Author brings exploration of Jewish magic, sorcery to Alabama

After a trilogy of successful books in the Rashi’s Daughters series, Maggie Anton set out to write a novel about a vastly different time and place. The result, “Rav Hisda’s Daughter,” was not the book she originally envisioned, taking her into a little-known world of Jewish sorcery and magic.

Anton will be speaking at Agudath Israel-Etz Ahayem in Montgomery on May 6 and at Temple Beth-El in Birmingham on May 7.

After the third Rashi’s Daughters book came out, her publisher asked if she had any more books, “and I did.”

She’d had enough of 11th century France, and wanted to research a different era. She found the story of Rav Hisda’s daughter after seeing a story about her in the Talmud. While she was still very young, her father brought his two best students to her and asked her which one she wanted to marry. She answered, “both of them” — and that is what happened, though in succession after the first one died.

That piqued Anton’s interest, but there was one issue which was a major problem for a writer — the daughter’s name is never given. Anton started to research period Jewish female names, and “that’s when I discovered all this information about Babylonian incantation bowls.”

Thousands of these bowls have been unearthed in ancient Jewish villages in Iraq, and the archaeologists were finding them under just about every house.

“Each bowl is unique to the client,” Anton said, mostly for benign purposes, such as healing, protecting children and pregnant women, averting the Evil Eye. The bowls had the client’s name written with their mother’s name, a tradition that is followed today in prayers for those who are ill.

The bowls would have Biblical references and other verses to indicate that they were “the product of educated Jews,” which Anton said means the women likely to have that type of education were rabbis’ daughters.

The Talmud mentions that Hisda’s daughter knew spells to protect her husbands from demons.

What, then, of Biblical verses against sorceresses? As with so many things, the verses were interpreted to allow certain classes of sorcery — such as benign, protective spells — and forbid others.

Since many of these women were in the rabbis’ families, the rabbis weren’t exactly out to condemn the practices either.

The rabbis had to sit in judgment of sorceresses, she said, and the only way to do that was to “know enough magic” to be able to tell if a woman truly was a sorceress.

“The rabbis cast spells, the rabbis fought demons, but most of the sorcery is the province of women,” she said.

Jewish magic is now on the cutting edge of Jewish scholarship, she added.

As for Hisda’s daughter’s name, Anton said a typical name at the time would be the father’s name followed by “duch,” Persian for daughter. So she named the central character Hisdadukh.

Anton was raised in a secular household with little Jewish knowledge. She and her husband discovered their roots as adults, and in 1992 she started attending a women’s Talmud class with Rabbi Rachel Adler. Adler began the group because even in Los Angeles, there was no place for a woman to study Talmud.

“I wanted to see what this stuff was that women weren’t supposed to study,” Anton said. She was intrigued by legends about Rashi’s daughters and “something pushed me to share what I had learned, to write about them.”

A voracious reader of fiction, she decided to “write a book that I want to read and included all this fascinating information I learned about 11th century France.”

The response was highly enthusiastic. “It was clear there was a hunger among Jewish women for books with Jewish heroines.” For obvious reasons, she speaks to a lot of Sisterhood and Hadassah groups.

She aimed to get the first “Rashi’s Daughters” book out in 2005, for the publicity surrounding Rashi’s 900th yahrzeit. It turns out “I was the only hoopla, but it forced me to not sit on the manuscript.”

Last year, she received the Library Journal’s Best Book Award for historical fiction.

She will be at Agudath Israel-Etz Ahayem in Montgomery on May 6 at 7 p.m., and her talk is open to the community.

In Birmingham, she will be at Temple Beth-El on May 7 at 12:30 p.m. Reservations are $12.50.