THE FRUIT OF HER HANDS:
THE STORY OF SHIRA OF ASHKENAZ
BY MICHELLE CAMERON
Crafting a richly textured, absorbing novel based on the life of her ancestor, renowned thirteenth-century Jewish scholar Meir ben Baruch of Rothenberg, Michelle Cameron paints a page-turning and deeply personal portrait of Judaism in medieval France and Germany. Imagined through the eyes of Rabbi Meir's wife, Shira, this opulent drama reveals a devout but independent woman who struggles to preserve her religious traditions while remaining true to herself 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. But in Meir ben Baruch, a brilliant scholar, she finds her soul mate and a window on the world of Talmudic scholarship that fascinates her.
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 every copy of the Talmud in Paris is confiscated and burned, Shira and her family seek refuge in Germany. Yet even there they experience bloody pogroms and intensifying hatred. 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.
A multigenerational novel that captures a hitherto little-known part of history with deep emotion and riveting authenticity -- and includes an illuminating author's note and a Hebrew glossary -- The Fruit of Her Hands is a powerful novel about the enduring spirit of the Jewish people.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
But Michelle kept writing anyway. When her family moved to Israel when she was 15, and Michelle spent three weeks in a bomb shelter (it was 1973 and her boarding school was close to the Syrian border), she wrote about the fires on the hills and the ground shaking above her head.
Completing her high school education in Israel, she attended Tel Aviv University, graduating with a degree in English Literature and then spent two years in the Israeli army. When she was ready to find her first job, she thought it would be temporary - just until she sold her first novel.
The demands of work and family made Michelle put her literary ambitions aside. As part of her technical writing career, she began working in the interactive arena, moving to companies that specialized in Internet creation. She is now Creative Director at a digital agency, working for varied past and present clients including New York City Ballet, the Juilliard School, Rutgers University, C.R. Bard, Inc., and many others.
Among the influences that brought Michelle back to writing was a six-year old muse - her son, Alex - whose early stories, poems, and cartoons made her remember why she wanted to write in the first place. She began to take her laptop with her in the car, writing in the karate dojo and in the bleachers of the ball field.
For a while, poetry came quicker than prose and Michelle began to submit and publish her work. The idea of writing a series of poems about William Shakespeare - whom Michelle had researched for one of her early novels - flowered into a verse novel, In the Shadow of the Globe, published in 2003 by Lit Pot Press. The book became the 2003-4 Winter Book Selection by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey and has been performed in many venues, including the Stella Adler Studio of Acting.
When Michelle cast about for her next writing topic, she began exploring her family tree for a possible plot line. It was then that she discovered the truth of her mother's claim that her side of the family could trace their roots back to the 1200s. Intrigued, Michelle began to research her ancestor, Meir of Rothenberg, becoming convinced that his amazing story needed to be told. The result is The Fruit of Her Hands.
To complete the novel, Michelle needed more time than she could find in the normal course of the day as she was juggling the day job, growing boys, and a part-time teaching position. Her solution? She now sets her alarm for 4:30 AM every morning.
I was very excited when Michelle Cameron agreed to do an interview. I first asked her if there was something she would like to tell us about herself as an introduction. Here is what she told me.
My mother always said her family could trace their roots back to the 1200s, but it was only when I was exploring my family tree that I discovered Meir of Rothenberg’s inspiring life. I was struck by the amazing events he participated in, including witnessing the burning of the Talmud in Paris in 1242.
You can see the genealogy online, at my Web site at http://www.michelle-cameron.com.
Yet I struggled to bring Meir to life. It wasn’t until I created Shira, his wife – a wholly imagined character ― and had her tell their story in her own words, that I felt able to give this famous rabbi the dramatic and loving context he deserved.
I asked what is the next or current book Michelle is working on.
My next novel is set in ancient Babylon and is a multi-generational story spanning the 70 years of Judean exile.
What have you just finished reading?
I read all the time, often multiple books at one time. I belong to two book clubs as well, so I’m always juggling books. Right I’m treating myself to a little Phillipa Gregory spree and am reading The Other Queen. Waiting for me is Maggie Anton’s last installment of Rashi’s Daughters, Rachel, as well as Dara Horn’s All Other Nights.
What books would you say have made the biggest impression on you, especially starting out?
I have always been an avid reader. My mother used to tell the story of how everyone in my family brought a book to the table (terrible habit), and how, until I learned to read, I often held my book upside down. So when I started to write, I had a lifetime of books to draw upon.
But some books do stand out, and those are the ones I read and re-read. Shakespeare’s plays. Everything Jane Austen wrote. Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger. Every few years I’ll commit myself to re-reading George Elliot’s Middlemarch and Thackery’s Vanity Fair.
Less literary books I go back to over and over again include Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road. And it was Annamarie Selenko’s Desiree that got me hooked on historical fiction.
What gets you started on a new book? A character or story idea or….?
It always starts with a detail that resonates with me. When I started researching Shakespeare’s life for what eventually became my verse novel, it was learning that the actors used cast-off clothing from nobility to dress for their regal roles. When I started researching THE FRUIT OF HER HANDS, it was the image of this rabbi witnessing the book burning that moved me. And, in fact, it was while writing the scene about the burning of the Talmud, when my heroine remembers the 137th Psalm, “By the waters of Babylon” that served as the inspiration for my next book.
What is something about you that you would want people to know about you that we probably don’t know?
Like so many writers nowadays, I hold down a day job while pursuing my writing career. The only way I manage to fit everything in is to wake up at 4:30 AM every morning and go straight to my computer.
What is your best advice to anyone, including young people, who want to be writers?
There’s no substitute for sitting down and writing. Reading about writing, going to workshops, reading great books – these are all wonderful activities that can enrich your writing life. But writers ― write. Most of them do it because they can’t help themselves. If you’re looking for rewards beyond the joy you take in the actual writing process, you might want to consider a different career. Because this one is tough and getting tougher.
What is something you would like to share with us about writing your favorite genre in general?
Writers of historical fiction have an ongoing – and often contentious ― debate over how accurate a book needs to be, how much research needs to be done, and whether they enjoy the research or the writing more. I take the middle ground. I do early research to get a sense of a period, to plot out my book in broad strokes, and to figure out what sources I’ll need to have on hand as I write. Then I start writing, interrupting myself as needed to find the specific facts I need. It can be quite challenging to know how many historical details to stuff a book with ― they fascinate me, but can be disruptive to the flow of the plot. But that’s what revision is for, anyway!
THE FRUIT OF HER HANDS in many ways was a familiar story but what made it different and special is that it came as a result of the author, Michelle Cameron, delving into the history of her own family. She then took a major part from her familial past, and added a historic fiction character to tell the story of what went on. This story is about Shira, who is the fictional wife of Michelle Cameron's real life relative Meir ben Baruch. Meir was a thirteenth-century Jewish scholar who lived in France and Germany in medieval times.
Rabbi Meir's wife was the fictional Shira who told the story of THE FRUIT OF HER HANDS. She tells how she was allowed to study with her husband which is something just not found commonly in those days. Shira had grown up in an atmosphere of learning with her father who was a Rabbi and widowed at a young age. Shira grew up in Normandy as an independent woman thanks to her father along with the help of a Christian maid. Shira's love of learning as a child is encouraged and so when she meets Meir ben Baruch, it is a perfect fit. Shira is not only a good wife, but also a mother who wants to encourage her children to have a similar upbringing like hers.
Sadly, as things in the world change and copies of the Talmud are not allowed in Normandy, they go to Germany hoping for a better life only to fall head first into the dreadful and dangerous situation there as pograms and politics change the world. Shira is a strong and powerful force in the family that you can tell author Michelle Cameron is proud to be part of. As I said, the story is not all that different from many except for the fact that parts of it are fiction and part is taken directly from Cameron's own family history. Historical fiction is based on history but this is even better because the history part is well known by the author.
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