Q: How did you get interested in the study of Talmud, and how has the practice of Talmud study for girls and women changed in recent years?
A: In 1992 I signed up for a women’s Talmud class being taught by feminist theologian Rachel Adler–now a rabbi and professor at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles–which at the time was the only place in Los Angeles where a woman could learn Talmud. I knew very little about the subject, except that women weren’t supposed to study it, which is perhaps what piqued my interest. Talmud quickly became my passion and remains so today, thirty years later. Now there are many yeshivot for women, and Jewish high schools teach Talmud to both girls and boys.
Q: Why and how, after over thirty years as a clinical chemist, did you become a novelist?
A: I was never one of those folks who always wanted to write a book. Yet I was a voracious reader of fiction. But after learning of Rashi’s daughters in the women’s Talmud class, I decided to learn more about them. That led me to research about Jewish women’s lives in eleventh-century France. What I found out in five years of research was so interesting that I wanted to share it, or at least write it down so I wouldn’t forget. I decided to write the book I wanted to read, which didn’t exist yet. Since fiction was the genre I preferred, I set to work on a novel I called Rashi’s Daughters. The first draft was six hundred pages long, single spaced, so I divided it into a trilogy. When that series was successful, I wrote about another learned historical Jewish woman who intrigued me–Rav Hisda’s daughter, who lived in the Babylonian rabbinic community that created the Talmud.
Q: Why was Talmud study forbidden for women?
A: This question deserves more than the brief answer I’ll give here, which is why I had Nathan debate Benny on the subject in Chapter Eight. In Deuteronomy, Jews are commanded to teach Torah to bnaichem, a word that even the Orthodox translate as “your children.” But the early rabbis used its literal meaning, “your sons,” and decided that only men were obligated to study Torah. The Talmudic sage Rav Eliezer took this exemption of women one step further and declared that “he who teaches his daughter Torah, teaches her lechery.” Since women were believed to be “light-headed,” those who did study Talmud would only learn to be “crafty” and “devious.” But as Hannah says, “It was a matter of power. If women didn’t know how halacha was formulated and established, then they couldn’t challenge it or change it.”
Q: Why do you think some women maintain the inequality status quo and actively support edicts that infringe on women’s rights to education, freedom, and religious equality?
A: Some women believe their unequal position is God’s will, particularly uneducated women. With no knowledge of what their sacred texts really say, these women are unable to challenge what male clerics tell them. Women are also aware that many men are intimidated by an intelligent woman and won’t marry a woman who is more learned than they are. Unfortunately, women can be just as afraid of and resistant to change as men.
Q: What were the consequences for women who studied Talmud?
A: Any society scorns those who flout its laws, and Jews were no different. Women who wanted to study Talmud were seen as lacking in proper feminine attributes. Most men preferred a woman who didn’t know more than they did, leaving learned women with a limited choice of potential husbands.
Q: Why did you choose to include such explicit sex scenes in The Choice?
A: First of all, I don’t like historical fiction that closes the door on its characters. Hannah is a young woman, newly married and hoping to get pregnant, so naturally, sex is an important part of her life. Second, I wrote the book I wanted to read–which is why the Talmud scenes are in there as well (and there’s a lot more Talmud than sex). But most important of all, many books, television shows, and movies today are so saturated with casual sex that you’d never know how good sex can be between a loving couple in a sacred relationship, which is what Judaism teaches.
Q: With all your books, you learned something exciting that you never knew before. What did you learn from researching The Choice?
A: I was surprised and excited to learn that the OU hechsher, which seems ubiquitous on food labels in my local grocery stores, came about because Orthodox women organized and lobbied to persuade large foodstuff manufacturers that there was a market for kosher food identified as such–and not just among Jewish customers.
Q: In your historical fiction novels, you often highlight unexpected details from ancient Jewish texts. What will readers discover in The Choice?
A: Readers will discover that in medieval Ashkenazi communities, like the one where Rashi and his daughters lived, Jewish women were called to read from the Torah in synagogue, as well as why Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur never come on Friday or Sunday. And that today’s ritual of lighting candles and blessing them on Erev Shabbat is rather recent, only around nine hundred years old, derived from the Hanukah lamp lighting ceremony, which is detailed in the Talmud. The Hanukah ritual is the original, over a thousand years older than the Shabbat one.
Q: Although The Choice is set in Brooklyn in the 1950s, what similar issues do modern women face?
A: Orthodox Jewish Law makes it nearly impossible for a woman to end her marriage and remain an Orthodox Jew. If she does persuade her husband to divorce her, she will likely lose custody of her children, especially her sons. If the husband deserts her or is “missing in action,” there is no religious way for her to have him declared dead and remarry.
Q: What kind of research did you do before writing The Choice?
A: My bibliography of sources found at www.thechoicenovel.com/bibliography details the wide variety of materials I used in my research. The Author’s Note in the book explains how I did my research. The biggest difference between researching The Choice versus my earlier historical novels is the enormous amount of information available on the internet about Jewish life in twentieth-century New York.
Q: What are you working on next?
A: I haven’t started working on anything yet, but there are several ideas bouncing around in my head.