Bestselling author Maggie Anton talks about The Choice: A Novel of Love, Faith, and the Talmud on February 9
On Thursday, February 9 at 6:45 p.m., join novelist Maggie Anton as she talks and answers questions about her work and latest book, The Choice: A Novel of Love, Faith, and the Talmud. This program is a part of “Jewish Literary Voices: A Federation Series in collaboration with The Jewish Book Council.”
Join in a conversation with the award-winning author of Rashi's Daughters, Maggie Anton, who has written a wholly transformative novel that takes characters inspired by Chaim Potok and ages them into young adults in Brooklyn in the 1950s. When Hannah Eisen, a successful journalist, interviews Rabbi Nathan Mandel, a controversial Talmud professor, she persuades him to teach her the mysteries of the text forbidden to women—even though it might cost him his job if discovered. Secret meetings and lively discussions bring the two to the edge of a line that neither dares to cross, as their relationships with each other and Judaism are tested.
BJV Interview: Maggie Anton
The BJV’s Carol Goodman Kaufman spoke with Maggie Anton for the paper in December. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You have a long list of books dealing with women and Judaism, particularly women whose stories have never been told before. The Choice, as the subtitle indicates, is a novel of love, faith, and the Talmud. The title recalls Chaim Potok's The Chosen and the story takes place during the same period and in the same location. If you'll forgive the pun – was that by choice?
Oh, absolutely. I read The Choice and The Promise when I was in college. After Rashi's Daughters got out there, I was doing book tours. I stayed at someone's house and The Chosen was on the shelf there. I started reading it and I realized, where are the women? Of the two main characters, the hero [Modern Orthodox narrator Reuven Malter], is like Bambi. His mom died so long ago that he doesn't even remember who she is. And unlike most Jewish families in this kind of situation, there are no photos of her. He never says kaddish for her. We don't even know her name. They never go to the cemetery. She's not even a ghost. She just doesn't exist. And the Hasidic guy [Daniel Saunders], his mom is there, but she doesn't have a name either. And I think she appears maybe four times in the book, and she's in the kitchen.
So by that point, I'm a full-fledged feminist and already studying Talmud, and I was kind of outraged. Then, when I read Davita's Harp, I saw at the ending that [protagonist Ilana Davita Chandal] is the same age as Reuven Malter and she's his classmate and they're both graduating from grade school. She doesn't get the award for best student, even though she is clearly the best student, because the trustees say no one will ever send their son to that Orthodox day school if the best student is a girl. So she's sure that Reuven is going to get the prize instead of her. But lo and behold, at graduation he does not. Some other kid gets it, and Reuven comes over to her and he tells her it was offered to him, and he turned it down. He didn't want to take it because she deserved it. [Potok writes that] each thinks the other is attractive, and Reuven is a mensch, but that's the end of the book.
Why did Potok stick Reuven back into this story of a female character that he wrote 30 years later? Clearly, he was planning a sequel, or it seemed to me there should be a sequel that gets the two of them together. And then he died, and there was no sequel. So I decided, okay, I'm going to get this couple together. I was mostly writing it for my own fun, to be able to see if and how I could do it. The characters were in my brain and refusing to leave. I had to get them out of there and onto some pages.
Is there any autobiographical aspect to the book? Because I understand you started studying Talmud.
Rachel Adler started this woman's Talmud class, and it was back in the early 1990s. There was no place that a woman in Southern California could have studied Talmud, even though it's the second-largest Jewish community in the world. By and large, even in the 1990s women, maybe [Talmud study] wasn't so much forbidden as there were just no options for it. Nobody was offering Talmud to women or girls. Not until this millennium has it become available. That's a lot due to the Internet because you can study Talmud online.
There's that famous New Yorker cartoon with the dog sitting in front of the computer. The caption is, "When you're online, nobody knows you're a dog." Well, when you're studying Talmud online, nobody knows you're a woman. Women are breaking all the barriers and studying Talmud outside of official classrooms. Besides, it became so obvious, like from the argument I have in the book – once you have women judges on secular courts, once they're doctors and lawyers and professors and getting PhDs, then all the excuses why women shouldn't or can't study Talmud fall apart.
You have two subplots running through the book, one regarding clergy child sexual abuse.
Potok had already made the Hasidic character a child psychologist. And I'm thinking, who would go to a Hasidic ultra-Orthodox child psychologist? At the same time, I watched Spotlight [a 2015 film that tells the true story of how the Boston Globe uncovered the massive scandal of child molestation and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese] and, in the New York Times, I saw that kind of stuff coming out in the Jewish community. When I started doing internet searches, I saw that this is all over the place. Just like nobody had any idea what was going on in the Catholic Church (or maybe they knew, but nobody said anything), this was going on in the ultra-Orthodox world. Because the clergy, the Hasidic rabbis, are such that nobody would dare challenge them. And also in that community, if there is any hint of mental problems in your family, nobody's going to marry your children.
And so that's what I'm giving my character as his job. I did a lot of research into it, and it was more horrible than I had imagined. I chose to put that in because I don't want to sugarcoat the world my character lived in. Potok had already made his Davita a journalist – he wrote some short stories about Davita when she was older, married to a nameless Jewish professor at JTS that sounds like Nathan to me. By making my Hannah a journalist, I got to have her to investigate all kinds of interesting historical events.
The other main subplot revolves around the halakhic concept of niddah (a woman having her regular menstrual period).
I happened to connect with Professor Stewart Miller, who's the head of the Jewish Studies Department at the University of Connecticut. He’s the world's expert on the history of mikvehs in North America. Mikvehs became a problem for the New York Department of Health in the 1910s and 1920s as it was starting to investigate big public swimming pools, and spas and schvitzes, for cleanliness. With indoor plumbing, [the authorities] now had a higher standard of sanitation than they used to in the 1800s. Anyway, the Department of Health caught on that there were these Jewish baths – and that they were disgusting. It's like someone took a giant rusty tin can and stuck it in somebody's basement and you were supposed to immerse in there. Nobody ever changed the water and nobody ever cleaned them.
By the 1910s, what also messed up the whole mikveh business was that the young people who came as immigrants at turn of the century came without their parents. The young people, the single people were the first immigrants who would come and work in the sweatshops, and they would send the money back to bring over other family members. And so what happened when these young people decided to get married? The mother who was back home would normally have taken the daughter and explained about the mikveh – but that cord was cut. So the couple would go to the rabbi, who wouldn't do a marriage unless he knew everybody was Jewish and halachically permitted to marry. Believe me, rabbis don't want to talk about menstruation any more than any other man does. So they created mikveh manuals, of which I have a collection. And they're all about the negative, all the horrible stuff that will happen to you, to your body, to your children, to your husband – to the world! – if you do not use the mikveh.
So the bride probably would have gone to an old mikveh and would have come home and immediately taken a bath because she had indoor plumbing by that point. And you didn't have to be a Nobel Prize winner to think, ‘Why should I go to that disgusting old mikveh? I have a perfectly good bathtub at home that I'm going to use anyway when I get out of there.’ I knew it was actually a problem in northern France for Rashi's community because he had to write a responsa telling women – begging them – to go to the mikveh. The fact that he had to write such a responsa meant that women were not going to the mikveh. They were going instead to the Roman baths that were still around in cities that the Romans had established hundreds of years earlier.
Your book, The Choice, is ‘inspired’ by Potok’s novels and characters, but you could not use his creations as he wrote them – you had to change names and certain details. Can you share some of the strategies you had to employ to create your story?
The Potok family did not authorize The Choice, and I was prepared for them not to. I worked with one of the finest literary copyright attorneys in this country, Jonathan Kirsch in Los Angeles, who has written some Jewish novels himself. Knowing this was a potential problem, I worked with Kirsch on how to stay on the correct side of the copyright infringement line so that I was protected by fair use.
[In 2001, Alice Randall published a novel called The Wind Done Gone, the Gone With the Wind story retold through the point of view of one of Scarlett O’Hara’s slaves] and Margaret Mitchell’s estate sued her and lost. The copyright law was interpreted that it is fair use if, though based on copyrighted material, the new work is a critique, is social commentary. Of course, nobody would ever have read the new book, except that Margaret Mitchell sued the author and lost. It was tremendous publicity. Sometimes I hoped that the Potoks would sue me so that we could take advantage of that publicity, but they didn't.
So I changed all the names, and I changed some other obvious stuff that really wasn't necessary to my story. But by and large, I treated Potok’s works as if his characters were historical figures. I kept them at the same kind of job, where they lived, and that sort of thing. They have the same number of family members, but since [Potok wrote] nothing about the women, I had free range to make up whatever I wanted to – to give them names and backstories that he hadn't. I also named my character Nathan's mother Minnie Trachtenberg because that was my bubbie’s name and I wanted to immortalize her that way.
One last question. Your book 50 Shades of Talmud: What The First Rabbis Had To Say About You-Know-What is a definite riff on 50 Shades Of Gray, right? Both books were self-published, correct?
Yes. Nobody wanted to publish Rashi's Daughters, to their loss. And I started my own small press, Banot Press, way back in the early 2000s because I was determined to get Rashi's Daughters out in time for Rashi's 900th yahrtzeit. It sold over 100,000 copies.
First of all, I knew who my audience was. I was in synagogues and Jewish women's organizations, and I knew they all needed speakers at their monthly meetings. The Red Tent was the only other book at that time that spoke to that audience of Jewish women. I just started with Southern California synagogues, of which there are hundreds, so I had plenty to go to. I said, I will come and speak to you about Rashi's Daughters and my research, and I'll speak for free, and I'll sell my books in the back of the room. I sold 75 percent of the room that first time. Then I started getting invitations to other places. People would pay my expenses to come out and speak, and I ended up just back-of-the-room selling.
There was a Yahoo group for Jewish books, booksellers, and book publicists, and somebody from Library Journal went on there and said, "We're getting complaints that we're reviewing too much Christian fiction. We need some Jewish fiction. Has anybody out there done any?" Well, as it happened, I did. Rashi's Daughters was just coming out in the spring of 2005, so I answered back and said, "Yes, I have this." And Library Journal chose it as one of their top five fiction books for the fall of 2005
Then, in the spring of 2006, US News & World Report had this whole issue: "Books gone wild. Hoaxes, lies, and truthiness. Small books, big money. How to publish your own book." And lo and behold, on the first page of that article, there we were. US News & World Report is at every dentist’s office in the country. And they stay there for years, right? I didn't even know what had happened. I was on Amazon looking at my rank, and all of a sudden, it's like 200-something. I asked the company that printed Rashi's Daughters to check what was going on. They told me that there were 100 copies left. So I said, "Quick, quick, order another printing."
And they sold really fast. We had to do two more printings. It was a good book, and people loved it, and there wasn't much competition. But still, what a piece of luck that was!
Maggie Anton was born Margaret Antonofsky in Los Angeles, California. Raised in a secular, socialist household, she reached adulthood with little knowledge of her Jewish religion. All that changed when David Parkhurst, who was to become her husband, entered her life, and they both discovered Judaism as adults. In the early 1990s, Anton began studying Talmud in a class for women taught by Rachel Adler, now a professor at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. Intrigued that the great Jewish scholar Rashi had no sons, only daughters, she started researching the family and their community. Thus the award-winning trilogy, Rashi’s Daughters, was born, to be followed by National Jewish Book Award finalist, Rav Hisda’s Daughter: Apprentice, and its sequel, Enchantress. Then she switched to nonfiction, winning the Gold Ben Franklin Award in the religion category for Fifty Shades of Talmud: What the First Rabbis Had to Say about You-Know-What.