Esther Erman's Blog

A Real Life Rebecca

Modern Day Rebecca

What would you do? Imagine your reaction if at a break during New Year’s services in a synagogue—or church services or a public lecture or even a show—a stranger came over to you and said you reminded her of the medieval heroine in her current book. Would you cautiously back away and search for the nearest exit? Smile politely and try to put space between you and the weird person who’d gotten into your space? Pretend you don’t speak English and respond in a made-up language? Look around for a security guard?

Fortunately for me, the model of Rebecca, my Medieval Heroine—hence to be known as MH—smiled and politely offered to hear more. And then she was even polite enough to want to hear about my work in progress and to express interest in it. Since this author—like many others, if not most—was thrilled both not to be dismissed as cuckoo and to have a chance to talk about her story, the conversation sparkled. And so, for the first time in a long time, did I.

This meeting occurred at a time of discouragement in the evolution of the Rebecca trilogy. It can be so hard to “keep the faith” and keep going during the inevitable difficult times that most writers encounter.

As we chatted, I learned about MH. She turned out to be an Israeli woman of Moroccan ancestry. This accords very well with the probable ancestry of Rebecca, whose family was most likely Sephardic, i.e., based in Spain (in contrast with Ashkenazi, or Northern European based. And then, for the crème de la crème of the meeting, MH works in the healing arts—just like the original Rebecca! When I heard this, I knew I had to go on digging deeper to get my story out. Meeting MH provided encouragement when it was essentially needed.

Modern Day RebeccaMH has been kind enough to provide a photo. As the saying goes, this lovely photo is worth one thousand (or more) of my words to convey the incarnated image of Rebecca I’ve been working with in my writing.

So, first of all, I’d like to use this blog to thank MH. And then I’d like to think this episode can serve as a message to regular people who are foolhardy enough to interact with writers. We need encouragement! We’re easily discouraged! So please be kind to your local and not-local writers! We will be ever so appreciative!

 

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Salerno, Italy – Today

Salerno
Salerno

Modern Salerno

The Journey of Rebecca, my trilogy of Rebecca’s story after Ivanhoe, has a distinct geographic flavor, in concert with the overarching theme of her search for home. The first book takes place in Salerno, now in southern Italy—during Rebecca’s time, part of the Kingdom of Sicily. I was fortunate to be able to spend a day in Salerno in Oct. 2015, and got a taste of the place where Rebecca resumed her life adventures.

According to the guidebooks, Salerno today is a city that doesn’t have much to offer any tourist. In fact, the city sounds kind of depressed. Headed to the tourist meccas of Naples, Sorrento, and the Amalfi Coast, Lee and I figured that spending the day in a depressed city for research purposes was not a terrible sacrifice.

Depressed? The vibrant city we got to explore came as a pleasant surprise—and did not match any definition I’d give credence to of “depressed”. Despite its difficult past—a Lombard city conquered by the Normans and the Hohenstaufens, later dominated by Spain, site of Allied landings during World War II, and hit by devastating earthquakes and plagues, Salerno is nonetheless alive and flourishing.

Salerno medical schoolWhat drew Rebecca to Salerno was its medical school—blog post to follow on that subject! What then drew me was the new interactive museum about…the medical school! At that time, it was open only a few hours several times a week and had a small number of interactive exhibits. According to my latest forays on-line, the museum is open a few more hours and is still very much a work in progress. http://www.museovirtualescuolamedicasalernitana.beniculturali.it/uk/home
While there, I asked the young woman guide questions. Though I’d been studying Italian, my command of that language and her English did not suffice to accomplish any real exchange of information. She summoned the museum’s director. Fortunately, we both were able to talk in French, and I learned a lot. One of the museum’s challenges is that much of their material and artifacts have found homes in other museums, which are not cooperative about returning them to their home. In addition, the director gave me a lovely book about the museum.

In addition to enjoying the museum and some delicious morning pastries, Lee and enjoyed the seaside promenade. The cathedral was breathtaking—with mosaic tiles and gold in almost overwhelming displays. We enjoyed a lunch served by an ex-pat waiter from Boston, who’d come to Salerno several decades before and reconnected with family.

For me, most of all, it was a thrill to be on streets, seeing sights that my Rebecca may also have viewed. If you’re ever in that part of the world, I totally recommend a visit to “depressed” Salerno.

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My Heroine — Rebecca of Salerno

Rebecca Gratz

Urban legend or truth? Will we ever know?

Rebecca Gratz

Rebecca Gratz

Rebecca, daughter of the merchant Isaac of York, is the Jewish heroine of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. The fair Saxon noblewoman, Rowena, is the Christian heroine starring in the love triangle Scott created. Books such as Ivanhoe, published in the UK in 1820, routinely featured Christian heroines. A Jewish heroine was as rare as…rubies, to say the least. And a Jewish heroine who nearly toppled her rival in a love triangle with a devout Christian knight just returned from the Crusades… Is there any comparable character in the literature of the era?

One where did the character of Rebecca come from? We may never have a definitive answer. Perhaps the most widely held origin theory is that she grew from conversations between Washington Irving and Walter Scott. Irving was very well-acquainted with Rebecca Gratz, a Jewish woman, a philanthropist, who befriended his fiancée, Matilda Hoffman. Gratz nursed Hoffman, who died at a young age of consumption. Irving so loved Hoffman that he needed to leave the US to deal with his broken heart.

According to legend, Irving extolled Gratz to Irving, touting her generosity, nobility, and great nursing skills. The legend goes on to identify Rebecca Gratz as the model for Ivanhoe’s Rebecca. However, according to Joseph Jacobs’s account for the American Jewish Historical Society, Scott might have created Rebecca solely from his imagination or might have had models from among contemporary German Jewish women or from an American Jew who married an Englishman and lived in Bath. Jacobs talks of a letter that was supposed to clinch the deal in favor of Rebecca of Gratz, who self-identified as Scott’s model, but no trace of this letter has ever been found.

Certainly Ivanhoe’s Rebecca matches Gratz in several ways: first name, nursing ability, belonging to a merchant family, being generous, and choosing faith over the love of a Christian man. None of the other potential models had as much congruence with Scott’s character. Will we ever know the definitive truth? As so much else in the past, Rebecca’s origins remain a mystery.

At the end of the book, we see Rebecca and her dad heading south to a more congenial place for Jews. Her role in Ivanhoe might have been over, but I couldn’t help wondering, what would come next for Rebecca? That is the origin of my trilogy, The Journey of Rebecca.

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