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November 26, 2010     Heritage Florida Jewish News
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November 26, 2010

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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, NOVEMBER 26, 2010 PAGE 13A Author mixes fact, fiction to depict Jews of the Middle Ages By Johanna Ginsberg New Jersey Jewish News If Michelle Cameron could reach across the generations to her famous 13th-cen- tury ancestor, Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg, she knows exactly what she would ask. "What was it like to stand there in that Paris market square and watch the burning of the Talmud?" Since she couldn't, she had to content herself with imagining what it must have been like. When she wrote about that scene---"with tears pouring down my face'--she said, "The thought of this young man who obviously was a scholar his entire life watching the thing he cared the most for being burned was very visceral." The scene occurs about halfway into Cameron's novel "The Fruit of Her Hands," a fictionalized account of Rabbi Meir's life told through the voice of his wholly imagined wife, Shira of Ashkenaz. "In the Middle Ages, women weren't part of the record," said Cameron. "So I got to Peter Vidor Author Michelle Cameron said she t'ed to be true to the period in which her book is set and "still keep it interest- ing for a modern reader." invent everything about Shira--her name, her person- ality, everything. It was very liberating." "The Fruit of Her Hands," Cameron's fifth book and the second to be published, follows Shira through a life that reflects worsening con- ditions for Jews throughout Europe. She moves from her girlhood home in Falaise, France, to Paris after marry- ing Meir. They flee after the book-burning and move to Germany, where he runs aye- shiva and gains his reputation as a great rabbi. But when the king threatens heavy taxes, they flee again. Meir spends his last days in jail, imprisoned for abandoning his village. Woven into the book's narrative are the actual issues and circumstances that faced the Jews of the day, including Disputations, or public religious debates; the burning of the Talmud in Paris and other cities; blood libels; and the case, made famous by Chaucer, of Hugh, a Christian boy who died after falling into a well, leading to accusations of murder against the Jews. Cameron conducted exten- sive research to write "The Fruit of Her Hands," which took about three years, striv- ing for an accurate depiction of life in the Middle Ages. But the plotline is ficti- tious, with its romance novel elements adapted to Jewish mores: When Shira and Meir look into each other's eyes, they realize they are each other's beshert. A rabbinic scholar, he warms to her eru- dition and even has her write letters for him when an injury prevents him from using his hand. There is even a love triangle between Shira, Meir and Nicholas Donin, a Jewish- born apostate who became an avid persecutor of the Jews of Europe. Cameron did not originally set out to write about Meir. "My mother always said we could trace our family tree back to the 1200s. But she never really said who we could trace our roots back to," she said. She was planning to write about the woman who was her namesake when she discovered Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg and realized he was a pivotal figure in Jewish history. Once she read about the burning of the Talmud, she said, "I knew I had to write this story." She's not certain what Meir would think of her were they to meet today. "He'd be disappointed that I'm not an observant Jew. But I do think he would appreciate that what I found in him I show people. I have a tremendous respect for him." She felt a "tremendous responsibility" to depict him accurately, she said. Part of what led her to create Shira was a desire to have a character she could relate to and speak through, especially when she disagreed with Meir. "This is a period of time in which a lot of decisions are being made and a lot of the religion was being codified so that women would have much less of a part in it--they were becoming more subservient to men," the author said. "Through Shira I felt I could have the debates I might have if I met him." In her research, and par- ticularly in reading his letters, she learned that Meir came out strongly against women participating in their sons' circumcision. She includes in the novel a disagreement over this between Meir and Shira. Meir's ruling, of course, stands. Shira is an educated, even erudite woman, who could be viewed as a proto-feminist-- or not aggressive enough for contemporary readers. In the end, said Cameron, it's fiction. "Some of the things I wrote about might not have happened but need to be in- teresting to a modem reader," she said. "I was trying to get a balance--to be true to the period as much as I can be and still keep it interesting for a modern reader." Johanna Ginsberg is a staff writer for the New Jersey Jewish News from which this article was reprinted by permission. By Rabbi Rachel Esserman The Reporter Group, Vestal, N.Y. The gift-giving season is almost upon us and the perfect gift (at least for me) is books, books and more books. This holiday review features a picture book for those aged 5-8, a graphic novel for tweens, a guide for single Jewish girls, works featur- ing Jewish-therned cartoons and Jewish-themed jokes, a comic view of the Torah and, for lovers of Broadway musi- cals, a collection of Stephen Sondheim's lyrics, complete with personal notes. "Finishing the Hat" Know someone who loves Stephen Sondheim's musi- cals? A copy of "Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Her- esies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes" (Alfred A. Knopf) would be a perfect gift. Sond- heim follows through on the promise of his subtitle, trashing other lyricists (these sections are fun to read even when you disagree with him) and indulging in delightful tales about writers, actors and directors. Although some will love reading the lyrics from such shows as "West Side Story," "Gypsy," "Company," "Follies," "A Little Night Music" and "Sweeney Todd" (the song featured in the book's title isn't included since "Sunday in the Park With George" wasn't produced until the mid-1980s), my favorite sec- tions discussed the develop- ment of each musical, from the original inspiration to the final product. Also included are lyrics that were changed during tryouts and those of Chanukah gifts for all ages songs cut from the shows, with explanations of why they didn't work. My final reaction to this book? Bravo, Sondheim! Now, I'm ready for part two. "Life, Love, Lox" Is "Life, Love, Lox: Real World Advice For the Modern Jewish Girl" by Carin Davis (Running Press) a dating guidebook disguised as a primer on how to be Jewish, or an introductory course on Judaism disguised as dating advice? This humorous work covers both options as Davis discusses not only how to meet men, but explains every- thing from Jewish holidays to keeping kosher to finding the right synagogue. What stood out was the different way her generation approaches its social life. Who would have thought you needed a date to attend High Holiday services? And playing dreidel? In my day, we used gelt (chocolate coins) or pennies; Davis outlines a new version, a drinking game featuring beer (or in a bonus round, shots instead of beer). The text is peppered with Hebrew and Yiddish, which is translated in a "Heebonics Glossary" for the unknowing. Also fea- tured are recipes, bad puns and semi-lame jokes. The combination works, though, as Davis provides an intro- ductory tour of Judaism for single, young Jewish women. "Old Jews Telling Jokes" I give in. I simply can't resist writing that my first reaction to "Old Jews Telling Jokes," by Sam Hoffman with Eric Spiegelman (Villard), was that it should really be titled "Old Jews Telling Old Jokes." Fortunately, the age of the jokes doesn't matter. Based on the website with the same name (http://old-, this hysterical coilectionwill keep you laughing, in addition to giving you ways to annoy your friends and family. ("Wait, you just have to hear one more. I promise it will be the last one," but that will be a lie as you won't be able resist reading them another.) Don't believe me that it's funny? Ask my older brother, who devoured the book while on aweekend visit and read most of the jokes out loud to my mother, who also couldn't stop laughing. The different sections focus on such topics as Jewish mothers, coming to America, the rabbi, food and sex. Many jokes are x- rated so keep that in mind when deciding which of your friends would appreciate a good laugh. "The Rooster Prince of Breslov" Ann Redisch Stampler's picture book "The Rooster Prince of Breslov," illus- trated by Egene Yelchin (Clarion Books), is a delight- ful retelling of one of my favorite Chasidic stories. This variation features a king's son who, after being given more than he needs or wants, rebels by pretend- ing he is a rooster. After his parents, a doctor and "a platoon of magicians" are unable to convince him to wear clothing, eat from a table or sleep in a bed, a frail old man appears, who says he can cure the prince and sets about doing just that. The story is enhanced by the clever drawings, whose backgrounds offer previews of the upcoming action. Fun without being preachy, Stampler's books is perfect for the younger crowd. "Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword  Barry Beutsch's charming graphic novel, "Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword" (Amulet Books), is perfect for tweens. Mirka, an ll-year- old Orthodox Jewish girl, is more interested in fighting dragons than in learning to knit or listening to warnings about her meshuganah (cra- zy) behavior from her sisters and brother. A meeting with a mysterious woman in the woods leads to unexpected adventures, featuring talk- ing animals and monsters, which give the feisty Mirka a chance to show just how brave she is. My only quibble is with the rather abrupt end- ing, which left unanswered questions about the identity of the woman in the woods and why Milka's stepmother was so upset to learn about her. Fortunately, "How Mirka Got Her Sword" is the first in a proposed series, so these mysteries may yet be resolved. "The Comic Torah" Warning: "The Comic Torah: Reimagining the Very Good Book" by Aaron Free- man and Sharon Rosenweig (Ben Yehuda Press) is not for the easily offended. If the idea of a green-skinned fe- male YHWH, a black skinned Moses and a platinum-blond feminized incarnation of Canaan called "Honey 'The Land' Milk and" shocks you, then it's time to move to the next selection. However, anyone looking for a humor- ous and thought-provoking take on the parshah of the week will find themselves challenged by the authors' irreverent look at the biblical text. The graphics make the lessons vivid, particularly those outlining the rules of sacrifices in Leviticus. De- liberate anachronisms serve as additional commentary while offering fresh insight to over-familiar stories. While not for everyone, "The Comic Torah" features a unique look at the good book. "Kvetch As Kvetch Can" Need a hostess gift for a Chanukah party? Have a friend who loves cartoons? Ken Krimstein's "Kvetch as Kvetch Can: Jewish Car- toons" (Clarkson Potter / Publishers) features funny, silly, ridiculous cartoons that left me groaning and laughing. It's hard to de- scribe them without spoiling the jokes (the drawings are half of the funny in many of these), but even on second look, some of them made me laugh out loud.