Welcome to Novel PAST Times, Laura. Am I pronouncing your name correctly?
Laura: (She smiles.) I like the English pronunciation. It reminds me so much of my dear teacher and friend, Rebecca. Though she speaks our local dialect, Salernitan, excellently, she pronounces my name in the manner of England. She often says that she enjoys those reminders of “home”. No matter how long she lives elsewhere, England is always her idea of home. We are fortunate that she came to Salerno when she did.Though, as a refugee from England, that part of her life always left her with some sadness.
Yes. We still have many people today who are refugees. That sadness doesn’t go away, even when people make good lives in their new homes.
Laura: I agree. There is nothing quite like one’s first home. But, of course, Rebecca did not come to Salerno right away when she first left England. She came to Salerno from Barcelona, only after she learned of the medical school and made up her mind to study here. I was fortunate to be born in Salerno and to know about the medical school all my life. Though attending the school is difficult for any woman, at least I had the idea from my youngest days. Rebecca was a student for many years without knowing that all she was learning would help her be admitted to the school. I always loved learning, but I also always knew the reason for my hard work at studies.
Even in Salerno, which has always been famed as a center of important learning, it was a challenge for me as a woman to prepare. And, I have to admit, the path forward seemed easier when I was a child. Life here in Salerno was easier for us all, before our Kingdom of Sicily was conquered by the Hohenstaufens. Until they came, everyone here in Salerno got along well. The Jews and Christians and Moslems—we all lived in harmony. That changed after the conquest. And then came the crusaders, returning to Europe after the failed Crusade. Though they are supposed to be holy men, many of them are rough warriors. Roberto and my parents have warned me not to be out alone, especially at night. There has been talk that crusaders have attacked young women, ruining them. (She shivers.) I do not like having to be careful, but such talk makes me nervous.
I’m sorry to hear that. I hope you stay safe. But I’d like to go back to another topic, if I may. You say you prepared from your youngest days. How did you do that?
Laura: Well, as you might imagine, academic and scientific studies are not usually what most girls in traditional Christian families like my own are encouraged to spend their time on. I was the only girl and the youngest child in a family with five brothers. My dear mama was so happy finally to have a daughter! My mother and my aunts, indeed also all my male relatives, tried to convince me to devote myself to only the womanly arts. But I latched on to the brother who was closest to my age, Luigi, and studied with him whenever I could. He was far from an enthusiastic student, so he was glad to have me as his companion and, yes, helper. I caught on to science and mathematics, even Latin and Greek, far more easily than did dear Luigi. He wanted only to paint and draw—which he did with much more talent and grace than he dealt with Latin conjugations and mathematical formulas. But, far from rejecting the feminine arts, I learned and practiced them also with my lovely cousin Benedetta. She does not understand my desire to become a physician, but she encourages me to follow my own path. As I do for her. But the most important point to keep in mind, as my dear teacher and brilliant physician Rebecca always says, is “Balance. One must always try to find balance in life.” And an important part of that is moderation of habits.
You mention that Rebecca is your teacher at the medical school?
As a woman who successfully completed the medical school program and then, further, qualified as a teacher, she is an inspiration and a model for us all. I attend all of her lectures. At the school, in addition to the lectures and the work we do learning about anatomy from studying animals, we carefully scrutinize texts with tutors—individual work. I am especially fortunate that the Magistra tutors me. She always insists on the highest level of work, making sure I come away from each meeting with a clear understanding of the texts and the reasons for what we do. Being that I am Christian and she Jewish, sometimes we have different ideas about topics. For example,I have been taught that women have pain in childbirth as our punishment because of Eve’s transgression in the Garden of Eden. But Rebecca believes that, no matter the origin, we should find ways to reduce that pain. Being able to discuss these ideas is of great value to both of us and will help us help our patients. And I’m especially fortunate that she has also become my friend – something I cherish deeply.
Your family must be so proud of you for this great accomplishment.
(She makes a sour face.) Not really. My family was proud when I became betrothed to Roberto. He is handsome, which, of course, I like. He is from a good and wealthy family, which is what my family cares most about. But my going to medical school is something that my family and also Roberto barely tolerate. They treat it like a mild disorder of my senses—one I will get over once I marry Roberto and settle down to my life as a wife and mother.
Have you achieved that balance between what your family wants and what you are doing?
Not yet. Let’s just say, I shall never give up on trying to achieve that balance—even though at times, getting to that place on my journey appears more impossible than a voyage to the moon. Such balance is especially important at times like this, when we all face increased danger.
Good luck going for that balance! Thank you so much for spending time with us today!
Like her heroine, Rebecca, Esther Erman was a refugee. A naturalized citizen, she early developed a passion for language, which led to her earning a doctorate in language education, writing her dissertation about the Yiddish language, and working with international students on many levels. A multi-published author, Esther now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband. When they’re not traveling—especially to be with family in other parts of the US and in England—she loves to bake, quilt, and add to her monumental book collection. Find out more about them at www.EstherErman.com.
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