In December, when Mosaic asked Cynthia Ozick to recommend some of the books she had recently read, she named, among others, David Kertzer’s The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, which tells the story of a six-year-old Bolognese Jew abducted and forcibly converted by papal authorities in 1858. Now, Ozick, in her most recent work of fiction, imagines seeing Mortara through the eyes of his great-nephew:
If you are unfortunate enough to bear a name trailing a history, as I am, you will understand why I have decided to change mine—though not quite yet. I must live with the original until I have squeezed out of it the last syllable of iniquity. A great sin was committed against this name, the name of an honest and peaceful family, and whether the choice of an American commonplace will serve as anodyne, I can hardly predict. It was in 1940 that my own fraction of these relations arrived here from Bologna to escape the racial laws. My widowed father, Isacco Giacobbe Mortara, had already been expelled from the university, where he taught philosophy. And it was in this same year, 1940, that my great-uncle, Pio Edgardo Mortara, died at age eighty-eight, after living out his last years in a monastery in Belgium. The incident that had made a small boy notorious was by then mainly forgotten, except by a handful of scholars, and was regularly attributed to mediaeval ignominy, as if modernity—railway, telegraph, photography—hadn’t at the time already permeated everywhere.