Set in 1933, Cynthia Ozick’s newest short story tells of an ambitious young philologist named Solomon Adelberg, and his quest to uncover the secrets of a notorious Jewish apostate. Most of the action takes place in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, but the story begins at a remote monastery in Mandatory Palestine:
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.