Jewish Heroines & Sir Walter Scott's Rebecca
Finding Esther and Jewish Steadfastness in a Victorian Novel of Chivalry
Undoubtedly, the Jewish race is one of the most visible minorities in the world. Some say that few people will have met a Jew, but the majority of them have heard of a famous one. So that may not be true; in fact, it probably isn’t. But either way, a plethora of our ambassadors belong to popular culture. As a community, we’re judged by the quality of the celebrities we produce; the prominent figures from history who we call our own. We’ve been doing pretty well on the entertainment front, claiming the likes of Sacha Baron Cohen, Barbra Streisand, and Wynona Ryder as part of the tribe. Nonetheless, the English literary canon hasn’t been building us the best reputation. Some of its best known Jewish characters are Shylock from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596-99), Fagin from Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838), and the much-maligned Barabas from Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (c. 1590). Notorious misers and hook-nosed caricatures, they embody some of the worst anti-Semitic stereotypes in existence.
Now these are the characters that the world chooses to remember. As Jews, why do we do the same? Why do we focus on our bad representations? Do the superlative ones even exist? Yes, they do. Sir Walter Scott’s Rebecca, a protagonist of his medieval masterpiece Ivanhoe (1920), is the Jewish literary legend you should be talking about.
Rebecca is the daughter of a one-dimensional moneylender, Isaac of York, but that’s where the typecasting ends. She’s exceptionally beautiful, dazzlingly insightful, and immensely talented. When Wilfred of Ivanhoe, the titular character and a Saxon knight, is injured in a tournament, she saves his life using her skills as a healer. She later goes on to survive and overcome captivity, sexual harassment, and a witchcraft trial. Basically, she’s the ultimate badass.
Rebecca stands up for herself, her religion, and her morals. She exposes hypocrisy, and rewrites the rules of her society by speaking out. The Knight Templar, Brian de Bois-Guilbert, tries to threaten her into having sex with him. It doesn’t work because she warns him that “each Chapter of thy Order, shall learn, that, like a heretic, thou hast sinned with a Jewess”. Brian doesn’t want to be banished for publicly breaking his celibacy vow, especially with a heretic, and backs off. We can all learn from Rebecca’s willingness to sacrifice her reputation, and later on her life, to do the right thing.
You guessed it, the lascivious Brian repeats his offer. This time Rebecca’s on death row; she’s about to be executed for witchcraft, and an escape route is his bargaining chip. It’s a more tempting prospect, as far as that’s possible. But in case you were worried, Rebecca doesn’t ride his horse literally or metaphorically. She gives the knight the ultimate brush off, making it absolutely clear that “I hold thee as my worst and most deadly enemy”. Predictably, and I suppose luckily, Ivanhoe comes to rescue her by defeating Sir Brian in a Game of Thrones style trial-by-combat. I know what you’re thinking, here comes another white male saviour. Except Ivanhoe’s big muscles don’t kill Brian; he conveniently drops dead for no apparent reason during the fight. Rebecca saves herself; she refuses to renounce G-d, and He’s there when she needs Him. Yes G-d, and not the patriarchy, is the real boss.
When you hold on to your faith you’re eventually rewarded. Whether that’s faith in G-d, or in yourself. Maybe that’s why Queen Esther, when she’s tested, doesn’t let death phase her. She risks her life of luxury to save the Jews from another genocide. According to the Megillah “if anyone [...] approaches the King in the inner court without being summoned, there is but one law for him: that he be put to death; except for the person to whom the King shall extend the gold sceptre so that he may live”. Esther laughs in the face of danger, and successfully approaches Ahasuerus in this way. She invites him to the famous banquet, and the rest is history. We all know that Esther and Rebecca are strikingly beautiful, and it’s their good looks that get them noticed. But they’re not just beautiful; they’re brave, and it’s their daring that we should remember them for.
Esther becomes Queen to take charge when no one else could. Mordecai thinks that G-d chose her “for such a time as this'' to use her power for good. She champions her people and doesn’t let them accept their place in the world. She teaches them to fight for their future and their rich collective identity. She leads by example. Moreover, her presence is a defiant act against those who would demean her. The commentary on the ArtScroll Megillah wonders: “why did G-d subject the Persian women to the humiliation of being taken to the King and then rejected in favour of Esther [the Jewess]”? Its answer is: “because the Persian women used to pour contempt on the daughters of Israel, calling them ugly and saying none would look at them”. Esther reminds us that we have a moral duty to fight back; to resist the haters; to call them out. However clichéd the epigram is, we must be the change we wish to see in the world.
Esther can’t shake off her Judaism, and neither can Rebecca. But they hold onto it, and don’t attempt to unavailingly push it away, even when it makes their lives difficult. For instance, Rebecca is the heroine of Ivanhoe in practise, because of it, rather than in actuality. Rebecca is too Jewish to be the female-lead, so she reels us in from the shadows and steals Rowena’s (the official leading lady) place in the readers’ hearts. Naturally, Rowena is a gorgeous blonde bombshell. More importantly, she’s a Christian. A Saxon like Ivanhoe, she marries him at the end of the story. Whilst Rowena looks forward to a felicitous future, Rebecca leaves England to escape persecution. Unlike Rowena, Rebecca doesn’t have the freedom to live the life she longs for. In a much anticipated interaction between the two characters, Rowena begs Rebecca to renounce her faith and stay in the country. She responds by spiritedly acknowledging that “I may not change the faith of my fathers like a garment unsuited to the climate in which I seek to dwell”. She recognises that the wisest, and the only, course of action is to stand by her religion because it can’t be easily discarded.
Rebecca understands that her Judaism is a part of her. It’s embedded in her DNA and will always make her different. “There is a gulf betwixt” Rebecca and Rowena that can never be bridged, and the same can be said of Rebecca and Ivanhoe. There’s an inextricable connection between the knight and the Jewess, but it goes unexplored because of the cultural chasm that divides them. Ironically, Rebecca’s ‘otherness’ is what draws Ivanhoe to her; what makes her so compelling. At the end of the novel we’re left to contemplate “whether the recollection of Rebecca’s beauty and magnanimity did not recur to his mind more frequently than the fair descendant of Alfred might altogether have approved”. Rebecca, not Rowena, is the figure that Ivanhoe and the popular imagination can’t shake, and it’s her unashamed self-acceptance that etches her into our memories.
Personally, I’ve always found self-acceptance difficult. In the past, I struggled to be open about my Judaism. Whenever a new acquaintance asked me where I came from, since I don’t quite look English enough, I’d prevaricate by divulging that my Dad was born in India but wasn’t ‘Indian’. I was that girl who never wore their Magen David outside the house; I was worried what other people would think of me. It’s ridiculous, but I thought I’d become a pariah if I decided to be that ‘Jewish’ person.
In their respective tales, Rebecca and Esther aren’t the obvious heroes. Mordecai, who pulls the strings, is celebrated as the king’s saviour in the Megillah. Rebecca, as previously mentioned, is eclipsed by the ‘golden couple’ Rowena and Ivanhoe (even though Ivanhoe is a terrible titular character; he’s incapacitated for most of the novel). Nevertheless, the two women earn their places in our hearts because they’re memorable risk-takers. They speak their minds, and defend their positions, even when it could lead to a death sentence. If we don’t have ourselves, then we don’t have anyone. So let’s not define ourselves by the West’s worst version of who we are. Let’s prevent that narrative from taking over, and protest it.
Since we have the choice, let’s not be the Jew of Malta. Let’s be Rebecca, by commemorating her, instead.