dwarfWhen I was about eight years old I watched my first United States Marine Corps commercial. I remember it vividly. I was sitting on the floor doing my physical therapy when the TV faded to black. From seemingly nowhere a loud orchestra sounded and then the screen opened to a massive chess board that reminded me of Alice in Wonderland. A silver knight perched high and proud on a horse entered the shot proudly. He battled all the other game pieces that were dressed in black. There were also some corny flashes of neon blue lightening, but it was the 80’s so that was to be expected. I will never forget this commercial, because it set an ideal of the perfect man. And that man for me is a Marine. To me, it’s an absolute privilege to be able to call myself an author. It’s an honor to be called a mom. But, the title I work hardest at is the title of Marine Wife.

“What’s it like?” A friend of mine from home asked of being a Marine Wife. “I hear about the serious things on the news all the time, but what are some of the funny things that make it different from other marriages?”

Her question kept me thinking throughout the night. To be a Marine Wife (or military wife in general) it takes an incredible ability to adapt and overcome to all challenges thrown your way. And Christ all mighty, tests are thrown in your direction. It’s a job that’s ever changing and never boring. More often than not I feel as though I’m enlisted in the ranks, too. Pack up your life and move to another country in three months? Sir, no problem, Sir! I’ll get started right after dinner, sir!

But, what the heck are the unique aspects about being a Marine Wife? I’m pretty sure many will agree with that these are tell-tale signs of the life of a Marine Wife …

You know you’re a Military Wife if… your nights consist of buttons, holes and ticks—Oh my! On some nights it’s not uncommon to burn the Irish penance on my husband’s combat boots. On others, I’m either reinforcing the loose buttons on his cammies with thread or patching the holes over his knees torn from training with consertina wire. Double checking his naked body for ticks when he gets home from the field and saying the words (hopefully), “You’re good to go” is also part of the adventure I call, Military Wifedom.

You know you’re a Military Wife if…  you mistake thunderstorms for artillery training fire. Not too long ago one of my best friends, Mark flew down from Providence to stay with me at my house near Camp Lejeune. Together, we sat on the deck outside and enjoyed a few glasses of wine. I shared with him the latest page I wrote in my memoir, Dwarf and he shared with me more memories of us in college. When the sky erupted with a loud bang that echoed for miles, I didn’t flinch. But, Mark grabbed his glass and bolted for the sliding glass door. I was certain that it was only artillery training in the distance and argued the point until the sky opened up and rained on my assertion. Too often I just can’t tell the difference. Even when the pictures on my wall become crooked from the percussion, I barely notice the loud roaring overhead.

You know you’re a Military Wife if… you stop referring to your local Harris-Teeter as a “grocery store.” In fact the term grocery store will leave your vocabulary all together! Four months into my marriage I was visiting home and said to my mom, “I need to go to the commissary.” She looked at me funny, not because she didn’t know what it was, but because I had never spoken that lingo before. Hats were also no longer hats. I needed to call them covers. A bed became a rack. A shirt needed to be called a blouse. 72’s and 96’s are only to be used when referring to periods of time off duty and when I needed to use the bathroom on base I had to phrase it like this, “Can I use your head?” And this was only the beginning. Eventually I had to learn to decipher acronyms, too! BAH’s, EAS, BAS, CMC—It’s enough to make you need Advil STAT!

You know you’re a Marine Wife if… During your husband’s yearly Oleoresin Capsicum (or OC Spray) qualification you become subjected to level two contamination. I’ll never forget the night when around 6PM my husband came walking in our front door looking excited and relieved to be home from work. All he could think about was getting in the shower and that night, all I could think about was joining him. When I tip-toed into the bathroom anxious to surprise him there was an odd mist filling the air. It peppered my throat and made my cheeks flush, but I ignored it. When I pushed aside the shower curtain and surprised Eric with a kiss his eyes widened. “No, no babe!” He said loudly. Seconds later my lips burned and my tongue felt swollen. My eyes stung and watered and my nose began to run uncontrollably. Unknown to me, the shower reactivates the OC spray and I had just become contaminated! My frisky plans were flushed down the proverbial toilet. It was that night I also became more familiar with Marine Corps vernacular—OC spray is also called, Devil Piss.

If you can relate to any of these (and there are so many more I want to share) then it’s official, you are a Marine Wife. And you always will be. It doesn’t matter if you’re still currently serving alongside your husband or you’ve been long retired after years of service, the point remains—Once a Marine Wife always a Marine Wife. Semper Fi, ladies.

bladen_coleRiding with Bladen Cole in this, the first book of my new series, takes me back to the mountains and high plains of Montana where I rode when I was a boy. For this bounty hunter, the year is 1879, and for me, it was somewhat more recent, but we both rode under the Big Sky in that time of year when the leaves on the cottonwoods have turned golden and are beginning to fall. Each year, as the sun begins to spend its whole day close to the horizon, and the first few flakes of snow become the promise of winter fulfilled, there comes that time of quiet loneliness as you ride on limitless plains under that limitless sky.

For me, as it is for Bladen Cole, the openness of the country becomes a vehicle for pondering. Whether your vehicle is a saddlehorse – such as Cole’s trusty unnamed roan – or one with a motor – and a heater – the lonely infinity allows plenty of space for pondering and for figuring out.

For this bounty hunter, the pondering time is filled with figuring out that the only way justice can really be done is for the outlaws he is chasing to be brought back alive to point their fingers at the man who hired them — and him.  For a modern man, this author, the pondering time might mean the figuring out of how a character fits into that landscape. The object of the author’s contemplation merges with that of his characters.

The relationship between an author and his characters is a close, though for me it is not so much a situation where the author becomes the character, but one in which the characters become houseguests in my mind. I suppose that it is different for all authors, but for me, I find myself not so much writing the dialogue, but taking dictation from these people who are temporary boarders in my head. They tell me what it is that they want, and need, to say.

So, as this author does his pondering within a cocoon of loneliness, I am gradually surrounded by a small crowd people. Generally ignoring me, other than to be certain that I am hearing what they say, they communicate, argue, compromise, and conspire against one another.

Yet it is the landscape, either real or made real with words — and regardless of the color, or even the presence, of the leaves on the cottonwoods — that facilitates the dialogue and drives the action which inspires, perplexes and carries the people who live within it to their fates.

a_haunting_dreamHalloween has always been a special time of year for me. My grandfather was born on Halloween in 1900 and we celebrated his birthday with trick-or-treat night. It was a huge affair with hundreds of candles, adults dressed in crazy costumes, and children running wild!

It’s still like that for my family. We get ready for the occasion all month. There’s the special food (everyone tries to outdo each other with deadly treats), the costumes (ditto here), and the games. We play Mummy Wrap to see what team can wrap their ‘mummy’ with toilet paper the fastest. We pin the spider in the web and bob for apples on a string. We also look for buried coins and plastic skeleton parts in the Haunted Maze.

Food always includes Swamp Punch in a big, black cauldron. We joyce_lavene1make it greenish-brown with orange pop, green food dye and Coke. We put a big hunk of dry ice in it for special foggy effects. Usually someone molds a frozen hand in a plastic glove, although last year, there were icy spiders too. My daughter makes witch’s fingers out of peanut butter cookies with almond sliver nails. We eat deviled eggs and make cemeteries out of cupcakes and cookies.

Once we had a whole body laid out on the table with various edible parts. That one was hard to beat!

joyce_lavene2Costumes? Everyone dresses up. Some of the younger kids aren’t spooky. They are Batman or a princess. I always encourage them to think outside the box—be a princess vampire or a zombie Batman. My daughters are ice ghosts, evil puppets or red demons. Their husbands complement them with their costumes. We do a lot of characters from books. My son was the Ghost of Christmas Past a few years ago. Last year, I was Death from Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death”.

All of this takes time and preparation. You have to think of suitable prizes for winning costumes and for games. The music has to be right—we have several CDs of creepy music. We usually choose a scary movie to watch at the end of the joyce_lavene3evening. We love Sleepy Hollow, Beetle Juice, Something Wicked This Way Comes and Bride of Frankenstein. This Halloween, it will be Hotel Transylvania, before the festivities begin.

Halloween is my time of the year. With the red and gold leaves flying everywhere and costumed characters filling the streets, I can’t imagine anything better.

Free candy doesn’t hurt either! Happy Halloween!

Joyce Lavene


fangoverSince there are dozens of haunted houses to visit each Halloween, it seems I’m not the only person who enjoys the thrill of being scared. One of the perks of writing paranormal fiction is that I get to indulge my hobby and call it research so in the last few years not only have I gone to staged haunted houses, I have checked out some supposedly real haunted sites in the US. I tend to be a skeptic, but I love the stories, love the spine tingling feeling, and love the possibilities of future novels that spring from my adventures. Do ghosts exist? I have no idea, but all of these places certainly have a rich and intriguing history.

Waverly Institute in Kentucky: An old asylum that eventually housed tuberculosis patients, it had a body chute to carry the deceased to the mortuary. Seriously creepy place and well worth getting on the waiting list to visit.

erin_mccarthy_fangover1Haunted Hotels of New Orleans: I have stayed at the Olivier House, Hotel Monteleone, Andrew Jackson Hotel, and the Provincial. In the Olivier House, we have definitely heard odd things and had items appear such as straight pins sticking out of our mattresses (which could be a maid resenting her tip I suppose) and a black crow (yes, a live black crow was in the room!). In the Andrew Jackson, my sister complained of children running and laughing in the hallway late at night only there were no children staying there. Turns out, it a dozen or so boys died in a fire there when it was a boarding school.

LaLaurie Mansion: This house is privately owned but just looking at it from the outside is enough to raise the hair on the back of your neck. A doctor and his wife tortured their slaves here and managed to escape punishment. The window that is blocked off (and where allegedly they did the torturing behind the bricked over window) reminds you that ghosts or not, a real life evil couple did indeed live here. My book, The Taking, has a house in it I based off of the LaLaurie mansion.

Franklin Castle: This house in Cleveland was built by a German immigrant who lost his wife and children to disease. Supposedly children can be heard crying and there are sounds of parties. There are also odd peepholes and secret doors in the very stately home.

Gettysburg: Enough said. Thousands of men died there, and it is a sad, solemn place.

erin_mccarthy_fangover2Mansfield Prison: I actually spent the night in the empty prison, where they filmed The Shawshank Redemption. There was no electricity and no heat, and it is one crumbling pile of brick and metal. It has the largest free-standing cell block (six floors high, cells all stacked on each other with a main hallway) and the worst offenders were housed here. I spend some time in solitary confinement, but the only vibe I get is that murderers and molesters lived and died in this hopeless place. The pictures are of me in the prison, and yes, I laid on the bed, and I found an old Harlequin romance novel in there!

becoming_clementineOn September 15, I handed in the manuscript for the fourth book in my Velva Jean series (Velva Jean Learns to DriveVelva Jean Learns to Fly). Today the third book in that series comes out– Becoming Clementine.

I have now crawled out from behind my desk, Gollum-like– shrunken, blinking and shuffling into the sunlight– to get ready for the publicity phase of book three. I am trading my yoga pants, yoga tank, and flip-flops for pencil skirts, red lipstick, one very Charlie’s Angels-esque black pantsuit, and suede pumps, and heading out into the world to promote Becoming Clementine. Being an author is much like being Sybil, that famous possessor of multiple personalities. At various times throughout the process of working on a book, a writer needs many different sides.

jennifer_niven_clementine1You need to have a vivid imagination, able to conjure ideas and characters often out of thin air. You need to enjoy detective work and have the patience and determination to come at your research from all angles and track down just what you’re looking for. You need to like being alone, willing and able to happily, diligently spend month after month after month hermited away by yourself as you write and edit your book. You need to have the passion and ferocity of purpose to be at your desk for all that time and see your project through, no matter what– in spite of weariness and struggle and writer’s block and life. You need to be sensitive and observant to draw real, breathing characters. You need to be a critic, able to judge what you’ve written impartially and openly. You need to be analytical and impartial so that you can ruthlessly take your words apart and put them back together again.

jennifer_niven_clementine2You need to be outgoing and at ease in the spotlight, talking to nice folks who want to ask you questions and discuss your work and host you for book events, meeting readers, signing books, doing panels and speeches and book clubs and readings. You need to be tough and resilient to read and hear what people will say about your book– this book you’ve been pouring over and bleeding into and sacrificing everything for. (As my mother says, “To be a writer, you need to have the soul of an angel and the hide of an armadillo.”) You need to have enough stamina and fortitude to come up with an idea and do it all over again.

jennifer_niven_clementine3Book four will boomerang back to me sometime in the fall with my editor’s changes/notes/edits/suggestions/cuts, but for now it’s all about Becoming Clementine. It’s that time in a book’s life when I’m making the rounds, doing interviews, gathering reviews, answering questions, going on tour, etc. I love this part of it, even though it also carries its own degree of stress: reviews, feedback, sales. But I’m planning to enjoy it. After all, soon enough it will be time to pull on the yoga pants and retreat into the cave once again.

“We who make stories know that we tell lies for a living. But they are good lies that say true things, and we owe it to our readers to build them as best we can. Because somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who without that story will be a different person. And who with that story may have hope, or wisdom, or kindness, or comfort.

And that is why we write.” ― Neil Gaiman

If you are an unpublished writer, take a moment to close your eyes and envision your favorite or ideal bookstore. Firmly place yourself there by imagining the colors of the walls, the light fixtures, the people browsing its aisles and reading in its chairs. Can you hear any music playing?

Now, focus on where your book would be shelved, and move toward it. What are the books around it? How many people are looking for it? What do those people look like? Whether it makes you comfortable or not, imagine your specific reader—the one, outside of yourself, who will love this book. Is it a man or a woman? Young or old? Rich or poor? What does his or her clothing look like? Where does he or she buy coffee, or does he or she even drink coffee? Does this person prefer independent bookstores, store chains, or buying electronically?

Is your ideal reader still in a bookstore?

This exercise is not a joke. If you want to find the right agent, publisher, and placement for your book, you need to know the answers to all of these questions, and be able to articulate them. If you know the answers, your agent search, choice of publisher, and marketing after the book launches will be much more successful.

One of the biggest mistakes new writers make (and which I certainly made in the past) is to take action on the assumption that all readers will love your book. In other words, querying all agents in Writer’s Market who represent fiction if you’ve written a novel is a bad idea. It is a waste of your time and their time, and it will leave you feeling cold, empty, and wrung out. It would be better to query ten agents who represent books you love to read, which you’d find on shelves next to yours, which would be picked up by the same exact hand that picked up your book, than to query one hundred agents. It would be more effective to post on ten blogs written by swimming coaches (if your book is about swimming, of course) than hundreds of blogs that cover a wider range of topics.

Ultimately, everyone who reads your book may, in fact, love it. But you need to find the first wave of readers before your book makes it into the hands of their spouses, teachers, or dermatologists. You need to find the people who share your passions and interests so that they may fall in love with your work, and then talk about it with everyone they know.

Know those who need your stories, and find a way to get your book into their hands. That is why you write.

You write a book with a title like mine and you can expect some questions. Of the many, herewith please find the two I get most frequently.

First: Has the experience of writing Am I a Jew? increased your religious feeling (and if so, would you mind stepping away from the bacon cheeseburger, sir?)

And second: Well…are you?

Allow me to begin with the first. The simple answer would be no. I find myself in houses of worship no more today than I ever did, and if the spirit moves me of late it is only in response to the recent birth of my daughter, Mena. My journey into Judaism only occasionally (albeit pivotally) intersected with a personal search for what people like to call “faith.” I’m not a fan of this term, by the way. I have faith in a great many things—death, taxes, the futility of man and the Mets, the rain in Spain falling primarily in the plain—but “faith,” strikes me as an indeterminant word used in service of a vague state.

Better instead to say only that we believe in the God in which we believe, in the way we believe in Him (or Her or They or Buddha or the wind or a circle of stones in England), be the godhead’s proper name or pronoun capped or no; that we locate or adopt or adhere to our belief in the manner that seems to us most sincere or reasonable or likely or unlikely or inarguable or scientific or hereditary or miraculous or brave or foolhardy; that that we do so in cooperation with or resistance to or in dismissal of different or competing beliefs and modes of beliefs and motivations for belief—and leave it that.

Perhaps we should go with faith at that.

Either way, as we approach Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, ringing—or more accurately, blowing (more on that later)—in the dawn of the year 5773, I, for one, won’t be found in shul (here, in fact, is where I’ll be: join me!). Nor will I be at home, worshipping at the altar of finely marbled brisket, or deep frying sacred donuts in my trusty cast iron pan.

That is not to say that I will forgo all consideration of the holiday. Far from it. During the research and writing of Am I a Jew?, I drew great intellectual inspiration from Maimonide’s Guide for the Perplexed, in part because I was perplexed, both in the personal sense and after attempting to read this famously impenetrable work. A minor example:

He who is everlasting, constant, and in no way subject to change; immutable in His Essence, and as He consists of nought but His Essence, He is mutable in no way whatever; not mutable in His relation to other things: for there is no relation whatever existing between Him and any other being, as will be explained below, and therefore no change as regard; such relations can take place in Him. Hence He is immutable in every respect, as He expressly declares, “I, the Lord, do not change” (Mal. iii. 6); i.e., in Me there is not any change whatever.

You got that? This will be on the exam.

One thing in the Guide that is remarkably clear, however, is Maimonides’ take on the requirements of Rosh Hashana:

  • New-Year is likewise kept for one day; for it is a day of repentance, on which we are stirred up from our forgetfulness. For this reason the shofar is blown on this day, as we have shown in Mishneh-torah. The day is, as it were, a preparation for and an introduction to the day of the Fast, as is obvious from the national tradition about the days between New-Year and the Day of Atonement.

Simple enough. Blow the shofar, feel bad about the past year’s sins, and remember (despite our collective forgetfulness) to eat well in preparation for the fast of Yom Kippur. As with all things Maimonides, however, a little research into just what about the shofar has been shown in the Mishneh-Torah (Maimonides’s master work, a compendium of the legal wisdom found in the Jewish bible, written in the 12th century c.e.), yields greater complexity.

I won’t delve into the details here, but know this, those Jews keeping the holiday, or those desirous of a post-book increased observance for me (for this, I’ve borrowed liberally from the Chabad website):


  • The shofar must be crafted from a “bent” ram’s horn. Note: the halacha, or legal explanation, on the chabad website offers this with regard to bendiness: “Rams’ horns are always bent. [The bend] has homiletic significance, referring to the bending over of our proud hearts.” Homiletic sent me to the dictionary. Feel free to join me there.
  • If the shofar is cracked, not to worry (these things happen), but only if the break is lengthwise. Cracks along its width render it non-kosher.
  • You can plug a hole in a shofar, if it has one, so long as it is plugged with “its own kind.” Note: I have no idea what that means.
  • Feel free to sound your shofar in a cave or pit. Likewise, if you find yourself situated outside of a cave or pit, it is acceptable to listen to the shofar being blown. Close proximity is essential, however: it is forbidden to listen only to the sound of the shofar echoing off the walls of the cave or pit.
  • For sounding a shofar “into a giant barrel,” please see directly above.
  • There are no religious prescriptions against making a long shofar shorter, if the should arise.
  • Altering a shofar’s narrow end to make it wider, or its wider end to make it narrower—no dice.
  • For those interested in understanding why circumferential improvements are forbidden, Maimonides recommends Leviticus 25:9. From the admittedly far-from-Jewish King James: Then shalt thou cause the trumpet of the jubile to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month, in the day of atonement shall ye make the trumpet sound throughout all your land.
  • How that relates to the previous point remains beyond my meager capacity to comprehend.
  • You can coat a shofar with gold, so long as it doesn’t change the sound.
  • You can place a shofar inside another shofar and blow it (them?), so long as you can hear the sound of the inner shofar.
  • No blowing the shofar without hearing it. Maimonides was, apparently, either opposed to inaudible shofar-blowing, or—sorry for this—he didn’t like deaf people.

Maimonides offers a great deal more in this vein. My reading of it demonstrates, I trust, that I have given some thought to the meaning of the holiday, beyond its conventional (and wholesome) role in bringing together Jewish families for celebration, amity, spiritual introspection, and fine food. If I seem flippant here it is because I am having some fun. But Maimonides, like the rabbinical scholars of the Talmud and other eras, provides the sort of intricate ethical and legal analysis that has always constituted the fundamental core of Judaism. It was this rigor, and its inexorable intellectual demands that sparked my renewed interest in Judaism, and set me on the path of my question and my quest. I laugh, and call on others to do so, with a reverence, admiration, and awe that is as close as I get to faith.

As for the second question asked above: Jew-ish.

becoming_clementineMy grandfather Olin Niven was a postal inspector, traveling the country, investigating dangerous crimes. He also edited and wrote for the newspaper in his small North Carolina town. He was brilliant and kind and quiet, and one of the wisest people I’ve ever known (years after his death, I wove him and his warm and gentle wisdom into Velva Jean Learns to Drive, as Velva Jean’s granddaddy, Daddy Hoyt).

On days like today, when I am up at six a.m. and will be jennifer_niven_lifelines1working until nine or ten p.m., I try to remind myself of something Granddaddy used to say. Whenever my mother or I would grumble or cry or rant to him about our writing deadlines, he would gaze at us with wise blue eyes and, in his patient, steady voice tell us, “Remember: you get to do this, no matter how hard it can be.  This work is who you are. It is what you’re supposed to do.  And so it’s not a deadline, it’s a lifeline.”

jennifer_niven_lifelines2Some days that’s easier to remember than others. Today for instance. I am months into a seven-day-a-week work schedule, juggling pre-publicity and promotion for the soon-to-be-released (September 25) novel, Becoming Clementine, as I continue to research and write (and constantly restructure and edit) its sequel, which is due to my editor in September.  Between tasks, here and there, I try to squeeze in moments with loved ones in an effort to recharge, refresh, and remind myself that I’m human.  As Mom and I often say to each other, we feel like twelve dogs pulling the Iditarod.

But in the back of my mind, always, is Granddaddy’s voice. All through the day I repeat Granddaddy’s words to myself, just like a song: You get to do this. You are lucky to do this.  It’s a lifeline, lifeline, lifeline…

story_withinMy husband gave me a new iPhone recently—a GS 4. I didn’t really need one but it was about Siri, the artificial intelligence software that resides in the phone like a genie in a bottle and which is not to be confused with Tom Cruise’s child. “That’s Suri,” my husband said. “This is Siri.  Ask her something,” he prodded.  “Ask her anything.”

“Is Suri a name?” I asked. “Is Scientology a religion? Wait! Does Ron Hubbard really own a secret cave in the southwest full of gold to give alien space invaders?”

“I don’t understand. Please repeat,” Siri said.

“Can Roy Dyson admit his vacuum weighs more than a school bus?” I asked, on a roll now.

There was a bonging noise.

“Does anyone know why Roy Dyson was knighted?” I tried. “Was it for weaponizing cyclone technology?”

“I have found 14 Roy Dyson’s near you,” Siri said.

The next day we were on our way to the movies when someone started talking in my purse. At first I thought the radio had come on but it was Siri. She was definitely talking to someone. It was a little creepy. I turned her off. Again.

My computer does this as well. Just gets a mind to do something I never asked it to do—zoom things up to gigantor proportions on a whim, or completely changes the view panel so that one page becomes two. Sometimes my computer starts proofing my work in Spanish claiming everything is misspelled.

The worst thing my computer ever did was send an email  I’d written to Alan, complaining about our friend Paul, to Paul.  Wait. Maybe Siri did it.

Write about receiving a gift you didn’t need—or didn’t know you needed–something perplexing, maybe even wonderful—a a spa treatment, a vacation, jewelry, or a friendship. Write about the gifts you’ve been given in your life that you didn’t even know enough to want—like a child, or partner, or puppy. Write about someone who gives a gift he wants himself. What is it? What happens? Who is transformed?

rav_hisdaAs a historical novelist, my goal is to take my readers to a distant place and time, but without them forgoing 21st-century improvements like antibiotics and indoor plumbing. There I hope to provide all the pleasure of other fiction genres – conflict, passion, and perception into the human condition – but with the extra advantage of insight into the culture of a previous era and society.

My novels have an additional goal, that of introducing readers to the lives of learned Jewish women in communities that are rarely written about elsewhere, such as 11th-century France in Rashi’s Daughters and 3rd-century Babylonia in Rav Hisda’s Daughter. Embedded in my heroines’ scholarly households, readers learn how the Talmud shaped Jewish holidays and life-cycle events into those we observe today.

Engaging fiction thrusts readers in a character’s conflicts, keeping them turning pages until the final challenge is resolved. So Rav Hisda’s Daughter provides conflict on three levels. On the grand stage, Zoroastrian Persia battles Christian Rome for world domination, while on a more intimate stage, Rav Hisda’s two best students vie for my heroine’s hand in marriage. [Spoiler alert: she eventually weds both of them]

In the middle is a conflict whose outcome fundamentally changed Judaism. This is the early Rabbis’ struggle to reinvent and revitalize Judaism after the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by Rome in the first century. Until this time, as detailed in the Bible, Jewish observance centered on the Temple. There the people came for the three pilgrimage festivals; there the priests offered a variety of sacrifices on their behalf. Yet in less than 400 years, Rav Hisda and a few hundred colleagues convinced a million Jews in Babylonia to embrace a new Judaism that functioned without the Temple or its priests. This had to be a difficult transition, as many Jews would have been skeptical of these self-appointed Rabbis and rejected their authority.

The Rabbis’ earliest success was likely instituting new ways to observe the Biblical festivals, as well as creating new holidays like Hanukah and Purim. Synagogues came into existence, along with innovative rituals and liturgy. Passover was now celebrated at home with a special dinner, the Seder, and using some clever arithmetic, the Rabbis showed that Shavuot, another pilgrimage festival, deserved celebration because it was the day the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai.

But it was with Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur where they excelled.

Compared to the pilgrimage festivals, these holidays are barely mentioned in the Bible. There we learn that the shofar is blown on Rosh Hashana to announce the New Year and that a goat is sent into the wilderness to atone for the peoples’ sins on Yom Kippur. The Rabbis expanded Rosh Hashana to include a lengthy shofar service in synagogue, along with a theology of people being judged by the Heavenly Court as to whether they merited being written into the Book of Life for the upcoming year. Yom Kippur built on this to give a holiday much like today, where Jews spend the entire day in synagogue – fasting, confessing their sins, and praying for forgiveness.

In this manner the Babylonian Rabbis created the Talmud, which has been the source of Jewish law and traditions for over 1500 years. And in Rav Hisda’s Daughter: A Novel of Love, the Talmud, and Sorcery, I show how this process began.

Watch the book trailer for Rav Hisda’s Daughter

Watch an interview with author Maggie Anton: Part 1 & Part 2