Interview with Nancy Ludmerer, Author of Sarra Copia: A Locked-In Life
WTAW Press, 88 pp.
Interviewed by Janice Weizman
How did you come to write this novella?
In the summer of 2006, I was still practicing law, writing short stories at night and on weekends. A legal case brought me frequently to Milan and Rome. One weekend, my litigation team took the train from Milan to Venice. While the team enjoyed Sunday brunch at a hotel on the Lido, I slipped away and went to the old Jewish cemetery. It was a hot buggy day and I was the only visitor. The cemetery caretaker helped me find graves of interest and gave me a handout in English about well-known people buried there. Sarra Copia was the only woman mentioned. I had never heard of her. The pamphlet described Sarra,
…resting in the cemetery next to her father, who had encouraged her gifts, and her little daughter who had pre-deceased her. With her lively talent and great culture, she was a recognized poetess and conversationalist, as well as the guiding light of a literary salon in her own drawing-room during the first half of the XVIIth …
I stood beside the three graves, slapping at mosquitoes, and promised Sarra that someday I would write about her. Over a decade later, when I had stopped practicing law and could focus on longer works, I made good on that promise.
What sort of reasearch did writing the book involve?
I first looked for books about Sarra Copia. There are two works in English. One is a compilation of documents written by and to Sarra, edited and translated by the late Hebrew University professor, Don Harrán. Among other documents, Don Harrán translated Sarra’s 1621 Manifesto – one of the few complete prose works by her that survives – and the fifty letters written to Sarra by Ansaldo Cebà, a Catholic poet and monk, from 1618 to 1622. Sarra’s letters to Cebà were lost or destroyed, including her original letter to him that sparked the correspondence, but Cebà’s letters to her reveal a great deal about their exchanges.
The second book is by Lynn Lara Westwater, a professor of Italian language and literature at George Washington University, entitled Sarra Copia Sulam: A Jewish Salonniere and the Press in Counter-Reformation Venice. It includes English translations of Sarra’s poetry as well as her father’s will and an inventory of household goods prepared after his death.
The English translations of these original seventeenth-century documents were invaluable. Her father’s will displays both his kindness and his decidedly modern view of women’s abilities and good sense; the correspondence and the Manifesto show Sarra’s efforts to connect with non-Jewish poets and intellectuals and reflect her generosity, wit, warmth, and self-confidence. The University of Chicago Press and the University of Toronto Press gave me permission to quote from these materials. A few months after my book was accepted for publication by the wonderful WTAW Press, I had the pleasure of meeting Lynn Lara Westwater when she spoke on a panel. She signed my copy of her book “To a fellow admirer of this remarkable woman,” an inscription I cherish.
I read many books and articles about the Venice ghetto and the 1516 edict that created it. I learned about the nightly lockdown of the Jews, from sunset to sunrise, and the guards assigned to keep them locked in, and about Venetian life in the early 1600’s both inside and outside the ghetto. What jobs and professions were permitted to Jews? What was the role of women? What were Venice’s primary concerns as a city-state at that time? I also researched places and people that might seem tangentially related to Sarra’s story but were important to me. Sarra’s father was from Zante. Where was Zante? What was life like for Jews there? The truth is, the research, as always, was fun and engaging --- sometimes it was difficult to stop doing research and sit down to write.
What were some of the challenges you experienced in creating the character of Sarra Copia, the book’s protagonist?
Because the book is in first person and set in the seventeenth-century, one challenge was creating Sarra’s voice: I had to choose language that was accessible but not jarringly modern. The book begins on Sarra’s eighth birthday (the date being unknown, I made it up). I wanted to capture the sense of wonder she experiences when she travels outside the ghetto with her father. From studying drawings and texts depicting Venice at the time, I learned about the newly-constructed limestone bridge over the Rio de Palazzo (later it would become known as the Bridge of Sighs). In the opening chapter, Sarra’s father points out its grim gargoyles along with “one smiling visage” and suggests the face is smiling in honor of her birthday. Sarra knows he’s teasing but enjoys the suggestion all the same. Their conversations throughout the book reveal a loving father-daughter relationship that transcends time but the milieu and frame of reference are seventeenth-century Venice.
Another challenge was to achieve some lightness and humor in a world of curfews, restrictions and anti-Semitism, and in the face of multiple losses and betrayal. I tend to use humor even in my darkest stories. The humor here emerges in scenes between young Sarra and her father or sister and in the “meet-cute” chapter when she flirts with Giacob, her future husband, over a book by Galileo. Sometimes the humor is there without my realizing it. I discovered this at my book launch, after I read aloud a short passage from Sarra’s description of her salon:
[The men] love me to praise their words, laugh at their wit, extol their wisdom, admire their melodies. But when I ask questions about some turn of phrase or precept or musical line, they sip their coffee and pretend to be puzzled as if I were speaking a foreign language or had uttered some blasphemy. Better I should play the lute to accompany their verses and keep such thoughts to myself.
We may not play the lute any longer during our gatherings, but the audience’s appreciative laughter upon hearing me read this excerpt shows that some things haven’t changed.
One of the fascinating aspects of Sarra’s life is the literary salon that she created in Venice. Can you talk a little about how you researched and wrote about that?
I first learned about Sarra’s salon when I visited the Jewish cemetery on the Lido in 2006, heard her name for the first time, and read the handout offered by the caretaker. Establishing a literary salon in the Jewish ghetto was one of the extraordinary aspects of Sarra’s life that made me want to write about her. Professor Westwater’s book provided additional background, including approximately how many people attended and the names of some of the better-known attendees, nearly all of them Catholic intellectuals, poets, and priests. Music and poetry, philosophic and religious debate, were all on the agenda. I was not surprised to learn from Westwater’s book that some attendees tried to convert their hostess to Christianity. Other details in my book are pure invention but feel real to me (and, I believe, to my readers): that, as hostess, Sarra read her work last; that she served coffee; that her attendees complained about its bitterness; that they reacted poorly to her critical comments about their work.
What was most important to me in writing about the salon was Sarra’s chutzpah in convening and continuing it and what that says about her as a person. Here she is: an educated woman, a Jewish woman, confined to the ghetto, living in a world that devalues Jews and deems women’s intellectual efforts laughable. Yet she convened a forum for serious discourse, for poetry and music, that continued for several years. She was accused of heresy and the salon ceased meeting. I wrote a scene in which Rabbi Leon de Modena urges her to restart the salon. Sarra isn’t sure about that. “Before each salon, I girded myself in invisible armor: Father’s love, Giacob’s faith in me, my correspondence with Ansaldo, the Rabbi’s encouragement. Pride – in my religion, my poetry, my questioning mind – has sustained me, but now I am uncertain if it still can.” I hope whoever reads this interview will turn to the book to see what happens next.
One of the difficulties in writing fiction about an actual person who really existed is the challenge of writing scenes based on historical fact. How did you approach that challenge?
Despite the letters and other documents excerpted in my novella, the actual historical facts known about Sarra Copia are few. Everything else had to be invented. That was a challenge but also an opportunity.
On the personal side, it is known that her family was one of the most successful in the ghetto, and that Sarra was classically educated, close to her father, and had one or two sisters. It’s also known that she married and had a little girl who died at ten months, and was unable to have other children. In the public arena, Sarra was known for her beauty and intellect; wrote poetry and corresponded with a Catholic poet when she was in her twenties; and convened a salon in the ghetto that met regularly, attended mostly by Catholic men, one of whom attacked her for heresy.
Sarra’s relationship with her father is a case in point. We have his will, which I excerpt in the book. We know that he had no sons and that he vigorously supported the education of his elder daughter. We know he was from Zante and was an importer of goods. Everything else is fictional: Sarra’s journeys with him into Venice; a magical evening walking through a snow-and-ice-covered landscape; his thoughts on musical education and on the rules governing who pays the guards who police the ghetto walls; his concerns about Sarra’s future. Sarra’s reaction to her father’s death, what happens at the reading of his will, how she thinks of him and how proud he would be of her, are not found in historical records, but in a painstaking exploration of the human heart.
There is even less about Sarra’s sister Diana in the historical records. From Mark R. Cohen’s English translation of Rabbi Leon de Modena’s 1622 autobiography, I learned that the Rabbi accompanied Diana to Mantua for her wedding. Don Harrán’s research revealed that a Jewish musician, Salamone Rossi, composed a song for it. Harrán includes a only a single sentence about Diana’s husband’s violent jealousy in the introduction to his book. Yet Sarra’s relationship with Diana is important in my novella. Every scene in the book that features Sarra and Diana, beginning when they are children, continuing through young adulthood, and culminating in Diana’s marriage and eventual return to Venice, is entirely fictional.
Such scenes in the book are not based on my research but are informed by it. The warm father-daughter relationship, the coming of age of a sensitive and talented woman, her efforts to overcome prejudice and create poetry and music, and her resilience in the face of tragedy and loss, these themes are, I believe, for all time.
Could you give some of the historical background to the episode in which Sarra responds in writing to Baldassare Bonifacio? What was important for you to stress in that story?
This episode resonated with me – and I believe resonates with readers – because of how frequently reputations are made or destroyed in the media, including social media. Sarra is attacked in a published and widely-disseminated Discorso by Baldassare Bonifacio, a regular at the salon whom she considered a friend. Some friend! The sense of personal betrayal must have been overwhelming and could have been paralyzing. Yet Sarra has to recover from those feelings and get to work; this is described in the chapter “Writing the Manifesto” when Sarra goes for a week without sleep, writing feverishly, neglecting her person: “My hair is stringy and damp with sweat. I need a bath.” She knows she must respond quickly and, above all, publicly. The threat to her and to the Jewish community at large for being accused of heresy – specifically, of having denied “the immortality of the soul” – is great. Anyone could be investigated by the Inquisition, but a Jew is particularly at risk. The punishment could be anything from public censure to imprisonment to death.
Sarra’s Manifesto responds brilliantly to Bonifacio while making clear that on his critical point – the immortality of the soul – they are in agreement. She attacks him for going after her from a position of inequality – a Catholic cleric with all the advantages going after a Jewish woman – and at the same time challenges his ability to discuss such a weighty subject. She wonders about Bonifacio’s “great arrogance” in printing his treatise (in particular, his claim that God appointed him to do this) and what moved him to get her name “mixed up in it.” She continues: “When it comes to so lofty a matter as the immortality of the soul, how audacious of you to have wished to put your hand in the pasta . . .”. What a wonderful use of language here!
After Sarra’s Manifesto is published and sells out its second printing, how does the public react? Many say Sarra – a woman, and a Jewish woman at that – couldn’t possibly have written it. Rabbi Leon or some other man must have done so. This was something else that has resonated with my readers – and with me.
At the book launch for Sarra Copia: A Locked-in Life, I arranged for a professional recorder player and a lutenist, as well as a quartet of singers, to perform music of Salamone Rossi. I interspersed readings from the novella with short musical selections. Afterwards an audience member came up and said how lucky I was that my husband had musical connections (he’s a fine amateur flutist) and arranged the program. I had done all the arranging; I had personally hired and paid for the professional musicians. Yet this lady assumed “the man” had done it. I couldn’t help thinking of the way Sarra’s work is similarly dismissed as not her own. An old story writ new.
If you could meet the real Sarra Copia, what would you like to ask her?
I would ask her for favorite recipe, perhaps one for braised fennel “soft as velvet.” In exchange, I would offer to share my bottle of Prosecco with her. After we each had a few glasses, I would ask her to describe an ordinary day in the ghetto, from waking to sleeping, any day of her choosing. Finally, if she were so inclined, I would ask her to write a poem about it.
What would you like readers of this book to take from it?
An extraordinary person named Sarra Copia lived in the Venice Ghetto during the first half of the seventeenth century. My hope is that the Sarra Copia in my book, with all her virtues and failings, her courage and disappointments, will come alive for them.