A new book celebrating the 40th birthday and impact of one of the greatest cultural touchstones of 1970s American childhood, “Free to Be… You and Me,” has just been published. “When We Were Free To Be You and Me: Looking Back at a Children’s Classic and the Difference it Made,” is a rich compendium of essays from people involved in the Free To Be project and others who, like me, were children affected by its lessons.
The new book, edited by Lori Rotskoff and Laura Lovett, with a prologue by “Free to Be” creator Marlo Thomas, features essays looking back with fond nostalgia. Other writers assess the ways in which the hopes that the “Free to Be” creators had when they first met in 1972 have yet to be fulfilled.
The messages in the original book and television special reflected the enormous changes sweeping gender roles in 1974. Previously fixed social norms were in flux. I was 10 years old then, and loved my big “Free to Be” book. Even as I watched my mother try career paths she had not been raised to consider, it seemed that my own possibilities would be limited only by ability and drive. There was something freeing about watching Marlo Thomas and Harry Belafonte sing about mommies and daddies having any job they wanted. The wonderful silliness of Mel Brooks voicing a baby puppet while sounding more like a Miami Beach retiree, and the sweetness of burly pro football player Rosey Grier singing “It’s All Right to Cry” were obvious even to children.
With her new book, “Rav Hisda’s Daughter: Book 1, Apprentice,” Maggie Anton, author of the “Rashi’s Daughters” trilogy, unearths a different chapter of Jewish history, giving readers a peek into what life may have been like for a Jewish woman in 3rd century Babylonia. Weaving together research on the religious life and culture, the sociology and even the statecraft of the era, the book follows the youngest child of famed Rav Hisda (or Chisda), who is one of the Talmud’s central rabbinic characters.
Anton’s curiosity was piqued early on in her own study of Talmud, which began in 1992, when she discovered the young daughter of Rav Hisda, who in Bava Batra 12b is described as sitting on her father’s lap. Two of his students, Rava and Rami bar Hama, stand in front of them, and Rav Hisda asks which of the boys she wants to marry. She replies “both,” and according to the Talmud, the fact that Rava said he wants to be the last she marries (which is indeed what happens) is evidence of children possessing the gift of prophecy.
“I thought ‘what a girl, what a story!’” Anton told The Sisterhood. “In 1995, when I wanted to write a novel about women and Talmud, I decided to write ‘Rashi’s Daughters’ because I thought it was easier to research 11th century France than 3rd century Babylonia. But in the back of my mind I thought, ‘what was life like in those times?’”