Early in my Talmud studies, which I’ve been doing for over 20 years now, I came across an intriguing and remarkable passage. Rav Hisda’s daughter is sitting in her father’s classroom when he suddenly calls up his two best students and asks her, “Who do you want to marry?” Astonishingly, she replies, “Both of them,” and more astonishingly, that is what ultimately happens — she does marry both of them.
I couldn’t get this audacious girl out of my head. Whatever made her say “both of them,” when asked which suitor she preferred? Especially in 4th-century Babylonia where most Jewish girls had little or no choice in husbands.
I had to tell her story.
Before I could start writing, however, I had to do enough research about her family and community to answer what for me was an all-important question: Did they live in relative peace and prosperity? I would only write a book that I wanted to read, one providing a vacation from all the horrible things I, and my readers, can see in the newspaper and on the internet every day. For despite American historian Salo Baron’s opposition to what he called the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history,” it seems that too many Jewish historical novels focus on our well-known intervals of trial and tribulation.
But there were many times and locations where our people flourished; those were the ones I wanted to write about.
Luck was with me. Rav Hisda’s daughter lived near the height of the longest halcyon period Jews have ever enjoyed. This was our over 2000-year sojourn in the fertile land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which began under Cyrus the Great in 6th-century BCE and lasted until Jews were expelled from Arab lands when the State of Israel was established.
My novels about her, Apprentice and Enchantress, would be set in third and fourth century Babylonia, just as the Talmud was being created there. Though the Talmud has been the source of Jewish law and traditions for over 1500 years, today only a few scholars are familiar with the educated rabbinic community who produced it.
I couldn’t wait to see what I’d learn. Not only would I be delving into a subject that I, and my potential readers, knew almost nothing about, but it was a crucial time in Jewish history. Historical fiction set there is pretty much nonexistent, but I would remedy that.
Maggie Anton is the award-winning author of the historical fiction series Rashi’s Daughters and Rav Hisda’s Daughter. She is a Talmud scholar, with an expertise in Jewish women’s history. She lives in Los Angeles.