REVIEW: Rebecca of Salerno by Esther Erman
This book continues the story of Rebecca from Walter Scott’s 1820 novel Ivanhoe.
The Ivanhoe backstory: Jewish women in medieval England do not fall in love with Christian knights like Ivanhoe. Neither do they heal knights from battle wounds. But Rebecca does both—and nearly pays with her life. Rescued by Ivanhoe from being burnt at the stake as a sorceress, she flees from England and the man she loves.
Rebecca of Salerno: In Salerno, Kingdom of Sicily, Rebecca pursues her dreams by attending medical school. Practicing her profession, she defies family pressure to marry Rafael, the man who loves her. But more pressing is the conquest of Sicily by the Hohenstaufens and the arrival of rogue crusaders, both of which threaten Salerno’s long-standing atmosphere of tolerance. When a rabbi is falsely accused of murdering a crusader, Rebecca and Rafael commit to pursuing justice and protecting the Jewish community.
This story provides fascinating history, as of the medical school in Salerno, where women and men—Christians, Muslims, and Jews—studied together. It also exemplifies the recurring Jewish experience of persecution, search for refuge, and resilience to remake lives.
Rebecca struggles to balance community expectations and traditions with her desire for fulfillment—one of the great challenges facing women throughout the ages.
CW – multiple rapes, multiple suicides and suicidal ideation, discrimination/slurs against Jews
Dear Ms. Erman,
When I saw this book, I was intrigued for two reasons. Firstly, I’ve actually read “Ivanhoe” and always thought Rebecca was the heroine rather than milktoast Rowena. After she survived the Templars and she and her father fled England, I wondered what might have happened to her. Secondly, the medical school which she attends in Salerno is the one from which Diana Norman/Ariana Franklin had her heroine Adelia Aguilar graduate. Also it’s nice to see a classic book other than ones by Austen or Bronte revisited. So I was primed to read.
The opening chapter of the book plunks Rebecca and her father down in Barcelona among their relatives there before Rebecca discovers (oh, joy!) that there is a medical school in Salerno that not only accepts Jews but women as well. And Salerno is a place where Jews, Christians, and Moslems appear to be able to live (mostly) harmoniously. A few paragraphs later and ten years have gone by during which (boo) we see almost nothing of Rebecca in school or setting up her practice and teaching.
There is a lovely man in Rebecca’s life with whom she is friends and they work together to translate medical texts into Hebrew. The relationship scandalizes the Jewish community as Rebecca has continued to turn down Rafael’s many proposals. Reason – she gave her heart to Ivanhoe, it devastated her to give him up, and should the relationship progress with Rafael and then fail, her heart couldn’t stand it. Hmmm.
Salerno is suffering under the presence of a bunch of rowdy crusaders on their way back home to Europe after the collapse of the Fourth Crusade. As these are some of the men who brutally sacked Constantinople (a Christian city), it’s no surprise that their actions haven’t improved. PLEASE READ THE CWs AT THE TOP OF THE PAGE.
All this continues until the day that Rafael arrives at Rebecca’s house with the news that the scrawny and belligerent Egyptian Rabbi, who had shocked the Jewish community with his denunciations of them and how they consort with Christians and Moslems in Salerno, has been arrested for the crime of knifing a crusader in a bar. Thus begins Rafael’s and Rebecca’s attempt to find out who really killed the crusader and save the Rabbi – something that he doesn’t make any easier by his refusals to say anything he might know about who actually killed the man nor why he, who had raged against Christians, was apparently willingly in the company of one.
These two are in a race against time for many pressing reasons. No one in Salerno likes the crusaders but they’re armed and dangerous men and someone has to pay for the death of one of their fellows. If it’s a difficult-to-like (even among the Jewish community) Jew, well…there are a lot of people in town who wouldn’t stand in the way of him being shipped off to Palermo to be judged and summarily executed. The Duke needs a victim to calm the waters and prevent a pogrom against the Jewish community and many upstanding members of that community are fine with the Rabbi being the martyr.
All of this horrifies Rebecca and Rafael. They have no doubt that he didn’t commit the crime (if only because he’s a Rabbi) but proving it in time will send them across the city and back tracking down people to question and trying to get him to give them more information to work with. It’s almost hopeless and they know it. The investigation allows the details of life in Salerno, specifically among the Jewish community, and also in regard to Rebecca’s profession, to be shown. This part, to me, was the best aspect of the book. It’s obvious that a lot of time and effort went into the research and it results in a book rich in historical authenticity.
But I hate to say that most of the characters and many of their interactions fall rather flat. The dialog is sometimes clunky and when there is some drama, it seems even more melodramatic due to the overall two dimensional nature of most of the rest of the book. I ended up wanting to like the book far more than I did. The discrimination, persecution, and (although it is probably true to the norms of the time) misogyny got to be wearing. This is definitely historical fiction with a mere touch of romance. There’s also a lot about the resolution of the murder mystery that left me unsatisfied. The real killer is discovered but the justice that is meted out leaves a lot to be desired. And there are some things about the Rabbi that are never revealed. Either they needed to be tied up or the set up of the murder needed more work. I was excited about this story but it turned out to not be what I hoped for. B-/C+