In the province of Catalonia, beside the rivers Ter and Onar, in the city of Gerona, on the Calle de la Disputacion, which commemorated a long-forgotten controversy between his kinsman, Rabbi Moses ben Nanman, and the convert Pablo Cristiani in the presence of King Alfonso and his court in the capital city of Barcelona, there lived in our time the last Jew on earth. He went by the name Acosta, a respected and honored patronym among Spaniards, but he was, like many, if not all, Acostas, descended from secret Jews.

Don Rafael Acosta owned, as did many citizens of Gerona, a shop that specialized in the leather goods for which the region is famous. He inherited the shop from his father who died when Don Rafael was a young man; however his mother had managed it with such meticulous efficiency that by the time of his twenty-fifth year, when it was time for him to assume control, it had grown to be one of the most prosperous shops of its kind in the city, exporting cured skins to leather fabricators in France and England and distributing gloves, jackets, coats, hats, and other articles of leather, made by householders in the region, to other parts of Spain and handicraft centers throughout the world.

Don Rafael became the director of a substantial business. His mother, now aged, her fingers gnarled by arthritis, sat in the study of their ancestral home, a stone house in the old quarter of Gerona, reading the Spanish fables in which she delighted, mending her son’s clothing and administering Marietta, the cook, and Rosa, the maid, in the performance of their simple domestic tasks. Don Rafael had no interest in marriage or in the fathering of children although he was aware that in his ancestral faith celibacy was not a virtue and a man without wife and children was accounted but half a man. No matter. There were none of his people about him in the market of Gerona and none remained in the ancient Judería where he lived. He was unafraid of reproach or disapproving stares; fellow Jews had long since disappeared, and of their memory only tales and legends remained; with these he was familiar because his mother read to him on the Sabbath of the miraculous Toledans and Cordobans of earlier centuries who had caused the light of Judea to burn in that farthest reach of the Mediterranean. He knew of all the saints and philosophers, generals and poets, legists and mystics who had flourished in the land of Spain and of their trials and torments at the hands of Almohades and Holy Inquisition, and of the pogroms and desecrations, and of the ghettos, and of the fiery preachers—converts and Jew-haters all—who picked off, one by one, from the stock of Israel the finest branches and grafted them forcibly to the numberless trees in the forest of Christendom. But, as with his lack of interest in marriage and in the fathering of descendants, so Don Rafael had no interest in the ministrations of the Mother Church. He had mother enough in his own, security enough in his business enterprise, youth enough to enjoy its fulfillment, and he counted it possible that in his later years, like an aging prince, he might take to himself a young woman for warmth and pleasure and perchance, in the natural course, an heir would issue whom he would legitimate.

The people of the city of Gerona, set down by God in a plain of the north of Spain, where mountains and valleys were verdant and productive, where peasants worked and were fed by their land, and industry and effort were rewarded by crops and produce, were generally indifferent to the dogmatic exigencies of religion. Catalonia was at the crossroads between Christendom and Islam, the way station from the shrines of France to the shrine of St. James of Compostela, the political cat’s paw of Louis of France, Henry of Aquitaine, Roger of Sicily. But that was some time ago. In recent centuries, Spain had settled into withdrawal; a half-century or so behind more industrialized societies, she was at this moment restored to a constitutional monarchy, a regal church, an agrarian prosperity, and an uncommon calm. Spain loved to be at rest. It was into this most serene and comfortable corner of that peninsula of inactivity that Don Rafael Acosta was born and lived.

In his fortieth year, at the time of this narrative, his mother was gathered to the blessed and shrined in the memory of her son at the abundant age of eighty. Don Rafael was alone in his generous and well-trimmed world, walking in his black suit of heavy wool and his broad-brimmed Spanish hat to Casa Acosta in the Plaza España of Gerona, taking his lunch in the hotel on the square, joining friends in the bar behind the entrance to the ancient cathedral for a glass of wine and conversation or a game of billiards before returning to his home to rest and eat a late supper.

His was the simple and uncomplicated life of the commercial gentry. It suited his quiet manner and gentle bearing, his shy smile which he covered with his hand, his black hair which sometimes fell with youthful indiscretion over his forehead, his slim and erect body which he bore with agreeable disdain. He was an excellent and unexceptionable man, and it was through no fault of his own that it came to him to enact the remarkable drama of being the last Jew on earth.

Don Rafael knew nothing of the world. That is the critical fact. The events of the larger world were quite simply irrelevant to him. Nothing beyond the precincts of Gerona engaged his attention, unless of course a famine in Uruguay or a pestilence in Argentina destroyed so many hundreds of thousands of heads of cattle that the price of Spanish hides was forced by scarcity to unexpectedly profitable levels. Then Don Rafael would smile without covering his mouth and point to the newspaper in the bar behind the cathedral and announce the good fortune which was Gerona’s through the bad fortune of South American cattlemen. It was a simple view of events and not unlike the view of most men. But aside from that, aside from the report of news that bore upon their lives directly and without the requirement of reflection, he and his associates and friends had no curiosity about the great world.

It could not be known therefore or regarded with anything more than passing interest that in that year, Don Acosta’s fortieth year, the conversion of all the world to the Catholic faith was completed. Assuredly the Cardinal Archbishop of Gerona noted the event and delivered sermons celebrating it, but his remarks were consigned to the back page of the Monday edition of the newspaper, below the results of the soccer tournaments and the corrida; these remarks were hardly noted by the prosperous burghers, perhaps least of all by Don Rafael, who never read the Noticias Religiosas, and in fact used to avert his eyes in a millennial reflex at the sight of the person or picture of the Archbishop in his Episcopal robes. It should be recalled, however—and this he remembered much later—that his mother on her deathbed had taken his hand and put it to her heart and demanded his promise that until his own death he would not depart from the faith of their ancestors. He had sworn.



The ancestors of Don Rafael Acosta had come to Gerona in the time of Moses ben Nahman, the Talmudist, the commentator, the grammarian, the mystic. Moses had lived in fact directly across the road from Don Rafael Acosta’s paternal ancestor, who had come to Spain from the Muslim kingdom of Fez in the early part of the 13th century. The Acostas were a distinguished family, physicians and Talmudists, who served churchmen and grandees with uncompromising dispassion and rectitude while never neglecting the poor and sick among their own people.

It was at the time of the massacres of 1391, more than a century and a half after the Acostas had come to the city of Gerona, that the family publicly abjured the Jewish faith, renounced the ways of their ancestors, and took upon themselves the outer garments of Christian worship. They appeared to serve the Lord Jesus Christ mightily, abstaining from meat on Friday, attending mass with regularity, receiving the sacraments of the Church, giving obedience to its laws and regulations. What was known was that, foreseeing the possibility of just such times as these, the old patriarch of the Acostas, Solomon ben Yehudah, had drawn up and notarized a document, signed in his presence by all those of his family, binding them forever (despite any and all derelictions which might result from fulfillment of the commandment of our people, that we live) to obey in continuity and to death the seven principles of the faith of Noah. Moreover, wherever possible they were sworn to the observance of the Sabbath and the fasts of Ab and the Day of Atonement. They were then commanded, even to the fiftieth generation of those who might live, to return in fullness and faith to all the remembered observances of the House of Israel, to remove from themselves the deceiving guise of the Other Faith, and to obey the God of their fathers until the time of the true Messiah—but this only when true service could be accomplished in peace, serenity, and without threat to life.

The family swore to this document, affixing their names, some seen even in children’s scrawl. The document was placed behind a vaultstone over the high fireplace of the reception hall of their home and each year, by candlelight, on the Sabbath preceding the Day of Atonement it was removed and read aloud. In more recent times there was none who knew Hebrew, but no less faithfully the family gathered on what it believed to be the Sabbath before the fast (they had nowhere to turn for accurate knowledge of the calendar and during the 19th century, although the fires of the Inquisition had long since been banked, the spirit of Spanish intolerance remained pure and uncorrupt, and no efforts were made to uncover and return these secret Jews). They withdrew the document, examined it in silence, swore an oath of loyalty, and returned the document to its hiding place. Correct Catholics—some of them, indeed (may they be spared in His mercy), believing Catholics—they nonetheless maintained this secret practice of obeisance. And so it continued to the time of the family of Don Rafael Acosta.

Change, in the guise of boredom and inaction, had come to the Spain of Don Rafael’s parents. No longer obliged by law to be an observant Catholic, it being sufficient that one remain in the eyes of the world a Catholic, the father of Don Rafael began to educate himself in the practice of his ancient faith, obedient to the demands of his ancestor, Solomon ben Yehudah. He secured books of instruction in the Hebrew language and explained their presence in his home by the curiosity he felt for the life and times of the antecedents of his Christian Lord and Redeemer. In time he taught himself, his wife (a distant cousin whom he had married in her youth), and then his only child and son, not only the language but the liturgy of the Jewish people. They were not meticulous in their observance, it being left to the declining years of his father and the fifteenth year of Don Rafael’s life to learn by accident about the laws of the phylacteries (which they undertook to procure and don) or the mezzuzah (which they promptly affixed to their doorway concealed behind an iron cross).

Don Rafael Acosta could not have known, then, that he was the last Jew in Spain, indeed the last Jew in Europe, that no Jew survived in the Holy Land, that all the crypto-Jews, proto-Jews, aboriginal Jews, the few hundred Samaritans who clustered on Mount Gerizah, the black Jews of Harlem, the Falashas of Ethiopia, descendants of the Queen of Sheba, were no more; that the small community of Japanese Jews, the Karaites of Southern Russia, the Jews of New Delhi and Bombay, the surviving Chinese-Jewish family in Shanghai, that all these had vanished, gathered up into the Holy Roman Church. But not these alone. Not Jews alone had vanished from the earth. Indeed, they had been the last to go. Some, to be sure—refusing the gentle advice of Franciscans and the hectoring Dominicans and Jesuits who had passed throughout the world in caravans of faith, distributing crosses and rosaries, instructing in the day and baptizing at nightfall—some chose to die, taking poison or starving themselves to death in undemonstrative demurral. But they were few and their numbers were not reported. It was the case that after two thousand years of militance and combativeness, what the Church had sought by sword fell to it now without effort.

It was a miracle of the Church Triumphant. Sikhs and Buddhists, Confucians and Shintoists, Taoists and Zoroastrians, Holy Rollers and Methodists, Adventists and Christian Scientists, Muslims of the Mutakallimun and Muslims of the Sufi, all these capitulated, singly, in family, in village, tribe, whole nations in an orgy of pacific espousal. Giant crosses played the skies of all the continents by day and night, radios offered masses and oratorios of thanksgiving. The numbers of the recalcitrant were reduced gradually, unapproachable tribes contacted and inundated by forces of missionaries. The tropical forests of Indochina, the tangled rivers of New Guinea, the green maze of the Amazon were all penetrated and their people converted.

The Reformed churches were the first to bow their knee to the Holy Pontiff, then came the Patriarchs of the Eastern churches, then the Muslims of North Africa, the Near East, and Asia, and then polytheists and pagans of Asia, and last, following atheists of North America and Europe, came the picking off of the Jews, those wild fruits of the branch, the first flower of divinity, the last witnesses to stubborn unbelief. It was done at last. The new millennium could begin. The reign of the child of God, the son of the Lord, the lamb of heaven, could begin and ultimately, finally, at a moment that would still remain unknown the Parousia would come to pass. The Christ would return in glory, and the world would be judged. All believed that they would be saved, nature transfigured, and the age of renascent beatitude, at the end as it was in Paradise at the beginning, would commence.



It so happened that a young priest from Saragossa, just returned from a triumphant sojourn among the tribesmen of the African grasslands, had taken his old mother and father on a tour of Spain. They arrived in Gerona late on a Friday afternoon and parked their battered car in Plaza España, before Casa Acosta. Don Rafael had been busy throughout the day. A convention of nurses had just completed its deliberations and customers crowded his shop to buy presents for their families. It was late in the day and he had become accustomed to returning home early on the eve of Sabbath so that Marietta could serve his supper earlier than usual, depart, and leave him to a quiet evening of reading in the Torah and examining the rare editions of Hebrew works he had begun to collect. He had closed the door behind the last nurse, a pretty girl from Valencia, in honor of whose long black hair he had offered a ceremonial discount. He had already sent off his assistants and turned out the lights in the stockroom when he heard a knock at the front door. He determined to ignore it, but the knock continued, followed by a low, muffled, but insistent call for help followed by a plaintive “por favor.” Annoyed, Don Rafael unlocked the door and opened it. The young priest from Saragossa stood before him.

“Sir,” he said directly, “my car refuses to start. Would you be kind enough to push me into the street? Perhaps then I can encourage a passing car, if one chooses to come at this hour, to assist me further.”

“There will be no cars at this hour. Not for two more hours. Those that come now are all rushing to go home. I doubt that even our gracious Geronans will stop for you, Father.”

“You may be right. The problem is my parents.” He motioned to an old couple seated erect, unsmiling, in the back seat.

“Indeed,” Don Rafael commented. He thought he might show hospitality. It did not matter that it was the eve of the Sabbath. The young priest could not know or care. He seemed pleasant enough. He would bring them to his home and call Garaje Jaime to assist them. By ten o’clock they would be off and he could retire to his study. He proposed that the priest and his parents return to his home for supper. The priest smiled appreciatively and after a brief and virtually inaudible consultation with his parents, who even then did not speak but inclined their bodies slightly in an unspecific nod of acknowledgment, the proposal was accepted. Don Rafael called his housekeeper to inform her of his guests and arranged with Jaime to send someone to pick up the keys and recharge the battery of the old car. It was done.



His guests were left in the darkened drawing room of his home. Rosa, the niece of Marietta, served them sherry while he rested. At eight o’clock a light supper was served. It had not been customary in his family for a large meal to be offered in honor of the coming of the Sabbath. The festive meal, as always among working Spaniards of the provinces, was at noontime. A simple soup, a fish turned in oil, and a salad were sufficient. And wine.

The priest (he had introduced himself and his family as Mendoza, his own name being Don Xavier Maria) was curious, but not astonished, to find Don Rafael seated when they entered, a small black velvet skullcap pushed to the rear of his head, almost indistinguishable in the twilight. The priest, peremptory as is habitual to his vocation, made grace without deferring to Don Rafael’s wishes, crossed himself, was followed in this by his parents, and commenced to spoon the soup, unaware that Don Rafael had not responded “Amen” to his benediction nor, for that matter, crossed himself. Don Rafael pushed back the heavy oak chair, rose to his feet, poured wine from his drinking glass into a small silver thimble cup and incanted quietly, but without haste or embarrassment, the kiddush of sanctification, sat once more, broke off a piece of bread from a small loaf which stood before him, and blessed it. Not until he was about to lift his spoon to begin his meal did he become aware that his guests were motionless, no longer eating, their faces ashen with incredulity. Of a sudden the old lady began to cross herself rapidly, hitting her forehead, shoulders, and chest in a frenzy of movement. The old man began to shake, one leg striking the table repetitively. Only the priest remained unstartled by the scene, though he regarded it as curious. He turned to his parents and with a gesture of his hands calmed them. He turned next to Don Rafael, who had watched their consternation with amused confusion.

“Who are you, Sir?”

“I, Father?”

“Yes, my friend.”

“I? Indeed you must know. I am the proprietor of a leather shop in the Plaza España of Gerona, called Casa Acosta. I am the Acosta. Don Rafael Arturo Moyse Acosta of Gerona. Born in Gerona. And, with the grace of God, to die in Gerona in this house.”

“I see. Yes. Quite so. But, tell me, Don Rafael, what was that rite you performed?” the priest demanded, wagging his finger theatrically at the silver thimble cup and the bread.

Don Rafael was abashed at the priest’s unexpected rudeness, but he replied. “That rite? Father, you must know it well. It is the ancient ritual from which the Eucharist of the Church arises. Wine. Bread. Blood. Body. You must know?”

The priest frowned and a tic appeared over his left eye, a slight irregular spasm. “I know of no such rite. Indeed, there were a people, the Jews, who until recently practiced such a cult, but they are either dead or converted.”

“Indeed,” Don Rafael replied.

“Completely. Yes, the last of them were baptized eighteen months ago. I, personally, was responsible for administering baptism to the remaining forty Jewish families of Fez, Morocco, two years ago while on my way south toward the tribes of the grasslands. I am finished with them now. Every Jew and every Bantu who came into my way has been baptized.”

“In that case, Father, I must disappoint you. My family came from Fez more than 700 years ago. I am, if you will, a Spaniard from Fez, and moreover I am a Jew. It may well be that I am the last Jew on earth.” Don Rafael began to laugh. The very idea seemed so witty, so preposterous, there was nothing to do but laugh. He laughed a good while, his face reddening, his hand steadying the skullcap on his head.

The priest frowned. Anger replaced curiosity. “I do not believe you, Don Rafael Acosta.”

“Believe me, what?” Don Rafael replied, his laughter subsiding.

“That you are a Jew.”

“But, of course I am. I am, as regards the world, an unobservant Catholic, a not unusual phenomenon in Gerona. No self-respecting Spaniard would go to Church; that is for women and old men and parents of priests. I was born a Catholic of visibly Catholic parents. But my father and mother were both believing, practicing, devout Jews. I am as well. And now if you will excuse me for a moment. I should like to call Jaime.”



Don Rafael rose from the table and left. The remainder of the meal was served, but Don Rafael’s guests ate no more. The mullet in white wine did not please them, nor the salad, nor the fresh fruit. They were thunderstruck. Don Xavier sat without speaking. His mother suggested that he lead them in a decade of the rosary, but the young priest demurred. Something more drastic was called for.

Don Rafael returned to the table after it had been cleared and coffee and walnuts served. “It’s done. Fine. The man from the garage was just here. I gave him the keys and he will drive your car here when it is repaired. There will be no charge. Hospitality, particularly Sabbath hospitality, is always complete.”

“My dear Don Rafael, I do believe that what you said is correct.”

“What, Father?”

“That you are the last Jew on earth.”

“No, my dear Father, I was joking. I was teasing you. That’s quite unfair. My apologies.”

“No, no. You don’t seem to understand. In all likelihood what you are saying is true. You are the last nonbeliever in the world, not simply the last Jew on earth, the last nonbeliever, the last non-Catholic.”

“But if you wish you can regard me as a believer. I was baptized. It’s there, as you would say, even if it can’t be seen. It’s only that I don’t believe a word of the Catholic faith, not a word. I am a Jew, and that’s quite enough.”

“Quite enough for whom?” The priest spoke with solemnity.

“For me, of course. For me. Nobody demands more of man. I am a decent man, a good Spaniard. I support the government, endorse its laws, contribute to charity. It is only that I am stubbornly pledged to my ancestry.”

Don Xavier did not persist. It seemed hopeless. His host seemed to have no interest in his anomalous situation. He was without curiosity, dull, unimaginative. It seemed irrelevant, more, wholly uninteresting to him that he might in fact be the last Jew and the last non-Catholic on earth. It was pointless to contend further with such proud and indomitable ignorance. The priest broke off the conversation, thanked Don Rafael for his hospitality, and left as soon as the car was brought. He did not neglect, however, upon arrival at his hotel that same night, to address a letter to the Cardinal Archbishop of Gerona, The Most Reverend Pedro Fernando Corazon y Iturbe. His letter read:

Most Reverend Father,

It is my duty to inform you that in your midst there is one, Don Rafael Acosta, proprietor of Casa Acosta on the Plaza España of your city, who remains, despite the visible triumph of the faith, recalcitrant and unconverted. He is, dangerous enough, a lapsed Catholic, having admitted to me that he was baptized at birth, but more grievous than this, his heresy is not that of natural ignorance or libertinism, with which we could more easily contend, but of active devotion and fealty to his ancestral faith, that of the benighted Jews.

There are, you are aware, no longer Jews in our world, may the mercy of the Lord be praised. He is, I feel confident to claim, the last. But it is not simply that he proclaims his faith (I witnessed at his table this evening the performance of antiquated rites which gave me and my aged parents who were the inadvertent victims of his hospitality a shiver of mortal terror) from the fount of simple ignorance. With such ignorance we have proved in recent years we are more than capable of dealing. It is rather that he, who bears upon his brow the waters of baptism, by giving allegiance to a dead belief, actively despises our truth. If he remains unrepentant he will corrupt others. Knowing as we do that the ways of truth are encumbered with thorns and stones, we cannot risk that one, even one, active unbeliever be allowed to thrive, lest his presence infect others who find the path of salvation hard.

I urge you to take action.

If for any reason you wish to contact me, I am shortly to return to my family home in Saragossa, where I am available at the Church of San Xavier, after whom I am named.

I am a priest of the faith recently returned from our missions in Africa.

Yours respectfully,
Xavier Maria Mendoza

Don Rafael, on the other hand, did not think further of his evening with the family of Mendozas. He had found the meal tedious, the priest ill-mannered and ungracious, and his parents superstitious peasants. Once they had left he drank coffee in his study until midnight, reading quietly from his father’s Bible the portion of the week which tells the story of the righteous convert, Jethro, who was the father of Zipporah, who was the wife of Moses, who was the father of all our people.

The following days were uneventful. Twice Don Rafael observed that a middle-aged man in a black suit and white straw hat stood across the street from his shop, smoking small cigars, but he imagined he was an idler who fancied himself elegantly turned out and stood about to attract the attention of the girls promenading the plaza at noontime. On the fifth day his assistant, Pablo Henriquez, motioned to the idler and said laughingly, “We are being spied upon, Don Rafael.”

“Who? Where?”

“There, across the street. He is there during the comfortable hours, but when I arrive early in the morning to open the shop, there is another, a bald, fat man who is relieved about eleven by this one.”

Don Rafael shrugged without interest. “I don’t understand, but if it continues I will see to it. I am well-known and respected in Gerona. Why should anyone spy on me?”

The following Friday when we arrived at the Plaza España to have coffee in the cafe which was directly across the square from Casa Acosta, he noticed a small crowd gathered before his store. He hastened toward the crowd and, pushing through, saw to his horror that the front window of the shop had been broken. Pablo and his fellow-assistant, Benito, had begun to hammer a wooden beam across the window and clean away the glass, but the shock of this vandalism left Don Rafael stupefied.

Don Rafael called the police and the Alcalde. An inspector from the police department, with whom he often played billiards, arrived and explained apologetically that he knew nothing of the culprits, that, indeed, he would be vigilant in pursuing them, but, he added as he turned to leave, “You may well have brought this upon yourself, old friend.” Were it not that he knew this man’s wife and children, having bought them ice cream each time they came into his shop, he would have lost his temper, perhaps even have struck the inspector. As it is, his rage increased and tears of frustration came to his eyes. He closed the shop for the day, sent his assistants home, and sat in the darkened interior, occasionally stroking the finely tooled display cabinets, their stomachs decorated with carved flowers, their feet golden orbs covered with Empire ivy.

Nothing happened during the remainder of the day, neither telephone calls nor further visitations from the police. The inspector did not return. The Mayor, who had once dined in his home, did not respond to his call.

Don Rafael was upset, gloomy to be more precise. He had never experienced vivid fantasies of enmity or persecution, but the days which followed provided him with fuel enough for a furnace of suspicion. The window was only the beginning. One night the shop was broken into and all the cabinets of ladies’ purses and the glass counters with men’s wallets and watch-bands were overturned. Nothing irreparable, nothing broken, nothing stolen, but hours of restoration and inconvenience. A few days later a drawing of a Jew in sackcloth, his head surmounted by a medieval conical hat, a sign around his neck proclaiming him “Marrano” and the flames of a bonfire searing his bare feet appeared in whitewash on the window of the shop. A curiously scholarly insult, Don Rafael thought. He did not immediately discern its source. A leaflet—Benito and Pablo gathered up fifty of them scattered in the wind that circled the plaza—denounced Casa Acosta as the purveyor of cheap, synthetic products, the leather imitated, the prices inflated. Business did suffer. The other merchants commiserated with Don Rafael, whom they liked, but professed ignorance of the origin of his misfortune. The harassment continued for a month, vandalisms, insults, graffiti, obscenities. Benito quit Don Rafael’s employ, claiming a nervous stomach. The matter was grave. To be sure, Don Rafael was not indifferent to the situation. How could he be? But he was ineffectual. He telephoned the Prefectura several times daily, but each time the Jefe was unavailable and the duty officer answered with bored rudeness. He wrote a dignified letter to the Alcalde of Gerona, but Don Francisco did not reply. It seemed hopeless, and Don Rafael, by now in genuine torment from many sleepless nights and undigested meals, contemplated leaving Gerona, even leaving Spain.



On a Thursday afternoon, nearly five weeks after the original visit of the itinerant priest and his parents, a limousine bearing the coat of arms of the Episcopal Diocese of Gerona appeared before the door of Casa Acosta. The chauffeur, a sinewy Spaniard with thin, dry lips, presented him with a letter, signed by a Monsignor Siguente, the personal secretary of the Cardinal Archbishop, requesting the presence of Don Rafael in extraordinary audience that afternoon, in fact in fifteen minutes. The chauffeur, without so much as an “excuse me,” went to the rear of the shop—indeed as though he knew it—and brought Don Rafael his suit jacket and topcoat which hung in a small wardrobe in the wrapping room. Don Rafael followed the chauffeur to the limousine, entered and sank back into the refined comfort of the ancient Mercedes. The car started off, up across the bridge into the old city of Gerona, up the back streets toward the Cathedral and the Palace of the Cardinal Archbishop. It was not a long ride. Six, perhaps ten, minutes. The car stopped and the chauffeur opened the door for Don Rafael. Don Rafael hesitated. It is not that he was frightened. He had been to the Palace many times, during the annual blessing of the city, at Christmas time when the Cardinal saluted the merchants of Gerona, and indeed at the investiture banquet of the present Cardinal. He hesitated, then, not from nervous unfamiliarity. Rather he dimly understood that perhaps not the Jefetura, not the Alcalde, not even the few jealous merchants of the Plaza España were responsible for his misfortune, but the Cardinal himself, and if the Cardinal, the whole of the Church. He struggled out of the car.

The chauffeur walked ahead, his hand beckoning him from behind to follow. Damned impudence, Don Rafael thought. He was led through a dark vestibule lined with heavy furniture and bust portraits of the Archbishop’s predecessors, men with lean jaws and small eyes or else jowls cushioned with flesh. They ascended two flights of stairs to an antechamber where a young priest sat in semi-darkness writing entries in a large vellum-bound volume. The priest jumped up, looked at Don Rafael with a smile, rang a small handbell which must have been concealed in the palm of his hand, and the vast oak doors before which they stood opened.

Don Rafael entered and the doors closed behind him. He stood alone in the darkness. A voice from within another chamber beckoned Don Rafael to enter. He did, advancing four steps through an archway into the room which appeared to be a library, for there were tiers of shelves lining the walls although few books could be seen.

“Come closer,” a small voice beckoned. “You will not be able to see me, unless you come closer.” Don Rafael advanced hesitantly, his perspiring right hand rubbing against his pant leg. He was drying it, anticipating the contact of greeting. “Closer still. I am not well. Nor am I an easily visible man even if I were.” Don Rafael walked toward the voice and saw a very tiny priest, who sat on a low divan covered in red damask. A single light from a lamp shone upon the table to the side of the divan. In the peripheral light which barely included the priest Don Rafael could see a man of considerable age, his face a map of rivulets and creases, his skin the color of wheaten wafers, dotted with brown grain. “Do sit next to me, my son.” Don Rafael sat upon the divan and clasped his hands before him. “Do you know who I am?”

“Your Eminence?”

“Not quite. I am no white eminence. Grey, black, scarlet perhaps, but no public eminence in the panoply of the world.” The old priest chuckled. “No. I am a priest pure and simple (I am Father Espinosa), but my responsibilities encompass the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, the Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity, and until recently the nearly moribund Holy Inquisition. Note well that I have said ‘until recently’ and ‘nearly moribund.’ It would appear you intend to revive me.”

Don Rafael did not understand, although he remembered well from history books the cruelties of the Inquisition. But no one had been burned in Spain since the 18th century.

“Father. I do not understand you.”

“You will understand me terribly well, my son. Do you smoke?” The priest withdrew a packet of cheap cigarettes from the pocket of his soutane and offered one to Don Rafael. Don Rafael waved it away. He was becoming unnerved.

“Help me then, Father, to understand why I am here, why I am being persecuted.”

“Are you a Catholic, my son?”

“The truth, Father, is this. I was baptized a Catholic as were all my family, but we have never practiced nor believed the faith. We are Jews descended from Jews who in this good Spain of our times are able, without giving public offense or disgrace to our friends and neighbors, to honor what we believe.”

“You are a lapsed Catholic?”

The phrase came to his head, “Canonically speaking.”

“In a word, then, you are a Catholic in mortal sin.”

“No Father, I am an observant and believing Jew who through the habit of centuries since our forebears were driven from this land has been obliged to appear to be what he is not. I am the sole surviving member of my family. I am not married. My parents are dead, may they rest in peace. I am all that is left.”


“Precisely what?”

“Precisely the point. You are all that is left anywhere, my son, anywhere in the entire world.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Technically we could ignore you. We could say to ourselves, ‘This peaceful Church has good Catholics and bad Catholics.’ We could say to ourselves quite simply that you are a bad Catholic—no sacraments, no communion, no prayers and benedictions. That would be all right under certain circumstances—if you lived, say, in Zanzibar or Tanganyika. But here in Catholic Spain it is a different matter. And in Catholic Gerona, founded even before the time of Rome, an ancient, ancient city of the faith, to have in the midst of Gerona, in the bosom of Spain, in the heart of the West, in the innermost ventricle of the heart of Christendom, not only a lapsed Catholic, but a believing Jew—no, my friend, that is quite a different matter.”



Don Rafael clearly did not understand the priest. He smiled in dumb incomprehension. Father Espinosa shifted his inconsequential weight; his feet, hidden beneath him, covered by his soutane, appeared as small protuberances seated in red velvet high-heeled pumps. They peeked out at Don Rafael, caught the light, and shone. The priest observed Don Rafael’s curiosity. “My small feet,” he said, lapsing into reverie. “My gazelles, I call them,” he went on, first addressing them and then Don Rafael. A curious fellow, Don Rafael mused. “A different matter, my son.”

“What? Which?” Don Rafael had lost the conversation. Feet. Shoes. The endearments of Egypt.

“We have returned, my son. From reverie to reality. You have not understood me, have you?” he said, extending his bony hand, white flesh to pinch Don Rafael’s leg. “Are you awake to my meaning?”

Don Rafael became dizzy; a small pain, hidden at the base of his skull, moved out of the moraine of buried impressions and memories into the whole of his head. He asked for water. A bell tinkled and a pitcher of water and tumbler appeared. He requested an aspirin. It was produced. He saw no one, but hands reached around him out of the darkness to set down what he had requested.

“Are you quite restored?” Don Rafael nodded. “In that case, let me continue. It should be clear by now. You are, my friend, not alone the last Jew in Gerona, the last Jew in Catalonia, the last Jew in Spain, the last Jew in Europe, but in fact the last Jew in the entire world. The very last.” The priest struck his knee with two fingers. It was not an emphatic gesture, but it was emphatic enough.

“I see now,” Don Rafael murmured. “Clearly now. It is for this reason that I am persecuted. First that priest and his family, and then the humiliations done to me and my establishment. Yes, I see.”

“Those torments embarrassed me, I assure you, Don Rafael. I have put an end to them. Our Lord, the Cardinal Archbishop, is a peasant from Asturias, adamantine, to be sure, but somewhat crude. I persuaded him to put an end to harassment. He listens to me. No, no. There will be no further persecution.” The priest stopped for a moment and sucked on his lower lip. He swallowed hard and his throat clucked. The moisture gathered from his lips (like a bird sipping dew) was quite enough. “If you do not mind, it will all be satisfactorily completed when you sign this document.” He took a letter from a drawer in the secretary which stood at the head of the divan and handed it to Don Rafael. “No, no. No need to read it now. It is perfectly clear. It is simply a document of faith, precise and crisp. By the regulations of canon law you must be free to examine it in quiet and contemplation. To submit to Christ is a choice of will. The will must not be constrained. I would not think to have you sign it here in my presence, under the constraint of my inquisitorial authority. No, no. You must have time and leisure to reflect. I think our interview is concluded.”

Don Rafael took the paper, folded it, and put it in his pocket. “By tomorrow then. Let us say, three o’clock in the afternoon. At the Cathedral. Tomorrow. You will return with the document, executed, notarized, if you please, and we will hold a small celebration for the last Jew on earth.” The priest laughed. Don Rafael left the presence of the priest and descended to the small plaza before the Episcopal palace. He thought to return by foot down behind the Arab baths, the long way, circling back to the small rambla of the city by way of Calle de la Plateria to the avenue at the center of which Casa Acosta had stood for more than one hundred years. But as he reached the bottom of the steps the Mercedes hummed to a stop before him and the chauffeur, this time with cap in hand, alighted and hurried around to open the door for him. He had no choice but to get in and be driven to his home. When he reached the door of his house and reached up to put his fingers to the parchment of the mezzuzah concealed behind the iron crucifix, both had disappeared and in their place a minuscule ex voto had been attached. He entered the house and a painted statue of the Virgin, illuminated by a halo of colored lights, affronted his eyes. The living room was a garden-house of white lilies and where before the pictures of his family had addressed their love to his eyes now hung St. Francis being visited by the stigmata, St. Sebastian delirious in his pain, St. Stephen beheaded, and others and more in the ecstasies of their martyrdom.

Don Rafael did not turn the pictures to the wall or order them covered. He let them be. He stared through them, indifferent. He took his supper as before. He made his blessing and he said his grace and he thanked God that he had been permitted the honor of this season and its trial and he went quickly to his room, not daring or even caring to ask Marietta who had waited anxiously for his questions how these disgraceful intrusions had come to pass. It was not her fault. Nor, he reflected, was it his. The maladjustments of fortune, the wounding of time.



It was nearly midnight when he emptied his pockets and took out the momentous letter. He sat back in his tufted chair, his bare feet cold upon the stained wood floor and poured himself a brandy and then opened the letter. It read:

I, Don Rafael Arturo Moyse Acosta, known to all as Don Rafael Acosta, resident in the most Catholic city of Gerona in the province of Catalonia, submissive to the grace of her protector and lord, the Cardinal Archbishop, The Most Reverend Pedro Fernando Corazon y Iturbe, do hereby declare in the presence of all the multitudes of Christendom that I abjure, deny, refuse, hold in contempt, anger, and dismay, repudiate, reject, and despise the congeries of errors and the magnitudes of untruth which are, have been, and ever more shall be in the memory of man the doctrines of the Old Church, the dead Synagogue, the withered limb of Christ which by this act I do cut off. Though I am baptized into Mother Church I have wandered with her ungrateful recusants and though I was availed the instruments of my salvation, I blunted them and cast them aside for useless and deceitful teachings.

I am penitent. I implore the mercy of the Church and I repent my waywardness. In love and in faith I ask to be released from my sin, to have imposed upon me any penance the Church in its mercy deems fit to cover my stain.

For many hours he sat and watched the paper in his hand until the letters wavered and disappeared into blackness. He read it no more. The paper passed from his sight and the reverse, printed as images are printed in our brain, upside down for storage in the recesses of memory, was retained. He slept that night in his chair and in the morning, cold, his feet icy, a sniffle in his nose, a huskiness in his throat, he pulled himself up before the sun and bathed himself in its winter rays. He said the morning prayers as he had said them many thousands of times before. He wrapped himself in his phylacteries and wound the knot of unity around his middle finger and draped his father’s silk prayer shawl over his eyes and resplendent before the sun sang out the praises of God and the abundance of His manifold compassions.

The morning hours passed and at eleven he returned to the shop, avoiding the chauffeur whom he saw lounging before the house. He went down into the cellar and through an underground passage which let out into the street three houses away, walked quietly to the Avenida, where, as was his custom, he took his coffee.

The noon hours came and the shop closed for the afternoon siesta. Don Rafael did not leave, but ordered a soup and fish to be sent in. He waited and he thought. A desultory reverie. He rolled back the skin of the fish and uncovered its skeleton embedded like a fossil in tender white flesh. Skin flayed from bones. A taste and it melted; his jaws worked slowly. He chewed long and distractedly until there was no flesh between his teeth and he bit his lip and cried out.

The shop reopened. An old lady bought an ivory comb in a tooled, black leather case. Don Rafael sat in the rear and sipped his coffee, already cold. He knew the letter of recantation by heart and its words blew through his mind like rain-soaked winter leaves. At ten minutes to the hour of three, the Mercedes came to the corner of the Plaza España and stopped; its driver, now dressed in grey gabardine and black puttees, approached the vitrine, rapped and crooked his finger. Don Rafael rose and pulled on his overcoat. His assistant stood by quietly, averted his eyes, and busied himself with a feather duster when Don Rafael nodded his goodbye.

The paseo was quiet. A German couple was drinking coffee at the Montaña Bar, but otherwise the shops were closed, the usual throngs of strollers were absent. The Mercedes turned around and passed to the rear of Casa Acosta into the narrow street which ascends through the Old City to the Cathedral square. The car moved like a lizard, scuttering forward and stopping suddenly to avoid an idling pedestrian. As the car mounted the cobbled streets, Don Rafael became aware of the numbers of people moving, it would appear, in the same direction as he. The last street before the Cathedral square was packed with people; the car—the only car—moved with difficulty, but the chauffeur never sounded his horn. People stepped aside and the car passed through.

The automobile entered the square as a light rain began to fall upon the bared heads of the multitudes, the thousands of Geronans, tophatted dignitaries, choristers in black satin and white lace, the Bishops—there were eight—in rose gowns, the Papal Legates, and high above them, at the top of the fifty-eight steps of the marble staircase that ascended to the doors of the Cathedral, his Eminence, the Cardinal Archbishop of Gerona. At his side, holding his arm, was the withered priest, Father Dominic Espinosa.

The door of the automobile opened and Don Rafael stepped out into the warm rain. He looked about him and dazed by the assembly turned as if to reenter the car, but a chamberlain approached and grasping him firmly by the elbow, pressed him to the base of the stairs and sternly whispered: “Go up. The Cardinal awaits you. No nonsense now.” There was nothing to do but obey. Don Rafael put his right foot to the first pediment and hesitated. The leg abandoned him. It tingled with electricity, benumbed. Don Rafael struck his thigh with his fist. The leg moved and he followed. Slowly he rose up, catching sight in furtive sidelong glances of old friends, Marietta, Pablo, and Benito, and unmistakably, the young priest Don Xavier Maria Mendoza.



A dozen steps from the top, Don Rafael hesitated. Those near him pressed forward, hands outstretched, thinking he would now retreat. He smiled. He was calm. He continued on his way. The last step brought him to the level of Episcopal authority. The Te Deum began, the Church doors swung open, incense floated into the rain, photographers discharged their flash bulbs, radio technicians adjusted the bank of microphones that stood to the rear of the Cardinal. The old priest limped to his side and spoke: “The world awaits you. Speak the recantation and then hand the document to the Cardinal and kneel before him.” Don Rafael bowed his head in salutation to the Cardinal and moved toward the microphones. There was silence, but for the gentle patter of the rain. Don Rafael passed a hand lightly over his forehead and touched his eyes in a gesture of friendship toward himself. He paused and breathed deeply. He began. “I believe in one God, Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth,” and he paused, “and . . . and . . . that is what I believe, that is the only belief I share with you.” Cries. “No, no!” “And the rest that I believe is what I have learned from my father and my father’s father and all those in the generations of fathers which stretch back in the history of time to Moses, my first master. . . . And so much more, if you would like to hear about it.”

Don Rafael paused. He would have continued and told the history of the generations of Israel, but he was not allowed. The microphones went dead, the crowd pushed forward in a mass up the stairs, and Don Rafael, shielded by the Cardinal who stepped forward to protect him (and for his solicitude was slapped in the face by a hysterical woman), retreated to the sanctuary of the Cathedral.

Don Rafael surrendered to the darkness of the Cathedral. The great doors had shut behind him, the shouts of the crowd had disappeared, even the Bishops and Monsignori who had crowded the chancel staring back at him and murmuring in consternation had vanished. He was quite alone. It must be sundown, he thought, for the rose window of the west wall shone purple. His mind was empty of thought, or rather it was full of so many thoughts he dared not settle upon one. The effect was the same—vacuity and apathy.

“It was brilliant,” a dry voice crackled from behind him, a voice placed so close to his ear that he felt its breath upon his neck. He had no need to turn. He recognized the ancient priest of the Holy Inquisition, Father Espinosa. “Brilliant, brilliant. The opening of the Credo and no more. I congratulate you.” The priest applauded and Don Rafael heard the measured beating of hands behind him.

“Don’t mock me, Father. I staged nothing. In fact, Father, I almost went on—the whole Credo, by rote, just as I had learned it from the Sisters when I was a child, but that wasn’t possible. I’m sorry, Father.”

“You are a trouble, my son. Why couldn’t you have been cooperative? Trouble for us, annoyance, irritation, and such an ordeal for you. Oh dear me.” The priest was unhappy. “I’m not a young man, you must have gathered. And now all this exertion in my closing years. I had other projects for the end of my life. A visit to the monuments of the East and then retirement to a monastery for some restful meditation, and bleaching of my soul, And now this.” The priest sighed. “You won’t reconsider, would you?” Don Rafael said no. “I thought not. Well then, what to do? His Holiness telephoned. He was vexed. Do you realize that all of Spain and most of Europe, perhaps even Africa and Asia, heard your ridiculous broadcast? All of Christendom, all of Christendom. Oh dear.” The priest cracked his knuckles nervously.

“I am sorry to have been a trouble to you, Father. But it had to be this way. You do understand, I’m sure. I might have signed the paper” (remembering it now, he handed it over his shoulder to the priest) “and gone on as before, masquerading my feelings, but that display you staged out there was intolerable. A humiliation. I just couldn’t.”

“Yes, yes, to be sure. A little overtheatrical, but then the Church is rather theatrical, don’t you think? All our plainsongs and chants, our symbols and allegories, gold braid and lace, liturgical artifacts and mysterious bells, all these devices make the faith a bit spectacular. I find it exhilarating, however. The range is so extraordinary, from austerities that verge on the morbid to such ecstatic opulence. You don’t agree. I know. You like your little desert visions, your bleak little visions.”

“I’m tired, Father. A trying day, very trying. If you don’t mind (and thank you for chatting with me), I’ll be going.”

Don Rafael rose, nodded distractedly toward the high altar, and went toward a side door at the apse of the Cathedral. Three officers were waiting and took him into custody. That Sabbath eve, he was flown to Rome. Father Espinosa was on the plane, seated in the tourist cabin, reading his breviary and sipping brandy, while Don Rafael and his captors dozed in the forward cabin.

Don Rafael was taken to Vatican City and turned over to an officer of the Swiss Guard who conducted him to an apartment. A week passed during which Don Rafael saw no one excepting a doctor who certified that his body and mind were sound. He was allowed to think. In the meantime the preparatory secretariats of the Council, those charged with developing its agenda, awaited advice from its listening posts throughout the world as to the effect of Don Rafael’s stubbornness. They were not slow in coming. By week’s end there were reports that a small group of Tibetan Catholics had fled to the mountains to renovate a lamasery, that a former Sufi in Cairo had mutilated himself during a trance, that an enclave of Sonora Indians had reinstituted the peyote ceremony, that two missionaries had had their brains eaten by supposedly pacified headhunters in New Guinea, and quite near to home, in Abruzzi, a shepherd boy claimed to have seen a bearded man with stubby horns coming down a hillock, carrying under his arm two engraved plaster tablets. There were now fifty or more Abruzzians awaiting the reapparition of Saint Moses. It was determined therefore that Don Rafael had to be made an example to the faithful, lest an incident of disease become an unchecked plague.



Eleven days from the evening of Don Rafael’s arrival in Vatican City Father Dominic Espinosa met with an assembly of bishops in a chamber buried in the gloom of the Vatican. “My friends,” he began, “we are at a curious impasse. It is ironic that now, at this moment in time, as we draw close to the return for which, as believers, we have waited nearly two millennia, our way should be—as St. Paul previsioned—blocked by the Jew. I shall not fatigue you by reciting the historical miscreancy of that people. To be sure, they did not by their natural proclivity and disposition disdain our Lord or impede the dissemination of his Word. What they opposed, what they denied, they did as if by the implanting of God. He who made hard the heart of Pharaoh that He might rescue His own, hardened also the heart of Israel, that she might wound and slay her savior and remain until the End a people adjudged and condemned.

“We care not that from that time until this the members of that small society of supernatural criminals became the wards, chattels, property of the realm to be fatted or starved, contained or expelled, indulged like children or murdered like men, according to our wishes. We did not count it a certainty throughout that long vigil of time that a day would come—as it has now—when the sweet air of the End would be in our nostrils. Throughout that vigil we threw down her altars, drove her sons forth, and slew her greybeards. Yet Osiris grows up from his own entrails, dies and returns, forever unto ever again, year by year. Israel cannot torture forth the last drop of His blood and we cannot destroy Israel. We are regenerated and so is she. Ah yes, God hardened her heart and God keeps that hardness resolute, congealed, obdurate, and though we kill, kill, kill, she is there again.

“But now as St. Paul foretold, the time of the last harvest is come, the gathering in of the gleaning of all our fields. There is one left, one from amid all the peoples of the earth, the last unbeliever, the last Jew.

“The world is reconstituted. The body of the New Adam, until this moment a nervous and puny thing, lying exhausted upon the straw pallet of the world, is healthy and intact, but for this tic in his cheek, this wart upon his thumb, this boil upon his thigh. This last Jew is the sole blemish of the new Adam.

“Having said this, let us counter our own argument. True, we are, in this Holy Church, the vicarage of God, conducting man through the treacherous narrows and shoals of his life, and it is we, with the timbrel of charity and the drum-roll of hell, who have brought all dissent to confess its folly before St. Peter’s throne. But we, we, too, are mortal (whatever our virtues and our grace), and though we are already in the forecourt of the Kingdom we are as distant from the supernal throne as infinity and eternity. It is finally up to God. Would we save the world without God? We would not. We cannot. It is one thing to praise ourselves for having drawn together the appendages of the world, for having made of the disjected members of our species a single body, but without the breath of the spirit of what value is all this quantity—of what value is it that untouchables and princes, muzhiks and headhunters, know a bit of cathechism and cross themselves, of what value? No. No. The breath must be kissed into this dumb Adam.

“The Russian theologian, A. S. Khomiakov, told us in former times of the vitalities of sobornost. That noble amateur believed that a congregation of the faithful is numbered not by head count but by heartbeat. Not ten or a hundred or millions but two or three who speak the name of Jesus Christ in purity of heart. There—in that small bedraggled company-is the truth. We, by contrast, are confronted by the reverse of the situation of our Russian friend. We have, not two or three, but one, and this one, in palpable good faith, simplicity, clarity, says no, I decline. I confess only the old, wasted inheritance. And the New Adam remains blemished.



“We have a recourse. Let Don Rafael die. Now that would settle everything. A touch of poison, an overdose of pills. Done. An expeditious resolution. (I see some of you like that. Dear me. You do not understand.) Expeditious, but completely misguided. We may deceive men, but we cannot deceive God. No. We must proceed otherwise. We have already received (did you realize?) a petition from India with more than a million signatures calling for Don Rafael’s speedy conversion. In America, cenacles of worshipers are dedicating around-the-clock prayers of the Blessed Sacrament importuning intercession that the heart of our impenitent be melted. And, last but not least, for here is the clue to our decision, the Japanese—remembering well the martyrdom of their own Jesuit missionaries and the veneration they now offer their relics—have asked that Don Rafael be brought to that island for a tour.

“They write, and I excerpt the letter of the Bishop of Kyoto: ‘Most excellent Fathers, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera (here note), unbelievers in the past were employed by us as living examples to the faithful. By the witness of their materialism, errancy, and sensuality we demonstrated most graphically the virtues of the Faith. The evidence of the unbeliever was good for the believer. Now there are no more unbelievers, but the loss of unbelievers does not make believers perfect. Think not all Christians good Christians. Far from it. Et cetera and so forth. (Now, pay attention!) If, however, you would bring through our land that last unbeliever, parade him as our old lords paraded their captives through all the streets and let the faithful see with their eyes the damnation that awaits unregenerate sinners, it may revivify and cleanse their faith . . . and so forth.

You murmur approval. Splendid. Right. Put into the language of theological argument (for we will have to defend our course before the Holy Father) it is this. We are One but for one. We have all power—the power of unanimity. But the predicament of power is that it is mindless. The mountain is the raw totality of power, but it is the stubborn stupidity of Sisyphus that gives the power meaning. Our recalcitrant Jew—more than all the believers of Christendom—makes real the power of Christ. Don Rafael is the irritant that makes the Body of Christ move. He, my friends (forgive my ecstasy), perhaps even more than the return in glory which we await, is the harbinger of the Kingdom of God.



It was decided then and there. Don Rafael would be displayed to all the world, toured, paraded, exhibited as a specimen, and at the conclusion of his international tour, returned to Rome, and there, during the hour following the last of the daily masses, brought caged into the square before St. Peter’s and left—guarded to be sure—to be stared at and loathed by deputations of the faithful.

The tour proved miraculous.

In each land of the world a procession was organized and, in imitation of the custom of ancient Rome, the Cardinal or Bishop of the realm led the procession of penitents through the streets, his vestments gleaming in the sun or sparkling in the rain, and beside him, his hands cuffed, his legs hobbled, hopped the figure of Don Rafael Acosta, his body draped in rags, his face begrimed with ash, upon his head a dunce cap upon which was written in the language of that nation: The Last Jew. Somehow, Don Rafael survived. Although he was given little encouragement, an energy consecrated by will pressed him constantly back into life. His eyes blinded by dust, his flesh blistered with the wounds of rocks and the beatings of enthusiasts who broke the ranks of the police to switch him or punch his back, his legs a pulp of sore flesh, he was returned to Rome early in the fall of his captivity.

One morning, the week before Christmas, Don Rafael was brought in his cage into the square of St. Peter’s. The bells tolled his appearance and a crowd of pilgrims surged and heaved to catch sight of him. Children sat on their fathers’ shoulders, nuns trained their binoculars on him, others stood on camp chairs, straining for a glimpse. Within the cage, his head drooping upon his chest, his black beard falling in snarls, wild and untended upon his shirt front, Don Rafael shivered from the wind. He was feverish. At a moment before the hour of one, when the guards would return to draw away the cage and bring to an end the appearance of the day, Don Rafael commenced to speak. At first his words were soft, lifting upon the wind and flying upward, unheard and lost but to those few who had commanding position in front of him. But gradually the crowd grew silent and his voice took on the resonance of one who speaks to his fellow creatures:

The time of my life comes to an end. I am still a young man, but my life is fulfilled. I did not think it so. I fought against death, but I can restrain it no longer. I have known this for some time now. It is hard to go on telling oneself that there will be a deliverance, waiting, waiting daily for some miraculous hand to reach down and release me from my misery, return me to my beloved Gerona, restore me to my friends and to my livelihood. How could it be, I thought, that God should not pity me and show me mercy? Who am I, I said to myself, but an ordinary man, extraordinarily unfortunate? Why should I be elected for such torment? I was not the first Jew. Why then should I be the last? I suffered all that I have suffered—all indignities and outrages—softly, without public tears (but do not think that I did not cry privately, cry and beg, and call to my mother and father for help—I did), certainly not with temper or anger. What would my anger have brought me? Your contempt, your jeering? I had no need of them. Were I to have railed against you, I would have died long before this, long before I could understand what makes you so hard and cruel, and God so silent. The two of these must be understood together, and now I understand them.

I am an ordinary man, I have explained that. But I am an ordinary man with an unordinary quality. I am a Jew. Now that fact—being a Jew—could be ordinary, like being a man, but it would require that you permit it to be so. You have obliged us to be extraordinary by your will, and by your need for the exceptional and the bizarre. So much for you, but what about God? Why does He not rescue me? Why did He not rescue all of my brothers who, like me, have said ‘no’ to you? Why?

I shall now tell you. Because he accepts your verdict. No. More than that. He decided upon it long before you did. He decided we were extraordinary from the very start, as witness all our prophets and teachers and visionaries. Why, then, rescue us? Rescue poor people. Rescue ordinary people. Save them, Lord, before us. To rescue us is to deny who we are.

And now, do you know why Jesus died on the cross and was rejected by the Jews? It was because he asked of God, ‘Lord, why have you forsaken me?’ Had he not spoken these words he might well have died—no less died—but I will tell you something, all the Jews would have believed in him. ‘He is surely a Messiah,’ they would have said, because he says nothing, calls for nothing, asks for nothing. He knows that God is with him. I know that God is with me, now and forever. You are not yet saved, but I am ready to die.

Don Rafael Acosta closed his mouth and died. He died and was buried and in the aftermath of his death, there came those who believed he was their rescue and redeemer, and those people, like our beloved Don Rafael, were called Jews.



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