April 21, 2024
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A Jewish Heroine in the Middle Ages: Rebecca of Salerno

Reviewing: “Rebecca of Salerno: A Novel of Rogue Crusaders, a Jewish Female Physician, and a Murder” by Esther Erman. She Writes Press. 2022. English. Paperback. 264 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1647422479.

“Rebecca of Salerno,” by Esther Erman, is subtitled “A Novel of Rogue Crusaders, a Jewish Female Physician, and a Murder.” I found the book, inspired by Walter Scott’s 1820 novel, “Ivanhoe,” to be a particularly enjoyable read.

“Rebecca of Salerno” takes place during the Middle Ages, as our heroine, rescued from being burnt at the stake as a sorceress, is brought by her father to relatives in Barcelona in an imagined sequel to the events that took place in “Ivanhoe.” Discovering that a medical school in Salerno, Kingdom of Sicily, admits women, she pleads to stay with family members there and fulfill her dream of a career in medicine. Thinking that women in the medical profession was a fairly new phenomenon, I was delighted to learn that there actually was a highly regarded medical school in Salerno that admitted all qualified students, both male and female, of all religions.

The story starts out slowly, building our knowledge of the characters and sharing what life was like for various segments of the Salerno Jewish community. Early on, an itinerant Egyptian rabbi delivers a lecture after Shabbat morning prayers. Accusing the congregants of sin does nothing to endear him to the Jewish community. When the rabbi is accused of murdering a returning Crusader, the majority of the Jewish community refuses to come to his aid.

Our heroine, Rebecca, and her friend/co-worker (and erstwhile suiter) Rafael, are convinced of the rabbi’s innocence and spend the rest of the story working to solve the mystery of who killed the Crusader. The twists and turns kept me awake late into the night as I promised myself repeatedly, “Just one more chapter.” The pages kept turning until the book was finished and the mystery solved.

I was delighted to learn that educated women were not uncommon. Yet many gave up their careers to raise their families and run their households. Like today, women doctors of that time often had gender biases to overcome and often needed to prove themselves again and again. Similarly, community members of all income levels made assumptions about other groups that often were illogical and presumptuous. The descriptions of the ailments of Rebecca’s patients and their treatments seem at the same time both modern and archaic.

Rebecca and Rafael have to repeatedly remind members of their community, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof.” (“Justice, justice shall you pursue”—Devarim 16:18) when many are willing to let the unpopular Egyptian rabbi be found guilty of murder rather than pursue the facts. The community also begins to look unfavorably on Rebecca and Rafael for their efforts to bring the rabbi kosher food and other religious items.

While not a true story, there is enough historically based material to paint a picture of an active and vibrant Jewish community. Salerno’s Jews, Christians and Muslims lived harmoniously until the Hohenstaufen dynasty, when they became scapegoats. As the Crusaders gathered in Salerno on their way home from their missions, they would often commit thefts or assaults. Residents were cautioned not to object to these crimes.

In the case of the fictional Egyptian rabbi in “Rebecca of Salerno,” community elders are concerned that defending him will backfire and put the entire community at risk. The local duke, with concerns for Salerno’s stability and mindful of the need to satisfy the Pope and regent, was obliged to require a man’s execution for the Crusader’s murder—even if he did not believe the Egyptian rabbi had committed the crime.

The book raises critical communal questions, such as: Is it preferable to sacrifice one person for the well-being of the entire community? If something bad happens, is it better to keep it quiet to avoid embarrassment or to share the information so others can protect themselves? How does a person know when their community becomes too inhospitable for Jews? When is it time to move on? The comparisons to other periods in Jewish history were striking and make one consider current global events as well.

The way the Salerno community deals with their mistreatment gives the reader plenty to think about: Should they continue to silently endure the harassment? Would it have been preferable to appeal to governmental authorities? Or should they resist and physically fight their aggressors?

Erman notes that while the book is a work of fiction, there are some actual historical figures presented. As noted in the afterward, the mood of the time forms the basis of the story. The author chose not to restrict the language to the 13th century to improve readability, a decision that makes the characters speak to us more clearly. Readers who enjoy murder mysteries or historical fiction will thoroughly enjoy the book, and get a bit of timeless Jewish matchmaking as a bonus.

By Deborah Melman

 

 

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