Rafael and Miriam
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Ben-Yitshak Sacerdote
Translated from Ladino by Michael Alpert
It was one of those mild, cool early mornings in the month of September, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Millions of stars were still shining in the firmament, flashing like a sea of large and small diamonds, disappearing and reappearing on the black sea of the sky as if playing a mad and daring game, intended to make the eyes of people on earth wonder and marvel at the sight.
From the road which led from the city to the Jewish district or mahallé, the great river could be seen. It stretched like a wide band of silver, shining in the darkness of the night, like an immense mirror in which myriads of stars could see themselves reflected as they played in the heavens as a flock of sheep gambols in the fields. The city seemed empty. The mahallé was deserted and silent, everybody still plunged in the slumber of the small hours. Not a sound, not a cry troubled nature’s rest. Every living thing still slept. Not even the trees moved their branches and their leaves.
Two men came from the city towards the river, through the narrow, crooked streets of the mahallé.
‘You must be there today, Branko. If you really are my true and faithful friend, everything depends on your sharpness and skill. The moment you see us get into the boat, you must row with all your strength and make for the other bank of the river, opposite, for Rumania. Once we reach the other side and step on Rumanian soil, nobody can hinder or stop us.’
‘You’ve no need to worry, Rafael, you can trust me. Make sure you bring your young lady safely to the boat. The rest is up to me. Off you go, good luck, and organise things, and I’ll be waiting in the boat.’
When they reached the end of the Jews’ street, the two men separated. The one called Branko took the street to the river, while the other made his way to the square where the synagogue stood.
Not far from the Jews’ street stood a house which was higher than the others. It looked newer and better-built also. This house belonged to the richest Jew in the city, to Çelebi (His Honour) Garson Arditi. On the corner formed by this house and the neighbouring one, which was half-collapsed, the man stopped, as if intending to look for a hiding place where he could not be seen.
As the stars gradually became paler and less visible, signalling that daylight was approaching and would soon dispel the darkness of the night in the kal (Jewish quarter) opposite, lights began to shine. From afar knockings and bangings could be heard, and came ever closer to where the man was hiding. It was the shamash summoning the pious Jews to come to selichot, to those holy and emotional prayers that Jews recite for forty days every year, early in the morning, before dawn.
One by one the Jews came to the kehila, some with lanterns in their hands. Shortly after, from his hiding-place, the man heard those melancholy, sad melodies which he knew so well, those hymns to the glory of the one God of Israel which he himself had sung in his adolescent’s voice ten or eleven years earlier when his father used to awaken him from sweet sleep to take him to selichot. He could hear the hazzan’s voice clearly now, and behind him the whole kehila.
Where had those innocent times gone, those days of religious poetry in the early morning? It seemed to Rafael Albo – that was his name – that an entire world, thousands of years, separated then from now. Then he had been pious, an innocent, happy boy who thought he could see the heavens opening when, from his place behind the hazzan, he sang all those sad and moving melodies of the selichot. But now that his father was no longer among the living, now that he himself was twenty-seven years old, those melodies that he could now no longer hear made the same impression on him as they had in the distant past. They no longer made his heart swell with religious emotion and poetry. Other thoughts, other ideas, now prevailed. Sighing deeply, he said to himself,
‘I am no longer the Rafael that I was. All in vain, past, gone and forgotten! Forgotten and lost forever!’
Turning towards Garson Arditi’s house, Rafael raised his hand in a threatening gesture. His eyes flashing angrily, he said, ‘You heartless old man. It’s your fault that Rafael Albo is abandoning his honesty and the law. Your fault and no others! Yours is the responsibility for this crime which I am committing. Yours is the sin and the dishonour! You are an old wolf who does not know when he is satisfied, a man without faith or feelings! Until today, until this moment, Rafael Albo was honest, proper and decent in all things, and you have made me a rebel, robber and criminal!’
As if in answer to these angry words that the young man uttered to himself, he heard steps in Garson Arditi’s courtyard. The gate opened and an old man came out with a lantern. Shutting the gate and locking it, he directed his steps toward the synagogue.
Rafael Albo, who had stepped back into the dark recess so as not to be seen, waited in his hiding-place until Garson Arditi disappeared through the door of the synagogue. Then he emerged, looked in all four directions and, seeing that there was not a living soul to hear him, clapped his hands three times and listened intently for a reply to his signal. His heart was beating fiercely as if to break through his chest.
He heard a slight cough from the courtyard, a woman’s cough. Then came the sound of the key in the lock; the gate of the courtyard opened and out slipped the figure of a woman wrapped in a long, heavy shawl.
‘Come quickly, Rafael. I think my stepmother is awake!’
As she spoke, the girl’s voice trembled with fear and her whole body revealed her great nervousness.
The two began to walk hurriedly towards the river, Rafael trembling as much as the woman as he held her icy hand, so small and delicate.
‘Don’t be afraid, my darling. I am with you. You are mine, mine, my sweet dove, and I will protect you against all danger.’
Just then, a Jew with a lantern passed by them. Curious to see who that pair of lovers were, walking hand in hand so early in the dawn, the Jew raised his lantern to see them better. However Miriam – this was the name of Garson Arditi’s daughter – turned her face away and pulled her shawl more closely around her. The inquisitive Jew could not see who she was, but he did see the young man, and recognised him.
‘Where on earth are you going so early in the morning and in such a hurry, Rafael?’ asked the Jew. But Rafael and Miriam walked on towards the river without replying.
Shouts and cries came from behind them, from the synagogue and from Garson Arditi’s house.
‘It’s my stepmother. Woe is me! She’ll kill me!’ cried the girl, and staggered. Rafael did not reply, but pulled her along more fiercely, ready to carry her, if necessary, to reach the river.
Closer and closer came the cries and the shouting. There was no doubt that they were being pursued.
‘Stop them! Stop them! It’s them! Oh, the shameless girl! Oh, what a disgrace! There they are! They’re making for the river! Get them! They’re running away! What shame! What disgrace! It’s Rafael and Miriam! They’re lovers! They’re going to throw themselves in the river! They’re going to drown themselves! Suicide! Stop them! It’s a zekhut (meritorious deed) to do so!’
However, the two lovers had two hundred steps’ lead over their pursuers and were now only thirty yards from the river. Miriam fainted. The young man took up his sweet burden and in a few moments they reached the boat.
Branko, Rafael’s loyal friend, pulled hard on the oars and the boat shot away into the stream. With his powerful arms the oarsman had reached the middle by the time the pursuers got to the river bank. The two lovers were safe. Miriam was in a dead faint, totally unconscious.
‘Miriam! Shameless! What a disgrace!’ the voices still shouted from the bank.
During this time another tragedy occurred in the synagogue.
Miriam’s stepmother, the wife of Garson Arditi, already knew about the relation between her stepdaughter and Rafael Albo, and had been watching Miriam carefully. She didn’t trust her an inch (from here to there, as we say). That morning she had heard sounds from her stepdaughter’s room and had listened closely, for she knew that the girl did not usually get up early.
Nevertheless, thinking nothing was amiss, the stepmother went to sleep again until her sharp ears heard the street door click. Swift as an eagle, Garson Arditi’s wife leapt out of bed, pulled a shawl around her and ran down into the courtyard, from there to the street, and after her stepdaughter.
It was the Jew who had seen the two lovers and had spoken to Rafael without receiving a reply who told Arditi’s wife that Rafael Albo and a woman were making for the river.
As lightning flashes through clouds, so the stepmother thought immediately that the lovers were going to drown themselves in the river. She began to cry out as loudly as she could, in the middle of the street, that her stepdaughter Miriam and Rafael Albo were about to throw themselves in the river. All the neighbours came out to see what the matter was and started running towards the river after the lovers.
While the Jews were in the synagogue singing their hymns and uttering their fervent prayers to the one God of Israel, they did not know what was happening outside. They did not hear the noise and shouting.
Garson Arditi’s wife left the neighbours running towards the river after Rafael and Miriam. She went into the synagogue to inform her husband. She was a beautiful woman, plump, tall and attractive. Impetuous by nature, she had heart problems and the doctors never ceased advising her to take care of herself and avoid any sort of over-excitement which could be very harmful to her health.
Still half-dressed, she entered the synagogue. It was full of men. When she reached her husband she tried to tell him everything that had happened. But, whether through her panic, or her rage, she couldn’t get a word out but began just to moan pitifully. Then she threw off the shawl which covered her bosom and bare shoulders, pulled her long hair, put her hands on her bosom, spun round, lifted her hands high and fell down dead there in the synagogue. Her heart had failed.
Jews in general are inquisitive and those of my city are the most inquisitive of all. They want to know absolutely everything. When one of them came to work in Vienna, the first thing he asked was what had happened to Rafael and Miriam, who had settled in Vienna. ‘Where are Miriam and Rafael? What are they doing? Do you ever see them? What does Rafael Albo do? Is he a printer or a painter? Is he still wasting his time painting pictures? Can one make a living with painting in Vienna? Did the two of them marry or are they still single, living in sin? They’re right. Why get married? It’s better to live like animals. That dreadful Garson Arditi. Still, an only daughter who goes as far as running away from her father’s house with a painter, with a wastrel who’s never going to amount to anything. Miserable Çelebi Garson! In one day his daughter ran off and his wife died. Now he’s all on his own in that enormous palace. It’s black luck even for an old man. Who did he work so hard for all his life? Who’s he going to leave it all to, all those thousands? Not for nothing is it said that in this world nothing is either completely good nor totally bad. What a terrible fate for Çelebi Garson Arditi, what awful luck and what a tragedy, and at his age too.
But another Jew replied: ‘Don’t weep so much for the old dog. Weep for one with seven or eight children begging for bread when their father has nothing to give them. Garson Arditi doesn’t need your tears nor your pity, so don’t get so worked up. He’s got plenty to live on. Can’t you see that he’s still raking it in? From early midnight he’s still in his shop toiling away like a slave. The man has no heart, just a dry, hard stone in his body. Why didn’t he consent to give his daughter to Rafael Albo? He’s a good lad from an excellent family. So he’s a printer, so what? What’s wrong with that. We can’t all be merchants and bloodsuckers like Garson Arditi. And printers are needed. Why didn’t the old man agree to give his daughter to Rafael when the two were so much in love? It’s good. They did well to elope. That heartless old man deserved it.’
Copyright © Michael Alpert 2012
The photo appearing here is of the original cover of the book, Rafael i Miryam (Rafael and Miriam).
Rafael i Miryam was first published in twelve - probably weekly - episodes in Constantinople in 1910 with the sub-title Novela de los judios de Oriente or Novel of the Jews of the East.
Ben-Yitshak Sacerdote – Little is known about this author, but since 'Sacerdote' is Spanish for 'priest', the general opinion is that it is a nom-de-plume for one of the publishers whose name was Cohen or perhaps one of the printers, whose name was also Cohen. Ya'ari's catalogue of Judeo-Spanish holdings in the Hebrew University Library lists no other work for this author. The novel has 191 pages in octavo. There is a short article, with a summary, about Rafael i Miryam by David Altabé ('Reflections of Sephardic Life in the Ottoman Empire as seen in two Judeo-Spanish novels' in Studies in Turkish-Jewish History, New York 1996, 135-146).
Michael Alpert is Professor Emeritus of the Modern and Contemporary History of Spain at the University of Westminster and Honorary Research Fellow of the Hebrew and Jewish Studies Department at University College London. He has three specialities: 20th century Spanish history on which he has published widely; the Spanish Inquisition and secret Judaism, on which he has published Secret Judaism and the Spanish Inquisition (2nd edition, Nottingham, Five Leaves, 2008), and, more recently, the Ladino novel. He has published a transliteration from the Hebrew letter text and a translation into English of Elia Rafael Karmona's La muz'er onesta, under the title The Chaste Wife (Nottingham, Five Leaves, 2009), and some articles about the Ladino novel in general.
A note about Ladino novels and photographs in Ladino-speaking communities, written by Michael Alpert:
Ladino is the Spanish spoken by the descendants of the Jews who were exiled from Spain in 1492, and settled in the Ottoman Empire. Printed in Hebrew rabbinic (or ‘Rashi’) type, the Ladino novel began in the late 19th century, published in Constantinople, Salonika and Izmir, in newspaper sections or in weekly parts. Most Ladino novels, of adventure or love, were translations, but some were original, as is the case with Rafael and Miriam, which begins with an elopement.