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May 2023 Issue [Story]

The Conversion of the Jews

Blue River, by Abel Burger © The artist. Courtesy Brigade Gallery, Copenhagen, and private collection


The Conversion of the Jews


They lived in narrow streets and lanes obscure,
     Ghetto and Judenstrass, in murk and mire;
Taught in the school of patience to endure
     The life of anguish and the death of fire....

Pride and humiliation hand in hand
     Walked with them through the world where’er they went;
Trampled and beaten were they as the sand,
     And yet unshaken as the continent.
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport”

In the summer of 1933, while traveling in a tour bus through the Judean desert, Solomon Adelberg, twenty-four years old, disembarked, hauled up his backpack, and ascended a hill where, halfway up, a medieval monastery was perched. Like many other resourceful Americans, he had arranged beforehand (the reply was in his pocket) for permission to visit. But he was not a sightseer on the hunt for souvenirs. He was an earnest student of philology. Also, he was very thin, as if he had devoured himself all the way down to the bone. Often his throat and his chest burned like ice. He knew his own character; he had decided, at least for the time being, to become a permanent celibate. It was more than enough that King Solomon, his namesake, was said to have had seven hundred wives.

By origin, the monastery was Dominican, a connection that had frayed more than two centuries ago. Only the library had survived the friars’ long sleep, though barely; even its soporific dust, felled by time, failed to fly up. The monks were modern men, and entrepreneurs, and regarded themselves more as custodians of a tourist attraction than spiritual zealots. Many were widowers. To gratify the sightseers, their robes were black. The library itself was an unfathomable sanctum they were barred from, not by rule but by indifference.

The business of the monastery was the crafting of icons. On china plates and mugs and bowls and teapots the monks painted haloed images of saints, many genuine, others inspired by invention. They worked from templates, filling in the lines, like children with their coloring books. The buses stopped at the foot of the hill, waited for their passengers to come down with their purchases, and went on to Jerusalem, where still more of the icons could be found in the Old City shuks. But who would venture there? That year, all through Jerusalem, all through the Holy Land, there was rioting.

Solomon Adelberg waved the bus on without him. He had arrived as a researcher, and meant to stay (the monastery charged hotel rates for a bed and no bath), though the likelihood of discovery was almost nil. He was looking for the work of a certain convert. It was intuition, guesswork, probability—hope, in fact—that had brought him here. What he knew, what every linguistic adept knew, was that an unrecorded portion of Pablo Christiani’s writings had been sent here for safekeeping in the year 1265 by Pope Clement IV. Most were copies of official declarations, but some were purported to be clandestine and dangerous confessions.—Or were these hoary certainties no better than mere wishfulness?

Pablo’s history was fully preserved. Born into a pious Jewish family, he was a Dominican friar dedicated to the conversion of the Jews. He journeyed to all the synagogues of Aragon to harangue, and if that fell short, to coerce, and if that too appeared useless, to punish. He appealed to Clement to compel the wearing of the Jew-badge. He ordered the confiscation of Jewish books, most particularly the Talmud, to be burned to ash in great smoldering heaps. Confident of his own mastery of Jewish sources, he prevailed on King James of Aragon to sponsor a public disputation in the royal palace in the great city of Barcelona, under the scrutiny of the world: he alone would confound Moshe ben Nachman, the most eminent Talmudist of the age, second only to Maimonides, with proofs of the Gospels taken from the Talmud itself. But James judged the Jew the winner, and the next day Moshe ben Nachman, accused of blasphemy, fled for his life to Acre in the Holy Land. The pope was more powerful than the king, and Pablo had the ear of the pope.

Solomon dismissed all this. He scorned the stale stuff of encyclopedias. It was to the mazy byways of the unspoken mind of Pablo Christiani that he was drawn. He was after impulses, inducements, animating subterranean drives. A philologist must be an excavator. So he had learned from his teacher, his mentor, the sovereign of his thought: tread where no one else has trod. The library was no more than a filthy niche in an old stone wall, crusted with the dung of rodents and bats. The monastery itself was defunct. Its archives were choked by the smell and the spew of heedless decay—no roster or index hinted at what it might hold. Shells of ancient generations of dead insects crackled under Solomon’s soles. And his teacher too was dead.

After three days he gave up. As he was preparing to leave and was paying his bill, the abbot—and wasn’t he also the sales manager?—asked whether he had found what he was looking for. Solomon said he had not. To ease his disappointment, the abbot offered him a discount if he would buy one of the icons displayed on a nearby table. The images were mostly all authentic portraits of saints, he said, copied from the paintings in museum catalogues. The monastery had a substantial collection of these.

Solomon was irritated. A philologist ought not to be mistaken for a primitive believer.

“Not interested,” he said.

“Pick out a nice one and pray to it, and you’ll get whatever you wish.”

And there they were: rows of painted saints, male and female, on polished pottery, each beatific head ringed by light.

“Not interested,” he said again.

“Then let me help you,” the abbot urged. “We’re overstocked just now, so how about I let you have one for free? It might do you some good.”

Solomon picked up, not entirely at random, the image of a woman. Despite the halo, it was a human face. It had a long narrow column of a nose and a small pink mouth and gazed up at him from a medium-size oval platter. He set it down—it meant nothing to him—and made his way in the gathering heat through the stones of the hillside. At the bottom the bus snorted out a cloud of impatient exhaust. The passengers sat like wilted stalks; they had come from the rioting in Jaffa, where Jonah had fled, and were besieged while buying toy whales in the market.

But Solomon was anyhow in possession of the portrait of the saint on the oval platter. The abbot had slipped it into his backpack; he was intent on salvaging the soul of a philologist. And Solomon did believe in the notion of souls, and all else that was mystical and cryptic. After all, his teacher at the university, his mentor, the sovereign of his thought, had been Merton Ames, a champion of the efficacy of magic, Kabbalah, all things tinged by the gnostic and the hysteric. He was a heretic, a wild card who argued that there were Gospels and Testaments yet to be revealed. And Solomon was Merton Ames’s disciple: this was the reason he shunned saints. They sought everything material, tangible, mortal, carnal. They were morbidly preoccupied by willed starvation, rags, straw beds, self-flagellation. St. Catherine of Siena claimed her marriage to the Savior could be attested to by her wedding ring, the circlet of flesh that had been cut from his circumcision. St. Joan insisted that the voices she heard were actual, not hallucinatory. And both were skilled worldly politicians. It was Catherine who brought the papacy from Avignon to Rome. It was Joan who threw the English out of France.

A full six months had elapsed when Solomon was surprised by the alien touch of an unfamiliar object. He had put his unwitting hand on the icon. At home on Henry Street in New York, aware of the growing paucity of his socks (he had been wearing his shoes without them), he was finally emptying his backpack. The saint had sunk to the bottom, lost among his unwashed things. Miraculously, she had sustained no chip or crack. Yet what was he to do with her? She was unwelcome. She was illicit, clearly she had been smuggled, she was a whim, she had trespassed, she was nameless. And when and where had she lived, which year in all the centuries of saints? Philologists had long been studying the telltale disparities in the utterances of holy women. In the north, Solomon knew, young oblates, the cherished daughters of gentlewomen, were given to the Lord out of the ranks of the nobility. In the rougher south they were divinely seized peasants. In Aragon, a full quarter of the canonized were female; unlike in some orders, it was not uncommon for the friars to venerate and confide in these, who, like persuasive mothers, coddled and counseled them, and in death supplied body parts to be worshipped as relics.

When Solomon uncovered the sacral platter there in the grimy pit of his backpack, what came to him—what flooded him—was an untamed surmise, though not without precedent: Mary Magdalene and St. Catherine had from the beginning been patronesses and intercessors for the friars. Might Pablo himself have been bound by just such a hallowed yoke, a sainted confidante?

Then suppose, thought Solomon, Pablo’s buried disclosures, if they existed, were not in an obscure manuscript in some esoteric hiding place? The science of philology—how words can alter the meaning and motives of history—cried out for exposure of the unknown. What had stirred the Jew Sha’ul ben Kish to become Pablo Christiani? Did the secret of this avowal loiter in the breast of a consecrated virgin?

Solomon was electrified: Tread where no one else has trod. If Pablo had come under the benevolence of such a confessor, might this very portrait now under his hand carry her face? Daring was the philologist’s calling, experiment his means of conviction. Hypothesis could lead, if not to truth (what is truth?), then to fresh possibility. Why not grasp beyond the hackneyed hope of detecting fragments of parchments in ancient monasteries and caves? Manuscripts, manuscripts! Monasteries and caves and parchments! That road had been well trod.

Suppose, Solomon thought further, he were to release himself from the constrictions of the expected, the accepted? Merton Ames, his teacher, had started out as a traditional Episcopal priest. Notoriously, he had veered toward sorcery and spells and magical revelations. Why should Merton Ames’s votary not do the same?

Early the next morning, he hurried to seek out, in an aging redbrick tenement on Eldridge Street criss-crossed by a web of rusting fire escapes, that mecca of audacious thinkers—the Medieval Library of Gnostic Teachings, founded by Merton Ames. It housed the historic accounts of the Registry of Female Penitents, many of them self-mortifiers renowned for miracles of healing. Christina Mirabilis, a shepherd girl who suffered a seizure, died, rose from the dead, and threw herself into flames and icy waters, neither burning nor freezing; Lutgardis, blinded by a vision of the Heart of Jesus, benefactress of the blind and the maimed; Margaret of Ypres, who stuffed her bosom with nettles and thorns for the sake of imitatio Dei. Was it vainglorious to dream that among these enshrined women he would find one whom Pablo might in his lifetime have known? But Christina and Lutgardis and Margaret were all from the Low Lands, and besides, their dispositions hardly promised spiritual welcome or intimacy. Also, their lives were geographically far from Pablo in Spain. If Pablo were to have had a confidante and confessor, she must be a living neighbor in Aragon.

As Solomon was leafing dispiritedly through the record of localized thirteenth-century female saints—too many were present only in relics of skulls or jawbones—Jacob Sadacca, a former fellow student of Merton Ames, a rival, a close-at-hand antagonist in comradely dress, whom Solomon had long envied, came to sit down beside him. Sadacca was already a subject of newspaper features. He had twice been interviewed on the radio. And like Solomon, he too was twenty-four: a prodigy. He claimed that his scholarly instincts had been sharpened by a converso ancestor, yet another Jacob Sadacca, who was one of the last to be burned at the stake. As late as the middle of the nineteenth century! This history had drawn him, he said, to the study of Inquisitional documents, where—in the unlikely cellars of a Coptic convent—he had unearthed a philological treasure, inscribed in an amalgam of Portuguese, Aramaic, and an early dialect of Coptic. The lives of generations would be devoured by the labors of its decipherment.

“So,” Jacob asked, “did your exertions in that clerical factory in the desert yield anything?”

“There were riots all over,” Solomon said. “And arson and bombs. The British could do nothing. The tourists were scared out of their wits.”

“Meaning you got nothing.”

“I’m looking in a different direction.”


Solomon hid his defeat under a grunt.

“Away from the hackneyed,” he said. But he knew what he meant, and where he intended to go.

“Well, good luck,” Jacob said meanly, and meandered back to his own carrel, with its towers of what appeared to be lexical etymologies. Solomon was satisfied that he had struck back with a wounding insult, whether Jacob recognized it or not. What could be more familiar than still another decaying esoteric parchment, still another subterranean find? Stale, hackneyed, trite! There were untrustworthy rumors that thousand-year-old scrolls in clay canisters were concealed in underground caves somewhere in the vicinity of the Dead Sea, but even if such an improbable cache were true, then yet again manuscripts, manuscripts, philology’s outworn standby!

In that single transporting moment of . . . what must he call it? emancipation, liberation from the established, the customary—Solomon knew that he had glimpsed something untried, original, even revolutionary. Pablo’s own voice echoed alive on the tongue of a woman who was a willing conduit, an oracle! One whose sanctity was conveyed not through the anguish of flesh, but as a repository of the icy fumes of mortal confession. A living sepulchre of secrets. He had only to unveil her.

The Registry of Female Penitents was catalogued alphabetically, though this was of no use to Solomon; he had no inkling of the name of the sanctified figure he was searching for. In his impatience he came upon two St. Catherines, one St. Magdalene, three St. Marys . . . and one born Anne of Alquaréz, a village in Aragon that Pablo had surely frequented, since in its humbled synagogue he had preached to the stubborn Jews the example of Anne, the Mother of the Mother of the Savior.

But Anne of Alquaréz was never called by her birth name. As an initiate at the age of ten she had ingeniously named herself Azed. St. Azed! A to Zed, Alpha to Omega, the First and the Last, Divine Infinity itself! Plainly this must be the insignia of the chosen confessor—known, inevitably known, to friar Pablo in Aragon. She was found, rescued, fetched out into the dizzying light: St. Azed of Alquaréz! He could spy in her history no record of willed penury or humiliation, of fleshly replication of the Lord’s travail; her mode and her mark, he concluded, was pure spirit, her soul flew up to join the Absolute, she was all Ear, attentive to voices, the voices of angels, the voices of men. To the voice, he was ready to believe, of Pablo Christiani.

There was in the Registry, besides, her portrait, painted by an artist of the time in the conventional style of the time: haloed, illumined, awestruck eyes fixed upward to the heavens. Whether tonsured male or hooded female, they were all alike, the Catherines, the Marys, the singular Azed. Then how was he truly to know whether the face on the oval platter was the orphic, the oracular, the confidential Azed who was privy to the admissions of Pablo Christiani?

Philology taught him how. Encountering some arcane glyph, how often does the philologist stare hopelessly into the void of the indecipherable, when, all unexpectedly, lightning intuition dispels blindness, and meaning penetrates enigma? In this way, Solomon saw; he saw and he knew. The St. Azed of Alquaréz who had languished in his knapsack was Pablo’s secret confessor.

It was Solomon Adelberg’s habit to breakfast on Thursday mornings with his rival Jacob Sadacca in a local coffee shop. This had continued for some months, and though some of the talk was not-so-benign banter (Jacob, who had several girlfriends, one at a time in sequence, was pleased to recite and compare their traits), some of it was distinctly not. There were intervals when the conversation was significant; not for nothing had each of them been a student of Merton Ames. The coffee shop was foul with cigarette smells—neither one of them smoked—and the early din was unsustainable, so they turned instead to Solomon’s rooms on Henry Street. By agreement, Jacob came bearing two large cinnamon rolls, while Solomon supplied the butter and the jam and the tea kettle.

On this Thursday in July, at an already sweltering eight o’clock, the discussion was itself seriously heated, even if recurrent and far from new. Ten years before, while the rivals were still in their teens, Merton Ames had been charged with forgery. He had presented the thesis that had earned him his repute as innovator—the Son of the Father as a magician, a practitioner of ritual healings and cures rooted in the believer’s susceptibility. It came with all the proper substantiating tenets and trappings: the remote monastery, the lost-and-found forgotten parchment, cautiously photographed and then dutifully replaced in its niche, the attendant public excitement over the discovery. All this followed by Merton Ames’s acclaimed return to the monks to retrieve the authentic chronicle for display. And then its unaccountable disappearance!

Jacob said, “But when they say it looks a lot like Merton pulled off a forgery, it’s out-and-out professional jealousy, what else could it be?” Their mentor had urged, at least on his favorites, the use of his first name. It was, he said, a sign of his trust; they would never join the camp of the doubters.

But Solomon felt targeted by this remark. “They!” he spat out. “Who cares what they say? It doesn’t have to be jealousy. There could be dozens of reasons for why the original went missing.”

“Name one,” Jacob said.

“It could have been stolen.”

“And the thief, after all these years, never caught? Nobody even suspected? Look, if it’s tea we’re having,” Jacob complained, “why isn’t there any sugar? Or at least a slice of lemon? And by the way, whatever became of your fancy new direction? The one that’s meant to turn philology upside-down.”

“I never said anything like that.”

“But you meant it.”

This was unanswerable, so it was the quibbles—the missing condiments—that took a new direction that morning. Why couldn’t they sometimes have ginger tea? Or a bit of interesting cheese?

And meanwhile the portrait of St. Azed of Alquaréz stood propped up among Solomon’s everyday cups and saucers on a kitchen shelf nearby, unnoticed by the prodigy.

They had been speaking of false representation, of deliberate fakery, of pulling the wool over honest scholarly eyes. Of guilt! Neither Solomon nor Jacob believed that their teacher had committed any such crime: it was calumny, what an outrage even to imagine it! But for the rest of that day Solomon was moved to question himself. A tendril of mistrust crept back. In invoking Azed, was he devising a kind of forgery of his own? And again, what form was it to take? A séance? A trance? Wisps and waverings of antiquated sounds in transit from the faraway past? And how was he to record it, if not as yet another scorned manuscript, but with no thousand-year-old parchment to validate it? Of course he would be thought guilty of fabrication, as his teacher had been before him. But Merton Ames had belonged to that inspired party of originators, scholars valorous enough to catch hold of new meanings in traditional formulas, resolute enough to withstand the skeptics. And what evidence did Solomon Adelberg have for his own excitements? No more than his oval platter, traced from a museum catalogue.

Still, he must undertake a ceremony of evidence, and yes, a ceremony it must be. The mood, the space, the time, must call forth the saint’s temperament. At midnight, in the glimmering light of her nimbus, in the holiness of candle and wine. But ought not a ceremony to have a witness, or will it hover forever as a mist, unheard, disbelieved? And who was to be the witness?

The next Thursday morning brought a disappointment. The bakery was out of cinnamon rolls, and Jacob arrived with ordinary kaisers, which neither of them liked. A hard rain had soaked through the bag; the rolls were soggy and inedible.

“Don’t you have anything else? Always an empty larder?”

They had their tea with stale crackers, and Solomon understood that Jacob was slyly mocking him for having no new ideas.

“I’ve got some news,” Jacob said. “I’m getting an award from the Philology Society. I just found out.”

“Another one? What for?” Solomon asked. But his throat burned as if coated with frost.

“It’s brand-new, they call it the Fresh Paths in Inquisitional Studies Prize. It comes with two hundred and fifty dollars. I’m thinking of buying a secondhand Ford if I save up.”

And wasn’t Azed of Alquaréz exactly such a Fresh Path? And wasn’t she also the different direction he had recklessly boasted of, even when he hadn’t so much as known her name? Philology is a science; seclusion is imperative until its premise can be proven, demonstrated, enacted. Witnessed. And for this he must recruit a sympathetic bystander. Jacob was not sympathetic.

“Well, well, so congratulations,” Solomon said.

“Your turn will come,” his rival assured him. His tone was not kind.

The voice was dim, far, quick, strange, often incomprehensible. But it was, undeniably, a species of Spanish—an offshoot of Old Spanish, half-Portuguese and half-Catalan, the medieval idiom of Aragon. The more syllables it emitted, the more Solomon’s strivings could pierce its undulations. It was as if they had risen out of the void fully prepared, brooking no probings, no questions. As if they had caught any call, any summons that circled the air, like a moth to be pinched out of the ether. Solomon’s fever alone had invoked it.

Pablo Christiani, the voice affirmed, had come to her as a Jew. However much he may have skirted it, it was as a Jew that he came, and it was as a Jew that she received him. But he seemed too much a rationalist, and wasn’t this what marked him as a Jew? For herself, she had touched the garment of the Lord, and knew it, and felt its silken threads, and felt her soul dissolved in it. This was why Pablo Christiani had sought her out—to fall into the embrace of her purity, of her easy and natural faith.

He had come to confess, the voice said, but he was perplexed as to what he had to confess.

Jacob said, “I don’t hear a thing.”

“Try harder,” Solomon insisted. “You’re not attuned.”

“All I can catch is a kind of static. Like a bad radio.”

“You’re not ready. You’re resisting. Look at her eyes.”

These had earlier been compliant in their devout upward stare. Yet now they were alive, in motion, swimming with rebellious light.

And then Solomon too heard the static, and the white glare of her eyes blinded his own, and the voice was drowned in silence. But still, still, his confidence was restored; he understood. Wasn’t it because Pablo was a believer that he must bring the Jews to follow him in his newborn conviction? To peel away the scales that darkened Jewish perception?—But what flimsy speculation, the ardent goodwill of the evangelizer, any skeptic could puncture it with a feather! It must be something more robust, more of the worldly, the cynical. Then why not ambition, raw ambition? Greed for domination? The lure of punishing authority, of the ritual robes, of the menacing sermons, of the burning books, of the expulsions, the humiliations of the Jew-badge, the forced disputations that incited rioting against the arrogant Jews—who would not yearn for such command, who would not relish such zeal? What recalcitrant Jew, with his finger on the pages of the cursèd Talmud, could attain it, could live it? Which was the stronger—bona fide devotion, or the fruits and rewards of an archbishop? Why remain a pawn among the persecuted when a clever scholar and able administrator might flourish in the company of the powerful?

But was this what Azed of Alquaréz was telling him, or was it Solomon’s own suspicions, his own judgment, obscuring her, muffling her bleats? He was losing her, the granules of her breath were by now no more than a hiss, or were they his own gasps of bereavement? He searched her face for some sign: the roving, distracted, and faltering eyes, the quiescent indifferently breathing narrow nostrils, the mouth . . . There was something amiss with the mouth. Was it a creak, a crack, what was he hearing, what was he seeing? The halo darkened, snuffed, the deceiving tremor of the fitful candle flame, and from brow to chin a split, a splintering, a slash—the icon severed in a shower of fragments, all at once capsized by a deadly smash.

“I was just reaching for the wine,” Jacob said, laughing—his rival, the prodigy, the destroyer, laughing, mocking!—“while you were sunk in all that mumbo jumbo. What a farce, you’re just too lazy for the kind of digging that I do. You’re always looking for shortcuts. You see what good it does you, and we wouldn’t even have had the wine if I hadn’t brought it—”

On the floor at their feet lay a scattering of shards, islands in a bloodred sea. On the kitchen table three thick volumes had toppled—Merton Ames’s heretical yet lauded trilogy on the Savior’s conjury, the supportive spine that had held the oval platter upright.

Was it Jacob’s blow that had undone her, or was this diminishing, this fading, the prompt of conscience of the saint herself? No matter. She was gone. The mind of the Jew Pablo Christiani, scourge of the Jews of Aragon, could not be retrieved.

It was not long after the loss of the icon that Solomon Adelberg reneged on his vow of celibacy. On his twenty-fifth birthday he gave it up. His girlfriend’s name was Celeste. He declined to look her up in the Registry of Female Penitents: he was done with holy women. Then how could he know that Sister Maria Celeste was the convent-bred daughter of Galileo, the astronomer who deduced that the earth circled the sun, a blasphemy that offended doctrine? Celibacy, Solomon finally perceived, gave birth to veneration, and veneration to the saint Azed, who, like all other purifying icons and penitents, could hardly rise to the enlightened science of philology. He blamed Jacob for his misstep, and it was true: Jacob had confessed to being complicit. It was he, after all, who had brought the wine.

As for the conversion of the Jews. Whoever today remembers Pablo Christiani remembers him solely as the Jew he was. But who remembers the philologist Solomon Adelberg, Pablo’s pursuer, who leaves no trace as scholar and finder?