Sarra’s letters to Ansaldo Cebà.

“My most noble Signor Ansaldo, your epic poem about Queen Esther, the devout, the resourceful, has touched me deeply. Already it is a part of me, I keep it under my pillow. I am ill, the child I carried has been torn from my womb by the heavenly force, and I have hardly the strength to read. Yet, even after just a few pages, I had to obey the call of my heart and write to you.

Behold how this beautiful Jewish woman piously displays her chaste passion, how she honors you amongst the heavenly stars and sacred fires. In her glory you are the poet of poets, your song will withstand burning heat and icy cold. May you feel my deepest admiration, my love and devotion, sent to you with passion from the Venetian Ghetto, May 1618.”

“Both your letter and your sonnet have warmed my heart. I must tell you, however, that your Christian faith will never take the place of my Judaism, my revered and trusted guide in this life. Although I am familiar with the New Testament, my place is with the generations before me, where Jesus is one of us. I fear that we are still waiting for the Messiah, possibly for a long time to come.”

“I owe you an explanation for the silence these past months. I have been seriously ill, again, and I needed every bit of my strength to hold on to life. However, I haven’t heard from you either. What could be the reason for that? I do hope that you yourself are in good health? I have missed your letters terribly. But then, if you insist on converting me in each and every letter, in every sentence, maybe it is for the best. Your remarks about the Jewish faith, your disdain, your reproaches are very hurtful to me. It pains me when you state that I, and my people, flatly refuse to learn about the Christian beliefs. And it is not true, either; I am fully acquainted with your laws. I have studied them with the eye of the lynx. But my heart and my head are loyal to the Jewish faith, just as they are dedicated to you, my master. Your devoted subject, Sarra Coppia.”

“Your letters are as scarce as mine, noble Signor. Or has my repeated request to not convert me, silenced you? Surely, you are not angry that I cannot forsake my age-old laws? Those values that are so wholly a part of my being? I am truly deeply committed to you. I have sent you a parcel with delights to warm your heart and enchant your spirit. It is filled with delicious fruits. I do hope that by eating them, you will celebrate my recovery and the fact that I am no longer bedridden. Let us symbolically share a passionfruit, to seal our bond. Your servant and slave, Sarra Coppia.”

“It is good to hear that the fruits have arrived at last. By all means eat them, Signor, they will do wonders for your health, and I certainly don’t share your concern that they will upset your intestines.

You ask why I am studying the Greek philosophers. I need their reason to understand the Christian laws. You say that believing always trumps seeing. Plato teaches me that even our own eyes can deceive us, which is why we must always examine our observations. Aristotle teaches me that even religion may fail.

Lastly, let me thank you for the extensive song you have written for me. Twenty verses to ensure my conversion! It is decidedly charming, I really appreciate the effort you put into it. Your faithful servant.”

“You say that Aristotle would have embraced Christianity, had he been born later. You claim that I look down on the teachings of your faith. You say that studying philosophy is means to an end, that end being the New Testament. Signor Ansaldo, prove yourself to be a true friend. Leave me my Judaism. Don’t hold it in contempt.”

“You keep writing how you long for my conversion, so we can be joined together forever in the afterlife. Do I understand it correctly, my noble Signor Ansaldo? Is that the only reason? Then why don’t you become a Jew?”

“You ask why you should shed blood, when I, as you put it, need the water so badly. Signor, you don’t have to do anything. By all means be yourself, stay as you are, cherish what we have together. There’s no need to shed even the tiniest drop of blood. I will deal with the water: my tears, forming the ink with which this letter is written. Why do you hurt me by saying that my faith is tainted? Why do you claim that I can only be saved by reading your books? The support offered by my beliefs will save me.

There’s no need to worry. Your concern for my wellbeing that you describe, and the effect of it on your bowels, are completely unfounded. Your loving Sarra Coppia.”

“I long for your letters like someone looking out onto the harbour, craving for a ship’s cargo bringing delicacies from the East. Yet at the same time I dread reading them, for fear of another reprimand that my faith endangers your life. How can you say that? I value your life as my own. However, my tomb will be where my cradle stood: in the bosom of Judaism.”

“Why these remarks on the way I do my hair? Why should I not wear it loose? You say that isn’t chaste, yet you propose we engage in the manner of Alcaeus and Sappho, you give me an extensive account of the fire burning within you. And finally you pressure me to acknowledge Christianity, so we may form a couple: a ‘coppia’.

Make no mistake, Signor, there is no ulterior motive to my name. Yours truly, Sarra Copia Sullam.”

“My dearest Signor. How come I hear so little of you? Are you like the Pharaoh, your letters like the Hebrews? Are you employing everything in you power to diminish them? Please clarify your rationale. Do my many poems bother you? Those were sent out of love, certainly not to compete with you. I beg you, tell me where I went wrong, my Apollo, my Sun. Explain the silence. Forever your servant, Sarra.”

“Soon you will receive the portrait I had made of myself. Let me know what you think of my appearance, and don’t hold back. Of course I hope you will find me charming, I have spent a long time searching for the right pose. Does that make me too vain? Please recognize everything the portrait says about me, and understand that the Jewish traditions give me all the support and protection I need.”

“Surely the portrait has arrived, my most noble Signor? Have you noticed how my hand rests upon my heart, there where your arrows have hit me, leaving me pale and confused? Your poems are  twigs of myrtle: Amor’s arrows, fired by my beloved, my father, my master. Each word striking me like the sweetest of lightning.”

“Do not worry about our age difference. Your life experience is like a treasure chest, lined with velvet and filled with the most precious jewels. Your insight is my fountain, your knowledge is my wealth. I am evermore at your service. Let that suffice, I beg of you, and do not deny me the God who accompanies me.

You say you want to wash my hair in order to save my life, but that I refuse the water. My dear Signor, I am surrounded by water, always. I was born amidst water, it is under my windows, under my feet. Water in abundance, your rebukes won’t bring it closer, they will only evoke my tears.”

“Oh, noble Signor Ansaldo, how you trouble me! You write that together we should become one house, speak one tongue. You mention physical merging, commanding me to come into your room. What should I make of that? Are you implying I should abandon my Jewish home? Enter the house of Christ?

Just how many times have you said that? And how many times have I answered it will not happen? You call my people the Jewish scum, and even though you stress that I, at least in your perception, am not led astray by this, I must implore you to refrain from such observations. They hurt me and obscure the delights of our friendship. I beg you, your letters are my lifeline. Do not poison my blood by asking the impossible.”

“You write that we should actually become lovers. But you fear people would burst out laughing when they see our locks together, so you suggest we should from now on regard each other as father and daughter. Although I fail to see the connection, I do not object to you calling me your daughter.”

“A while ago you mentioned that when you look at my portrait, your physical condition prohibits your intuitive desires. Such an alarming statement! My prince, are you allright? Please, tell me you are in good health. My heart is a heavy heart, it fears your silence is due to the loudness of others. Have you discussed our matters with other people? What do they say about me in Genua?”

“Yet again I was confined to my bed. Again my condition was serious, but I’m a little better now. What a shock it was to read you felt more dead than alive! Still, you were writing love letters like an energetic young man, full of life. You said it youself: you are held back by your laws, not by your inspiration. You called me your delectable daughter, said you would elaborate about my locks so much it would make me blush. Signor Ansaldo! Your words brought a smile to my troubled face.”

“Are you there? You don’t care about me anymore. How I crave your letters! They are my life’s elixir, my Excellency. When I hear nothing from you, I am like a beggar in an alley where no-one passes, ready to greet Death. Why do you not reply to my written caresses, which are meant to please you? All I want is to raise your vitality with my pen. Therefore I shall not mention our religious differences, that would dilute my stimulating ink too much. Ever so gently I blow strength in your ear, my slave, my master.”

“I need your council, Signor, and your help. Baldassare Bonifacio, a priest here in Venice, has published a discours in which he accuses me of denying the immortality of the soul. Ansaldo, you know me well enough to understand that nothing could be further from the truth. Whatever our differences, you know like no other that I, too, am aware of the absolute truth: the soul is incorrupltible, immortal, divine.

I still haven’t recovered, I need to rest a great deal and still feel terribly weak, but that will not stop me from writing a response in the next couple of days. I am looking forward to your advice, with all my love.”

“My illustrious friend, why don’t you write to me? I your last, all too short letter you said the only way to shake off Bonifacio’s slander, was by means of conversion. After that, I sent you my Manifesto, you received that, didn’t you? Don’t you understand that your letters are vital to my wellbeing? Without your signs of affection I am truly desolate. Your last letter was from half a year ago. I cannot bear to be without! Your Christian charity should initiate at least a little note.

Let me stress again that I would never, ever doubt the immortality of the soul. Never! And I beg of you, don’t ever doubt me, nor my piety. May we be one in our diversity, one in our love. Be healthy, my most excellent Ansaldo.” 

© Bettiena Drukker