Shira, daughter of the chief rabbi for the city of Falaise, grows up in the shadow of William the Conqueror’s keep in early 13th-century France. Surrounded by the students of her father’s academy, and belonging to a culture in which women pray for their sons to become scholars, it’s no surprise that Shira places a high value on learning and yearns to study Talmud herself. Her loving father, a widower honored by Jews and Christians alike, takes pride in her academic talents but puts a stop to her formal education when they get in the way of running a suitably religious household.
Rabbi Shmuel’s esteemed reputation with scholars throughout the Ashkenazi world of western Germany and northern France means he’s able to recruit the best and brightest students for his yeshiva. After he remarries, he arranges his daughter’s wedding to Meir ben Baruch of Worms, one of his most promising pupils. In one another, Shira and Meir find their soul mates; they build a life together and raise their children, with all the attendant joys and occasional travails. Although Shira struggles with her responsibilities as a rabbi’s wife, even her overbearing mother-in-law (who fortunately lives far away!) doesn’t lessen Shira’s happiness in her role as matriarch to a growing family.
The main thing – and it’s a big one – disturbing the harmony of their life together is the lingering shadow of Nicholas Donin, a former student of Rabbi Shmuel’s who once sought to marry Shira. His fervent beliefs in the supremacy of the Torah over Talmud result in his excommunication and lead him to take revenge against his former fellow Jews.
The mid-13th century saw an increasing rise in anti-Semitism, and Shira and her family experience it firsthand. As outlandish rumors about Judaism gain ground, restrictions tighten. Being forced to pin gold circlets on their clothing as outward marks of their religion is, sadly, a small penalty compared to what happens later. In distant Brittany, Crusaders force Jews to choose between conversion and the sword, while in 1240, the Jews of Paris witness the public destruction of their sacred heritage. Misunderstandings about the Talmud and accusations of blood libel pop up wherever they go.
Regardless of events beyond her control, Shira holds on to what she holds most dear – her family, friends, and faith – assisting Meir as a scribe on occasion and ensuring a loving home for her children. Shira has a rebellious streak, which occasionally exasperates her husband, while at the same time she’s respectful of tradition. This gives the novel historical authenticity and contemporary appeal. Cameron sprinkles her novel with tidbits about Jewish women's rituals, like hanging amulets around a room during childbirth and placing an iron knife invoking Biblical matriarchs’ names underneath a woman's pillow to ensure a safe delivery. These fascinating details are well integrated into the story.
From the yeshiva of Falaise to the bustling markets of Les Halles in Paris to their 21-room house along the Tauber in Rothenberg, Cameron’s wonderfully fluid style carries the story forward. It’s simply a joy to read, and as we follow the characters’ lives, we get to see medieval Europe from a new and important perspective. Although Shira is an invented figure, she is thoroughly believable and a worthy partner for her famous husband. Despite the troubling times in which the characters live, The Fruit of Her Hands is ultimately a story about love, scholarship, resilience, and hope which allows for greater understanding of the Jewish faith. It’s well worth reading.
The Fruit of Her Hands: The Story of Shira of Ashkenaz was published in September by Pocket, $25.00 / CAN $32.99, hb, 436pp, ISBN 978-1-4391-1822-1. This marks a stop on Michelle Cameron's blog tour; visit her Events page for links to additional reviews and guest posts.