious. Troyes, in the Champagne district, was a busy centre of trade, which saw travellers and traders of all nations, with varying customs intersecting and interacting. Rigid interpretations of the laws could have alienated relationships at best, and at worst, caused deep schisms. Rashi's commentaries indicated that he was a man who thought carefully and broadly about various aspects of any given laws and sought to come to positions that would best serve his community in the long term.

There is nowhere in Torah that states that women are forbidden to study, or to wear tefillin (a time bound mitzvah). Discussions in the Talmud move around the issue, with different commentators all offering differing views. Where they agree is that when it comes to time bound miztvot - i.e. those that must be done at certain times, like morning prayers (when tefillin are worn) - it may be difficult for women, especially once they have responsibilities for a household and children, which may prevent her from meeting the time bound requirements. Therefore, women are exempt from having to honour those mitzvot, while men are required to. That has come to be interpreted by Orthodox rabbis to mean that women don't, and shouldn't, observe these mitzvot. There is, in fact, an argument that comes up in this first volume of Anton's three part series (one book for each of Rashi's daughters) that suggests that the more educated women are in Torah and the Law, the better they will be able to observe them and pass them on to their children, so why not allow them to study the same as the boys.

Anton has fictionalised the history of Rashi, his family, students and descendents, filling in the gaps left in the commentaries, histories and documentation. Careful research has resulted in an incredibly rich book that gives a wonderful insight into the lives of Jewish women in Medieval France. Joheved is portrayed as a bright, conscientious girl, who has been taught by her grandmother, Leah, to manage the finances of the family vineyard, in addition to creating a good vintage. She is proficient at spinning - remembering that this is before spinning wheels, so girls and women habitually carried a drop spindle and spun at any odd moments throughout the day in order to create enough yarn to weave into cloth for family garments and household linens. In this time of arranged marriages, she begs her father to find a scholar for her to marry, someone who will appreciate her knowledge and not prevent her from continuing to study. Her wish is fulfilled with her marriage to Meir ben Samuel, younger son of a Jewish lord and sheep farmer, who was once a study partner of Rashi himself in Germany. They go on to have six children, including four boys, all of whom are scholars, and some of whom became revered in their own right for their scholarship.

Anton has, quite rightly, been lauded for her Talmudic scholarship, which is hugely evident in these books. If you've ever wanted to dip your toe into Talmud study, but have been scared to try, Joheved will give you a taste, as there are Talmudic discussions and arguments sprinkled liberally throughout the narrative. It's one reason I keep going back and re-reading this book and the other two - Anton's scholarship is formidable. I love a good story too, so writing these as historical fiction opens them up to a much wider readership than, perhaps, a pure history might have. It has also enabled Anton to fill in the gaps and unknowns in the history of Rashi's daughters as much has been lost through lack of documentation, as is the case for so much of women's history.

The books are available online and in selected bookstores - but don't try and find them in mainstream chains, because they won't be there! I got mine at Gold's Judaica in Bondi. They're a bit addictive. I can't read Joheved without wanting to keep going and read the other two (I'm halfway through Miriam now...). Anton has already published the first of a new trilogy Rav Hisda's Daughter - Apprentice, and the second in that series, Enchantress, is due out later this year. They're set in Babylon after the expulsion of the Jews from the Holy Land by the Romans after the destruction of the second Temple in 70CE. Again, another scholar...lovely stuff.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Peanuts rule!

I love Charles Schulz's Peanuts. They were in the Sunday papers when I was growing up. you could buy books of them. There was a movie. And, somewhere - in storage I think... - is a book for my tiny book series that's just Lucy. So, when someone posted this on Facebook the other day, I had to share it. It cracked me up!!
Might be a little while til my next Bingo post - I put my hand on the place the Mary Wesley novel should have been and it wasn't there. Some gremlin has moved it... You know that feeling when you're planning to read a particular book and you can't get your hands on it? I stood in front of the bookcases last night feeling SO frustrated. My mind was all set for that book. None of the others looked appealing. I got over it - it's not like I lack choice with four six foot bookcases full of fiction, adult and child... But the one I chose was a heftier read than the Wesley novel. So, bear with me...I'll get to the next post asap!

The Wedding Officer - Anthony Capella

This is the first cab off the rank in my self-imposed Book Bingo challenge - a book set on another continent. It's the second book by Anthony Capella, his first being The Food of Love, and you can read my post about that one here. Again, it's a food related romance set in Italy, but it's a beast of a different colour.

The Wedding Officer is set in Naples towards the end of WWII - the Allies have moved partway into Italy, but still have some way to go in beating the German armies and ending the war in Italy. In Finisco, a village on the slopes of Vesuvius, Livia Pertini, the cook in her father's osteria, meets Enzo, a young Italian soldier, during the local apricot festival. Although many of the local boys have been vying for her hand for some years, she has sidestepped their advances. Enzo, however, manages to get through her defences and she, with the blessing of her father, marries him. They move to Naples, and live with his mother and sister. Enzo is sent to the front, and Livia, unable to work, eventually goes back to her father, where it's safer. Despite her urging, Enzo's mother and sister stay in Naples.

Meanwhile, Captain James Gould, fluent in Italian, has been sent to Naples to take up the post of wedding officer. His job is to vet all potential Italian war brides for authenticity, making sure they're not just starving prostitutes looking for the easier and more secure life on British army pay. He arrives to a shambles of an office in an old palazzo, shared by American Intelligence, and a 'local' way of doing things that horrifies his straightforward British sense of how things should be done. He learns how to tell if a girl is earning money through prostitution, and vetoes several applications. He also gets caught up in chasing down black marketeers and Mafia men stealing penicillin from American and British bases. In a short period of time, he manages to alienate nearly all the people he has to deal with, including his CO. In one of his raids on the mountain villages in response to reports of a German tank being sighted, he comes face to face with the tank, being driven by Livia, who has found it and commandeered it to use as a tractor. Their exchange is short and sharp, but for James, memorable.

Back on the mountain, a local Mafia man who has long lusted after Livia begins to pursue her. Food is short, the war is dragging on, life is getting very very difficult, but she holds fast to the hope that Enzo is coming back, and is, in any case, revolted by him, and refuses his advances. In the end, her father and sister tell her she'll be safer back in Naples, so she heads back to find her mother and sister in law. Arriving, she discovers they've been killed in a raid. By then, she has also found out that Enzo has been many years dead on the Russian front. Homeless and exhausted, she goes from one place to the next trying to find work, but can't. Ending up at a black marketeer's restaurant, she is given food and the manager, who has been trying to work out how to get James back to his predecessor's ways, decides that installing Livia as the cook in the palazzo might solve the problem - the idea being that with a full, contented stomach, James will be more relaxed in his dealings with the locals.

In due course, she starts cooking at the palazzo. The shift in culture there is immediate. James recognises her as the girl from the tank, and slowly but surely, falls in love. She's prickly and elusive, but eventually responds to him. Then the beginning of their troubles starts - the Mafia man who had been pursuing her is James' contact for the next raid he's planning, so Livia's hiding place is discovered. Next, while she's on a visit to see her family, Vesuvius erupts - a long predicted huge eruption. James, thanks to warnings from a local scientist discounted by everyone else, has put plans in place, and by and large, they work out and most people are saved. However, as he's trying to get to Livia, he is diverted to the air base on the mountain, who have been out of contact, so they can be warned to get their planes off the ground before the volcanic hail damages them beyond repair, and then is unable to get back to Finisco for some time. Unknown to him, Livia's father was injured when a lava flow came through Finisco, and Livia, in order to get the necessary penicillin to save his life, is forced to go to the Mafia man, who demands sexual favours from her in return. Her father's life is saved, but Livia feels she's lost all hope of any future with James as a result, so when James does finally get there, she turns him away, following up with a letter saying she's ending it.

The Mafia man then pulls his nastiest trick when he finds that regardless of his feelings for Livia, they will never be returned, and has her sent to the Germans as a whore with a group of other women certified as infected with STDs - a plan concocted to undermine the German troops. James finds out too late to stop the boat leaving, and immediately requests a transfer to active duty so he can follow the Allied push and find her. Livia and the other women escape when their boat comes under fire, half staying put where they come ashore, while Livia and a couple of the others set out to walk back through the front lines to Naples. It's not until James reaches Rome and is able to scour the German brothel records that he discovers she's never been there and his search starts again. Eventually he hears through a contact that she's with a partisan group, and is parachuted in with a drop of weapons and they are reunited.

It's not a totally happily ever after ending, because the war setting precludes that, but there is a resolution that works. There is some of the whimsy in this book that characterised The Food of Love, and the common theme of communicating via food is very much a part of The Wedding Officer. It's perfectly possible to recreate various dishes from the detailed descriptions in the narrative, so that's an added pleasure beyond the reading. However, the darker undertones that come from the war setting and Mafia complications make this a different kind of read to the first one. It also has quite a different pace to the other book - periods of intense urgency contrasting parts that are slow and gentle, that I really wasn't in any hurry to get past. There is considerable humour to balance the darker moments, and utterly authentic Neopolitan slang, with accompanying translations!

Definitely an enjoyable book that I'd recommend to anyone with food interests, a love of Italy, or just a good, entertaining read.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Book Bingo

Twenty-two posted this pic on Facebook yesterday, suggesting he and I do it. I thought it might be one way to get myself out of my blogging rut. Peter over at Kyusireader is part-way through a self-imposed challenge to read what he calls 'dead guys' - another term for classics! He's doing it in alphabetical order - you can read his latest post here. The intention was, as I recall, a mix of getting to some of those books one 'should' read, as well as tackling some tomes that had been sitting, unread, on his bookcases for some time. I thought about it, did a cruise of my bookcases, and decided that I'd probably have to buy too many books to be able to justify that particular challenge! I've been VERY good lately, in terms of bookshops, and have managed to stay clear and not spend money I really can't afford, apart from my recent foray in the the National Portrait Gallery shop - although I defy anyone to tell me it's possible to visit a good gallery shop and NOT buy books...sigh!

I like the somewhat random collection of ideas on this Bingo card, so I think I might just go ahead with it. I'm not going to set myself a time limit though - that's asking for trouble! I'll post as I finish each book, and if anyone wants to join me and hop in with comments on their books, please go right ahead. I'll start with a book set on a different continent - because I'm just about finished a lovely re-read of a novel set in Italy. After that, it'll be the first book by a favourite author - because I'm on a Mary Wesley re-reading jag, and I think that it's her first book that's the last one left on the bookcase... Beyond that, check the end of each post so you can keep up with where I'm going next.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Knitting Yarns - edited by Ann Hood

So, here I am again, feeling guilty because I've been neglecting the blog. Not for lack of interest as much as lack of energy for sustained writing. I'm blaming the drugs - there are NO nice drugs for my disease, and the side effects over the last few months have messed seriously with my ability to maintain concentration for any significant length of time. Even my reading has suffered - I'm mainly re-reading, and a lot of the books, I've already reviewed here...

However, nothing like some time away to re-jig the system! DB and I had a micro-mini-break to Canberra to see the Incas exhibition at the NGA. It's finished now - sorry if I've inspired anyone to up tracks and head off to see it...but, it was fabulous. We have a well-practiced routine for Canberra now (which is, incidentally, helping me feel more fondness for the place - slowly getting me past the antipathy engendered by an 18 month residence there when Twenty-Eight was a wee small thing): stay somewhere within walking distance to our favourite eatery (Cream), pre-buy NGA exhibition tickets and be at the doors before 10 because once they fill up it's hard to get good viewing space, park over at the National Portrait Gallery (currently free, and even when/if they start charging, a MUCH easier carpark to get in and out of), eat lunch at the NPG (MUCH better menu and space), visit the NPG bookshop, which is awesome and the reason for this post!

I came out of the NPG with a bag of books - a birthday present for Twenty-Eight, a book on Greek mythology for DB, a lovely book of clever, simple clothing patterns by a Japanese designer (whose name escapes me and the book is in the library downstairs, so perhaps another post at a later point...), a fab book on ceramics (I'm back in the studio, so this was a legitimate 'work' purchase...), and this:
I don't know if there is a sub genre of knitting based writing - but I have noticed that books with knitting themes are increasing - perhaps as knitting re-establishes itself even more as a cool pastime for young and old. I have a group of fellow knitter friends, known as the Knotters Club, a title that happened as a result of a typo in some Facebook chat with one of the others. She followed it up with a spot of research and discovered that in Japan, ALL yarn/thread related crafts are known as 'knotting' - which tickled both of us, and reminded me of a dear friend long ago, who famously said - as she laboured patiently with the lace yoke of a sweater - that knitting was "just one big knot".

So, you will all understand that when I saw this book on the shelf, I had to buy it. I had to buy it for myself of course, and if there'd been more than one copy, I'd have bought one for the friend who dubbed us The Knotters, but there was only one, so she'll just have to borrow it - and the others, who may also wish to borrow...

Ann Hood, from the blurb on the back flyleaf, is a fiction, travel, food and spiritual writer. There's a tempting list of other books - one with knitting in the title - that, obviously, I'll have to hunt down. She also knits. In her introduction, she explores the genesis of her own knitting, and that of others she's talked with since picking it up in 2002 - post the death of her young daughter, when she couldn't read or write - and also, why it is that knitting figures so much in writing. She put out a call to writers for essays on knitting, and was inundated.  A selection of those essays were put together to make this book, interspersed with patterns - alas, no accompanying images... The contributors include Barbara Kingsolver, Ann Patchett and Anita Shreve - just a few of the more well-known writers. There are also a few male writers (we have one in The Knotters, and potentially a second, if our get-togethers ever coincide with his availability, given he has a long drive to get to us).

The essays range from memory tales of relatives who taught the writers to knit, to relationships formed and links to departed family members maintained through knitting, stories of knitting failures and disasters, and one that mentions the great relationship knitting jinx - knitters will know about that one, any non-knitters out there will have to get their hands on a copy of the book to read about it!

I like anthologies like this. I like being able to pick them up and put them down - the essays are all short to medium chapter length. I like all the different voices. And I really like finding common ground with so many different writers. Even if you're not a knitter, this book has some lovely writing to explore, so if you come across a copy, have a dip into it, and if you have a knitting friend, it's an excellent gift idea.