The Next Generation of Matriarch: Feminism in Jewish Literature

In the Jewish tradition, we honor and remember our Matriarchs: Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, and Leah in our daily prayers as well as in our study of the Torah. But as the narrative of the Torah tends to center more on the Patriarchs of our tradition, our Matriarchs play largely supporting roles. For example, Rivkah encourages her second son, Jacob, to seek the blessing from his aged father, Isaac, making him the heir and father of the twelve tribes of Israel (Genesis, 27:5). Yet the Torah tells us little of her life and only mentions her burial place (Genesis, 49:31).

Similarly, Jacob’s first wife, Leah, bore six of his twelve sons, as well as his only noted daughter Dinah. Her sister, Jacob’s second wife, Rachel’s death is mentioned in the Torah (Genesis 48:7) when Jacob mentions her passing on the road in Canaan as Jacob made is way from Paddan to Gershon. However, as mother to half of the tribes of Israel, Leah’s death is

not mentioned at all. Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, is merely included in the context of her marriage to a man of another tribe and her brothers’ brutal slaughter of his people. But the text is silent on her remaining life.

The text tells us even less on other female characters. Moses’ wife, Zipporah, for example rejoins her husband as he leads the children of Israel from their enslavement in Egypt (Exodus, 18:1) on their journey through the wilderness toward the Jordan River. But we are left to wonder what, if any, role she played in supporting her husband in his work. How she felt. What she thought. Where and when she died. The Torah tells us that Hashem did not permit Moses to cross the Jordan into the land of Israel (Deuteronomy, 34:4). Did Zipporah reach the promised land? The text is silent on all these issues.

I contend this lack of teachings from the female perspective has left room for a genre of literature told from the female perspective. Jewish authors have created a varied cast of strong, independent, and learned characters who embody the teachings of Torah while pushing the traditional boundaries. Essentially creating the next generations of Matriarchs. I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorites. These titles span from the destruction of the Temple to the generations of Rashi and Maimonides and beyond. I encourage you to add any of your suggestions in the comments!

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The Fruit of her Hands by Michelle Cameron

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Based on the life of the author’s thirteenth-century ancestor, Meir ben Baruch of Rothenberg, a renowed Jewish scholar of medieval Europe, this is the richly dramatic fictional story of Rabbi Meir’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.

Raised by her widowed rabbi father and a Christian nursemaid in Normandy, Shira is a free-spirited, inquisitive girl whose love of learning shocks the community. When Shira’s father is arrested by the local baron intent on enforcing the Catholic Church’s strictures against heresy, Shira fights for his release and encounters two men who will influence her life profoundly—an inspiring Catholic priest and Meir ben Baruch, a brilliant scholar. In Meir, Shira finds her soulmate.

Married to Meir in Paris, Shira blossoms as a wife and mother, savoring the intellectual and social challenges that come with being the wife of a prominent scholar. After witnessing the burning of every copy of the Talmud in Paris, Shira and her family seek refuge in Germany. Yet even there they experience bloody pogroms and intensifying anti-Semitism. With no safe place for Jews in Europe, they set out for Israel only to see Meir captured and imprisoned by Rudolph I of Hapsburg. As Shira weathers heartbreak and works to find a middle ground between two warring religions, she shows her children and grandchildren how to embrace the joys of life, both secular and religious.

Vividly bringing to life a period rarely covered in historical fiction, this multi-generational novel will appeal to readers who enjoy Maggie Anton’s Rashi’s Daughters, Brenda Rickman Vantrease’s The Illuminator, and Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book.

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

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In the Bible, Dinah’s life is only hinted at in a brief and violent detour within the more familiar chapters of the Book of Genesis that tell of her father, Jacob, and his twelve sons.

The Red Tent begins with the story of the mothers–Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah–the four wives of Jacob. They love Dinah and give her gifts that sustain her through childhood, a calling to midwifery, and a

new home in a foreign land. Dinah’s story reaches out from a remarkable period of early history and creates an intimate connection with the past.

Deeply affecting, The Red Tent combines rich storytelling and the valuable achievement of presenting a new view of biblical women’s lives.

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Rebel Daughter by Lori Banov Kaufmann

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A young woman survives the unthinkable in this stunning and emotionally satisfying tale of family, love, and resilience, set against the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

Esther dreams of so much more than the marriage her parents have arranged to a prosperous silversmith. Always curious and eager to explore, she must accept the burden of being the dutiful daughter. Yet she is torn between her family responsibilities and her own desires.

Meanwhile, the growing turmoil threatens to tear apart not only her beloved city, Jerusalem, but also her own family. As the streets turn into a bloody battleground between rebels and Romans, Esther’s journey becomes one of survival. She remains fiercely devoted to her family, and braves famine, siege, and slavery to protect those she loves.

This emotional and impassioned saga, based on real characters and meticulous research, seamlessly blends the fascinating story of the Jewish people with a timeless protagonist determined to take charge of her own life against all odds.

The Pomegranate by S.J. Schwaidelson

“I do not talk to dirty boys.”

The girl was defiant, her dress dusty, her scarf askew; tendrils of burnished copper hair escaping onto her face. She would not stand by as her brother defended her honor. She would defend herself.

So begins the story of Batsheva Hagiz, the spirited daughter of a Jewish merchant dynasty in 12th Century Málaga. Her life is set by tradition, with schooling in languages, merchandise, and trade. But it’s her love of swordplay and the ability to throw a dagger with deadly aim that will serve her best.

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On the caravan journey across the desert to her wedding, Batsheva is abducted by men who are certain their sheik will prize her body. In the early days of captivity, chained to his tent, she makes the decision to do more than merely survive. She will live.

Her resolve will push the boundaries of convention, taking Batsheva from the sands of the Maghreb to the Holy Land where a crusade rages, on to the court of Plantagenet England. Batsheva is Everywoman; she refuses to give in to her fate. Instead, she confronts the world on her terms.

In her third novel, S. J. Schwaidelson weaves another cinematic story, immersing readers into exotic lands and cultures with surprisingly contemporary conflicts and human passions.


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Rashi’s Daughters by Maggie Anton

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Click the image to find it on Amazon
Click the image to find it on Amazon

The first novel in a dramatic trilogy set in eleventh-century France about the lives and loves of three daughters of the great Talmud scholar

In 1068, the scholar Salomon ben Isaac returns home to Troyes, France, to take over the family winemaking business and embark on a path that will indelibly influence the Jewish world, writing the first Talmud commentary, and secretly teaching Talmud to his daughters.

Joheved, the eldest of his three girls, finds her mind and spirit awakened by religious study, but, knowing the risk, she must keep her passion for learning and prayer hidden. When she becomes betrothed to Meir ben Samuel, she is forced to choose between marital happiness and being true to her love of the Talmud.

Rich in period detail and drama, Joheved is a must read for fans of Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring.

Caledonia series by Sherry V. Ostroff

Finalist – Chanticleer International Awards – Chaucer pre-1750 historical novel division
IndieB.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree
Indie Diamond Book Award – Winner in Adult Fiction

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Click the image to find it on Amazon

Anna Issac’s choices are bleak. Suicide is more appealing than marrying the revolting Frenchman her spiteful brother has chosen for her. The only other option is to beg a man she barely knows, a Highlander, to help her run away. Escape would be a challenge for any fifteen-year-old, but it is particularly difficult for a Jewess living in 17th century Scotland. Anna’s tale would have remained a secret, except three centuries later the death of Hanna Duncan’s father on 9/11 unleashes a chain of events that leads her to an ancient key with a peculiar etching. Once deciphered, the clue points Hanna toward a safe deposit box in Edinburgh where Hanna uncovers Anna’s role in the creation of Scotland’s only colony. Caledonia promised to be the trading hub of the New World, but starvation, ship’s fever, and incompetent leadership dogged the 1,200 colonists from the moment they left Scotland. More than half would be buried at sea or in the colony’s muddy cemetery, and Anna would not be immune from the dreadful conditions. The outpost was deserted in less than a year.CALEDONIA is a tale of these two strong women separated by time but bound by mysterious circumstances. 21st century Hanna keeps uncovering evidence linking her to 17th century Anna. Both women experience romance, adventure, and tragedy as the reader witnesses them becoming more and more connected.


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2 Comments on “The Next Generation of Matriarch: Feminism in Jewish Literature”

  1. Thank you for including THE POMEGRANATE on the list. I hadn’t given much thought to the topic, and now you’re making me rethink that!

    As a great fan of the Matriarchs, I strongly believe that their very human portrays in Genesis and even Exodus strengthen us as women. These women did not just sit by and wait for something to happen. _They_ created history, and even if Torah is from a decidedly male perspective, the power of the women, especially Rivke and Tamar, demonstrate the women were not to be trifled with.

    Interestingly, THE BOOK OF J by Harold Bloom is worth reading, “J is the title that scholars ascribe to the nameless writer they believe is responsible for the text, written between 950 and 900 BCE, on which Genesis, Exodus and Numbers is based… Bloom argues in several essays that “J” was not a religious writer but a fierce ironist and a woman living in the court of King Solomon. ”

    Women were literate; this should not be surprising to us at all. And of course you know another Batsheva was King Solomon/s mother. (grin)

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