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Novel Takes: The Fruit of Her Hands: The Story of Shira of Ashkenaz

By Linda Ulleseit
March 5, 2021

Although The Fruit of Her Hands: The Story of Shira of Ashkenaz was released in 2009, and I read it last year, it resonates with me. It is a novelized account of a real historical figure, Rabbi Meir ben Baruch and his fictionalized wife, Shira. The setting, in medieval Normandy, is well described, as is the politics of religion at the time. Like any historical fiction, however, no matter how well researched the setting and time period are, the characters must resonate with a modern readership.

Shira, the title character, is the daughter of a widowed rabbi. He indulges her love of learning, much to the dismay of the students at his school. The Catholic Church cracks down on heresy, though, which means arresting Shira’s father. In the process of fighting for his release, Shira meets two men who will influence her life. Both are intellectuals, one who will become a Catholic priest, the other a Jewish scholar. She and the scholar fall in love and are married, but the priest constantly reappears to academically challenge her beliefs. Shira and her family witness the burning of the Talmud in Paris and anti-Semitism in Germany before finally relocating to Israel. In Israel, Shira’s beloved husband is captured.

Shira’s heart is broken, her beliefs questioned, and her family threatened. Her goal through it all is to raise her children to be intelligent and think for themselves, not to rely on the rote teachings of any religion. The richness of this medieval Jewish community comes through even to a reader who is not Jewish. I enjoy reading about time periods and cultures I’m not familiar with, especially with a main character that is relatable in her love of family and thirst for knowledge.

Michelle Cameron’s The Fruit of Her Hands: the Story of Shira of Ashkenaz was published by Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, in September 2009. Based on the life of the author’s thirteenth-century ancestor, Meir ben Baruch of Rothenberg, a renowned 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.

Michelle’s first full-length novel in verse, In the Shadow of the Globe, was published by Lit Pot Press, Inc., in late 2003. It was named as the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s 2003-4 Winter Book Selection. In addition, it has been a performance piece in various venues, including the Stella Adler Studio of Acting’s Shakespeare Benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids, as part of the Drew University’s colloquium, Shakespeare in Performance II, the 2004 College of Saint Elizabeth’s Alumnae/i Weekend (acted by Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey actors), the Vintage Players, and at the Winter Poetry and Prose Getaway in Cape May in 2005.

Her third book, Beyond the Ghetto Gates, will be published by SheWrites Press in the spring of 2020. As Napoleon Bonaparte campaigns in Italy in 1796-7, he frees the country’s Jews from their repressive ghetto. This unleashes a clash of cultures between Jews and Catholics, resulting in bloody riots, murder attempts, and even star-crossed love.

Michelle is a director of The Writers Circle, which offers creative writing to kids and adults in Summit, South Orange, Maplewood, Montclair and Morristown. She teaches novel classes to adults and classes to children and teens. She is also a freelance writer and editor, handling everything from corporate writing to creative editing.

Michelle lives in New Jersey with her husband. She has two grown sons of whom she is inordinately proud.

Linda Ulleseit
Written by Linda Ulleseit

Linda Ulleseit writes award-winning heritage fiction set in the United States. She is a member of Historical Novel Society, Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and Women Writing the West as well as a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers. Get in touch with her on Instagram (lulleseit) and Facebook (Linda Ulleseit or SHINE with Paper Lantern Writers).

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