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The Midwife of Venice

The Midwife of Venice

4.0 89
by Roberta Rich

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At midnight, the dogs, cats, and rats rule Venice. The Ponte di Ghetto Nuovo, the bridge that leads to the ghetto, trembles under the weight of sacks of rotting vegetables, rancid fat, and vermin. Shapeless matter, perhaps animal, floats to the surface of Rio di San Girolamo and hovers on its greasy waters. Through the mist rising from the canal the cries and


At midnight, the dogs, cats, and rats rule Venice. The Ponte di Ghetto Nuovo, the bridge that leads to the ghetto, trembles under the weight of sacks of rotting vegetables, rancid fat, and vermin. Shapeless matter, perhaps animal, floats to the surface of Rio di San Girolamo and hovers on its greasy waters. Through the mist rising from the canal the cries and grunts of foraging pigs echo. Seeping refuse on the streets renders the pavement slick and the walking treacherous. 

It was on such a night that the men came for Hannah.

Hannah Levi is known throughout sixteenth-century Venice for her skill in midwifery. When a Christian count appears at Hannah's door in the Jewish ghetto imploring her to attend his labouring wife, who is nearing death, Hannah is forced to make a dangerous decision. Not only is it illegal for Jews to render medical treatment to Christians, it's also punishable by torture and death. Moreover, as her Rabbi angrily points out, if the mother or child should die, the entire ghetto population will be in peril.

But Hannah’s compassion for another woman’s misery overrides her concern for self-preservation. The Rabbi once forced her to withhold care from her shunned sister, Jessica, with terrible consequences. Hannah cannot turn away from a labouring woman again. Moreover, she cannot turn down the enormous fee offered by the Conte. Despite the Rabbi’s protests, she knows that this money can release her husband, Isaac, a merchant who was recently taken captive on Malta as a slave. There is nothing Hannah wants more than to see the handsome face of the loving man who married her despite her lack of dowry, and who continues to love her despite her barrenness. She must save Isaac.

Meanwhile, far away in Malta, Isaac is worried about Hannah’s safety, having heard tales of the terrifying plague ravaging Venice. But his own life is in terrible danger. He is auctioned as a slave to the head of the local convent, Sister Assunta, who is bent on converting him to Christianity. When he won’t give up his faith, he’s traded to the brutish lout Joseph, who is renowned for working his slaves to death. Isaac soon learns that Joseph is heartsick over a local beauty who won’t give him the time of day. Isaac uses his gifts of literacy and a poetic imagination—not to mention long-pent-up desire—to earn his day-to-day survival by penning love letters on behalf of his captor and a paying illiterate public.

Back in Venice, Hannah packs her “"birthing spoons”—secret rudimentary forceps she invented to help with difficult births—and sets off with the Conte and his treacherous brother. Can she save the mother? Can she save the baby, on whose tiny shoulders the Conte’s legacy rests? And can she also save herself, and Isaac, and their own hopes for a future, without endangering the lives of everyone in the ghetto?

The Midwife of Venice is a gripping historical page-turner, enthralling readers with its suspenseful action and vivid depiction of life in sixteenth-century Venice. Roberta Rich has created a wonderful heroine in Hannah Levi, a lioness who will fight for the survival of the man she loves, and the women and babies she is duty-bound to protect, carrying with her the best of humanity’s compassion and courage.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In her U.S. debut, Rich successfully captures the seedy side of 16th-century Venice—the Jewish ghetto, the plague, the confluence of religious and legal authority—but stumbles with unevenly rendered main characters. Hannah, a midwife, and Isaac Levi are Venetian Jews. Isaac, a trader, is captured at sea and held for ransom in Malta by the Knights of St. John. Hannah is legally forbidden to treat Christians, but as a healer—and a woman suddenly in need of money—she cannot refuse the request of a high-born Venetian to help his wife give birth. Though she delivers the baby safely, the infant faces mortal danger and Hannah’s involvement deepens, leaving her susceptible to charges of murder and witchcraft. To evade authorities, she must rely on her estranged sister, a courtesan. Meanwhile, Isaac languishes on Malta. His kidnappers sell him as a slave to a nun, who in turn sells him to a brutish peasant. Using his wits to survive (selling his writing skills and helping woo a beautiful woman), he escapes captivity, but his and Hannah’s harrowing efforts to reunite are stymied at every turn. Both characters demonstrate intelligence, but only Isaac comes to full life: his thoughts, feelings, humor, and behavior leap off the page. Agent: Beverly Slopen, the Beverly Slopen Agency. (Apr.)
Joy Fielding
"An engrossing, well-written, and fast-paced story about a fascinating period in history. The descriptions of sixteenth century Venice were so vivid, they were almost tangible."
Sandra Gulland
"A compelling and engaging novel, a well-researched high-stakes drama written with elegance and compassion: fascinating!"
William Deverell
"A meticulously researched page-turner that evokes renaissance Venice with remarkable clarity, radiance, and vigour."
Katherine Ashenburg
"Not only did Roberta Rich transport me to sixteenth-century Venice, with its seductive tapestry of smells, sights, textures and beliefs, she involved me in a poignant story of seasoned love. I don't know which I admired more--the wonderfully realized setting or the suspenseful story of Hannah and Isaac."
Historical Novel Society
"A beautifully conceived debut novel... A finely drawn plot with well-developed characters to
whom the reader feels a deep connection. Historical fact is well preserved in the fictional story, and it seems clear that Rich herself feels an abiding connection with that story and her characters. The pages fly by as we too connect deeply with Hannah and Isaac. A highly recommended novel."
Kirkus Reviews
It's one crisis after another for a 16th-century Italian-Jewish midwife and her merchant husband struggling to be reunited. Religious persecution, sexism, pestilence and murderous, scheming siblings are just a few of the hurdles confronting Hannah Levi and her husband Isaac in Canadian-based Rich's cliffhanger-strewn debut. Key events have happened before the story opens, giving the novel the feel of a sequel: Isaac, who gambled his fortune on a shipment of silk, was captured by mercenaries and is now a slave in Malta; Hannah's sister, a convert to Christianity, is working as a courtesan; and Hannah herself has become "the best midwife in Venice, Christian or Jew," having invented forceps, the use of which risks accusations of witchcraft. When a Christian nobleman implores Hannah to help deliver his son and heir, she does so in defiance of her rabbi in order to raise Isaac's ransom money. The baby is born, but the forceps are stolen by the nobleman's wicked brother from whom she must also rescue the kidnapped child before masquerading as a plague victim to avoid further threats. Meanwhile, in alternate chapters, Isaac is being starved and beaten in Malta where, after multiple plot twists, the story screeches to a breathless halt. Overstuffed is an understatement for this heavily researched but lightweight historical adventure.
From the Publisher
“A lively tale involving love, blackmail, family, murder, plague, intercultural compassion, dramatic last-minute rescues and some very creative disguises.... Rich capably depicts the strength of women and the precariousness of their lives, regardless of status or religion.”
The Globe and Mail

“A lavishly detailed historical novel.”
Elle Magazine

“Enticing.... An adventure filled with love, intrigue, murder and unbreakable loyalty in a renaissance city where exotic perfumes and foul odours almost seem to waft off the page.”
—Toronto Star

“A compelling and engaging novel, a well-researched high-stakes drama written with elegance and compassion: fascinating!”
— Sandra Gulland, author of The Josephine B. Trilogy and Mistress of the Sun
“A meticulously researched page-turner that evokes renaissance Venice with remarkable clarity, radiance, and vigour.” — William Deverell, author of Mind Games
“Not only did Roberta Rich transport me to  sixteenth-century Venice, with its seductive tapestry of smells, sights, textures and beliefs, she involved me in a poignant story of seasoned love. I don’t know which I admired more — the wonderfully realized setting or the suspenseful story of Hannah and Isaac.”
— Katherine Ashenburg, author of The Dirt on Clean

“A suspenseful tale.... The book is obviously well researched, and its descriptions of Venice and Malta are both fascinating and realistic.”
Vancouver Sun

“Roberta Rich plunges into the stench, intrigue and skulduggery of 16th-century plague-ridden Venice.... Rich revels in the details of light, smell, sound, and larger-than-life characters.”
— More Magazine

“Rich successfully captures the seedy side of 16th-century Venice—the Jewish ghetto, the plague, the confluence of religious and legal authority.”
Publishers Weekly

“Entertainingly suspenseful.... [A] moving melodrama of steadfast love against all odds. In a series of cliff-hanging chapters, Hannah transforms from a “timid little ghetto mouse” into a resourceful young woman as she seeks to save her husband and an innocent child.... Rich’s fascinating historical details and her warm empathy for her protagonists will capture historical fiction fans and readers who enjoyed Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent.”
—Library Journal

Rich skillfully incorporates a wealth of historical detail into her riveting tale of a heroine who won't give up on her marriage.”
—Chicago Tribune

Product Details

Gallery Books
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Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Ghetto Nuovo, Venice

At midnight, the dogs, cats, and rats rule Venice. The Ponte di Ghetto Nuovo, the bridge that leads to the ghetto, trembles under the weight of sacks of rotting vegetables, rancid fat, and vermin. Shapeless matter, perhaps animal, floats to the surface of Rio di San Girolamo and hovers on its greasy waters. Through the mist rising from the canal the cries and grunts of foraging pigs echo. Seeping refuse on the streets renders the pavement slick and the walking treacherous.

It was on such a night that the men came for Hannah. She heard their voices, parted the curtains, and tried to peer down into the campo below. Without the charcoal brazier heating her room, thick ice had encrusted the inside of the window and obscured her view. Warming two coins on her tongue, grimacing from the bitter metallic taste, she pressed them to the glass with her thumbs until they melted a pair of eyeholes through which she could stare. Two figures, three storeys below, argued with Vicente, whose job it was to lock the gates of the Ghetto Nuovo at sunset and unlock them at sunrise. For a scudo, he guided men to Hannah’s dwelling. This time, Vicente seemed to be arguing with the two men, shaking his head, emphasizing his words by waving about a pine torch, which cast flickering light on their faces.
Men often called for her late at night—it was the nature of her profession—but these men were out of place in the ghetto in a way she could not immediately put into words. Stealing a look through the protection of the eyeholes, she saw that one was tall, barrel-chested, and wore a cloak trimmed with fur. The other was shorter, stouter, and dressed in breeches of a silk far too thin for the chill of the night air. The lace on the tall man’s cuff fluttered like a preening dove as he gestured toward her building.

Even through the window, she could hear him say her name in the back of his throat, the h in Hannah like ch, sounding like an Ashkenazi Jew. His voice ricocheted off the narrow, knife-shaped ghetto buildings that surrounded the campo. But something was wrong. It took her a moment to realize what was odd about the two strangers.

They wore black hats. All Jews, by order of the Council of Ten, were obliged to wear the scarlet berete, to symbolize Christ’s blood shed by the Jews. These Christians had no right to be in the ghetto at midnight, no reason to seek her services.

But maybe she was too quick to judge. Perhaps they sought her for a different purpose altogether. Possibly they brought news of her husband. Perhaps, may God be listening, they had come to tell her that Isaac lived and was on his way home to her.

Months ago, when the Rabbi informed her of Isaac’s capture, she was standing in the same spot where these men stood now, near the wellhead, drawing water for washing laundry. She had fainted then, the oak bucket dropping from her arms onto her shoe. Water soaked the front of her dress and cascaded onto the paving stones. Her friend Rebekkah, standing next to her under the shade of the pomegranate tree, had caught Hannah by the arm before she struck her head on the wellhead. Such had been her grief that not until several days later did she realize her foot was broken.

The men moved closer. They stood beneath her window, shivering in the winter cold. In Hannah’s loghetto, dampness stained the walls and ceiling grey-brown. The coverlet that she had snatched from the bed and wrapped around her shoulders to keep out the chill of the night clung to her, holding her in a soggy embrace. She hiked it higher around her, the material heavy with her nightmares, traces of Isaac’s scent, and oil from the skins of oranges. He had been fond of eating oranges in bed, feeding her sections as they chatted. She had not washed the blanket since Isaac had departed for the Levant to trade spices. One night he would return, steal into their bed, wrap his arms around her, and again call her his little bird. Until then, she would keep to her side of the bed, waiting. 

She slipped on her loose-fitting cioppà with the economical movements of a woman accustomed to getting ready in haste, replaced the coverlet over her bed, and smoothed it as though Isaac still slumbered beneath.

While she waited for the thud of footsteps and the blows on the door, she lit the charcoal brazier, her fingers so awkward with cold and nervousness that she had difficulty striking the flint against the tinder box. The fire smouldered, then flared and burned, warming the room until she could no longer see clouds of her breath in the still air. From the other side of the wall, she heard the gentle snoring of her neighbours and their four children. 

Peering through the eyeholes, now melting from the heat of her body, she stared. The tall man, his voice strident, pivoted on his heel and strode toward her building; the stout man trotted behind, managing two steps for each one of the tall man’s. She held her breath and willed Vicente to tell them what they wanted of her was impossible. 

To soothe herself, she stroked her stomach, hating the flatness of it, feeling the delicate jab of her pelvic bones through her nightdress. She felt slightly nauseated and for a joyful moment experienced a flicker of hope, almost like the quickening of a child. But it was the smell of the chamber pot and the mildew of the walls playing havoc with her stomach, not pregnancy. She was experiencing her courses now, and would purify herself next week in the mikvah, the ritual bath that would remove all traces of blood.

Soon she felt vibrations on the rickety stairs and heard mumbled voices approaching her door. Hannah wrapped her arms around herself, straining to hear. They called her name as they pounded on the door, which made her want to dive into bed, pull the covers over her head, and lie rigid. From the other side of the wall, her neighbour, who had delivered twins last year and needed her rest, rapped for quiet.

Hannah twisted her black hair into a knot at the back of her head, secured it with a hairpin. Before they could burst through the entrance, she flung open the door, about to shout to Vicente for assistance. But her hand flew to her mouth, stifling a cry of surprise. Between the two Christian men, pale as a scrap of parchment, stood the Rabbi.  Hannah backed into her room.
Rabbi Ibraiham kissed his figers and reached up to touch the mezzuzah, the tiny box containing Scripture fastened to the right-hand side of her door jamb. “Shalom Aleichem and forgive us, Hannah, for disturbing you.” The Rabbi had dressed in haste; the fringe of his prayer shawl dangled unevenly around his knees, his yarmulke askew. “Aleichem shalom,” she replied. She started to put a hand on the Rabbi’s arm but stopped herself just in time. A woman was not to touch a man outside of her family, even when not having her monthly flow.

“These men need to talk with you. May we come in?”
Hannah averted her eyes as she always did in the presence of a man other than Isaac. They should not enter. She was not properly dressed; her room could not contain all four of them.

In a voice pitched higher than normal, she asked the Rabbi, “Your wife is better? I heard she was suffering from the gout and has been in bed since last Shabbat.”

The Rabbi was stooped, his clothes redolent with the fusty odour of a man lacking a healthy wife to air them and ensure he did not sit hunched all night reading over beeswax candles. Perhaps, Hannah thought, Rivkah had finally gone to the Jewish quarter in Rome to live with their eldest son, as she had often threatened. 

The Rabbi shrugged. “Rivkah’s hands and feet remain immobile, but, alas, not her tongue. Her words remain as cutting as a sword.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

The Rabbi’s marital troubles were not a secret from anyone in the ghetto within earshot of their apartment. He and Rivkah had not enjoyed a peaceful moment in their forty years together.

“Gentlemen, this is our midwife, Hannah. May she be blessed above all women.” The Rabbi bowed. “Hannah, this is Conte Paolo di Padovani and his brother Jacopo. May God his rock protect them and grant them long life. The Conte insisted that I bring him to you. He asks for our help.” Our help? Hannah thought. Did she deliver sermons?

Did the Rabbi deliver babies?

“But as I have explained to the Conte,” said the Rabbi, “what he asks is not possible. You are not permitted to assist Christian women in childbirth.”
Only last Sunday in the Piazza San Marco, Fra Bartolome, the Dominican priest, had railed against Christians receiving medical treatment from Jews, or as he phrased it, “from enemies of the Cross.”

The Conte tried to interrupt, but the Rabbi held up a finger. “Papal dispensation, you are going to tell me? Not for a humble midwife like Hannah.”

This time it seemed the Rabbi was on Hannah’s side. They had common cause in refusing the Conte’s request. 

The Conte looked to be in his fifties, at least twice Hannah’s age. Fatigue showed in his hollowed cheeks, making him appear as old as the Rabbi. His brother, perhaps ten years younger, was soft and not as well made, with sloping shoulders and narrow chest. The Conte nodded at her and pushed past the Rabbi into the room, ducking his head to avoid scraping it on the slanted ceiling. He was large, in the fashion of Christians, and florid from eating roasted meats. Hannah tried to slow her breathing. There seemed to be not enough air in the room for all of them. 

“I am honoured to meet you,” he said, removing his black hat. His voice was deep and pleasant, and he spoke the sibilant Veneziano dialect of the city.

Jacopo, his brother, was immaculate, his chubby cheeks well powdered, not a spot of mud disgracing his breeches. He entered warily, placing one foot ahead of the other as though he expected the creaky floor to give way under him. He made a half bow to Hannah.

The Conte unfastened his cloak and glanced around her loghetto, taking in the trestle bed, the stained walls, the pine table, and the menorah. The stub of a beeswax candle in the corner guttered, casting shadows around the small room.  Clearly, he had never been inside such a modest dwelling, and judging by his stiff posture and the way he held himself away from the walls, he was not comfortable being in one now.

“What brings you here tonight?” Hannah asked, although she knew full well. The Rabbi should not have led the men to her home. He should have persuaded them to leave. There was nothing she could do for them. 

“My wife is in travail,” said the Conte. He stood shifting his weight from one leg to the other. His mouth was drawn, his lips compressed into a thin white line. 
The brother, Jacopo, hooked a foot around a stool and scraped it over the floor toward him. He flicked his handkerchief over the surface and then sat, balancing one buttock in the air.

The Conte continued to stand. “You must help her.”

Hannah had always found it difficult to refuse aid to anyone, from a wounded bird to a woman in childbirth. “I feel it is a great wrong to decline, sir.” Hannah glanced at the Rabbi. “If the law permitted, I would gladly assist, but as the Rabbi explained, I cannot.”

The Conte’s eyes were blue, cross-hatched with a network of fine lines, but his shoulders were square and his back erect. How different he appeared from the familiar men of the ghetto, pale and stooped from bending over their secondhand clothing, their gemstones, and their Torah.

“My wife has been labouring for two days and two nights. The sheets are soaked with her blood, yet the child will not be born.” He gave a helpless wave of his hand. “I do not know where else to turn.”

His was the face of a man suffering for his wife’s pain; Hannah felt a stab of compassion. Difficult confinements were familiar to her. The hours of pain. The child that presented shoulder first. The child born dead. The mother dying of milk fever.

“I am so sorry, sir. You must love your wife very much to venture into the ghetto to search me out.” “Her screams have driven me from my home. I cannot bear to be there any longer. She pleads for God to end her misery.”

“Many labours end well, even after two days,” Hannah said. “God willing, she will be fine and deliver you a healthy son.”

“It is the natural course of events,” the Rabbi said.  “Does not the Book of Genesis say, ‘In pain are we brought forth’?” He turned to Hannah. “I already told him you would refuse, but he insisted on hearing it from your own lips.” He opened his mouth to say more, but the Conte motioned for him to be silent. To Hannah’s surprise, the Rabbi obeyed.

The Conte said, “Women speak of many things among themselves. My wife, Lucia, tells me that although you are young, you are the best midwife in Venice—Christian or Jew. They say you have a way of coaxing stubborn babies out of their mothers’ bellies.”

“Do not believe everything you hear,” Hannah said.  “Even a blind chicken finds a few grains of corn now and again.” She looked at his large hands, nervously clasping each other to keep from trembling. “There are Christian midwives just as skilled.”

But he was right. There was no levatrice in Venice who was as gifted as she. The babies emerged quickly and the mothers recovered more speedily when Hannah attended their accouchements. Only the Rabbi understood the reason, and he could be trusted to keep silent, knowing that if anyone discovered her secret she would be branded as a witch and subjected to torture.

“Now from her own lips you have heard,” said the Rabbi. “Let us depart. She cannot help you.” He gave a brief nod to Hannah and turned to leave. “I am sorry to have disturbed you. Go back to sleep.”

Jacopo clapped his hands together as though they were covered with dirt, rose from the stool, and started toward the door. “Let us go, mio fratello.”

But the Conte remained. “I would bear Lucia’s pain myself if it were possible. I would give my blood to replace hers, which as we waste time talking is pooling on the floor of her bedchamber.”
Hannah’s eyes were level with the buttons of his cloak. As he spoke, he swayed from fatigue. She took a step back, afraid he would topple on her.
She lowered her voice and said to the Rabbi in Yiddish, “Is it unthinkable that I go? Although Jewish physicians are forbidden to attend Christian patients, they often do. Christians needing to be purged or bled turn a blind eye to the Pope’s edict. Many Jewish doctors are summoned under the darkness of night and slip past sleeping porters. They say even the Doge himself has a Jewish physician . . .”

“Such tolerance would never extend to a woman,” the Rabbi replied. “If a Christian baby was, God forbid, to die at birth, and a Jewish midwife was attending, she would be blamed. And along with her, the entire ghetto.” The Rabbi turned to the Conte and said, speaking again in Veneziano, “There are many Christian midwives in Venice.  Any one of them would be honoured to help.”

Paolo di Padovani looked pale in the dim light of the room. “You are my last hope,” he said in a soft voice. “They say you have magic in your hands.” He picked up Hannah’s hands and clasped them. His own hands felt cold, the palms soft as kid leather. Hers were rough from lye soap and hard well water. “Is that true?”

Embarrassed and shocked, she pulled her hands away. The Rabbi leaned toward her and said in Yiddish, “Is this what you want, Hannahlah?” He used her childhood nickname. “Your body tipped from a barge some night into that part of the lagoon where no fishing is allowed and where no one may draw drinking water?”

A prudent woman would not reply. But Hannah could not hold her tongue. “Is the suffering of a Christian woman different from the suffering of a Jewish one?”

“Tell this illustrious Conte that you cannot help him. Let his wife’s death be laid at the door of someone other than a Jew.”

The Rabbi was ignorant of what it meant to be female: to bear stillbirths, to suffer puerperal fever, to hear the rustle of the wings of the Angel of Death over cradles and birthing stools. Hannah took a deep breath and said, “I have a talent, Rabbi. Surely God wants me to use it.” “I curse the day you brought your, your . . .”—he floundered in search of the right word—“your device to me and asked me to make a brokhe, a blessing, over it.”

Hannah regretted it too. If only she had kept her creation a secret.

“He is rich,” the Rabbi continued. “A merchant and a Christian. Every man, woman, and child in the ghetto will pay the price if this child dies under your care.”

The Conte said to the Rabbi, “I can protect her if, God forbid, there is trouble. I am a member of the Council of Ten and I have friends in the Courts of Inquisition.” He made an effort to encourage her. “Ready yourself, Hannah, and come with me under cover of darkness, in my gondola. No one outside my household will know of your attendance.”

The Rabbi muttered in Yiddish, “Hannah, you do not know the world as I do. This will not turn out well. Yes, he wants you now. Yes, he will protect you now. He and his lofty Council of Ten. But do you think for one moment that he will give a fig about you if his wife dies?”

Hannah tried to swallow, but her throat was too dry. The Conte had ventured into the canals at night, courted disaster from roving bands of ruffians, bribed Vicente to unlock the gates, and roused the Rabbi from his bed. Few husbands would take such trouble. She glanced at the Rabbi, whose black eyes, below wiry eyebrows winging up toward his bald head, fixed her with a scowl. He was blocking the door, standing in front of her with the air of a man who would not step aside for God Himself.

When Hannah’s sister, Jessica, converted to Christianity in order to marry a gentile, who later abandoned her, the Rabbi had, in accordance with Jewish law, ordered the family to sit shiva, the traditional mourning ritual for the dead, and to never utter her name again. “Jessica, may her name be obliterated and the teeth rot in her head,” he had said as Hannah wept and her father covered the family’s only looking-glass. The Rabbi had forbidden anyone in the ghetto to have contact with Jessica from that moment on.

Her sister lived only a few canals away. Hurrying to the Rialto market at dawn, Hannah had often crossed paths with Jessica as she made her way home from a party or fancy dress ball, attired in a gown of rich silk, sequins, and a mask. Each time, obedient to the Rabbi’s injunction, Hannah would duck her head and take another route. 

A year later, a midwife’s apprentice arrived at the gates of the ghetto, out of breath from running, to summon Hannah to Jessica’s confinement. The Rabbi barred Hannah from accompanying the apprentice and chased her away.

The Rabbi addressed the Conte now. “With all due respect, the authorities cannot always protect the Jews when the priests foment trouble. You and I would not have to ponder the matter long to think of examples—during outbreaks of the plague, when the infidel pirates seize Venetian ships . . .”

If he heard the Rabbi, the Conte gave no sign, shrugging off his cloak and laying it on the only space available, the bed. A look crossed his face, and for a moment Hannah thought he would wrap her up in his cloak, sling her over his shoulder, and carry her out into the night. “Conte,” said Hannah, “I do not perform miracles, nor is there magic in my hands.”

“You must try,” he replied.

Jacopo tugged at the Conte’s arm. “Come. Let us go. We were fools to think a Jew would help. Holy Mother of God, Paolo, I will leave without you if I have to.” He held his handkerchief to his nose. “The smell of this room is making me quite nauseous. Paolo, conclude this matter.  Offer her money. This is the only thing Jews understand.”

Hannah should have been accustomed to such remarks—she heard them often enough. But she whirled on him, ready to say the first thing that came into her head, to curse him as the whore son of a pig. Instead, she cleared her throat and addressed his brother.

“Conte, pay me two hundred ducats and I will go to your wife.”

Jacopo let out a snort of laughter.

Hannah kept her eyes fixed on the Conte, who was not laughing. His eyebrows knit together as he pondered the demand. It was a shocking sum. Two hundred ducats was sufficient to buy a hundred bolts of printed silk, a cargo of timber, or Isaac’s life. No one, not even a nobleman, would pay such an amount for her services. A few silver coins was her usual fee.

This would end the discussion and send the Conte back to his palazzo. The Rabbi was right. If Hannah failed to save the Contessa, the Inquisition would force her to submit to the strappado. Her hands would be bound behind her back and she would be dropped from a great height. 

Hannah said, “My husband is being held as a slave in Malta by the Knights of Jerusalem. They demand this sum for his ransom. I will try to save your wife’s life if you will save my husband’s.”

The Rabbi was angry now, his voice slow and deliberate. “Hannah, as I have told you, the Society for the Release of Captives will fund Isaac’s release. It is only a matter of time.”

“Time is running out,” Hannah said.

The Rabbi shook a stiff, blue-veined fist in her face.  “Your first obligation is to do nothing to endanger the ghetto. Isaac is only one Jew; the ghetto is three thousand.” He was so close Hannah could feel the heat of his breath on her face. “I am your Rabbi and I forbid you. That is the end of the matter.”

These were the hands that had blessed her many times, had circumcised her brothers, and had held the silver kiddush cup to her lips at Seder dinners.

“Rabbi, I did not stand under the wedding canopy with three thousand Jews. I stood under the huppah with one man—Isaac.” Her husband, she wanted to add, who had married her without a dowry, and had continued to love her in spite of her barrenness. In the synagogue, she had overheard the Rabbi assuring Isaac that the law would release him from a childless marriage. The Rabbi had urged him to divorce her and find a wife who would bear him a son.  Isaac had pulled his prayer shawl more tightly around his shoulders and shaken his head. Most husbands would not have shown such patience—for is not a child the takhlit, the purpose of all women?

And how had she repaid this husband who, when she was aching from bending for hours over the trestle bed of a labouring woman, would take the bahnaches glasses from the cupboard, heat them over a candle, and apply them to her back? In the week before Isaac sailed, she had hurled at him an arsenal of wounding words—said that if he loved her he would not sail to the Levant in search of wealth and prosperity, that he thought only of himself and was deserting her. The words he flung back were like knives.  He told her that she was a timid little ghetto mouse, afraid of taking a chance, that he was risking his life for her, for a better life for both of them. Then there was silence between them. They did not look at each other, and slept far apart in bed. She had refused to see him off in his ship, La Dogaressa. Now the thought of him alone in Malta, believing she no longer loved him, was more than she could bear.  If the Conte would pay, she would go with him. The Rabbi could be as angry as he wanted.

“Will you pay what I ask?” she said to the Conte.

“I will pay this outlandish sum,” he replied. “You can sail to Malta and ransom your husband before they work him to death in the stone quarries.” He picked up his cloak.

 Hannah had no time to be astonished by his agreement. She draped a scarf over her hair and slipped on her thin leather sandals as Jacopo and the Rabbi watched. The Rabbi was silent but his frail old body was rigid with fury.

“Take me to your wife,” Hannah said to the Conte.

She hurriedly gathered her equipment—an apron, an iron knife, clean gauze, vials, swaddling cloths, packets of medicinal herbs, and a silver amulet, a shadai, inscribed with the Star of David, meant to be hung over the cradles of newborns. May it not be too late; may it be needed tonight. She placed her supplies in a bag made of unbleached linen. But before she pulled the drawstring closed, she raised the lid of her cassone, patterned in bright marquetry, reached in, and quickly took out a long and narrow object wrapped in cloth. A corner of the material fell away and the light of the candle caught the sheen of her birthing spoons, two silver ladles hinged together. Her face, drawn and white, reflected in the bowl of one of the spoons. Before the men noticed, she tucked them into the bottom of her bag under the swaddling cloths.

Her birthing spoons could save babies, but they could also maim. At a recent confinement, she had exerted too much pressure and had crushed the skull of the baby instead of easing it out. The mother was left with a tiny blue corpse to cradle in her arms. If Hannah made the same blunder tonight, she would be denounced as a slayer of newborns.

“Brother,” said Jacopo, “you are a fool and I will not be a witness to it a moment longer. I will take leave of you.” He bowed from the waist as well as a man so stout was able. “I have need of some fresh air. I will make my own way home.”

The stairs creaked as he descended and then the door at the entranceway slammed. Hannah wondered at Jacopo’s risking his life on the streets alone at night. Roving gangs of ruffians were commonplace—a well-dressed man might be robbed of his clothes and then shoved off a bridge into the fetid waters of the canal. But she said nothing. “Come, we can be at ca’ di Padovani in a few minutes. My gondola is moored on Rio di San Girolamo,” the Conte said.

The Rabbi pulled his prayer shawl higher around his shoulders. Hannah waited for him to move from the doorway, but he did not. He glared at her. When he slowly raised both his bony hands to her face, she thought for an instant he meant to strike her. Instead, he made slow circles above Hannah’s head, as he davened from the waist and said in Yiddish, “May God in His Greatness guide you. Be a credit to the Jews and to all women, Hannah. Do not bring destruction upon us.”

The Rabbi then stepped aside to allow her and the Conte to pass through the door.

Once outside, the Conte draped his cloak, smelling of tallow smoke and sweat, over her shoulders. “It is damp on the canals tonight.”

She sagged under the weight of the fur-trimmed wool. Clutching to her breast the linen bag containing her birthing spoons, she marched in the wake of the Conte toward the gondola. The Rabbi followed closely behind.

She could not help remembering the incident that had occurred last Purim at a house on the Calle del Forno.  The midwife attending the birth had been unable to turn the fetus into proper position. To save the mother’s life, the midwife had used a crochet to pierce the baby’s skull, and then had used a silken cord to rip the arms and legs from the child’s body in order to extract it. Tiny limbs had been strewn about the woman’s bedchamber, tossed there by the midwife in her panic. Hannah prayed the same spectacle would not greet her tonight.

Meet the Author

Born in Buffalo, New York, Roberta Rich was until recently a lawyer practicing family law. She has also been a student, waitress, nurses’ aide, hospital admitting clerk, and factory assembly line worker. She currently divides her time between Vancouver, B.C. and Colima, Mexico. She is married and has one daughter, three step-children, a German Shepherd, tropical fish and many oversexed parakeets. The Midwife of Venice marks her debut as a novelist.
“Much of the history of women is written in water,” says Rich of the impetus to create a literary heroine based on the history of the Jews in Venice, after touring the Venice ghetto on holiday. “Their accomplishments disappear as smoothly as a stone thrown in a pond. The creations of women are transitory — meals cooked, clothes mended, clothes washed, clothes sold (for one of the few professions Jews were permitted at the time was trade in second hand clothing), children born, children birthed, and children raised. After that trip, I started to read all I could find on the subject of daily life in the ghetto. There is precious little. And precious little about the daily lives of women in particular and how they gave birth. This book is a way to imagine a way into all that invisible history.”

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The Midwife of Venice 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 89 reviews.
Mirella More than 1 year ago
The Midwife of Venice is one of the best novels I’ve read. It is no wonder it became an International Bestseller. The novel is beautifully written; its simplicity makes it delightful to read and allows the reader to immerse themselves completely into the story seamlessly. There are numerous novels written with Venice as a backdrop, but author Roberta Rich sweeps us into a lesser known and darker side of the city’s majestic history – the plight of the Jews who lived there. In a city that was famous for its port and used to exotic people and trade, it caught me by surprise how racist and prejudiced the people were against the Jews at the time. Not only did the author do a great deal of research into Venice and its historical details, she also delved into the ancient skills and beliefs of midwifery. Kidnapping, murder, superstition, birthing spoons, and the plague grace the pages of this exciting new novel. The heroine is likeable and believable, but more importantly, fascinating. There are tragic scenes along with joyous ones as the story takes you from one event to another. There is never a moment of boredom. The pace is quick, the story unencumbered with too much narrative or description. For me, this book is a definite keeper and now sits on my shelf along with my other most cherished books. I highly recommend it, for it is sure to please!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I worked in obstetrics for 25 years and generally find any fiction novel having to do with deliveries of babies entertaining. I'm over half way through with this book, trying to stick with it, but I can't waste my time anymore. It is set in such a dark, dismal time and place! Nothing is uplifting. There are countless Italian places named and phrases which are rarely explained, and do not add to the story's interest. I read to be entertained, and this is definitely not entertaining!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
When I read a book with Midwife in the title, I expect a lot of birth drama, and stories of women and babies. This book had one main birth, the rest of the drama was about the midwife's husband and sister. It was still interesting, but some of the twists and turns in the book were very unrealistic. I was looking more for a realistic story of the women of the 1600's.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very disappointing. The plot is contrived to move the story along. The characters are very black-and-white with no depth. The freedom of thought and movement exercised by the main character (the midwife) is not convincingly supported given that the story is set in the 16th century. Overall, I was sorry I spent the time and money to read this. If you liked the description of this book (story, time, setting), try "The Mistress of the Art of Death" by Ariana Franklin instead. Much better story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This doesn't deserve even ONE star. This book is horrible. Most of the facts about Jewish Orthodox life are completely wrong and false. How do I know? I am an Orthodox Jew myself. For example, "shadai" is one of the many names of G-d - NOT an amulet. Jews do not put their trust in amulets - only in G-d. Also, Jews in the ghetto DID NOT speak fluent Italian. They spoke Yiddish and Hebrew. There was not even a possibility that Jews had any desire to keep contact with any non-Jews. The author did NOT do a good job on the research aspect. This story would have NEVER happened - EVER - in any kind of history (even in parallel universes). Go read a different book
aquaria More than 1 year ago
" The Midwife of Venice" was okay but it could have been so much better seeming like an outline for a real historical novel, you know, the kind that offer history, descriptions of settings, etc., subtle explanations of unmodern behavoirs, and so on, the kind of descriptions that give a vivid sense of place and time. Italy was soooo intriguing in this time period with beautiful art and architecture and most of that was just left out.If this author researched that completely, the writing really does not show it. Even the horrifying aspects were not explained and were handled kind of lightly, which i really did not like. Also the characters were mostly undeveloped. For example, Hannahs husband reminded one of a last century Jewish immigrant and not a citizen of the 1500s. As i said, this book was an outline for what could have been a deep and enriching novel, but if you want an easy read with under developed everything, this is it. I did afterall finish it!
MyBookAddictionandMore More than 1 year ago
THE MIDWIFE OF VENICE by Roberta Rich is an amazing historical fiction set in 16th century Venice. It follows midwife Hannah Levi,and her husband Issac,a sea merchant as they journey through the struggles of this era. With religious persecution,murder,sibling rivalry,faith,intrigue,treachery,the plague,midwife dangers,love,blackmail,and the struggle of a husband and wife to re-unite. “The Midwife Of Venice” will have you captivated from the first page to the last page. The author has captured the strength of women during this era with vivid descriptions and a rich cast of characters. You will not go wrong in reading this amazing tale of a Italian-Jewish Midwife,her struggles to survive,her desires to deliver healthy babies,have healthy mothers,and her new a delivery device(the spoon) . A wonderful debut. Be prepared to be transported back to the 1500′s, in this compelling story of women from centuries ago. Received for an honest review from the publisher.Details can be found at Galley Books,a division of Simon & Schuster,Inc., the author’s website, and My Book Addiction and More. RATING: 4.5 HEAT:Sweet: No sex or scenes of physical intimacy except some kissing. No graphic violence or profanity. REVIEWED BY: AprilR, My Book Addiction and More
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good story. Easy read. Fast read. Worth reading. Had an enjoyable time readjng this book. Not the best ending. Maybe not a literary masterpiece. While it was a good story, not that challenging of a book. Not the highest level of literary work.
reececo331 More than 1 year ago
This book is a great gift on Mother’s Day, celebrating our mutual humanity. The Midwife of Venice, A dynamic book, written from two points of view, about Hannah and her husband Issac Levi. Both characters are Jewish middle class living in the ghetto of the wandering streets and canals of Venice, Italy. Hannah is an inspirational caring Midwife. Who works diligently, to save the lives of her patients, and the children she helps bring into the world. In an attempt to find a new way that will help expectant mothers and their children through the process of Confinement she makes a new device that may cause her problems. Then Issac who attempts to elevate his family’s fortune by a perilous journey to sea is captured. He is ransomed for a large sum of money, Hannah is unable to obtain. She risks her life, and the lives of the people in the ghetto to raise the money to save her beloved husband. Only to be caught up in a crime that will endanger them more. Through her struggle you will find the marks of humanity. The attempt of life preservation and family inheritance is a dichotomous war of will. Can Hannah stand up for her profession, her people, her husband, and her poor patient? Will she be able to save the mother, and child? Will her gamble allow her to see her husband again? The story is very educational about Jewish tradition, and historical facts of the persecution of the Jewish citizens of Italy. His book teaches how tolerance would enable freedom, while persecution will only lead to problems for those oppressed and those whom oppress.
EraCG More than 1 year ago
Can't say I was thrilled but the book is ok.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Intriguing and captivating. I was unable to put down this book. I felt it was well researched and extremely detailed. The descriptions used were very visual. I definately will be reading the second book of the series when it is released in February.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am in the field where babies are born so midwifery grabbed my attention. I like the way it is fairly accurate at how the process actually happens so bravo to our author for getting basic facts correct. The story is an easy read that keeps you wondering what will happen next.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fascinating subject, well-researched, reasonably rendered, but the storyline got quite melodramatic - hard to not react with skepticism (such as the scene at the ghetto abbatoir). Also, (this seems to not have come up in any other reviews, so maybe it's just me) I felt manipulated by the continual cliffhanger/switch-to-other-storyline. I ended up skipping chapters to follow Hannah, then starting over with Isaac's chapters.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book from the first page. As there were some twists and turns it kept me on the edge of my seat. So much so that I had to finish it in one day to find out how it was going to end and would she find her husband. A few times I held my breath because I thought sure she was goint to caught and convicted because she was a Jew and was not supposed to help deliver any babies out of the Jewish section of the city.
Anonymous 9 months ago
It was fascinating to learn about the16th Century and the role of women at the time
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This book was disjointed and not enjoyable at all.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Depressing and not well developed storyline and characters. The author seemed more interested in showing off the knowledge she thinks she has than in writing a full book. Don't waste your time.
msaperry More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed the book overall. The writer is very talented and wove a wonderful story, even if it's not historically accurate as some other reviews have stated.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago