Sara Copio Sullam

An Italian Jewish Poetess.

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Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide To Jewish Women, (Jewish Publication Society).

Sara Copio was born in Venice in 1592 into a prosperous merchant family. She was the oldest of two or three daughters and received an extensive humanistic education that included training in Hebrew, Spanish, Latin, and Greek as well as her native Italian. She was also taught philosophy, music, and rabbinic literature. At a very early age, Sara began to write verse and became known in Italy as a poet and singer who accompanied herself on the lyre. She continued writing poetry even after her marriage, in 1613 or 1614, and her home became a meeting place for Jewish and Christian poets, artists, and scholars. Her husband, Jacob Sullam, was himself a patron of the arts in addition to being a moneylender. In 1615 the couple had one daughter, Rebecca, who died at the age often months. There is no evidence of any other children.

A Famous Correspondent

Sara Copio Sullam's writings displayed her knowledge of the Hebrew language as well as the texts of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. There were references to Josephus, Aristotle, and Dante. Over the years, she became known for her poetic improvisations, a sort of literary duelling match between participants that, unfortunately, was never written down. She also wrote sonnets and numerous letters.

jewish poetrySullam's most famous correspondent was the aged Christian poet, Ansaldo Ceba. Thirty years older than she, Ceba was a retired diplomat who had an illustrious career as a writer and translator of the classics. Among his works was a play in verse entitled La Reina Ester (Queen Esther) that Sara read early in 1618 while recovering from a miscarriage. Moved to write to him to express her admiration, that first letter began a long distance relationship that lasted for four years.

Ceba and Sullam never met. She remained in the Venetian ghetto and he in Genoa where he had retired to a monastery, but their correspondence is full of intimate, sometimes even physical allusions and metaphors. Besides letters, they exchanged books, portraits, and gifts. Ceba's avowed goal was to convert Sara to Christianity. In spite of her open admiration for him, she steadfastly refused to consider it and suggested in one letter that she might pray for his conversion.

Literary Betrayal

This daring proposal, coupled with what appears to be misplaced trust and extreme naiveté, ultimately led to trouble. Desiring to perfect her many skills, Sullam took lessons from some of the poets, painters, and scholars who frequented her salon. In return, she offered them sponsorship and financial support. At first, her benefactors wrote flattering poetry to her, alluding to her blond beauty, her charm and pleasant disposition. Many, however, seem to have taken advantage of her kindness and gone on to betray her trust.

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Emily Taitz

Emily Taitz has a PhD in medieval Jewish history from the Jewish Theological Seminary. She taught women's history at Adelphi University and is presently co-editor of The New Light, a literary magazine.