Off the Shelf: Love and Talmud

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

It can be dismaying to reread a favorite novel decades after its publication. Feminists, in particular, now realize many works they loved ignored women’s experiences. That’s what happened to Maggie Anton. When rereading Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen” and “The Promise” 55 years after they were published, she noticed something about the beloved novels that escaped her on first reading: there is little mention of the women – mothers and wives – in the main characters and their fathers’ lives. Anton decided to correct that in her latest work “The Choice: A Novel of Love, Faith, and the Talmud” (Banot Press), which continues the story of Potok’s protagonists during the 1950s, but which also features a woman as a main character.

Hannah Eisen, a journalist for the Yiddish newspaper the Freiheit whose byline is a gender-neutral pseudonym, wants to expand the types of stories she writes for the paper. Hannah convinces her editor to allow her to interview Rabbi Nathan Mandel, a Talmud professor whose teaching methods are controversial because he discusses different variants of the text. During the interview, she suggests Nathan teach her Talmud, something he finds shocking because women are traditionally not allowed to study Talmud. But Nathan is intrigued by the idea and agrees to do so, although his main requirement is that they hide what they are doing because if it became public, he could lose his job. Hannah, who knows Hebrew, does an excellent job following the text and Nathan is very impressed with her learning. However, when their time together is discovered, the question becomes whether they can possibly continue their studies.

By this point, though, it’s clear that the two are attracted to each other, although neither wishes to admit it. Hannah’s previous dating experiences were unpleasant and, although she wants to marry, she also wants to continue writing. Nathan, who has been dating, has never before found a woman who is his intellectual equal. Yet, the course of love doesn’t not run completely smoothly because, while Nathan and Hannah are both practicing Orthodox, their ideas about the place of women in Judaism are different.

Their story is intertwined with that of Nathan’s friend, Benny, who grew up in a Chasidic community, and Benny’s non-Chasidic wife, Sharon, who is having difficulty assimilating into that community. The subplot is used to highlight the different roles of women in Judaism and the assumptions people inside and outside the community make about Chasidic life. An additional subplot focuses on sexual abuse in the Jewish community, where children are accused of lying about the abuse and their abusers are considered incapable of such actions.

This means “The Choice” is perfect for book clubs because it offers numerous topics for discussion, only a few of which have been noted here. Although the prose is plain, and Nathan and Hannah’s love story is predictable, the sections that include actual Talmud study are wonderfully done. They show how rabbinic discussions developed and offer a short introduction as to why people find talmudic study so fascinating. While Hannah wants to work, she is not a feminist in contemporary terms, hoping to change the basic roles of men and women. Hannah looks forward to marriage and children, and her disagreements have nothing to do with a woman’s role in the household, but rather with her ability to practice Judaism, particularly being able to study text. Some readers will find Nathan less attractive than others, but that may be more that his ideas are grounded in the 1950s, rather than contemporary times. However, book clubs will find that readers’ different reactions will add spice to their discussions.