Raised by her widowed rabbi father and a Christian nursemaid in Normandy, Shira is a free-spirited, inquisitive girl whose love of learning shocks the community. When Shira’s father is arrested by the local baron intent on enforcing the Catholic Church’s strictures against heresy, Shira fights for his release and encounters two men who will influence her life profoundly—an inspiring Catholic priest and Meir ben Baruch, a brilliant scholar. In Meir, Shira finds her soulmate.
Married to Meir in Paris, Shira blossoms as a wife and mother, savoring the intellectual and social challenges that come with being the wife of a prominent scholar. After witnessing the burning of every copy of the Talmud in Paris, Shira and her family seek refuge in Germany. Yet even there they experience bloody pogroms and intensifying anti-Semitism. With no safe place for Jews in Europe, they set out for Israel only to see Meir captured and imprisoned by Rudolph I of Hapsburg. As Shira weathers heartbreak and works to find a middle ground between two warring religions, she shows her children and grandchildren how to embrace the joys of life, both secular and religious.
Vividly bringing to life a period rarely covered in historical fiction, this multi-generational novel will appeal to readers who enjoy Maggie Anton’s Rashi’s Daughters, Brenda Rickman Vantrease’s The Illuminator, and Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book.
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.30(d)|
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Childhood is a garland of roses.
One of my first complete memories, when I was about three or four, was sitting nestled on my father's lap in the classroom, answering questions just like the young boys in the Falaise seminary that was my home. A thrill swept through me as my father proclaimed, "My little songbird has given us the correct response! Do you see why her answer is right, boys? She is equal to any one of you!"
I looked at him, delighting in the proud glow on his thin face. But, peering shyly at the boys in the classroom for approval, I saw dour expressions instead. They muttered to one another, a whisper of complaint that made me clutch my father's arm, alarmed and confused.
Perhaps I combine two early memories into one, but it seems I looked away from the aggrieved students to the long, narrow windows of the yeshiva, where several of the neighborhood wives peered in. They clucked their tongues dolefully, shaking their heads at this girl seated where she should not be, studying with boys. Their disapproval made me shrink back against my father's chest.
But as my glance moved up to my father's smiling face, I ignored the undercurrents of irritation swelling around me. My papa was pointing to those passages in the Talmud that confirmed my correct answer, flipping pages, showing me here, here, and here. Following his finger as it moved across the illuminated pages, I remember how my cheeks flushed in pride, my joy at his attention overshadowing every other emotion.
Like so many of my orphaned playmates, I could barely remember my mother. Pressed in among the women at prayer, there were moments when I caught a familiar scent or heard a melody in someone's chanting that brought me to the edge of memory, envisioning a hazy white face looking fondly down at me, smoothing my hair, singing a wordless tune. But I could not penetrate the fog that misted my thoughts when I tried to conjure my mother's face, the softness of her dress when I rested my cheek against her chest.
My mother had persevered despite many futile pregnancies. Trying desperately to fulfill the biblical commandment to be fruitful and multiply, she suffered time and again through prolonged childbirth, four times enduring hours of pain only to deliver dead babies. Three others died in the early days of infancy. The midwife pulled each of these keening, wizened beings forth and shook her head at the anguish in my father's questioning eyes. My own birth was considered nothing less than a miracle by my long-suffering parents, who took enormous pleasure in my fat limbs, clear, dark eyes, and healthy cry.
The last baby, the boy who took my mother's life, was the gravest of my father's many disappointments. My father was, after all, Rabbi Shmuel ben Solomon, the great Talmudic scholar of Falaise a man who hungered for a son. My mother was his second wife. My father's first bride died from a lingering fever mere months after the young couple wed. Engrossed in his studies, Papa let several years pass before he discharged his duty to the community and married again.
I remember huddling in a dark corner of the long, gloomy synagogue hallway at the age of four, waiting for my father. I sat with my knees pressed to my chest, my arms wrapped around them on that cold, wet, melancholy afternoon. The sound of steady rain on the rooftop made me recall a child's tale in which mourning angels wept teardrops of sadness, drenching the earth.
Unseen in my corner, I overheard the mother of one of my friends whispering to a bride newly come to our community, "That's her. That's the rabbi's daughter."
"He has only one?"
"Her mother was brought to bed just yesterday lost another child. Her third or fourth, I forget how many. A sad thing. But the rabbi is always so kind, where other men might complain and beat her...oh! Good evening, Rabbi."
My father emerged from the door of one of the antechambers. A small group of older students was huddled around him, but the men dispersed when the housewives approached, laughing and talking as they walked off.
"Good evening," my father said solemnly, but with the smile that always made people beam back at him what I used to call his white smile.
"Rabbi, Floria was just telling me about your poor wife. I hope she's well," said the new bride.
My father's smile dissolved. "Thank you, Ruth. She is weak yet. We hope for better luck next time."
"I was telling Ruth how kind you are, despite her many miscarriages. Not every man in the community would be so gentle, you know."
My father's shoulders hunched. But he laughed disparagingly, "Well, I act as my Talmud instructs. That's all."
"The men should take a lesson in patience from you," Floria said, balling her fists on her stout waist. "We women always tell them so."
My father laughed again, but I detected a bitter tinge to his mirth. Even as young as I was, I knew he yearned for a son. It was something I had always known.
Later I would learn how a boy might have continued the unbroken line of scholarship that stretched back to his ancestors, who were students and teachers in the great Babylonian schools. My grandfather Solomon had had three other sons, each of whom was blessed with boys. My father consoled himself that the family name and its revered scholarly tradition would not disappear altogether. But he felt incomplete despite his pride in the Jewish seminary he had founded a yeshiva similar to those where he had studied as a boy and a young man in France and Germany, the area of Europe we Jews called Ashkenaz. Whenever the family gathered, he watched his nephews growing into thoughtful, intelligent men and must have longed for sons of his own.
My mama died when I was nearly five and Papa had only me to care for. Perhaps that was why he indulged us both, putting me on his knee when he studied from the sacred book of the Talmud long after I should have been banished to the kitchen to learn more womanly skills.
Bella Tova, our good and pious neighbor, walked up the path through our kitchen garden one spring morning carrying a covered kettle of stewed beef, still bubbling and warm. She rapped on the heavy oak side door. Our family maidservant, a straw-haired Christian girl named Jeanne, came to the door to greet her. Bella Tova, wearing the highnecked gown and hair covering of the modest Jewish wife, would later recall how taken aback she was by Jeanne's unlaced bodice and the way her blond hair was tied back with just a thin ribbon, loose curls escaping around fire-flushed cheeks.
Jeanne was my wet nurse, hired by my parents to place their children to her ample breasts to suckle. Her own baby had died of a fever and Jeanne's husband, Pierre, a foot soldier under the command of a local baron, had perished fighting in the arid desert during one of the Crusades. Jeanne told me endless stories about her husband's bravery and beauty, how he was pledged to rid the Holy Land of infidels. I was too young to understand Jeanne's measuring glance as she spoke of the unbelievers living in Jesus Christ's homeland and for years I confused Jesus Christ, Jeanne's son of God, and the baron her beloved Pierre had served.
Had my mother lived, Jeanne's stories would have dissipated in the vapors of infant memory. But after she weaned me, Jeanne's milk dried up. She complained she had been robbed of her livelihood. Partly because her claim was just and mostly because he needed someone to care for me, Papa retained Jeanne as my nursemaid and the family's sole servant.
I adored Jeanne as the one warm constant of my life. When I scraped my knee, her cornflower eyes welled with tears. I fell asleep to the music of her lullabies. She sang of a cradle that, perched in the boughs of a tall tree, smashed into the green ground when the branch snapped. Curiously, the song always made me feel warm inside, knowing Jeanne would catch me if I fell. Jeanne taught me to sing the romantic ballads of the age, songs of great chivalry such as "La fille du roi d'espagne" and the lighthearted "Aucassin et Nicolette." As soon as I could talk, music and poetry were always on my lips, prompting my father to bestow upon me my baby name Songbird.
It was not unusual back then for Jewish households to hire Christian servants. From time to time, fresh laws put forth by the Pope in Rome or by our own local rulers tried to prevent too much familiarity between Jew and Gentile. We Jews were careful not to confide too greatly in the Christians we hired. We harkened to scandalous whispers of Gentiles bringing priests to back doors in the dead of night to baptize new babies. Stories circulated of servants collecting cakes of matzo made for our Passover feasts, offering them as evidence that we murdered Christian children to use their blood in the recipe. Less sensational but almost as terrifying was the prospect that the Gentiles in our homes might befoul our food or undo our careful observances of the Law.
What happened that day when Bella Tova visited our house would be the subject of much outraged discussion in our small community. Bella Tova watched in horror as Jeanne, thanking her for the stew, propped it on the far hob in the great stone kitchen fireplace and stirred it with the spoon already in her hand. A pot of milk warmed on the hearth. Bella Tova gasped as Jeanne removed the spoon from the meat, wiped its curved back carelessly on her apron, and put it into the milk. The Christian girl, hearing the neighbor's intake of breath, stepped back hastily. Perhaps she recalled my father's instructions to always, always keep milk and meat dishes separate. But Jeanne could be stubborn and she squared her shoulders and stood her ground.
"Jeanne, where is the rabbi?" Bella Tova's flinty tones staked a claim of duty.
Jeanne raised her chin, her eyes narrowed, and according to my neighbor her ample bosom heaved with insolence. "With his students, of course," she retorted. "I will not disturb him."
"And where would young Shira be?" Bella Tova persisted. She was glad to see Jeanne's insubordination begin to crumble. The rabbi might refuse to see her during study hours, but I could not.
"With him, I believe," Jeanne faltered.
"Bring her here," demanded my neighbor.
Bella Tova gleefully recounted how Jeanne left the warm kitchen. She watched as the servant reluctantly turned down the narrow hallway leading to the large front room filled with long, wooden tables that served as our school.
I had been allowed inside the classroom ever since I had toddled in one day on my own. My father often told me fondly how he was about to usher me out when I reached one chubby hand up as if to ask for a book, crowing in delight. He could not deny me the room when it gave me so much pleasure, he explained, stroking my hair.
The schoolroom held our most precious treasures. My father's leather-bound books were carefully stored on a high shelf. These were painstakingly copied by hand by scribes who illuminated them with rich colors and intricate designs. Our few silver objects, perched on a second shelf located in an alcove toward the back of the room, shined in the flicker of the fire. There was a pair of candlesticks that we lovingly brought down every Friday evening, a cunningly wrought spice box my great-grandfather had purchased in a bazaar in faraway Constantinople, and a wine cup we used only on Passover, in which the prophet Elijah's magical portion of wine glowed red as a gemstone.
The rest of the room was given over to boys and young men. The same scene was repeated every day of the week except for Saturday, the holy Shabbat. At the back, the older students sat on wide benches at the longest table. They studied on their own, breaking off their solitary muttering to argue a point with their tablemates. My father sat among them, though sometimes he would move to the front of the room to help the tutor, the melamed, urge the youngest boys, aged three to five, through the simplest of studies the Hebrew aleph-bet, the prayers, and stories from the Torah.
On the day in question, I sat on a stool in the windowed corner of the study, one of my father's precious books on my lap and a large tablet of wax that I used to make notes at my elbow. Though I was only nine years old, I had already begun to master some Talmud, keeping pace with the boys my own age. My father, however, realizing he could no longer keep me in the circle of students as he had when I was four or five, placed me to one side of the room, where I could listen to the lessons and learn from them but not interrupt. Even so, the scholars muttered that I was a distraction, disturbing the sanctity of their studies.
I glanced up from my book when Jeanne entered. My father glared at her, annoyed at the interruption.
"Sir Morel?" Jeanne said, addressing my papa by the name he was called in town. "One of your neighbors wishes to speak with Shira."
Papa looked at me as I bent in concentration over my book. He sighed. I often felt his conscience pricked him when he reflected on how he treated me almost as though I were a son.
Watching me put the book down carefully on my stool to obediently follow Jeanne, he sighed once more, then seemed to forget me altogether as he turned his attention back to the boys in his care.
I stood bewildered in the kitchen as Bella Tova told me how to prepare the beef stew for my father and his students. Jeanne stood, glowering, in the corner of the room, her arms folded over her chest.
"You'll need to take it off the fire if it starts to bubble too much," my neighbor instructed. "So you have to keep a close eye on it. It will scorch otherwise."
"Jeanne will watch it," I said, itching to get back to my book.
The corners of Jeanne's mouth turned up in a smirk. Bella Tova pursed her lips.
"You need to take charge of the kitchen, Shira. You're old enough now."
I could feel the heat creeping up my neck. "Jeanne's always prepared our meals," I said.
"So there's no need for you to put your long nose into this household's affairs," Jeanne said from her corner.
"Do not talk back to me, girl!" Bella Tova snapped. She took three long strides across the room and picked up the spoon that Jeanne had thrown onto the sideboard, brandishing it in my face. "Shira, do you see this spoon?"
I stared at it. It was just a long, carved, wooden spoon. I shifted uncomfortably from one foot to another. "I see it."
"When I arrived today, Jeanne was using this spoon to stir the milk."
"Which boiled over and was wasted, because of your interference," Jeanne griped.
"Shira, forbid her to speak!"
Both women looked at me. I could not understand why they were fighting or why I had been pulled from my beloved classroom to witness their argument. There was a long, tense silence. "I see the spoon," I finally admitted, an irritated tone creeping into my voice. "What of it?"
Bella Tova started, "I brought the stew "
"Half-cooked, like all your messes," Jeanne interrupted.
"Jeanne!" I admonished. My nursemaid stuck out her chin defiantly.
"Jeanne put the milk spoon into the meat." Bella Tova emphasized every word, waving the implement in the air. She flung it disdainfully onto the floor and stepped back, surveying my face, making sure I felt the full horror of what she was telling me.
I stared at the servant. This was serious. If my father knew, it would mean a week of scouring and cleaning the entire kitchen. The spoon itself would have to be buried in the earth for a month and prayed over before it could be used again. Even worse, if any of the parents of Papa's students found out, the boys would be pulled from the seminary. If others found out, no new students would be sent. No one would study in a school where the rules of kashrut were not observed. Jeanne's careless action could mean the end of my father's yeshiva.
Jeanne tried to bluster past my expression of dismay. "It's a foolish rule anyway," she said. "You Jews care about the oddest things!"
"No less strange than what you Gentiles believe!" Bella Tova retorted. "Shira, I will return this evening to speak with your father. Until then, you stay in the kitchen. Do not return to the schoolroom. Promise me!"
Looking at her stern frown, I felt forced to agree. I swallowed and nodded.
Not until the evening arrived was the full force of Bella Tova's visit made clear to me. She returned as promised, accompanied by her husband. They closeted themselves with my father upstairs in his solar. Jeanne sat, rigid and unhappy, at the kitchen table, the wretched spoon clenched tight in her hand. She hunched a shoulder when I pleaded with her to be more careful in the future.
After my father bid his visitors farewell, he drew me into his study and told me that I couldn't join him and the boys in the classroom any longer. I would have to stay in the kitchen, to take on the duties of a housewife. I thought about the book I had left behind me, about all the books I would no longer be able to study from. I cried, promising wildly to make sure the kitchen rules were obeyed if only, only, I could still study with him and the boys. I remember how he stroked my wet cheeks and looked wretched in the face of my pain. But I couldn't change his mind.
I ran upstairs, to fling myself on my bed and cry. I never did hear what he and Jeanne discussed after I stormed off.
About a week later, straw baskets over our arms, I collected early raspberries with my friends in the shadow of William the Conqueror's imposing keep. In later years, William the Conqueror's square castle would serve as the emblem of my childhood, rising majestically in my memory. My nursemaid often told my friends and me about the noble king, born and raised in our local keep. William the Bastard! Perhaps he meant so much to us, the children who were set apart by our faith, because William overcame the stigma of bastardy to gain mythical status. It was something we Jews could only dream of.
"Shira," my friend Miriam said, startling me as I brought a sun-ripened berry to my lips, "tell us. Why is your father called Sir Morel by the Gentiles of the town and Rabbi Shmuel by us Jews?"
The rest of my friends circled around me, clamoring for an answer.
But I didn't know why. I had heard him greeted so ever since I was a young child, clutching his hand as we walked through Falaise. It was the name that most often appeared on the letters he received from other Jewish sages. Yet none of the congregation of Falaise called him by that name.
At home, I asked Jeanne. But she was in a foul mood, as she had been all week, her eyes smarting as she stirred together the fat and lye that she used to make our household soap. She had been curt with me ever since the incident with Bella Tova. Every night I was startled from sleep, the bed beside me empty in the cold darkness. There were raised voices downstairs. One night, I woke to find the pillow we shared wet with tears and Jeanne's cheeks cold and damp. I could not understand what was happening.
"Go away, Shira!" she snapped now, her face flushed from the soap fumes and the fire. I slunk away, bewildered.
I decided to ask Papa directly. I approached him after our evening meal. He sat at a table in the front room, a pile of books stacked before him, writing to one of his fellow scholars in Germany. These letters traveled, as though borne by the blessed angels, back and forth between my father and the other scholars who lived in exile in Christian and Mohammedan lands. By such means, great Jewish questions of the day were resolved.
I wished I could read those important writings. But Papa was careful never to leave the sheets of paper on which he shaped and sharpened his arguments lying about, for fear, he said, only half joking, of provoking the evil eye. He gathered the remnants together and locked them away. When he no longer needed them, they were buried outside by one of his most diligent students.
I asked once if it would not be easier to burn the pages.
"Burn the pages, Shira? It is forbidden to burn the name of the Lord," he had said, handing the casket and key to a waiting student, who snickered at my ignorance under his breath.
I was glad to see my father was alone now. I boldly came closer to him, and my shadow, flickering in the candlelight, fell upon his letter.
"What is it, sweetness?" He flicked my cheek with a forefinger in a quick gesture of fondness.
"Papa, may I ask a question?"
My father turned his paper over and put down his pen. "I am struggling with an idea, Shira, one that stirs just outside my grasp. If I ignore it for a while, perhaps it will choose to edge a little closer, so I can catch hold. While I wait, I might as well hear your question." He sat back and smiled at me.
"The people in town call you Sir Morel. Many of your letters are addressed to Sir Morel rather than Rabbi Shmuel ben Solomon. When Jeanne tells me bedtime stories, "sir" is a title for a noble Sir Knight. Are you a nobleman? A knight? Can a Jew and a rabbi be a nobleman?" My voice rose excitedly as I asked the final question. I was dancing on tiptoe, hopping up and down.
Papa laughed and reached out to grasp my elbow, pulling me down into the half circle of his arms. "And just what would it mean to you, little songbird, if you were to discover your father was a nobleman?"
I cuddled into the warmth of his chest, still bobbing a little in enthusiasm. "Why, just think, Papa! Nobles live in castles like William's Keep and common people bow to them. They dress in velvet in the winter, linen in the summer, eat partridge and oranges no matter what season, and never, ever work."
Papa's arms tightened around me as he shook with suppressed amusement. "It's clear you think nobles have a fine and easy life for themselves. And perhaps it is so. But what kind of life do Jews have, then?"
I fingered the despised golden O sewn to the front of my gown, the cloth badge that marked me as a Jew whenever I left the house and went to market. We called it a rouelle, a gold wagon wheel badge that circled endlessly upon our breasts. It felt enormous pressing against my chest, showing the townsfolk I was different. Papa's question had changed my mood. I sat still, pensive.
I faltered, then said, "When I go to town, the boys taunt me and call me 'Jew girl.' They say I killed their Christ that I will go to hell when I die for something that happened more than a thousand years ago."
"So while being a noble is splendid, being a Jew is...not, Shira?" My father let his arms drop. His voice sounded gritty. I glanced uneasily at his face, where I saw raised eyebrows and thin lips. I searched for words to please him.
"Every Friday evening we light the Shabbat candles. I would miss that if we weren't Jews. Or hearing you and the boys chanting when I walk past the study. I love the chanting."
The angry creases in my father's face relaxed. "I am glad, daughter, for you will remain a Jewess all of your life. And you are not, I regret to say, a noblewoman."
I sighed. I could imagine myself wearing the blue velvet dress of a lady. "Then why are you called Sir Morel, Papa?" I persisted, pulling playfully at his tunic sleeves.
My father hesitated. I had often seen him pause that way before. As I grew older, I would recognize how he would take a difficult concept and reshape it so the young minds in his care could grasp it. But even at the age of nine, listening to his carefully chosen words, I realized he might not be telling me the entire truth.
"I did a favor for an English prince before I came to Falaise. The prince needed some information that was buried deep in Spain and I supplied it to him through a fellow scholar. When I reflect on it, it is not something I am proud of. But the prince wanted to reward me for my service. Not having ready funds at that time, and since the laws of his country prevent him from offering a Jew land, he bestowed upon me a worthless title. So I became Sir Morel."
I sat back to think for a moment. My father watched me, gently smoothing my dark hair with his hand.
Finally I asked, "If it means nothing, why do people call you Sir Morel?"
My father made a sound deep in his throat, half-laugh, half-sigh. He spoke slowly, picking his words carefully. "It may be useless to me, but the title is valuable to this yeshiva and to the Jews living in Falaise. As long as the Christians in town call me Sir Morel, they consider me noble. They fear that if they don't treat us gently, I might summon some distant patron lord to protect us. Thus, through a half truth I neither promote nor protest, I protect my students and our community. Those boys in town may jeer at you, but as long as they think my title has some weight, they won't hurt you. Christians have harmed and even killed Jews in other towns and cities in Europe."
Of course I knew that Jews living elsewhere in the Diaspora endured more than idle taunts. My friend Sari's father had been killed by a Crusader's sword while on a business trip to the city of York. My father had taken me to her house during the days of her shiva, her mourning. I sat with Sari on the floor and listened to her big brothers speak bitterly about how a gang of Crusaders, perhaps drunk with wine or stirred by a priest's sermon to eradicate the unfaithful, burst into Jewish homes, putting all they met there to the sword. Sari's mother, heavy with child, sat and counted her unmarried children on her fingers, over and over again. "How will I provide for them now?" she had cried.
Papa, seeing I was trembling, hugged me tightly for a moment before returning to his letter. As I left the room, I looked back over my shoulder. I would forever remember my father as I saw him then, bent forward, his nose nearly touching the book he was studying, fingers caressing his waiting pen, completely engrossed in his work.
Soon after we talked about my father's title, my life narrowed to cooking, cleaning, and washing for his students. The endless arguing between my father and Jeanne over her careless handling of the kitchen soured my father's relationship with my nursemaid. She left our service soon after the spoon incident and married a butcher in town.
I cried for days after she left. Jeanne had been my mother, my playmate, and the only person to tell me of life outside the closed world of my home, the synagogue, and the Jewish community. I thought she would miss me, too, the way her tears fell upon her soft cheeks as she bid me good-bye.
I wanted to attend her wedding. But she knit her lips together and would not tell me when it would be.
"But I want to come I can walk before you with a basket of spring flowers!"
"Up the aisle in the church, Shira?" she asked, eyebrows raised.
"Why not?" I persisted.
Jeanne sighed. "You would upset everyone, Shira I shudder to think what my husband's family would say, seeing a Jew in front of the Holy Mother and her Blessed Son."
"But" my eyes welled with tears "I want to see you get married!"
"Ask your father," was all she would say, turning away from me.
I found my father outside, supervising some boys who were sawing wood for the fire. When he saw my flushed face, he took my elbow and led me away.
"What is it, child?"
"Papa, I want to go to Jeanne's wedding. She said to ask you."
A shadow crossed my father's face, fear and a flash of anger in one dark expression. I pulled back, afraid of a reaction I could only faintly understand. But I was a child and wanted what I wanted.
"Why shouldn't I?" I yelled, not even waiting for him to tell me no.
The boys looked curiously over their shoulders at us. My father clutched my elbow again painfully this time and took me inside the house.
The dining room was almost too warm after the cool air in the yard. We stood before a raging fire. "Shira," my father said, keeping his voice soft and reasonable with an effort, "you must never enter a church. You know that."
"I can if I want to!" I said, stomping my foot on the floor.
My father drew back, eyebrows raised. "Your being there would make Jeanne unhappy. Is that what you want?"
"It would not!" I insisted, my open palm smacking the table in front of me. "Why won't you understand?"
My father was not moved by my tantrum. I ran off slamming doors. For days afterward I responded to him in curt, one-word answers. With enormous forbearance, he reacted mildly to my insolence. But I did not attend the wedding.
Papa hired a Jewish girl to take Jeanne's place. Mina's family was delighted that their daughter would serve such a distinguished scholar. But Mina was a superstitious, meek girl who would cower in a corner for a long, shivering hour if she happened upon a bad omen. With fifteen boys living in the house, and twenty more trooping in daily for lessons and meals, such dire portents happened frequently.
I refused to believe the bond between Jeanne and me could change. I visited her at least once a week. Compared to the stone building where I lived, which was large enough to house a schoolroom and many bedrooms, her new home was as cramped as a peasant's or a villein's. The small, thatched building sat in a row of other such hovels at the outskirts of town, each one cordoned off by a thorn fence and a ditch that overflowed whenever all but the gentlest of rains fell. Jeanne's husband built a large barn in back, where poor doomed animals chewed their cud and waited for the fell hand of the axe blade. The family used two of the rooms in the house to store grain and fodder for the beasts, reserving the third to sleep and eat in. The single family room contained a stone chimney, with an opening where Jeanne would prepare meals over a smoky peat flame. She hung her kettle and her one heavy saucepan for the stews and soups and pottages that made up most meals on a hook over the fire. The room was furnished with a table and three rough stools, a single cupboard crowded with farm implements and cooking utensils, and an enormous bed that one day would be occupied not only by Jeanne and her husband but by all her nurslings as well.
Jeanne spent most of her waking hours helping her husband in the fly-infested shop in town, selling the hanks and entrails of beef or sheep or pig. Her husband would enter the shop laden with freshly killed meat from his slaughterhouse and stop to talk with the housewives or to crow over the growing pile of deniers earned each day. He rarely spoke to me beyond a grunt.
As the weeks passed, Jeanne grew noticeably cooler to me. She sighed when I entered the shop, elbowed me aside when anyone required her attention. She often cut off my chat about life at home with a curt, "Not now, Shira." Her rudeness nagged at me, but I thought it was probably because she worked so hard and had so little. Even I could tell the difference between her life there and the one she had led at my father's house.
Then one day she asked me to step outside to take our ease. It was a scorching July day. I was glad to escape the stifling butcher shop, with its suffocating close quarters, the floor puddled with pools of blood and sticky, discarded strands of sinew that attracted every possible insect and rodent.
We went into the yard behind the shop, where Jeanne's husband had placed a wood bench under a tall elm tree. The kitchen garden needed weeding and watering, and the few straggling tops of carrots were turning brown in the sun's glare. Jeanne sat on the bench and wiped blood-stained hands on her bespattered apron. She blew the tendrils of hair that had come loose from her kerchief off her forehead.
"You can't come here or to the house any longer, Shira," she said, looking anywhere but at my face. "Father Bartholomew reprimanded my husband about your visits after church last Sunday. Unless you let the priest speak with you about the eternal hellfire you face as an unconverted Jewess, you cannot visit me any longer."
I didn't know what to say. Surely this was not the way she intended to bid me farewell forever. This was too big a moment even for tears. We sat in uncomfortable silence for a long time. Then Jeanne turned to me, her face shining with the earnestness of sincere faith.
"Shira, it would hurt me to think of you burning in hellfire when you could free yourself from your father and his congregation of damned unbelievers. Consider, child. You could marry someone like my Andre and be wed in the church with the priest's blessing. I'd make you a wedding feast. And you would no longer have to wear the rouelle or be scorned because you refuse the truth a truth that would bring you nothing but joy the eternal glory of Christ Jesus. How can that not sway you?"
While Jeanne had spoken about her religion furtively once or twice during my youth, as our servant she had refrained from attacking my beliefs. I was stunned that she was doing so now. Still not having spoken a word, almost sick with aching for my beloved nursemaid, I blindly rose to my feet and turned to leave.
But I did not escape the butcher's yard. Jeanne's husband, Andre, his apron covered in the blood spilled from a thousand carcasses, stood against the doorjamb of his butcher shop, talking with the other merchants from Falaise's main thoroughfare. All of them had been drinking deeply from a casket of wine they passed from hand to hand, trying to cool themselves on this hot day. The wine made them bold. Andre nudged the man next to him as I edged by.
"That's the girl the Jewess that my Jeanne would have me house. Have you ever heard a new bride ask her husband such a thing? To bring a sinner into our home?"
Jeanne joined the men, her face stony at her failure to persuade me. "Don't fuss, husband. The girl is snared by Satan, her soul damned for eternity. It is a hard thing, I tell you, to raise an ungrateful wretch and watch her cast away salvation."
"Hey, now," Andre grunted, grabbing hold of my elbow. "You should be more grateful to my Jeanne, girl. Without her, you would have starved to death in your Jew house."
It was clear from the scowl on Jeanne's face that she was not in a mood to intervene. Her husband's friends gathered about me in a tight circle. I realized they might torment me to alleviate the boredom of a long, hot afternoon just like the boys from town I had once seen capture and torture a stray dog by putting it down a well. I clenched my teeth and lips tight to hide my fear.
"It's a wonder Jews don't starve to death anyway, turning up their pig noses at good, fresh pork," one of the men grunted, as another reached out and circled, with his finger, the gold brand on my breast. But my child's build and thin chest could not hold his attention for more than a moment.
"Someone should feed this one, she's all skin and bones," he muttered, turning away.
"Here, Jeanne, get some of those pig knuckles left over from last night's supper." Andre grinned, pulling me inside the shop. I cried out, begging him to let me go, but he clamped a heavy hand over my mouth and, half picking me up, dragged me inside.
The air inside the shop was so rancid with the smell of meat rotting in the heat of the day that I slipped into a kind of trance. The men forced me to sit on a wooden barrel and Jeanne who had suckled me at her breast, sung me to sleep, told me fairy tales of beautiful princesses and knights slaying dragons emerged from the pantry like one of the cackling witches from those stories, holding aloft a trencher of congealed white fat and the gnawed remains of pig bones. But one look at my stricken face moved her. She thrust the pan into her husband's hands and ran off. I listened as her footsteps grew softer and let out one piteous cry of utter desperation.
Someone took up the meatiest of the pigs' feet and brandished it before my face, then touched it to my lips. The rest of the men closed in, eager to watch my humiliation. Struggling and gasping, I wrenched my head to one side. Someone grabbed my hair and forced my face back around. I could tell there would be no escape and felt overwhelmed by the agony of Jeanne's betrayal and of my own defeat.
"Can someone serve me?" quavered a voice from behind the men. An old woman stood by the door, a cane clutched in one gnarled hand. She peered at the men uncertainly. "What is happening here?"
"It is nothing, madame," Andre said, releasing my arm. The huddle of townsmen miraculously broke apart, much like boys being chastised by the town priest. The merchants filed out of the small, confined space. I scrambled away and ran from the shop. I felt as though the legions of the evil eye were snapping at my heels. I ran and ran through the dirt-paved streets into the woods surrounding the town, in time with the chorus in my head: "Tell no one. Tell no one." It wasn't until I was nearly halfway home that I stopped. Wheezing and panting, I leaned over a ditch, retching over the still-sweet taste of the pork that lingered viciously on my lips. Copyright © 2009 by Michelle Cameron
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Fruit of Her Hands includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Michelle Cameron. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
The Fruit of Her Hands details the life of Shira, a rabbi’s wife who perseveres amid rising anti-Semitism in thirteenth-century Europe. Raised by her widowed father and a Christian nursemaid in Normandy, Shira is a free-spirited, inquisitive girl whose love of learning shocks the community. Her life changes radically when her father remarries in the hope of gaining a male heir and a handsome scholar with radical views, Nicholas Donin, comes to study with her father. Donin tries to capture Shira’s heart, but her father will not allow her to marry such a firebrand. When Shira’s father is arrested by the local baron intent on enforcing the Catholic Church’s strictures against heresy, Shira fights for his release and encounters two men who will influence her life profoundly: an inspiring Catholic priest and Meir ben Baruch, a brilliant scholar who will become her husband and soulmate.
Married to Meir and living in Paris, Shira blossoms as a wife and mother, savoring the intellectual and social challenges that come with being married to such a prominent scholar. Yet once again her life is darkened by Nicholas Donin, now an apostate Jew who has converted to Catholicism and carries the fervor of the Inquisition. After witnessing Donin’s burning of every copy of the Talmud in Paris, Shira and her family seek refuge in Germany. Yet, even there they experience bloody pogroms and intensifying anti-Semitism. With no safe place for Jews in Europe, they set out for Israel, only to see Meir captured and imprisoned by Rudolph I of Hapsburg. As Shira weathers heartbreak and works to find a middle ground between two warring religions, she shows her children and grandchildren how to embrace the joys of life, both secular and religious.
Questions for Discussion
1. The title, The Fruit of Her Hands, a quote from the proverbs, is listed at the beginning of the book as well by Meir when he is imprisoned. “Our fortitude is the fruit of your hands” (p. 392). How does this quote encapsulate Shira’s story?
2. As a reader, what are your first feelings toward Shira? What are your first impressions of Nicholas Donin? How did your emotions toward these characters change throughout the book? What were major turning points for you?
3. The Fruit of Her Hands is set in Normandy, Paris, and Germany. Each of these places has unique characteristics, but share in common some general similarities. How are these places similar and different? How is Shira impacted and altered by her surroundings?
4. What was the effect of reading the storyline through Shira’s eyes? How would it have been different if Nicholas Donin or Meir had narrated?
5. Nicholas Donin is a powerful figure in Shira’s life, and she thinks about him until the very end of her life. Just before her marriage she talks of her interest in his “loneliness and solitude” (p. 131). How do her feelings about him evolve? How would you describe her emotions? Do they surprise you? Why or why not?
6. Shira is a very strong and intelligent woman in a predominantly male culture. How does she approach difficult or delicate situations throughout the book? Do you relate to her? How? Why? Do you believe that she is a feminist of sorts? Why or why not? What does it mean to be a feminist?
7. Near the end of the novel Shira says that her life and her husband’s lives are over (p. 422). Why does she make this statement? After reading of Shira’s strength throughout the novel, did this announcement surprise you? Why or why not?
8. The role of God and religion in the novel are powerful. How does faith affect the lives of Shira and Meir? How do they each express it? Does their faith change throughout the story?
9. Shira’s life is full of highs and lows, happiness and sadness. What was the pinnacle of her life? What was her deepest challenge? Why?
10. How does the author use language and imagery to bring the characters to life? Did the book's characters, style or themes in any way remind you of another book?
11. Whose story is this? In the author’s note, Michelle Cameron writes that she was originally interested in learning about Rabbi Meir ben Baruch. If you had to pick one, is it Shira’s story or is it Meir’s? Why? Who changes the most from the beginning to the end?
12. How did this book touch your life? What did you learn from it?
Enhance Your Reading Group
1. For more information about the conflict between Christians and Jews in the Middle Ages, read Constantine’s Sword by James Carroll, or Gilbert Dahan’s Christian Polemic Against the Jews in the Middle Ages.
2. Prepare a traditional Jewish meal to have with your reading group. You can find recipes from cookbooks such as The New York Times Jewish Cookbook: More than 825 Traditional & Contemporary Recipes from Around the World by Linda Amster and Mimi Sheraton and Heirloom Cookbook: Recipes Handed Down by Jewish Mothers and Modern Recipes from Daughters and Friends by Miriam Lerner Satz.
3. For a deeper insight into Rabbi Meir ben Baruch of Rothenburg, read Chapter Three, “Burning Jewish Books” in Susan L. Einbinder's Beautiful Death: Jewish Poetry and Martyrdom in Medieval France.
A Conversation with Michelle Cameron, Author of The Fruit of Her Hands
1. Authors often remark that they put a little bit of themselves into their characters. How strongly do you identify with each of your main characters? How are you different?
The idea of writing Meir’s story was somewhat daunting at first. How could I, a 21st-century woman, possibly hope to identify with and create this brilliant 13th-century Talmudic scholar? I felt I needed to find someone I could relate to more easily to help me tell the storyso I invented the character of Shira.
Shira is not me either, of course. Unlike her, I was not raised in a devout Jewish household. But she and I share a profound love of learning. While Shira’s enthusiasm was channeled into studying the Talmud and helping her husband prepare his responses, mine takes the form of all the reading and writing that I do.
When I wrote about the characters, I often borrowed from events in my own life. For example, I immersed in a mikveh before my wedding ceremony, because I was married in Israel according to the Orthodox rite. When Meir’s hand was hurt, I could empathize with how Shira felt as caretaker because my own husband suffered the aftereffects of a bad accident. I’ve drawn from my relationships with my two sons in describing Shira’s interactions with her children, specifically Chaya and Ruth.
2. Your novel is tremendously engaging and can be read fairly quickly, considering its breadth. Shira and Meir go through a whirlwind during the course of the book. Did you work on the book for a long time or did you write it very quickly?
Thank you for that kind praise. I worked on the novel for about three years – including research and some false starts. In general, I write relatively quickly, but then I spent a great deal of time polishing, revising the novel comprehensively at least four times (including a final edit where I read every word aloud) before submitting it. And then the novel certainly benefitted from both my agent’s and my editor’s close attention to it.
3. Please tell us about your experience writing your second book. Was it what you expected it would be? What surprised you?
In order to explain the surprises in writing my second book, I have to go back beyond the first one. When I first tried to write professionally – more years ago than I care to remember – I aspired to become a novelist. So I wrote several novels, all of which I’m really glad never saw publication.
I had the highest hopes for a young adult novel about William Shakespeare. When that book did not find a compatible agent, I told myself my writing aspirations were over – I had tried and failed. But I couldn’t vanquish my compulsion to write. Since I was raising children and working full-time, my creative time was limited. I began to write poetry, which I could finish in days, not years. And, to my surprise, I began to successfully publish my poems.
My first book-length publication – In the Shadow of the Globe, a verse novel in which I took my years of research in Shakespeare’s life and created a narrative around a series of interconnected poemswas published by a small literary press. I was absolutely thrilled to finally have a published book and was excited about the idea of continuing in this genre.
This is where the surprise comes in. When I started writing The Fruit of Her Hands, I tried to write it as a verse novel. The book absolutely refused to cooperate. I thought I needed a little more narrative scope, so I experimented with the form, attempting a series of letters or diary entries. None of these formats worked. The book flat-out wanted to be a fully realized historical novel. When I finally gave in to it, the writing began to flow.
4. Do you see your book as more of a story of Jewish history or a story about a strong woman? Why?
I would actually like it to be perceived as both. As a historical novelist, I started by discovering certain themes in my research that I wanted to bring into the work. This was a pivotal and very tragic period for the Jewish people, so of course I wanted to make sure that was clearly described. I also wanted to convey a sense of how the Jews survived so many years of discrimination, by immersing themselves in their learning and family life.
But I feel strongly that the best way to write historical fiction is through the characters who live that historyin this case, Shira and her family. It is because Shira herself undergoes the discrimination that her people as a whole suffer, that we can really understand what it must have been like.
5. What was your favorite scene to write? What was the most challenging scene?
I enjoyed writing about Shira and Meir’s love for one another. Perhaps my favorite scene is the one where they leave the school together, heading towards William’s Keep and possible danger. They know they should not be alone, but circumstances make it impossible for them to do anything else. Snow is falling around them, melting as it lands on their faces. In that moment, they first feel the deep connection between them.
Because of the nature of this book, there were several challenging scenes. Writing about the discovery of the little Christian boy down the well was difficult. Portraying Meir in prison at the end of his life was heart wrenching. But the scene that was the hardest to write, emotionally, was what I tend to describe as “the heart of the book” – the burning of the Talmud in the Paris market square. I couldn’t stop crying as I wrote about those books being brought to the square and put to the torch.
6. As you relate in your author’s note, much of the book is centered on actual history. What was your research process like? How does your research directly or indirectly affect your writing?
I did a great deal of research on the period, creating a timeline that laid out a solid chronology. I also researched customs and day-to-day living during the 1200s in France and Germany. I began writing only after I felt I understood the period. But I still had to interrupt my writing many, many times to discover specifics. For instance, what did people eat at a medieval Jewish wedding feast? How would Shira have made ink? When you are writing a novel like this one, you want it to be as true to the time period as possible.
But where research doesn’t provide answers, imagination gets to step in. We knew Meir must have had a wife, for example – but because the medieval record didn’t tell us anything about her, I got to invent her completely, from her desire to be a scholar right down to her name.
7. How did your personal connection to Rabbi Meir ben Baruch affect your writing of the book?
First and foremost, I felt a great responsibility to get the facts straight and to convey a sense of what the man might have been like. This was my own story, my family’s story, so there was a great deal at stake for me in doing it justice. I remembered how proud my mother had been when she told me we could trace our family roots back to the 1200s. Having the personal connection infused the writing with a certain degree of duty – but also of joy. As I read more about Meir and the type of man he was, the decisions he made, I grew to better understand the source of my mother’s pride. It wasn’t just the fact that my family tree extends so far back that was so exciting. It was also the thought that Meirin how he lived and what he accomplishedwas an ancestor anyone would be happy to call her own.
8. Who is your ideal reader of the book? What do you hope they take away from your novel?
The ideal reader of my book is someone who loves historical fiction, who wants to learn more about a period that isn’t often dealt with, and who will be fascinated by learning more about Judaism during the Middle Ages, whether they are Jewish or not. I hope that, upon finishing the book, not only will they understand the difficulties of Jewish life during this time period, but also have taken joy from those aspects of life that helped the Jews survive as a people.
9. To what other writers would you compare your writing style? Who do you enjoy to read? What books influenced you to become a writer?
I would love to think my writing style has something of Emma Donoghue or Sarah Dunant, both of whom I enjoy tremendously. Obviously, I read a lot of historical fiction. I’m a fan of Phillipa Gregory’s brilliantly researched novels, particularly because of my background on Shakespeare. I also enjoy Tracy Chevalier and Brenda Rickman Vantrease, among dozens of others. Among novelists who delve into Jewish subjects, I’ve enjoyed reading books by Chaim Potok, Gwendolen Brooks, Anita Diamant and Maggie Anton.
I’ve read books since I can remember and I wanted to be a writer most of my life. Probably the first historical novel I ever read, Annemarie Selenko’s Désirée, about the woman who was Napoleon’s first love and who became Queen of Sweden, had the biggest effect on my wanting to write this particular genre.
10. Do you have plans for your next book?
My next book is well on its way. It actually began from Shira’s reflections as the carts laden with volumes of Talmud moved past her. To comfort herself, she thought back to ancient Babylon, to the psalm, “By the waters of Babylon…” and considered how Jews had experienced rich periods of scholarship and culture in their lives despite exile and discrimination, starting all the way back to the first exile by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.
That idea fascinated me, so I began to research the lives of the exiles. My next book is a multi-generational novel that begins with the destruction of the First Temple and ends with the return to Judea when Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon and allowed the exiled peoples of the worldthe Judeans among themto return to their original homes.