When author Maggie Anton lectures, she prefers to do so off the cuff, tapping into a whole range of topics — from Talmud and ancient history to sex and sorcery.
“I never know what I’m going to say,” she said, speaking with NJ Jewish News in a recent phone interview from her home in Los Angeles. “There’s so much to talk about, I go with what my audience seems most interested in.”
In her novels, however, clear trends emerge: In her “Rashi’s Daughters” trilogy and now Rav Hisda’s Daughter (Plume), she gives voice to women who have been overlooked in the course of Jewish history and literature. A reviewer even credited her with creating a new genre: “Talmudic historical feminist fiction.”
Anton will speak — on whatever inspires her and her audience — at the Alisa chapter of Hadassah’s Member Appreciation Dinner in Monroe on Monday, Oct. 14, and at Temple Rodeph Torah in Marlboro on Wednesday, Oct. 16.
Given how little has been written about her heroines, her novels took years of ingenious detective work.
In the case of the “Rashi” books, that search focused on the 11th and 12th centuries and French environment of Rashi — Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, the canonical talmudic scholar — and his daughters, Joheved, Miriam, and Rachel.
The new book, subtitled Book I — Apprentice: A Novel of Love, the Talmud, and Sorcery, goes further back, to the time 1,500 years ago when the Talmud was being shaped. It was sparked by what she learned about Hisdaduch, the young daughter of the Babylonian sage Rav Hisda. Like her father, she is mentioned numerous times in the Talmud, perhaps most famously in Bava Batra 12b: When her father asks which of two star students she would like to marry, she answers, “Both of them.”
Out of enigmatic anecdotes like this, Anton crafted a historical novel set in the Roman empire, recreating the world of rabbinic sages as seen through the eyes of a strong-willed woman.
For Anton, a clinical chemist by profession, all this began with the Talmud. She grew up in an idealistic but secular home, and didn’t get involved in Judaism until she met her husband, David Parkhurst. Together, and then with their children, Emily and Ari, they became increasingly involved in Jewish education and synagogue life.
In 1992 she enrolled in a class taught by Rabbi Rachel Adler, now professor of modern Jewish thought and Judaism and gender at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, and found herself fascinated by all there was to learn — and all that seemed unknown, especially about the women.
It is a passion she loves to share. “If I can get more people interested in studying Talmud, that’s the most rewarding part of all,” said Anton. In her talks, she discusses not only historic events but the history of magic, and the nitty-gritty details of everyday life, including food, sex (including bisexuality), bathroom habits, and family relationships.
“I write the kind of book I want to read — dealing with the lives of real human beings,” Anton said. After all, that’s what the sages dealt with. Those who object — and there have been some vehement critics — she advises to “just not read my books.”
While she said she still couldn’t live off the proceeds of her writing, the number of her books that have been bought has astonished her (upward of 170,000 of the trilogy books as of last year). She attributes that partly to chance and the attractive design of her covers. The aesthetics, however, don’t explain how last year she was chosen as a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award for fiction.
Anton plans to write perhaps another two books set in the Rav Hisda’s Daughter era. Asked if she expected to write any novels unrelated to Jewish history in the future, Anton answered: “I don’t see it happening, but who knows? For most of my life, I didn’t see myself writing any fiction.”