Set during the turbulent days of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Italian campaign (1796–97), Beyond the Ghetto Gates is both a cautionary tale for our present moment, with its rising tide of anti-Semitism, and a story of hopea reminder of a time in history when men and women of conflicting faiths were able to reconcile their prejudices in the face of a rapidly changing world.
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|Publisher:||She Writes Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.40(d)|
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March 27, 1796
Mirelle sat at the desk in her father’s office, staring blankly at the open cash box. Where was the money? Her heart hammered in her chest. Three people had the key: herself, her father, and the ketubah workshop foreman, Sabato Narducci. It was inconceivable that her father or Narducci would have taken anything without a reason.
But it was nearly April, when Mirelle divvied out the men’s quarterly wage packets. And there wasn’t enough money to pay them in the box.
The irrational thought that she had somehow miscounted made her scoop up the bills and coins again, hands trembling. The total was the same. Where is the money?
Drawing a shaky breath, she pushed her hair out of her face and swiveled around to take the oversized ledger off the cabinet behind the desk. She let it fall open and spied a few notations in new columns on a fresh page in her father’s cramped, somewhat untidy handwriting. She turned back a leaf and, sighing in relief, found the culprit.
After reading the amount Papa had paid the man853 scudishe walked into the workroom, cradling the book to her chest, to find her father.
“Papa? May I talk to you?”
Simone d’Ancona looked up, clearly annoyed at the interruption. He was doing the work he loved best: illuminating a ketubah at his narrow standing desk at the back of the workshop. From there, he explained to his wife and children, he could watch over his men and still keep his hand in the work.
But Mirelle knew that once engrossed in his craft, he did very little supervising; that role was generally left to Narducci. She didn’t blame her father, however. She, too, knew the magical pull of immersing herself in the tasks she loved. For Papa, it was artfor Mirelle, numbers.
“What is it, child?” The look of irritation faded, replaced by a fond smile.
Mirelle glanced at the bent heads of the men in the workshop. “Let’s go into your office.”
He followed her back to the tiny office. Once inside, she opened the ledger. “I thought we agreed to let me handle the accounts,” she said gently, pointing to the suspect entry. “And the payments. But you paid Scarlotti for this quarter’s shipment of parchment, didn’t you?”
“He was pressing us for paymentsaid we were late, and he needed to pay his suppliers. You weren’t here. What was I supposed to do?”
Mirelle shook her head as she moved her finger up the page. “Look here.”
An identical payment was neatly recorded above. “You paid him twice,” Mirelle said, looking into his stricken face. “Mama took me to market yesterday, remember? We saw Scarlotti there. He must have come here afterward to”
“Cheat us!” His face turned plum red. “A whole quarter’s supplymore than eight hundred scudi!”
Mirelle nodded. “You must get it back, Papa. So we can pay the men. And Papa . . . stay out of my books.”
Her father averted his gaze. “I’ll be more careful, that’s all,” he muttered.
Mirelle bit her lip. She could never convince her father that numbers befuddled him, that the accounts always became snarled when he touched them. Generally, she didn’t mind rechecking his work and adjusting his errors. After all, it was his workshop. But this last mistake? If she hadn’t caught it in time . . .
She took a deep breath. “Tell Signor Scarlotti to return our money. Today.” Looking out the open office door, she lowered her voice. “I’ll calculate the men’s pay packets so they’re ready to fill when you return.”
“This afternoon,” he said, his head still turned away.
She bit her lip as he moved to escape the office, looking like a trapped rabbit. She knew he hated confronting anyone, even though Scarlotti was just a blustering bully who would back down once faced with proof.
Before he reached the door, Papa swiveled back. “I’m grateful, child.”
She nodded and, as soon as he slipped away, turned to her figures. Adjusting her father’s mistake, she wrote new totals at the bottom of the two columns. Deductions for parchment, ink, paints, cleansing oils. She wrote out the men’s pay packets, then balanced expenses against the income from the commissions, most paid in soldi and lire, some in foreign coinrubles and pounds sterling and francs. She’d created a list that helped her translate sums sent from as far off as Russia and the Americas.
While she was absorbed in numbers, her father came back in and sat down at the corner of the desk to write letters. Soon the only sound was the scratch of his pen and the tick marks Mirelle made in the ledger.
They worked companionably for an hour before Narducci appeared in the doorway.
“We’re almost ready to send the new ketubot to that American citySavannah, Georgia,” the foreman said. “I wanted to show you the one designed for the rabbi and his bride. The men outdid themselves.”
He held up a sheaf of parchment. Papa shuffled his letters into a neat pile and placed them on his lap. Narducci lay the illuminated marriage certificate on the desk while Mirelle rose to stand behind the two men.
Mirelle was used to ketubot of all types, decorated with flowers and intricate spirals, biblical heroes, medieval creatures, signs of the zodiac, and exotic animals. Colors ranged from vivid crimson and sapphire, rich violet, and deep emerald to lighter pastelssoft pinks and yellows, celadon green, and sky blue. Some took on a darker aspect: inky black backgrounds overlaid with lacey patterns bemusing the eye. Others were spare, the white vellum untouched, a single sprig of wildflowers, perhaps, or a simple scroll. But all encircled the same text, which read:
Be my wife according to the law of Moses and Israel. I will work, honor, feed, and support you in the custom of Jewish men, who work, honor, feed, and support their wives faithfully. I will give you the settlement of ______ as well as your food, clothing, necessities of life, and conjugal needs, according to the universal custom.
Mirelle stared at the blank space following “settlement of.” That amount, as well as the wife’s dowry, were negotiated by the matchmaker and the parents of the young couple before the betrothal ceremony. She wondered idly what her own worth might be. Five hundred scudi? A thousand? Her mother’s voice echoed in her head: “How ironic: the daughter of Europe’s foremost ketubah workshop remaining unwed and unsought!”
Mirelle tossed her head. From what she’d seen of her mother’s lifecooking, cleaning, trailing the men like an obedient bird, dusting tables, and sweeping crumbsfollowing in those footsteps was the last thing she wanted.
“Exquisite,” Papa said now, chasing her reverie away.
“It’s a good thing you finished on time,” Mirelle teased the foreman. “Papa was nervous that you’d miss the frigate.” She ran a careful finger over the ragged edge of the parchment, adding softly, “It’s lovely.”
Simone d’Ancona was always in a hurry. How many mornings had Mirelle seen her father drink his morning coffee standing, shrugging on his shapeless overcoat as he took his final gulp? The slowness of his best workers often irritated him, but when he saw their gorgeous work, his impatience vanished, replaced by lavish praise. The ketubah workshop was renowned worldwide, Mirelle knew, because of the quality of their craftsmanship.
“I’ll get the packing materials.” Mirelle enjoyed wrapping the final ketubot for shipment, especially those that had far to travel. As she carefully rolled them into a tube, she loved to picture their journeyposted overland in a courier’s satchel, placed in the hold of a merchant ship. And to imagine, at the end of the voyage, the bride and groom’s delight, the pride with which they would display the beautiful certificate in their new home.
Stepping into the workroom, Mirelle breathed in the combination of oils, paint, and ink sharply flavoring the air. The shop was filled with lines of tables surrounded by men on stools, hunched in concentration. Most rolled up their shirt sleeves or covered them with splattered work sleeves, tied at the neck. Each man had a favorite set of implementspens and ink, brushes and paintwhich they placed upright in jars or lay in flat trays. Three-quarter windows on either side of the room let in the daylighta rarity in the ghetto, where most buildings were constructed so close together that the sun couldn’t seep inside.
Mirelle deftly bundled the marriage certificates into a neat package. Just as she finished, she felt a hand on her shoulder, and turned.
Papa stood before her, his face solemn. “Come with me.”
Mirelle followed him into his office. Reaching the door, she reared back in surprise. Rabbi Fano and her mother filled the space, the rabbi occupying the place of honor behind Papa’s desk, Mama hovering in one corner, a shopping basket hanging on her arm.
Papa couldn’t shut the doorit was permanently stuck behind a cabinetbut the men who worked close by had moved off, giving them a semblance of privacy.
Papa cleared his throat, looking everywhere but at Mirelle. The rabbi waited a second, watching him, but when he didn’t speak, he fixed cold eyes on her face.
“Mirelle,” he said slowly. “I hope you are well, child.”
“Thank you, Rabbi.” She bobbed a small curtsey, inwardly fuming at being called a child.
When he nodded, his gray sidelocks swayed gently against hollowed cheeks. “Simone, would you explain to Mirelle why we’re here?”
Papa cleared his throat, eyes on the floor. “Rabbi Fano and I talked last week. He reminded me that you are of an age to think of marriage. When you were a child, no one worried that you might distract the scribes. But the rabbi pointed out the holiness of their work. And that it’s forbidden that a woman might . . . You’re a very pretty girl, you know.”
“No one in the workshop thinks of me like that,” Mirelle said, an embarrassed flush rising to her cheeks. “After all, I’ve known most of them since I was a child.”
“But not all,” Papa replied. “We’ve brought in some new apprentices latelyand some younger workers.”
She knew; she was the one who had drawn up the contracts for their employ. She gripped her hands in a tight knot. “Yes, but”
“The Talmud clearly states that young men should not be placed in danger of sinful impulses,” the rabbi interrupted, eyes slitting as he looked her up and down. “They need to remain pure, especially when engaged on a holy task. You simply cannot be present here, cannot work in the same rooms as scribes.”
“I would think,” Mirelle retorted, “that if the scribes were truly committed to their holy task, they would learn to look at me without their minds straying from their paper!”
The rabbi gasped. Papa clapped a hand to his mouth, eyes widening at her impertinence.
“I’ve never liked you working here!” Mama cut in, looking afraid of what Mirelle might say next. “I always told your father he was ruining your chances of a good marriage. No suitor wants a wife who works in an office, doing a man’s job!” She turned to the rabbi. “Do they, Rabbi?”
Mirelle knew what her mother wanted for her: marriage to a rich husband. Her young brother, Jacopo, who apprenticed at the manufactory after school each day, would someday take ownership of the workshop. She realized no woman could expect to inherit this peculiarly religious enterprise. But when she thought of her future, it was always working side by side with her brother. Jacopo was a brilliant craftsman, like his father and grandfather before him, but a slow study in business, with no head for numbers. Not like Mirelle. She wanted to run the workshop alongside him, managing the staff, the accounts, the commissionswork the rabbi could never fully understand.
“Mama, we’ve talked about this.” The words spilled out, almost of their own accord. “I’ve told you a thousand times that you and Papa will find a husband who won’t mind my working here. Someone like Papa, who is glad of my help.” She looked pleadingly at her father. “You are glad, aren’t you, Papa? Think about the error I just caught. How would you have felt when you realized you couldn’t pay the men’s wagesand didn’t know why?”
“Mirelle.” The rabbi’s voice was ice cold. “You talk like a wayward child. This is man’s workholy worka world in which you do not belong.”
Mirelle drew a deep breath to steady herself. “But you don’t understand. The workshop needs me.”
“You delude yourself.” The rabbi sneered. “A woman should not take a man’s role. Besides your unfitness for the task, you deny a deserving man a good living.”
Mirelle knew he wouldn’t understand that it was more than that. No one else could enter into the heart and soul of the workshop the way she did. But she would have to argue that when the rabbi wasn’t there, when Mama wasn’t bolstered by his presence. “All right,” she acquiesced. “I’ll work from home. Papa can bring the accounts there.”
But the rabbi shook his head. “Did you not hear? This is a man’s place. A man’s job. Besides, it’s unwomanly for you to fritter away your time this way. You must learn from your mother to become akeret haBayitthe mainstay of the home. The Torah commands you to make a Jewish home, keep kosher, take part in such commandments as candle lighting and baking challah for Shabbat. When you intrude yourself in the realm of men, puff yourself up with pride and immodesty, you commit a sin. It’s contrary to Torah. Don’t you want to command your husband’s respect so he will bless you every Friday evening, call you a woman of valor, praise the fruit of your hands?”
“But I can do those things!” Mirelle cried. “I can do all that and manage the accounts for the workshop.”
Rabbi Fano reared back, shock darkening his face. “Simone, this is exactly what I was afraid of. You’ve made her headstrong. Prideful. Immodest.”
Papa frowned. “She’s not really”
“She spends nearly all her time here,” Mama declared. “It’s wrong. What husband will want her? I’ve told Simone . . .”
Mirelle glared at her. “Papa understands, even if you don’t.”
The rabbi gasped in horror. “Honor your mother!” he boomed, finger wagging.
“I do, Rabbi Fano,” Mirelle snapped. “I also honor my father.”
The rabbi’s fist struck Papa’s desk, making Mirelle and her parents jump. “Enough! I will not tolerate this nonsense any longer. Mirelle, I have told your father what I will do if you do not obey me. And I will not shirk from my duty!”
Abruptly he stood, moved around the desk, and lay a hand over her headheavily, forcing her to bend her neck. Mirelle’s skin crawled at his touch. He muttered a blessing under his breath and, with a brusque nod at her parents, eased out of the office.
Mirelle watched his retreating back, a squeezing sensation in her chest. She whirled on her father. “What does he mean?”
Her father reached over and pulled her close, kissing the top of her head. “My love, no one could manage the workshop better than you,” he saidin a whisper, as if afraid Rabbi Fano would overhear him. “But the rabbi may be right. We must consider the future.”
“What threats has he made?” she demanded.
“He will put the workshop under interdict if you continue to work here.”
“Interdict? What does that mean?”
Papa’s jaw clenched. “It means he won’t perform a marriage ceremony if the ketubah comes from our workshop. And he’ll convince other rabbis throughout Italy to do the same.”
“But that would ruin us!” She couldn’t believe the rabbia rabbi, of all people!could be so malicious. “He’s bluffing, trying to frighten you. He can’t mean it, Papa.”
“He can’t mean it,” she repeated.
“Don’t interrupt your father,” Mama admonished, tsk-tsking.
Mirelle turned away, hunching a shoulder.
“He’s not bluffing.” Papa ignored the tension between wife and daughter. “He has a list of the next couples to marry in the ghetto, said he’ll visit them all if you don’t comply.”
“Mirelle.” Her mother spoke softly. “Stop being selfish. Don’t you understand what will happen if you insist on remaining here? You’ll ruin the workshop, your father’s hard work, the scribes, the artists. You’ll ruin all our lives. You must see that.”
Mirelle felt a pang for the workers. Mama was rightan interdict would ruin them.
Papa’s shoulders slumped. “I want you to know that I tried to change Rabbi Fano’s mind. I even had David Morpurgo tryyou know how persuasive David is. But the rabbi is adamant. You can’t work here anymore.”
Mama handed Mirelle the market basket. Absently she took it, staring dully at her father’s defeated figure.
“I know you think I’m to blame, Mira’la,” Mama said briskly. “But this is bestfor the business, for the family. Even for you.” She waited a moment for Mirelle to reply, and when she didn’t, continued. “You’ll stay home with me. There are still one or two things I can teach you. Right now, I want you to go to market. The list of what we need is in the basket. Come straight home afterward. There’s work for you there.”
She reached over to kiss Mirelle’s cheek, but Mirelle hunched a shoulder again. Mama hissed between her teeth and left without another word.
Papa shook his head. “I’m sorry, daughter. If only . . .”
Mirelle knew what her father wasn’t saying. If she were a boy, she could work with him, help him run the business. For a moment, she hated him, along with her mother and the rabbi. But looking into his woebegone face, she recognized that he was trapped by the traditions of his life and work. A lump lodged in her throat. In a moment, she’d burst into tears.
No, she wouldn’t. She refused to break down, at least not there. She walked stiffly away, the straw container banging against her leg. She took some comfort from Narducci’s sympathetic glance as she passed his workbench, but her mood plunged again as she noticed how many of the men averted their eyes.
Out on the stoop, she reached instinctively to touch the blue-and-green enamel mezuzah attached to the front doorpost, which contained a parchment inscribed with the Shema: “Hear, oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” She hesitated for a long, angry moment, then kissed her fingertips and stalked off.