The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America in 1650. Ever since, millions of words have been penned by women authors. Recently, historical Jewish women's fiction has become popular, with dozens of writers researching and recording the lives of Jewish women of the past. Star of Davida had the honor of interviewing Michelle Cameron, the author of The Fruit of Her Hands: The Story of Shira of Ashkenaz, a richly dramatic fictional story of Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg's wife, Shira, a devout but rebellious woman who preserves her religious traditions as she and her family witness the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe.
I understand that you were inspired to write The Fruit of Her Hands after learning that you descend from Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg. What inspired you to research your family history?
It was actually sheer chance. I had finished promoting an earlier work (In the Shadow of the Globe, a verse novel fictionalizing Shakespeare’s life and loves) and was looking for a new project. A distant cousin of mine had created and published a comprehensive family tree, and I turned to it to see if I could find out more about the woman I was named for. As I opened the book, a story that my mother always told me - that we could trace our family tree back to the 1200s - was borne out. There was a brief, intriguing article about my 13th century ancestor, Meir of Rothenberg, that inspired me to look him up on Google. The more I read about him, the more I realized I had the makings of a wonderful novel.
It’s clear from reading the book that you’re very well-versed in both Torah and Talmud. Was this something you were raised with, or are you self-taught?
Definitely not raised with Torah and Talmud - I come from a very secular family! My knowledge in Torah comes from completing my high school studies in Israel, where Torah is a required subject. I would never have studied Talmud at all if it weren’t for the novel. It became such a central part of the plot that I knew I had to find someone to introduce me to it. Lucky for me, the associate rabbi at my synagogue was willing to help.
That’s really cool that you lived in Israel. How long were you there?
14 years. I was 15 when my parents moved there.
What inspired the move?
To Israel? My parents were firm Zionists who had tried to move there back in 1949. My father couldn't get work at that time (he was a chemical engineer). He was able to in 1973 (an auspicious year for a move)!
Back to the US? Professional concerns again. I was working as a writer in English and my husband (also a native American) as a lighting technician in films and TV. There seemed to be more we could do in the US.
Why did you choose the pasuk (verse) from Eishet Hayil to name the book after?
Ah, title hell! The original title of this novel was Daughter of Faith. Including the world “daughter” in a historical novel was trendy for a few years, though I really didn’t do it deliberately. My agent didn’t like that title and asked me to come up with a new one. After intense consideration and several flawed titles, I came up with Shira of Ashkenaz, which both of us really liked. So that was the title that was submitted to various publishing houses.
But when my editor accepted the novel, one of the first things she asked for was a new title for the book. She wanted something poetic or evocative, and was definitely open to something from Torah or Talmud. Eishet Hayil was an obvious place to look - but of course, naming the novel “Woman of Valor” would have been a cliché. I liked the symbolism inherent in Fruit of Her Hands, and my editor liked it as well. I rewrote a couple of places in the novel to make the title a natural extension of the story. However - soon after the book was published - I discovered that “the fruit of her hands” is a catch phrase for fundamentalist Christian woman who believe in being subservient to their husbands. Not at all what I intended! I can only hope that any woman who reads the novel thinking it will be a fundamentalist tract will have her eyes opened…
Why did you name the main character Shira? Was it a common name in the 1200s?
No, Shira definitely wasn’t a common name in the 1200s. But I first attempted to write another verse novel (similar to In the Shadow of the Globe). After I had written that book, I thought I had found my genre, and that everything new I wrote would be in the long poetic narrative format. But the material refused all my attempts to write that way. I tried a variety of different short formats - letters, diary entries - but the material insisted on being a historical novel.
Of course, when I was writing poetry, the name “Shira” - which means poetry or song in Hebrew - was completely fitting. By the time I realized I had a novel on my hands, I had been thinking of Shira as Shira too long - and couldn’t change the name.
There’s a big contrast that in the middle of terrible persecution, Talmud burnings etc., Jewish life thrived and a lot of halakhot (Jewish laws) were codified. Why do you think this irony was able to happen?
I talk about this a lot when I go on speaking engagements about the novel. Researching and learning about so many Jewish atrocities, you really do begin to wonder how we as Jews survived to this day. As I pondered this, I often considered what my two characters - Meir and Shira - taught me about the quality of Jewish life. Meir and his contemporaries, of course, kept Judaism thriving through their concentration on study and their desire to codify their customs and practices so that anyone, anywhere could remain a Jew, no matter where circumstances forced him or her to go. The women, on the other hand, helped the traditions stay alive through their care of their households and their love of their families.
Several times in the book, characters long for peaceable Judeo-Christian relations. Is this an important issue to you?
Oh, absolutely! One of the wonderful things about writing this book has been my readers - Jews and Christians alike - saying that they never knew about what Jewish life was like during this era and letting me know that it made a difference to how they perceived the long history of hatred and persecution. I really feel that it is only through mutual knowledge of our histories and our traditions that we will finally be able to live in peace with one another.
Do you describe yourself as a feminist?
Well, yes and no. Unlike my husband, who grew up in the 60s and strongly identifies with the women’s movement, it’s not the label I would usually use to identify myself. But I clearly live as a feminist, with or without the label.
Do you view The Fruit of Her Hands as a feminist work?
Well, yes. Shira was created deliberately as a strong woman and frankly, as an exception in her time. Her personality came about as a reaction to what I discovered about her husband. There is a two-volume publication that collects all of Meir’s letters (the fragments that exist). In there, I discovered a man who was very much a product of his age, who embraced the anti-woman philosophies of that period, particularly when it comes to allowing women to take part in religious ritual. I wanted someone who could debate with him - not necessarily win the arguments, because that would be anachronistic - but at least raise the issues.
I also understand that you wrote another book, By the Waters. Could you tell me a little more about that?
That novel is currently looking for a publisher and I hope to have good news in that regard soon. I was inspired by Psalm 137, which Shira recites as she watches the wagons loaded with volumes of Talmud move past her, heading for destruction. By the Waters, which takes place between the burning of the First Temple and the construction of the Second, is an intergenerational novel about conquest and exile, assimilation, longing for home, and the creation of a new form of Judaism.
If you're interested in reading The Fruit of Her Hands: The Story of Shira of Ashkenaz for yourself, you can purchase it here.
I also want to say that this is my 100th post!! To celebrate, here's a list of the top 100 feminist books and top 100 feminist movies.