America is fortunate to be living with the Notorious RBG (Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg) in our times. But Venice in the early seventeenth century was lucky to have the Notorious SCS.
Sarra Copia Sulum.
Her friend and mentor Rabbi Leon Modena provided Sarra’s epitaph, complimenting her by writing, “Wise was she among women, / A jewel for the miserable, / and of every poor soul / A friend and companion.” And numerous friends of hers came to her defense when other scholars defamed her, stole from her, or accused her of stealing her writings from others. Sarra wrote a number of poems, which she shared with Ansaldo Ceba, a Christian cleric, who destroyed most of her work but published his own correspondence with Sarra, profiting from her intelligence and notoriety.
Why the Notorious SCS? Sarra was accused of heresy when she wrote about the immortality of the soul. A (probably) jealous scholar put her in harm’s way with this accusation, which could bring censure to her as well as to her community.
But Sarra deserved better treatment. She brought together Jews and Christians at her literary salon in Venice’s Ghetto. Really, no one else was doing this, and certainly not a woman, who, in the early part of the seventeenth century, rarely ran salons because they ran the risk of being labeled as unchaste. Shaul Bassi writes that “Where others decreed separation, she envisioned dialogue and exchange.”
I bring up SCS today because my friend Rita recently gave me a copy of Poems for Sarra/Poesie per Sara published by Damocle and organized by Beit Venezia and the poets Meena Alexander, Rita Dove, and Esther Schor. In the Introduction, Bassi writes, “This book is a tribute to Sarra, and a promise to continue our effort to nourish the tradition of the Ghetto as a foundry of ideas, always choosing poetry over silence.” I’ve chosen a few poems to share with you here.
“Do Not Pity Me, Ansaldo Dear”
by Esther Schor
Do not pity me, Ansaldo dear
that heaven has no saint to guard my life
from sickness and despair, to keep me safe
from all my enemies; to teach me fear
of evil intellects and baleful souls.
Tell me this: Why trust a guardian
who chose a glorious martyrdom
of iron nails and arrows, broken wheels,
eyes on a golden salver streaked with blood
over ordinary ecstasy:
the rascal bells of San Giorgio
at midnight dared the sea
to scale the steps of Cannaregio–
at sunrise, all the ghetto, one bright flood.
“In Praise of Fragments”
by Meena Alexander
Shall I make a house with sticks?
A house of breath
for the freckled butterfly?
Will it come to me?
I grip a fistful of paper
There is ink on my fingernails
On the whorls of my palms.
What burns like paper?
Only the soul.
by Rita Dove
I am not the one you hoped for
(it is morning it is light)
I am not the one you think I am
(the air is stale the light is sweet)
I will not give in to sorrow
(though the lapping water purrs)
I will not be duped by joy
(I can hear the earth’s dull groan)
You cannot find me in these lines
(I have not gone it is too soon)
I cannot find the noblest rhymes
(I did not die this afternoon)
From wan day into the evening
(brackish spittle clanging skull)
From grim evening into night
(water settles light decays)
What I whisper will not soothe you
(sour washrag fevered lamp)
Do not look for peace or wisdom
(do remember do regret)
I have nothing left to tell you
(the muffled chorus swells)
I will not live forever
but I shall not die today.
I wrote a short book about Sarra, titled A Living Memory: Immortality for Sarra Copia Sulam, which you can get from Supernova Edizioni in Venice, or I have a handful of copies left if you want to buy it from me. Here’s a link to the ebook, or just contact me if you want a paperback.
And here’s a video to show you where Sarra may have lived. I haven’t been able to confirm a home for her, but this palace is a likely candidate.