The Journey of Rebecca

In my blog, I’ll include upcoming publication news about this trilogy, a medieval mystery work in progress.

Book 1: Rebecca of Salerno, Book 2: Rebecca in York, Book 3: Rebecca of Barcelona — A project of many years, tears, and miles, my goal in writing this trilogy is to relate the story of one extraordinary woman who, with rare strength and determination, lives life on her own terms in defiance of the norms and expectations of medieval Jewish culture and society.

My Rebecca is based on the intelligent heroine created by Sir Walter Scott in his 1820 novel Ivanhoe, set in 1194. As to whether or not Scott’s Rebecca is based on a real person, perhaps Rebecca Gratz of Philadelphia, the question remains open (please see my blog post, My Heroine — Rebecca of Salerno).

As a Jewish woman, I found little in classical western lit to identify with. And then I read Ivanhoe. Rebecca is admirable—a beautiful healer who manages to be a good and faithful daughter to her beloved father, Isaac, despite falling in love with the Christian knight Ivanhoe. Is she a little too good to be believable? Since the few other Jewish characters in books were negative, what pleasure to read about a genuine Jewish heroine. Dare I say that Rebecca comes across as more heroic even than the Christian heroine Rowena, who ends up with the hero (of course they had been pledged to each other since childhood)?

When the initial Ivanhoe story ends, Rebecca and her father leave England to head south. Based on when in the reign of Richard Coeur de Lion the story takes place, Rebecca and Isaac leave around 1195 C.E. Since they had lived in York, leaving England was not a bad idea, though they might have actually been a bit late: most of the Jews in York were massacred by fire at Clifford’s Tower in 1190. Scott did not appear to be tightly bound by actual history or Jewish culture. Since writers these days need to be more cognizant of the historical and cultural underpinnings of their stories, I find it a special challenge to try to make my story work both with Scott’s book and with the exigencies of reality.

For example, in strict Jewish law, which governed life in the medieval era, touch between the sexes was tightly restricted. Men were prohibited from touching women during their menstrual cycles. Rebecca, the healer, touched Ivanhoe when he was grievously wounded. I wondered, what if she had been menstruating at the time? Was there a prohibition on touching a man? I asked my rabbi. He emailed back that she should not have been touching a Gentile man at any time!

Being a pantser—a writer who discovers the story by the process of writing rather than working with a highly detailed plan—I did not at first realize the theme of Rebecca’s journey. She is searching for her true home. For Jews of her era, such a search was often not simple. It could be fraught with disappointment, when one home disappointed or, worse, became untenable. This frequently happened because of political changes, conquests, invasions, and other realities of medieval life. These shape The Journey of Rebecca and cause her to go on a physical journey as well as a psychological one over the course of the trilogy.