The evil eye. Curses aimed at harming people. Amulets. Incantation bowls buried beneath houses.
They all appear in the Talmud and also in Maggie Anton’s latest book, Rav Hisda’s Daughter. Anton is an incredibly popular author among Jewish readers following the Rashi’s Daughters trilogy and now is well into finishing her two-part series that takes place in Babylon and details the life of Hisdadukh, the youngest of nine children of Rav Hisda.
She is a true figure, and both she and her family are mentioned many times in the Talmud, Anton explained in a phone interview last week. She has seven brothers and one sister and, despite the fact that she was female, learned much from her father and older brothers, many of whom were rabbis.
In this historical fiction work, Anton goes on to have one of Hisdadukh’s sister-in-laws teach her how to be a sorcerer, creating amulets and bowls to help men as they travel, women during childbirth and young children through various illnesses. She performs spells that are harmful as well.
Besides wanting readers to enjoy her 442-page book, Anton hopes it will turn some of them into Talmud readers.
Turning to the Talmud was an interesting journey for Anton, who grew up in a secular Jewish family and attended a Workman’s Circle school, learning Yiddish, Jewish history and socialism but not Talmud, she said.
She married a convert to Judaism and together they learned about Judaism. “My husband got majorly into it. I felt like I had to keep up with him.” Their learning continued as their two children grew.
Anton, who spent more than 30 years as a clinical chemist in a laboratory, took a Talmud class for women in 1992 and since then, she has been reading the Talmud and connecting the dots to what is written in the Torah and prayer book, she explained.
For Rav Hisda’s Daughter, A Novel of Love, The Talmud, and Sorcery, Anton also took to learning about life in Babylonian days, including what role a charsheta, a sorceress or enchantress, played. She soon found out that these sorcerers “weren’t trying to scam anybody back then. Sorcery was a respected profession.”
She was fortunate to begin this work after the 1991 Gulf War, when archeologists rushed in and found thousands of incantation bowls created in the fourth to the sixth centuries C.E. Upon hearing about these discoveries, she couldn’t stop wondering who etched the spells for chasing away the demons and the evil eye which brought disease and injury. The more she looked into it, the more examples she discovered.
“Go into any Judaica store, any sisterhood gift shop,” and there will be amulets. People place mezuzot in their cars for safe traveling, she noted.
“Google Jewish amulets, and your hair will start curling,” Anton said, adding, “Jewish magic is a very hot topic right now.” Even the Israel Museum in Jerusalem had a special exhibit in 2012, she said.
When asked if this trained scientist believes in magic, Anton replied, “I am not going to say there is no such thing as magic. We know the placebo effect is real.”
Anton, a grandmother of three — soon to be four — grandchildren, was not just fascinated by spells and magic. She also found herself drawn to Hisdadukh’s story, especially when her father called her into his classroom, a place usually unwelcome to women, had her stand before two of his best students and asked her which one of them she would prefer to marry.
The young girl replied both, which actually happened as her first choice died at an early age. The “official line” to explain this is that she was a prophet and knew what was going to happen, Anton said.
But the story stayed with her. “It’s highly unusual a father would ask a girl, and then to have a choice of two, with the guys right in front of her and the whole classroom… . This is crazy,” said Anton, who lives in California.
This became the basis for the current book, which is written in first person and subtitled The Apprentice, and the next part, which is to be called The Enchantress.
The second part is due out next summer. “I hope I am on the second to the last chapter,” she said. “Now, of course, there is still editing.”
These two books have been easier to write than the three-part Rashi’s Daughters, which covered the lives of the daughters of Talmudic scholar, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, Anton said.
With the trilogy already published, Anton’s name became known so when she emailed rabbis and other scholars with questions, they all replied. That certainly didn’t happen with the first books, she said.
Rav Hisda’s Daughter was in the works from 2009 to 2012. When not bogged down in specific details like how beer was made and what clothing was worn by whom, the book is an enjoyable read, but not up to the high quality of her first there books.
Maggie Anton will be speaking on Oct. 13 at Kehilat Shalom in Gaithersburg.