In recent years, we’ve seen a rash of novels dramatizing the lives of Jewish women in different historical periods, notably Maggie Anton’s trilogy “Rashi’s Daughters.” Now comes Michelle Cameron with the moving story of Shira, a 13th-century woman whose life encompasses some of the most tragic events of her period.
Though Shira is not a historical figure, many of the book’s characters - including her husband and the main villain – are, and Cameron’s writing shows the evidence of extensive historical research and considerable learning.
Shira has the misfortune to be present at two shattering events: the public show trial and subsequent burning of the Talmud in Paris in 1244, and the first recorded blood libel against the Jews in Lincoln, England in 1255. But Cameron also depicts the daily humiliations that Jews were subjected to: having to wear a yellow badge, the constant fear of violence, and the hostility and ignorance of the surrounding Christian majority.
Many readers may be surprised at the depth of hatred and prejudice directed against the Jews. By bringing this to life, Cameron performs an important service. It seems almost miraculous that any people could have survived centuries of such treatment.
Shira is the daughter of a rabbi and marries a rabbi, Meir of Rothenberg. It is a true love match, and Cameron does full justice to their loving relationship. Her description of their wedding and first night together is truly lyrical and lovely.
The other, more malign relationship running through the book is Shira’s interaction with Nocholas Donin, who begins as a student of her father but is eventually cast out of the Jewish community because of his refusal to accept the legitimacy of the Talmud.
The Talmud is the vast collection of rabbinic discussions on Jewish law, ethics, customs and history that was compiled over around 500 years, ending in around 350 CE in Babylon and Jerusalem. Cameron explains that Christians tolerated Jews because they were taught that Jesus had worshipped as a Jew. But Christians were not willing to tolerate Judaism as a living, breathing, developing, intellectually vibrant religion - hence their hostility to the Talmud.
Nicholas Donin, another historical figure, ends up converting to Christianity and becoming a monk. He led the prosecution against the Talmud in the notorious Paris trial which ended with the public burning of 24 cartloads of sacred Jewish books. Jews mounted a valiant defense of their religion, but of course the end of the trial was pre-ordained by a Christian society blinded by hatred and intolerance of Jews.
There are a few infelicitous moments in this novel. Some of the dialogue sometimes becomes a little too didactic in tone. Some references to texts and to food and customs seems to strike a false 21st-century note. Shira herself has feminist aspirations that seem difficult to reconcile to the age in which she lived. But, in general, this is a moving story, expertly told by a writer who has immersed herself in a past era and brought it brilliantly to life.