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Rahab's Red Book

A discovery in an Attic

During a visit to Istanbul, I had occasion to meet a colleague in an old Ottoman era town house near the Hagia Sophia, the great Basilica built by the emperor Justinan the Great in the sixth century of the Christian era. She was a member of the Maronite Christian community from Syria, and worked, undercover, for Mossad, the Israeli Secret Service. Elena, the old woman who owned the house and the coffee shop, was also a Maronite Christian, and opened up to me and Alessandra (my friend). When she heard that I was Jewish, she seemed to remember something, at least to judge by the look on her face.

Alessandra had to go; I stayed.

Elena brought me another Turkish coffee and sat with me, having one herself.

'I saw you looking at that old icon on the wall; does it interest you?'

She was correct. I had, indeed, been studying the icon. It was a curious object, not like any I had seen. It seemed to present the figure of a small woman, in Ottoman dress, who looked distinctly Jewish. There was no indication of who she was, and it was certainly an interesting 'find.'

'It is an icon of a Maronite saint, Rahab the Jewess, who saved our people in the reign of one of the Turkish Sultans. My grandmother brought it here when we fled from the region during the massacres of 1915.'

I told Elena that I thought it interesting, and that though I knew much Ottoman history, I had not come across that name.

'Well, neither the later Sultans, nor the Republic, would have had cause to make her name known, but in my own community, we remember her name with pride and reverence.'

My interest was piqued.

'Did your grandmother bring anything else with her?'

'No, she fled to our relatives who owned this place with nothing more than the clothes she stood up in. Indeed, if she had not gone at once, she might not have had those clothes, or, indeed, her life.'

I was disappointed. The icon was splendid, but I would like to have known more about its provenance.

'Well, Elena, thank you. May I take a photograph?'

She assented. I took half a dozen, resolving, as I did so, to find out more about Rahab the Jewess.

'I wonder if you would be interested in some of the family heirlooms dating from Rahab's day?' Elena asked me, more or less as an aside.

My ears pricked up.

'Oh yes, please, where are these heirlooms?'

We picked our way up the poorly-lit, rickety staircase, which led to the attic on the fourth floor.

You could tell from the design of the house, and its location, that it had once been a place where someone important had lived, but the glory that was the Ottoman Empire had long passed, and with it so much of its material history; a house like this was a sort of time-capsule.

Elena lit a candle to illumine the gloom.

The attic was full of cases and trunks. I was mildly amazed the floor had not given in. But my interest was caught by a trunk of Spanish leather covering. It had, in its day, been a luxury item, and from the golden stud-work, it had belonged to someone important. I asked if I could open it. She nodded.

Dust flew everywhere as I lifted the lid. It creaked. There was a lining, lead, I thought. I lifted that, too, and saw, to my amazement, a set of leather-bound volumes. They seemed not to have been read much, as the binding, although suffering the effects of age, was sound and showed little sign of use or wear and tear.

I lifted out the first volume. The script was in a beautiful Greek hand. My university Greek had been improved by my study of the Septuagint, and I could make out the first paragraph:

'They came for me when I was sixteen.

That makes it sound dramatic. It wasn't. Rabbi Glickstein had prepared me. Poppa could not spare Rebekah. Tall and full-breasted, the Khan had his eye on her. She was seventeen. She was our family's promise of a better future. I was the runt of the litter. Poppa always complained that it was a trial that he should have such a daughter. I was just under four foot eleven inches, as the Greeks count it. The only boy who had ever shown an interest in such a creature was Reuben, the moneylender's son.'

As I read on I saw the name 'Rahab'. Turning to the binding, I saw the title:

'Rahab: her book.'

'Have you read this?' I asked Elena.

'No, Miss, I cannot manage the writing. It looks like the old Greek that the Bible was written in. Can you manage it?'

I looked at her.

'Do you know what it is?'

'No, Miss.'

'It is the book of Rahab.'

'You mean my icon?'

'I mean just that. It is the record of her life, written in her own hand!'

'The Lord has sent you Miss. I will light a candle for you before her icon in my church.'

'But how did they come of be here?'

'I am not sure, Miss, but my family lived here in Rahab's day. We preserve a story that an ancestor was her servant, and if that is so, then perhaps that is the answer to the riddle?'

'It may be. Look, I do not have long, but if I return, would it be possible for me to have the books copied so I can tell her story?'

'Miss, that would be God's work in sending you here. Yes, and with gratitude, I would allow that.'


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