Book Review: Sylvie Weil, Elvina’s Mirror

Sylvie Weil, Elvina’s Mirror (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2009)

Reviewed by Jeffrey J. Cohen (George Washington University) and Alex G. Cohen (Westland Middle School)

Elvina’s Mirror educates readers about Judaism in medieval France while also telling an engaging story. The second in what Weil calls the Elvina Trilogy, the book was originally published in French as Le miroir d’Elvina and has been translated into English by the author. Weil bases the main character, Elvina, on a historical person — the granddaughter of Solomon ben Isaac [Rashi] of Troyes — who is mentioned in a commentary of the Talmud for her knowledge of Jewish law and healing. The story follows its fourteen year old heroine as she befriends a mysterious family who have recently arrived in her hometown of Troyes. She learns that these recent arrivals from Mainz were forced to convert to Christianity by Crusaders. The community immediately turns against the family, believing that even though they wish to live as Jews they are apostates. Many say that they should have allowed themselves to be killed by the Crusaders rather than be baptized. Even though they are shunned in Troyes, Elvina befriends Columba, a girl about her age who is part of the family. Elvina and her grandfather Solomon are kind to the newcomers. They tell the Jews of Troyes they are judging them too harshly, and ask them if they really would have accepted martyrdom themselves in the same situation. Mysterious omens start: a sudden fire, a deadly outbreak of fever, beheaded animals, scraps of parchment scattered around town with prophecies of ruin. Elvina discovers a cellar in the house of the family from Mainz and meets Ephraim. This young man has become insane because he watched his family die at the Crusader’s hands. He keeps repeating what he saw: “The Crusaders are throwing the Torah scrolls on the ground and trampling them. Ephraim is hiding under the chest: blood is flowing on the ground toward Ephraim. He hears his mother’s voice calling…” (127).

Elvina tries her best to secretly cure Ephraim of his madness, using medicine and amulets from her reading in various books. Ephraim keeps looking into a mirror and retelling the story of the massacre at Mainz. Elvina gives him a mirror of her own and tells him that he must stop looking into his mirror of the past and gaze into hers, the mirror of the future. Ephraim can see nothing there and returns to his own mirror. When Ephraim (who believes she is his dead sister) attacks her, she is saved by the school teacher under whom she studies. They bring Ephraim back to Solomon, who eventually brings him back to the world of the present.

The book is interesting and original. Although Weil doesn’t say so, the parts of the story having to do with Ephraim and Mainz are taken from a Hebrew chronicle associated with Solomon ben Samson which describes the Crusader violence and glorifies the Kiddush hashem (“Sanctification of the Name [of God]”) or martyrdom of the German Jews in 1096. Many of the characters are historical. The book makes these difficult-to-understand events accessible to a young audience. The ideal reader of the book would be seventh through tenth graders who want to learn about more Jewish history. The story has good use of detail. This book revolves around Judaism. It starts around Passover, a major Jewish holiday. Because it was written partially for educational purposes, explanations of holidays and practices can be long. Sometimes Christian friends are introduced so that Jewish rituals can be explained. These help the reader understand some of the characters a little better and why they do the things they do. But these parts can also be a little dry. The details are well written, though, and the word choice is pretty good.

We would recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn about medieval Jews and how they lived. If you are an avid historical fiction fan, or even if you just want an interesting read, then this book is for you. We would give this book four stars out of five.

Jeffrey J. Cohen is Professor of English and Director of the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute at the George Washington University. Alex G. Cohen is a seventh grader at Westland Middle School in Bethesda, Maryland.

Original Citation:  The Once and Future Classroom , Volume VII, Issue 2, Fall 2009

NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted.   No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.

TEAMS: Teaching Association for Medieval Studies