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Keeping it Kosher (lite)

As some of you may know, I set out to write Celestial Persuasion when I came across this painting of Mariquita Sanchez de Thompson. This scene depicts the moment when the Argentine national anthem was sung for the very first time.

The image of ladies and gentlemen in Regency attire was far from what I had expected to find in colonial Argentina. To tell the truth, I would have expected full crinoline skirts and impressive peinetas, such as we find in the satirical work of Cesar Hipolito Bacle.

By delving into the aftermath of the May Revolution of 1810, I discovered that the aristocracy of Buenos Aires was more inclined to follow the fashion trends of Paris or even London. The influence coming from across the pond was not to be denied!

I began connecting the dots and weaved a tale that included English noblemen and naval officers, along with the liberator of Spanish America: Jose de San Martin. Establishing a friendship in between Jane Austen’s Captain Wentworth and my own fictional character, Jonathan Isaacs, was the next step in the process.

Next, I began looking to incorporate that bit of yiddishkeit that is so crucial to my work. For example, I wanted to ensure that the Jewish holidays mentioned throughout the novel occurred in accordance to the Hebrew calendar. In the prologue, Abigail Isaacs writes to her brother, describing their father’s passing—just prior to his favorite holiday: Pesach (Passover).

I must assume that you have not received my news from home, and knowing how you are impatient with all but the essentials, allow me to put it to you in words so familiar they could be your own: our dear papa died on March 26th on the eve of Rosh Chodesh—sadly a little more than a week before his favorite holiday. He had been looking forward to leading the Passover seder this year; but then again, he had been unwell for several months and refused to change his habits.

Rosh Chodesh is mentioned several times throughout the novel, as are other holidays, such as the High Holy Days and Chanukah. I suppose I could have picked any date when these events “usually” occur; but it was important to be accurate, particularly when it came to a certain battle that took place on February 3, 1813. Hopefully, the following snippet helps to explain…

“San Martín plans to engage with a Spanish royalist force in one month’s time,” he muttered beneath his breath. “When do you expect to travel to witness your monumental natural event?”

She grimaced at the small sound emitting from her lips. “I must be in residence at the beginning of the month, though I do not believe it is any of your concern.” Rethinking her statement, Abigail’s voice grew with enthusiasm. “Mr. Gabay!” she exclaimed, “has he chosen the exact date?”

“You cannot imagine that I would share that information, Miss Isaacs.”

Vehemently she shook her head. “I care not for your confidences, at least for the reasons you may suspect. I only ask that you heed me, sir. I must be in Rosario for Rosh Chodesh. There will be a new moon on the first of February. The night’s sky will be sufficiently darkened to allow for maximum visibility of galactic activity. Do you understand my meaning?”

The Battle of San Lorenzo was a turning point for the rebels fighting the Spanish crown. If I wanted to showcase the event in my story—and have it coincide with Rosh Chodesh—it had to be… kosher. I knew I had to get it right! First, I researched the status of the moon phase in February 1813. I found that information here and here. Then, I checked to see if the Gregorian calendar aligned with the Hebrew calendar. I found that here and here. It worked out!

Throughout the story, we follow Abigail as she celebrates Shabbat and Havdalah. Granted, her family is no longer as pious as when her mother lived. Nevertheless, when Abigail is called to London to meet Lord Fife, she ensures to take her ritual items. And when she and Mrs. Frankel find themselves aboard a frigate sailing across the Atlantic, I made sure to incorporate an every day nautical item into a pivotal scene.

Wrapping up warmly in her darkest cape, Abigail reached for the lantern perched above the dresser. It was the same lantern she and Mrs. Frankel had been instructed to use for the Sabbath, for it came equipped with a sliding shutter to darken the room without extinguishing the candle. Abigail smiled, recalling the cabin boy’s shock at their request to kindle the Shabbos candles whilst aboard the ship. He had gone on for nearly a quarter of an hour outlining the hazards and noting the fire stations that equipped every passageway in the event of a crisis...

Abigail had been correct in her estimation. The men were gallivanting en masse at the forecastle and she could remain in peace to the aft. She allowed herself to be guided by the lantern’s light but closed the shutter when she reached her chosen destination and waited for her eyes to grow accustomed to the darkness. In truth, it was a perfect night for stargazing as they had just entered into the new moon phase. Without the moonlight, the galaxy’s core was visible in all its splendor, and Abigail stood immobile in awe of the spectacle before her.

How many minutes had transpired, she could not say for certain. She felt tears trickle down her cheeks, but she could not be bothered to wipe them away. How she longed to share the moment with Jonathan! Not to scribble down the longitude and latitude of their location. Not to calculate or measure, but simply to stand and observe the immensity of it all and to understand her place in the universe. Her tears had dried where they had fallen, but with the wind picking up, she could once again feel bits of salt water on her cheeks as the waves began to swell. It was not until she heard the men shouting and witnessed the crew running hither and thither that Abigail was obliged to return to her room.

She retraced her footsteps to find the ladder once more. The descent, she hoped, would prove to be easier; but as she stepped down off the last rung, the wind and waves combined and exerted such a force on the ship that Abigail lost her balance. With flailing hands she attempted to seize hold of something that would steady her feet; but the action cost her dearly, for the lantern slipped from her grasp and the candle was extinguished. She crept along the passageway, holding on to the walls, helpless in the dark, until the ship pitched suddenly and she felt herself tumble forward.

As my outline began unfolding, I found that I quite liked the town of Exeter for the Isaacs family. The obvious problem was that I knew next to nothing about Devonshire as it related to Jews. Imagine my delight when I came across the wealth of information located here and here. Actually, there are pages and pages of data relating to the Jewish history in this particular county. I not only discovered the location of Exeter’s synagogue, but its officiant as well. Naturally, I had to showcase Abigail’s relationship with her rabbi and her place of worship.

In addition, this map created by Braun & Hogenberg in 1617 helped me visualize the Isaacs hometown.

Approaching the mile mark, she passed St. Thomas’s chapel and the many farms that dotted Byrd’s Lane. Abigail was flooded with bittersweet memories and recalled walking toward the synagogue, her small hand held by her mother, while Jonathan raced ahead and her father followed behind at a leisurely pace. They would meet friends along the way, and the adults would catch up on the weekly gossip before entering the house of worship. Ezekiel and Kitty Jacobs, her parents’ closest friends, had been amongst the founders of the synagogue, for they applied to St. Mary Arches Church to lease the ground for its erection. Whenever Jonathan would complain of the rabbi’s lengthy sermons, Mr. Jacobs would tell the story of the synagogue’s consecration.

Lastly, I wanted my story to lay the foundation for the establishment of the Jewish Colonization Association. Headed by financier and renown philanthropist, Baron Maurice von Hirsch and his wife, Baroness Clara, this organization was created decades after Argentina’s declared independence. However, had it not been for such forward thinking individuals such Wilhelm Loewenthal, a Romanian doctor conducting research in the area, Rabbi Zadoc Kahn, Chief Rabbi of Paris, or my fictional Lieutenant Gabay with his pipe dreams, who is to say if the seeds of change would have come to fruition.

The Battle of San Lorenzo took place in 1813 in the province of Santa Fe. A little over 70 years later, a group of Jews escaping pogroms and persecution in Imperial Russia settled in a town about three hours away from that battlefield. They named their new home Kiryat Moshe, or Town of Moses, to honor Maurice Hirsch. The land agent, who may or may not have been of French origin, registered the name to his own liking and the town became known as Moisés Ville. The inhabitants, these so-called Jewish gauchos, were the first to create a Jewish agricultural colony in Argentina. Of course, my characters had no notion of what was to come, but they had hope.

Captain Wentworth, my last piece of news may be the greatest surprise of all. Mr. Gabay and I shall not reside in Buenos Aires for long. When the fight for independence has been won, my Mr. Gabay—who never intended to make the military his career—will resign his commission. We shall repair to my father’s property in Rosario, where I will be at liberty to continue my research and Mr. Gabay will begin his work in helping the Jewish communities of the Russian Empire. Santa Fe is a wide and open land. Refugees of all faiths and backgrounds may surely make this place their new homeland and dwell in peace without persecution. Praise God, everything does indeed happen for a reason.

Thanks for stopping by. I hope you enjoyed the post!

Until next time,

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Jane Austen and Jewish Themes

As an emerging author in the realm of Jane Austen Fanfiction (J.A.F.F.), I have introduced Jewish characters thus far into the world of Pride and Prejudice, as well as Persuasion. I purposely didn’t alter the beloved characters created by Austen’s imagination. I mean, of course, that Anglicans remain Anglicans. Instead, I present the reader with a different—more inclusive—makeup of the communities where said characters reside.

Some people may question why I chose this path, rather than the racebending or race-lifting phenomenon we are seeing today in fandom. Transforming the Bennets or Mr. Darcy as Jewish role models would not have satisfied my creativity. Instead, I wanted to personalize the canon with my heritage, so that our collective experiences in that period—known as The Regency—would not go unacknowledged. Some may question why I would want to meddle with works of art in the first place. They are classic novels, loved the world over. The answer is simple: It goes back to the practice of creating a midrash.

I’ve read several editorials and essays that pose an intriguing hypothesis. The authors stipulate that the concept of fanfiction is an accepted and familiar practice in Judaism. And I wholeheartedly agree. It is a truth universally acknowledged that our sages and their faithful students have been reinterpreting biblical texts in the hopes to discover new insights, to make them more accessible, or even to reveal different conclusions. It is in keeping with our traditions to reimagine these sacred passages, to personalize the story with our own life experiences or even to postulate the unknown—the “what-ifs.” These new interpretations or reworkings are known as midrash.

According to penlighten.com, “Fanfiction is basically fiction written by fans or, to put it in a better way, admirers of the original work. Fanfiction writers include much of the same characters and also sometimes choose to add new ones. Fanfiction stories often reflect the writer’s view (in this case, the view of the reader of the original work) as to what should have happened in that particular story.”

The great Ibn Ezra’s opinion on Midrash Aggadah was pretty clear.  There are words, and there are meanings. As long as the reader gets the meaning of the text, it doesn’t matter how the message is communicated. Therefore (Finally! I’m getting to my point!) in my next series of blog posts, I mean to provide a ‘drash on Judaic themes in Regency literature by expressing how we can find Judaism in Austen’s work. Hopefully, this will encourage other authors, and readers, to open their minds to this particular genre. And that might have the happy chance of prompting even more discussion!

While Austen was the daughter of an Anglican minister, she didn’t follow the admonishments of clergymen such as James Fordyce, a Presbyterian minister infamous for his Sermons for Young Women. However, her work—or her “pestiferous” novels, as labeled by Fordyce—were characterized by morality. This could be recognized by her characters manners, their sense of duty to society, and their religious affinity. Furthermore, no self-important or indolent clergyman was safe from Austen’s eagle eye and sharp wit.

Without a doubt, she had strong opinions of correct and proper behavior, but Heaven help the poor soul that was caught in her crosshairs! She examined and cross-examined everyday life. Everyone was fair game. Everything was questioned and brought to light.

That is the epitome of Jewish study, is it not?

Throughout Austen fandom it has been said that Jane very likely never met a Jewish person; but her upbringing in the Anglican church would have given her sufficient exposure to Judaic theology and that is enough for me to proceed. Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, today’s post will deal specifically with Pride and Prejudice.

EISHET CHAYIL~ A Woman of Valor

In Chapter Eight, we find Mr. Darcy, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, Miss Caroline Bingley, Mr. Bingley and Mr. and Mrs. Hurst in the drawing room. Miss Bennet is holding her own against Miss Bingley’s abuse. She is being chided for wishing to read, instead of joining the party at cards. The point of the conversation is to draw Mr. Darcy’s attention to Miss Bennet’s lack of social graces and accomplishments. But Miss Bingley miscalculates in offering her definition of a lady of Quality and Mr. Darcy, indubitably, puts her in her place.

All this she must possess,” added Darcy, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”

Elizabeth Bennet expresses her amazement at Mr. Darcy’s description of an accomplished woman. To my ears, it all sounded vaguely familiar.

I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any.”

Where do we find similar commentary within our liturgy? 

Take a look at Proverbs, and in particular, Eishet Chayil, A Woman of Valor Who Can Find? Austen’s use and understanding of biblical language seems to be jumping off the page! Without a doubt, Jane Austen was familiar with these words. Her own dear brother made certain to memorialize her using a quote from the same Proverb 31.

She opens her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness”  

In today’s society, a woman is expected to be a superhero. She must be a good daughter, wife and mother. She must be teacher, nurse, caregiver, friend, homemaker, and provider. As Jewish families gather around the Shabbos table, husbands sing King Solomon’s praise of their Eishet Chayil. I would guess many women, exhausted and possibly overwhelmed, may secretly wonder if they are worthy of such a tribute. Can anyone truly live up to such perfection? I believe that is Elizabeth Bennet’s question. She challenges Mr. Darcy’s remark with great bewilderment.

I never saw such capacity, and taste, and application, and elegance, as you describe united.”

But according to a midrash, King Solomon was not actually describing one perfect woman. He was describing the combine attributes of our matriarchs and biblical heroines. They each brought their own treasured qualities and values. King Solomon did not expect one woman to do it all. Rather, the idea was that each woman should be held in high regard for her own precious and unique gifts.

Mr. Darcy, through the wisdom and creativity of Austen, was able to comprehend “a great deal.” He observed Miss Bennet’s skirts covered “six inches deep in mud…her hair, so untidy, so blowsy!” Instead of censuring her lack of grace, he saw a woman who cared not for her appearance. Her mission that day was to attend her sister, Jane, who was ill and needed nursing. He saw a woman who could not be swayed by the pressure of the group and stood her ground to read a book, rather than to play at cards. We know that Mr. Darcy despises cunning and deception; and in my view, Austen portrayed Elizabeth Bennet —at least in this chapter—as an Eishet Chayil. Her true character is showcased by her good actions and generous spirit.

LASHON HARA~ Gossip

We are introduced to George Wickham, that evil cur, in Chapter Fifteen when he arrives in Meryton to join the militia. He is handsome and amiable. Miss Elizabeth Bennet quickly falls for his charms. Although she prides herself for being astute and a good judge of character, Elizabeth is easy prey for Wickham’s mean-spirted insinuations and outright lies.

Mr. Wickham was therefore at leisure to talk to Elizabeth, and she was very willing to hear him, though what she chiefly wished to hear she could not hope to be told—the history of his acquaintance with Mr. Darcy.

It is not until Chapter Thirty-six, when Elizabeth is presented with a letter from Mr. Darcy, that she comes to terms with her error in judgement. Had she behaved according to the precepts of her faith, her upbringing, and her own good sense, Elizabeth would have refrained from participating in such idle gossip. 

She grew absolutely ashamed of herself. Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think without feeling she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.

In allowing herself to listen to Wickham’s diatribe against Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth all-too eagerly solidified her poor impression of an innocent man. And in doing so, Elizabeth causes needless distress to herself, Mr. Darcy, to her family, and to Meryton at large. Shortly after, George Wickham’s evil nature is exposed for all to see when he steals away with Lydia Bennet, the youngest sister. Elizabeth suffers cruelly for the part she played in her family’s undoing, not to mention her own broken heart. Again, I say, this speaks to how much Austen’s Judeo-Christian upbringing influenced her work.

In our tradition, we are commanded to remember how siblings, Miriam and Aaron, listened to gossip about Moses’ private affairs with his wife… “And God heard.” Miriam was considered the instigator of the incident and was severely punished with Zora’at—leprosy. When you take into consideration that brother and sister spoke to Moses privately and apparently with his best interests at heart, it is clear that the sin of lashon hara is grave, indeed. Mr. Wickham and Elizabeth spoke behind Mr. Darcy’s back. A worse affront, to be sure. Elizabeth’s penalty was not of biblical proportions; nevertheless, Austen’s message comes through all the same.


ZELOPHEHAD and his FIVE DAUGHTERS

Several years ago, a clever man suggested that the film, Fiddler on the Roof, shares common themes with Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In his blog, Robert Lockard brings up the similarities in between the Mother/Father relationship, rejecting a marriage proposal, forbidden love, soul mates, and losing one’s home. Needless to say, the author also mentions that the Bennets have five daughters, as do Tevye and his wife. I’m willing to take it one step further. Could Austen have been thinking of Zelophehad and his five daughters when she plotted out her storyline?

In Numbers 27, we are introduced to a family of five sisters: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah. As their father, Zelophehad, has died, the women are dependent on marriage to secure their future. Just as we see in the Bennet household with regard to the entail of Longbourn, these sisters may not inherit their father’s land. But here is where the two stories differ. Unlike the Bennets, these sisters speak up! They take their claim to Moses, who refers the question to God. And He says:


The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them

Numbers 27:7

Of course, if Austen followed the suggestion found in her bible, her plot would have lost its arc. Mr. Darcy— and his ten thousand a year— would have been superfluous! Perish the thought! I still hold fast to my hypothesis and will continue with my examination of Judaic themes in Austen’s novels; only now, I will offer up my own work as an example.

LECH LECHA~ Go forth or Go towards yourself

In my book Celestial Persuasion, Abigail Isaacs finds herself at a crossroads. With few alternatives before her, Abigail chooses to heed her brother’s wishes and leaves home and hearth to make her way to a strange and distant land. I can’t help but connect this with the message that was given to Abram.

Go from your land, from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you.”

Genesis 12:1

In researching this parsha (this section), I was drawn to a Kabbalistic interpretation of these famous words. Go from your land, becomes Go from your will—set aside your plans, your limited views of what you can become. From your birthplace, is understood to mean, walk away from your emotional self—which, as often is the case, is the product of one’s environment. From your father’s house, refers to the intellect or that which has the authority over one’s feelings and behavior. This interpretation fits my protagonist to a T.

Abigail Isaacs is a woman torn. She had set her eyes on a certain path and dedicated herself to fulfilling that one goal. In the process, Abigail closed the door on love, on the possibility of being hurt, of making mistakes. Tucked away in her observatory, she was safe. She set hard boundaries and felt secure. When her brother seemingly speaks to her from beyond the celestial veil, Abigail—much like Abram—is challenged to go forth and to become what she was always meant to be. I only can add that I hope you pick up a copy of the book and see how the story unfolds.

That’s all for today, my friends, but stay tuned. Next time, we’ll take a look at Emma.

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Author’s Interview with Shirley Reva Vernick

Today, I am happy to welcome Shirley Reva Vernick to the blog.

Vernick is the author of four novels. The Blood Lie is an American Library Association Best Fiction for Young Readers pick and a Sydney Taylor Book Award honoree. Remember Dippy won the Dolly Gray Literature Award from the Council for Exceptional Children. The Black Butterfly is a Junior Library Guild selection.

She is a graduate of Cornell University and an alumna of the Radcliffe Writing Seminars. When not creating stories, she mentors incarcerated individuals with their writing via the Prisoner Express program.

Shirley! That last bit is intriguing all on its own! I am certain that we could spend an hour just talking about your work with the Prisoner Express program. What a mitzvah! But today, we’re here to chat about something altogether different and I’m excited to get started. Let’s begin, shall we? Tell us about your upcoming project.

Guest: Thanks for your warm welcome, Mirta! I’m a big fan of your work, and I’m delighted to be here today. My new upper-MG/early-YA novel is Ripped Away (Regal House Publishing, February 8, 2022). This story is based on the experiences of Jewish immigrants to London during the Jack the Ripper spree, when xenophobia ran high.

In Ripped Away, a fortune teller reveals that classmates Abe and Mitzy may be able to save someone’s life…and then she sweeps them to the slums of Victorian London in the middle of the Jack the Ripper spree. To get back home, they’ll have to figure out how the fortune teller’s prophecy is connected to one of history’s most notorious criminal cases. They’ll also have to survive the outpouring of hate toward Jewish refugees that the Ripper murders triggered. 

My purpose in writing Ripped Away is to illuminate this episode in history, as well as to inspire readers to contemplate possible responses to intolerance. National Jewish Book Award-winning author Anne Blankman calls Ripped Away “an engrossing adventure. From the moment Abe and Mitzy are swept back in time to the infamous Jack the Ripper, readers will clamor to find out what happens next.”

Host: I applaud your efforts and motivation for writing this book. Why do you think Jewish Historical Fiction is an important, stand-alone genre?

Guest: Jewish history is incredibly rich—the people, places, philosophies, and so much more. This history is is important not just for contemporary Jews, but for the world, because Jews and their millennia-long experiences have been formative to modern sensibilities, science, ethics, politics, you name it. I believe that Jewish Historical Fiction allows meaningful access to these elements. It also inspires substantive conversations and cross-cultural understanding.

Host: That is very well said. Our history is so much more than what we normally find in school books, novels, and film. Do you remember your first Jewish fiction that was non-Holocaust related?

Guest: Yes, the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer. I still go back and reread his timeless tales.

Host: One of Singer’s quotes states:  “The greatness of art is not to find what is common but what is unique.” What did you discover that was unique, while researching Jack the Ripper and the Jewish community in the Victorian era? Were you moved or surprised by your findings?

Guest: Yes and yes! I was anguished to learn that London’s Jewish refugees, who had endured such hardship in Eastern Europe (think pogroms), finally got to a place that seemed reasonably safe, only to have the antisemitic attacks happen all over again. I was sadly surprised to learn that the city of London engaged in the antisemitic hysteria—for instance, examining the knives at kosher slaughterhouses.

Host: In researching your book, I found some interesting information on the protagonists. You state that these modern-day youngsters, Abe and Mitzy, are learning to deal with “formative issues” such as acceptance, hate, sacrifice, crushes, and the meaning of friendship. Can you pick a favorite amongst these two? Which of your characters resonate with you most? 

Guest: It’s hard to pick a favorite “child”! But if pressed, I would say that Abe resonates with me most. He is a social outsider in the way I often felt as a youngster, the nerdy, unathletic, insecure kind. The kind who wants friends but doesn’t quite know how to go about it. And, of course, he’s a writer.

Host: I understand being an outsider! My grandparents were among the Russian Jewish immigrants in Argentina during the riots and pogroms of January 1919—the so-called “Tragic Week.” Because of hateful rumors and insinuations, immigrant communities were attacked—none more so than the rusos.

In Ripped Away, you showcase how rumors about Jack the Ripper spread throughout London and how the Jewish community was implicated out of pure antisemitism. In today’s society, what with the advent of social media, rumors and false information are running rampant. Young people, in particular, are targeted. Their ability to think for themselves and come to their own conclusions seems to diminish while they spend countless hours scrolling online. How do Abe and Mitzy fare in Victorian London, where word of mouth spreads propaganda and false truths?

Guest: Abe, Mitzy and their new families must brave the police searches, riots and vitriol triggered by the antisemitic lies in Victorian London. I sometimes wonder whether they would have fared better or worse if social media had been available then. On the one hand, false propaganda can spread much more quickly and pervasively online. On the other hand, I’d like to believe that the voice of reason, of truth, might also be heard faster and more broadly with modern technology.

Host: Your bio is impressive, Shirley. How long have you been writing? When did you first consider yourself an author?

Guest: As a preschooler, I used to scribble on a scrap of paper and ask my mother what I’d written. Genius that she was, she read back “my” pithy prose or imagery-rich poetry. I figured, hey, I’m a writer already! Yes, I began early.

Host: One never knows when the writing bug will bite! I want to thank you once again for stopping by today. Tell us, where can we learn more about you and your work?

Guest: Thank you, Mirta! I really enjoyed this conversation and your thoughtful questions. Here are relevant links:

Author website: https://www.shirleyrevavernick.com

Book trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PS9LNn4w2qc

Amazon link: https://www.amazon.com/Ripped-Away-Shirley-Reva-Vernick/dp/1646032039/

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Women of Valor

I believe I was in the third grade when I read Martha Washington’s biography. By then, I was an avid reader and historical was my favorite subject. I remember being fascinated by our nation’s First Lady’s history; although technically, this title was not coined until after her death. I learned of her first marriage and how she soon became a young widow with four children.

Now a woman with property and means of support, Martha Dandridge Custis didn’t need to marry for financial reasons; nevertheless, she did remarry. And even though I was only eight years old, the romantic in me was captivated by Martha’s “love match” with the up-and-coming, Colonel George Washington.

Although Martha was attractive and well-liked amongst society, her life was not exactly charmed. Two children, Daniel and Frances, were lost to her before they reached the age of five—most likely from malaria. It did not end there. Her daughter, affectionally called Patsy, suffered from debilitating seizures and died at the age of 17. Martha’s remaining son, John, died a few weeks before his twenty-seventh birthday from a “virulent illness.” But, as the story goes, Mrs. Washington continued on, serving her husband and her country through the Revolutionary War and beyond.

I’ve learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends on our disposition and not on our circumstances.”

Martha Washington

As a young wife, Martha Dandridge Custis, moved amongst the upper echelons of Virginia’s society. She had been educated like most young ladies of her sphere, but when she became Mrs. Washington, Martha was in a position to do much good.

Determined and practical, she hosted weekly receptions where people of various backgrounds had the opportunity to exchange ideas and philosophies with the president. It was her intention that these so-called levees be dignified, yet informal so that the general society could take part in building the new nation.

All these memories flooded my mind while I was researching Mariquita Sanchez de Thompson and her famous tertulias or salons. Much like America’s First Lady, Mariquita defined and redefined the roles of what it meant to be a wife, mother, and patriot.

Mariquita was born into an elite family of the Viceroyalty with important ties linking back to Spain. She was of petite stature, but she held her own against her parents and the strict societal rules of the day. Strong-willed and independent by the age of fifteen, she defied her parents and refused to marry the man of their choosing.

It is precious to me to defend my rights.”

After experiencing what one could easily label a Shakespearean rebellion, Mariquita was able to marry as her heart dictated. She and her new husband became linked with public life and supported the cause for freedom. They hosted events to promote patriotism and to encourage free thinking.

Mariquita Sanchez

The Thompsons had five children throughout their marriage. They moved in the highest circles and were beloved amongst their society. It was, therefore, a great tragedy when Martin Thompson died while returning from a diplomatic trip to the United States of America in 1817.

Similar to Martha, Mariquita was a woman of means and didn’t necessarily need a husband for financial support. Nevertheless, in 1820, she remarried. Isn’t it interesting to note that her second husband was a gentleman by the name of Washington. Washington de Mendeville, to be exact.

It appears the Mendeville marriage was not a great success; however, Mariquita did not let that deter her aspirations. She continued her political work and was known for her association with The Patrician Ladies (Damas Patricias).

She advocated for women’s rights. She established schools for women and girls and founded the Sociedad de Beneficencia, to aid the poor and needy. It appears that great minds do think alike— look back at Martha Washington’s quote that speaks to one’s disposition for happiness.

I don’t deny that I enjoy a traditional historical romance. But there has to be more than “boy meets girl.” Whether the storyline is set in a posh drawing room in England or the vast American frontier, I am attracted to the protagonist’s courage, as well as her growth. I cheer for her unwavering steadfastness shown in the face of turmoil and tragedy. Miss Abigail Isaacs in Celestial Persuasion has much in common with the women mentioned in this post. Although she is a fictional character, I hope readers will admire her strength, determination, and heart. I suppose that is the magic of novels. Through the written word, we can identify with impossible scenarios and a variety of character attributes. Their heart aches and struggles resonate with us. Their triumphs spur us on. We may even aspire to be such women~ Women of Valor.


Excerpt from Chapter Four:

The next morning, Abigail lingered in bed with a cup of hot chocolate, dutifully presented by a young maid. She had spent a sleepless night, staring into the black sky and seeking answers from above. She had prayed for guidance and for strength; but such was her grief, not even espying her favored constellation provided Abigail any comfort. Unaccustomed to vacillation, she was impatient with herself; and in truth, not a little overcome by her circumstances. She longed for days of yore when her little family celebrated the Sabbath as one. Though she was quite young, Abigail could yet recall the Friday evening meals, the rituals, and the blessings. Her father beaming with pride would preside over the table and praise his Eishet Chayil, with the ancient words of King Solomon: A Woman of Valor, who can find? Her worth is far beyond rubies. She and Jonathan would not be forgotten. They too would receive a parental blessing before partaking of the evening meal. Thus cossetted and cared for, their physical bodies were nurtured, as well as their spiritual selves. For as their mother would say, on the Sabbath, their souls were lifted and the uncertainties of life were set aside. Now wiping away her tears and throwing off the bed linens, Abigail arose to brave the day.

It was much later, whilst she and Mrs. Frankel were at luncheon, Pearson solemnly approached his lordship’s guests holding a silver salver, which he presented with utmost care. Abigail reached for the note and nodded her gratitude. Making quick work of the missive, she sighed heavily and informed her companion that his lordship would be delayed.

“It seems we are to have a quiet day, Frankie.”

“Perhaps all is how it ought to be, my dear. We will amuse ourselves, or not—we two are quite comfortable with one another—we are not compelled to do otherwise.”

They removed themselves into the drawing room, where a fire was set ablaze for their comfort. Mrs. Frankel kept her thoughts to herself and knitted away at heaven only knew what. Abigail did not question her companion’s efforts and turned to find her own escape in the pages of a book. When the sun finally began its descent, Abigail set down the novel and moved to the window to watch the changes in the sky. She did not hear the knock at the door, or Pearson’s somber salutation; therefore, when a man’s voice bade them a good afternoon, Abigail was quite startled.

“Are you so anxious for the Sabbath to end?”

Sufficiently recovered, Abigail was able to reply. “On the contrary, Mr. Gabay. One wishes to delay the inevitable. I have not yet seen three stars together.”

“We shall both have to remain alert then, and let Mrs. Frankel know when she may begin the prayers for Havdalah.”

“Excellent notion, young man,” Mrs. Frankel declared, and went off to find Mrs. Garrett to gather some spices, wine, and candlesticks for the evening ceremony.

“Forgive me, Miss Isaacs.” Remembering his manners, he performed a gallant bow. “I appear to have arrived early. Has his lordship not returned?”

“We had a missive from Lord Fife. He has been detained and we are awaiting his return just now. You are most welcome to join us, sir.”

“I find you a bit pale. I do hope you are in good health,” said the gentleman.

“Thank you, yes. We have not had an opportunity to be out of doors, and I fear that my mind has been much occupied.”

“I can well imagine.”

“I am not certain that you can, Mr. Gabay.” Abigail grimaced at her severe response but was helpless to muster great civility. “My grief has been sullied with uncertainty; my life has been uprooted and I find that I cannot mourn my brother when my heart is so burdened.”

The gentleman looked upon the young lady and astonished her with a grin. “I have often contemplated the ceremony of Havdalah, have you not?

She was yet unaccustomed to the gentleman’s wit; and because of this, Abigail made every attempt to keep herself in check. Much as she wanted to condemn his ill-timed levity, her raised brow afforded him the impetus to continue with his discourse.

“The ritual—the symbolism—it challenges our senses,” said he, “as if to awaken us from a pleasant dream. Do you not find it so?”

“Indeed.” Begrudgingly, she accepted the sudden change of topic. “We are told to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. I would agree with your assessment, for we are in a dream world from sundown on Friday night until three stars appear the following evening. We are then awakened, as you say, with the ceremony of Havdalah—commanded to mark the separation from that holiness to the mundane.”

“My dear Miss Isaacs, mundane is not the word I would choose. Pray forgive my impertinence; but every week we are instructed to leave behind Perfection—or our concept of what that might be—in order to hurl ourselves, like a star shooting across the sky, into the chaos that is His creation. Into life.”

Raphael Gabay crossed the room and peered through the glass pane at the evening’s sky. Not finding what was required, he continued with his thought. “I ought not risk being thrown out by Pearson—perhaps I should behave in a more gentlemanlike manner—but your countenance assures me that you are, indeed, troubled. And it pains me to see you so.”

Abigail looked at him through her lashes and pondered his sincerity. “Your concern speaks well for your manners, sir, but I doubt very much our short acquaintance allows for such a declaration.”

“On the contrary. I believe my discernment is beyond reproach. Your idyllic life in Devonshire, surrounded by those you loved and the things you know, was your Perfection. But your brother is asking you, seemingly from beyond the celestial veil, to leave that place—not compromise or settle, but to see what else awaits you in the new world.”

“And what of your plans, sir? Does your soldier’s philosophy provide you sufficient cause to quit your home and family?”

“Ah—that was well done, Miss Isaacs. Implementing a defensive tactic in order to fell an opponent is a sound strategy on the battlefield. However, I am only too happy to respond to your enquiry which, of course, lessens the strength of your attack.” Mr. Gabay smiled and made himself comfortable on the divan before continuing. “I am a second son, madam, and have been given a certain freedom to live my life with some abandon. No doubt, I have caused my father some distress having no set course for the future; but try as I might, Miss Isaacs, I have never found my true calling. Therefore, the matter is very simple in my case. I am for Buenos Aires because I believe in this cause and respect the men at the lead. For now, that is enough for me. But I put it to you, Miss Isaacs: what is your destiny?”

Having heard his soliloquy, Abigail could no longer hold on to her vexation. She experienced an epiphany recalling her words to Mrs. Frankel the night in the inn. What was her destiny? If the ancient dictates of Gersonides, Ibn Ezra, and Zacuto were to be believed, it was apparent. Her celestial traits must not go unheeded.


I hope you enjoyed today’s post. There are so many Women of Valor in history. Can you name one or two you admire? Drop me a line and let me know!

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Blog Tour~Day Five: Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen

Thank you for accompanying me on this week-long extravaganza!

We’re off to visit Brenda…

photo credit: Shiki

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