Rebec­ca of Saler­no: A Nov­el of Rogue Cru­saders, a Jew­ish Female Physi­cian, and a Murder

September 1, 2021

This book is an homage to Wal­ter Scott’s cre­ation of Rebec­ca in his 1820 nov­el Ivan­hoe. Rebec­ca, per­haps the first pos­i­tive image of a Jew in Euro­pean lit­er­a­ture, deserves her own sto­ry. Her path is, as so often for Jews through the cen­turies, one of per­se­cu­tion, the need to find a hos­pitable place to live, and then the need to leave when that place turns inhospitable.

Bro­ken-heart­ed after flee­ing Eng­land and her ill-fat­ed love for the Chris­t­ian knight Ivan­hoe, Rebec­ca dis­cov­ers the med­ical school in Saler­no, where Jews, Chris­tians, and Moslems — men and women — can study togeth­er. Still in thrall to Ivan­hoe, she resists tra­di­tion­al and soci­etal demands on women to wed and bear chil­dren, instead build­ing her life as a physi­cian. But the dawn of the thir­teenth cen­tu­ry brings polit­i­cal changes that threat­en the secu­ri­ty of Jew­ish life in the King­dom of Sici­ly. When a rab­bi is false­ly accused of mur­der­ing a cru­sad­er, Rebec­ca and Rafael, the man who loves her, throw them­selves into pur­su­ing jus­tice and pro­tect­ing their community.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Esther Erman

  1. What choic­es did Rebec­ca, as a Jew­ish woman, have when she fell in love with Ivan­hoe, a Chris­t­ian man? What choic­es did they both have?

  2. What impact did the exis­tence of the med­ical school in Saler­no have on Rebecca’s life? How might she have pro­ceed­ed if attend­ing the med­ical school hadn’t been an option?

  3. How did Salerno’s Jew­ish soci­ety treat Rebec­ca? What were the rea­sons for this treatment?

  4. Why did Rafael per­sist after Rebec­ca repeat­ed­ly turned him down? Should he have giv­en up on her and sought anoth­er bride?

  5. What was the nature of rela­tion­ships between Jews and Chris­tians in Salerno?

  6. How did the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty deal with Rab­bi ben Shmuel, espe­cial­ly after his arrest?

  7. How did Rebec­ca and Rafael’s pur­suit of jus­tice for the rab­bi change once they knew the iden­ti­ty of the real killer?

  8. What was Duke Henry’s role in deal­ing with the mur­der of the crusader?

  9. How would you char­ac­ter­ize the Men­doza family’s behav­ior fol­low­ing the mur­der? How would you judge their behav­ior in the con­text of Jew­ish law and philosophy?

  10. What con­clu­sions can be drawn from the out­come of Rebec­ca and Rafael’s pur­suit of jus­tice for the rabbi?

  11. How did the advice of women such as Leah Sara Gar­cia and Sig­no­ra ben Levi impact Rebec­ca and influ­ence her choices?

  12. Did Rebec­ca and Rafael choose wise­ly on the ques­tion of emi­grat­ing from Saler­no to Barcelona?

  13. How do Rebecca’s relo­ca­tions — Eng­land to Saler­no to Barcelona — relate to the three-mil­le­ni­um Jew­ish history?