Lauren's Reviews > The Fruit of Her Hands: The Story of Shira of Ashkenaz

The Fruit of Her Hands by Michelle Cameron
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's review
Oct 19, 2010

really liked it
Read in October, 2009

I have encountered few novels that deal wholly with Jewish life in the Middle Ages. Thus, I was delighted to discover this novel, as it combines several areas of interest for me - Jewish history, the middle ages, and more generally, medieval Jewish culture. Because of this dearth of similar novels (I haven't seen too many others set at this time, other than the Rashi's daughters series) I think the book tries to do too much - tell the story of one man and his wife as well as the story of the entire Jewish community of Europe in thirteenth century Europe.

The Fruit of Her Hands begins with the story of the fictional Shira of Ashkenaz, the wife of the great Jewish scholar, Rabbi Meir ben Baruch, ancestor to the author of the novel. The novel begins in Normandy, in the town of Falaise with Shira as a young girl living with her widower father, a great Rabbi. Shira studies in her father's yeshiva, an unconventional role for a girl. While at her father's yeshiva, Shira becomes swept into a debate enrapturing her community regarding the validity of Maimonedes' view that the Torah, and not the Talmud, should be the center of Jewish study by a fiery pupil named Nicholas Donin. Donin is eventually expelled from the Jewish community and Shira reencounters him in Paris, where she is living as the wife of Meir ben Baruch. Donin becomes a Franciscan monk and uses his role in the church to revenge himself on the Jews who rejected him. Ultimately, Shira's family settles in Germany where they find some peace - but not for long. The novel recounts over and over the blood myth (that Jews use the blood of Christian children to make matzoh and engage in ritual murder of Christian children). The focus becomes one of Christian-Jewish relations, which is obviously very sad and poignant.

The author does a good job of making the reader understand that the Jews were reviled outsiders, useful to nobility and the Church only as a source of fundraising and not much else. Unfortunately, the characters in the novel are not that well developed. While the author tells us that Shira is intelligent and she is well-versed in Scriptures, she was a flat character. Similary, the author tells us that Meir is a great scholar but I didn't develop a strong sense of who he was as a person until the last two chapters of the novel. The novel took large leaps in time to get from one horrible historical attack on Jews to another, with little plot or character development in between. The characters became tools to tell the story of medieval Jews rather than Shira and Meir's story. At times the plot seems contrived simply to get Shira in the "wrong place at the wrong time" (or is it the right place at the right time?) so that the author can bring up a particularly horrific account of extreme anti-semitism during the period.

I also have to comment on the poor cover art. The woman depicted on the cover is intended to be Shira, I presume. However, her clothing would never have been worn by a medieval Jew. The shoulders are virtually uncovered and the attire is immodest. Also the woman is depicted as writing, but Left to Right. Hebrew, in contrast, is written from Right to Left and the "real" Shira would have primarily written in Hebrew, not in the languages of her Christian neighbors.

Overall this is a good novel. It didn't quite rise to the level of a four star novel to me but it wasn't a three star novel either. It isn't perfect, but a good book in a rather vacant area of historical fiction.

UPDATE: My Mother read this book and LOVED it, as did all of her friends. None of them are die hard historical fiction readers like me, so they're probably less picky. But all of them are Jewish and enjoyed this look at Jews in the middle ages. If you fall into this category, I definitely think you should read this book.
***Reviewed for Amazon Vine.
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Misfit Yours is the second review I've seen where it's a good book, but not a great one. I still want to give it a whirl though.

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