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March 1, 2012 by

A Conversation With Roberta Rich

Renowned throughout Venice for her gift at coaxing reluctant babies from the their mothers’ wombs, Hannah Levi, a Jewish midwife, is much in demand. But when she receives a summons from a wealthy Gentile count to attend his wife, she is torn about what to do.  Does she defy Papal edict that forbids Jews from rendering medical treatment to Gentiles? Or does she try to alleviate the suffering of this unknown woman, and in so doing, earn the money to pay her husband’s ransom? These are the questions raised by “The Midwife of Venice,” the first novel by former lawyer Roberta Rich. Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough had some questions of her own, and she sat down with author Rich to find out more about birthing practices in the 16th century, the transition from lawyer to novelist and what life was like in the Jewish ghetto of Venice.

What was the inspiration for this novel?

I have a very visual imagination. When I was in the museum in the Venetian Ghetto, I saw two things which ignited some images. The first was a shadai, or good luck amulet. I thought of the high infant mortality rate in those times, not just in the ghetto, of course, but all over 16th century Europe and had the idea for a shadai in the shape of a baby’s hand to hang over the cribs for protection. I also saw a pair of silver spoons resting in the glass display case. These crossed spoons became the inspiration for my heroine midwife to design forceps.

How did you conduct your research for it?

Fortunately, I love to read and do research although I must confess I am not a student of history and never took a history course beyond high school. However, there are a number of fascinating books written about Venice and the history of the Venetian ghetto. I was interested to learn that the ghetto was not only a place to sequester Jews, but it was also a relatively safe haven. In a scene from The Midwife of Venice, Hannah and her sister, Jessica, who has converted to Christianity and becomes a courtesan, accuses Hannah of being a ‘little ghetto mouse’, afraid of life. Hannah responds that the same gates that keep them in the ghetto, keep them safe. In fact, the Venetian government, the Council of Ten was protective of the Jews, valued them for their mercantile connections to the Levant (the Middle East) and for the high taxes and levies they were forced to pay for the ‘privilege’ of living in the ghetto.

How have you found the transition between your former life as a lawyer and your life as a novelist?

This was an easy transition for me. I had been a divorce lawyer for many years and was, quite frankly, exhausted. I was tired of fighting with judges, clients, other lawyers, and the court system. To sit in a quiet room with only my laptop and my dog, Maggie, was pretty close to paradise.

Have you been able to use what you learned as a lawyer in your fiction?

I think the emotional make-up of people has remained constant over the centuries. Revenge, betrayal, hatred, the complex working of the human heart―it’s all grist for the mill. How better to learn of these emotions than through seeing people going through one of the worst experiences of their lives?

The women in The Midwife of Venice seem to represent a kind of portrait gallery of roles available to women at the time:  wife/mother, prostitute, midwife, artist, nun. Was this intentional and if so why?

Yes, now that you mention it… I wanted a cast of women who were foils for each other. Hannah and Jessica are opposites: virtuous wife and hedonistic rule breaker. I am tempted to say that I created Assunta, the nun because I wanted a contrast with the Rabbi who represents the other side of the spectrum but the truth is more mundane. I grew up in Buffalo, New York. Around the corner from our house was St. Joseph’s Cathedral. In those days it was customary for nuns to wear black flowing robes. As a child, I noticed that under their robes, nuns wore black shoes. I thought they were wearing men’s shoes. My glamorous mother wore high heels and strappy sandals.

So far back in the recesses of my mind, I had a vision of a mannish, severe nun with a pale face and a strict manner. I knew she would try to convert Isaac because her family generations before had been Jews and converted under pressure from the Inquisition. Assunta had the zealousness of a convert.

Hannah Levi, the midwife of the title, is a most intriguing character. How did you come up with her?

I would like to say that she is based on an actual historical figure but, alas, the truth is, I read a number of diaries and accounts of midwives from hundreds of years ago and got a feeling for the type of women who would be interested in midwifery.

Were there more Jewish midwives than Gentiles?

I assume there were many fewer Jewish midwives. The population of Venice at the time I am writing of (1575) was about 100,000. Accounts vary but it is likely there were 1000- 2000 Jews living in the ghetto.

When times became more liberal and Jewish midwives were permitted to deliver Christian babies, they were often preferred to their Gentile counterparts. The reason was that Jewish midwives were taught that if they had to choose between the life of the mother or that of the child, they should prefer the mother. Gentile midwives favoured the baby.

Were Jewish midwives (like doctors) forbidden to attend to Gentile patients? And were there many instances of this rule being broken?

The Renaissance Venetians were rather liberal in their outlook. Many of the wealthy, including the Doges, had Jewish physicians, some of whom were trained at the University of Padua, which was remarkable for being the first university to admit Jews. Venice was under pressure from the Pope and his powerful Papal States to restrict, confine and control the Jewish population. The fulminations against Jews in Venice were mainly instigated by the Church and in particular by the Dominican monks.

Like many things in life, if you were rich and powerful exceptions were made. If you were poor and without influence like my heroine, Hannah, no exceptions were made.

Hannah invents a rudimentary birthing tool which sounds like a pair of forceps. Did such a tool actually exist and if so, where and when was it used?

I first read of forceps as the invention by the Chamberlen family of England in the 1700’s. The Chamberlens kept their creation a family secret for two hundred years and grew rich on it. When I came up with the idea of forceps, I spoke with  friend of mine, Rhoda Friedrichs who is an Early Modern Historian. I asked her if she thought such a device could have existed earlier. She said, yes. Many trades- farriers, glass blowers, carpenters, and so on, invented their own tools to help in their work. Why not a midwife?

Hannah, the midwife, is unable to have children of her own. What was your intention in creating a character who is denied what she wants most?

Yes, I thought it would be a cruel irony if Hannah, a midwife, was unable to bear children. However, I am working on the sequel now and I may relent. Hannah is living in Constantinople with Isaac. Perhaps the difference in climate and diet, and the fresh breezes off the Bosporus may cause her to conceive.