A Ritual of Faith

at the Theatre Building Chicago

“What could be more dramatic…than watching a child being ripped away from his natural parents by the church?” asked playwright Brad Levinson in a recent Tribune interview. His self-aggrandizing question refers to a scene in his new play, A Ritual of Faith, loosely based on the story of Edgardo Mortaro, a six-year-old Italian Jew taken from his home and raised Catholic by order of Pope Pius IX. Edgardo’s saga is one of the most compelling, perplexing, and influential in the history of Jewish-Christian relations, with complex characters caught up in tumultuous events against a backdrop of sweeping change. But transforming history into drama is no easy business, and Levinson is not a playwright willing to look beyond simple moral lessons.

On a June night in 1858, a marshall appeared at Momolo Mortaro’s door in Bologna and announced, “Your son Edgardo has been baptized and I have been ordered to take him with me.” He was acting in accordance with church law, which applied to those living in the rapidly shrinking Papal States: it was illegal for Jews to raise a baptized child. The Mortaros insisted that their child had never been baptized and was therefore still Jewish, but the church said it had information that the ritual had been performed secretly several years earlier. They whisked the boy off to Rome, never to return to his family.

Such legal abductions were not uncommon at the time; in fact, the practice began in 1220 with the Inquisition. When a Jewish child was “revealed” to be Christian through secret baptism, the usual suspect was a Christian household servant. Although it was illegal for Catholics to work in Jewish ghettos, the church tolerated the practice, leading to considerable anxiety in Jewish households under papal control. (In the Jewish ghetto of Ferrara, a city near Bologna, Catholic servants were required to sign notarized statements when they left a household saying they had never baptized a member of the family.)

Kidnapping baptized Jewish children might have been going on for six centuries, but Pius IX picked the wrong political moment to send for Edgardo. The authority of the Papal States was under fierce attack as Italy began to unify into a nation, and Jews had gained enough political clout that they would no longer take such an offense lying down. Only a few days after Edgardo had been abducted, his working-class parents had secured assistance from influential Jews in Rome and sent entreaties to international Jewish organizations. Protests erupted around the world. The Royal Theatre in Paris staged a tragedy called Le petit Mortaro. From the Rothschilds (who helped bankroll the Papal States) to Napoleon III (whose troops kept the peace there), many powerful people pleaded with the pope. Nothing stirred Pius IX, however: he dismissed the commotion as the result of “the freethinkers, the disciples of Rousseau and Malthus.”

It didn’t take long for Edgardo’s father to identify his son’s baptizer: their former maid, Anna Morisi. The boy had fallen seriously ill as an infant, and fearing for his immortal soul, Morisi sprinkled water on his head and baptized him in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. According to Catholic doctrine, even without a priest or holy water Edgardo was instantly transformed into a Christian. Mortaro hoped that publicly revealing Morisi’s less-than-Christian ways might somehow nullify the baptism: she had been knocked up at least once, made a habit of standing in her window and letting passing soldiers stroke her breasts, and was once heard to exclaim, “Oh what a fuck I had!” while emerging from a room with an Austrian soldier. But Mortaro’s efforts were wasted.

In 1870 the furor over Edgardo’s abduction helped bring about the collapse of the Papal States; the inquisitor in the 12-year-old case was even tried for kidnapping. At first glance, the moral and historical dimensions of the story seem clear-cut: the Catholic church sinned against the Jews one too many times and got its comeuppance. Levinson adopts this line wholeheartedly, although he leaves out the church’s eventual downfall (the Papal States now occupy less than one-fifth of a square mile in Vatican City). In fact, Levinson leaves out nearly all the political and social history that made Edgardo’s abduction not only a domestic tragedy but a world event.

Instead A Ritual of Faith focuses almost exclusively on a fictionalized version of the Mortaro family, renamed the Congedos–a version that includes a bizarre suicide and accusation of murder. One gets little sense that anyone cares about the church’s seizure of Aaron except his parents, David and Leah, and Leah’s brother Yaacov, president of the local Jewish council, who intercedes with the inquisitor, Father Santini, in repeated attempts to secure the boy’s release. The scope of the tragedy shrinks to the size of the Congedos’ living room.

This isn’t to say that a great domestic drama couldn’t have been written, a drama necessarily infused with the political realities of Jewish subjugation under Catholic rule. But such a drama would require fleshed-out characters maneuvering through complicated emotional terrain, and novice playwright Levinson can’t provide either. Instead he creates generic figures posturing in schematic scenes, each of which illustrates a single plot point or idea. In the first scene, we learn that David regularly breaks Sabbath to go fishing with his son, which makes the Orthodox Yaacov issue some veiled threats. In the next scene an officer arrives and reads an edict requiring the surrender of the boy within 24 hours. Then we see Yaacov asking Father Santini for leave to prove that Aaron couldn’t have been baptized properly. Next the officer comes back and tears the child from his father’s hands. Meanwhile pretty much the only thing we learn about Leah is that she wears a babushka.

Levinson’s one-dimensional scenes rarely evoke anything that feels like life. He’s created not drama but a dramatization, further simplified by a needlessly exaggerated moralism: David and Leah are pillars of virtue while Father Santini seems ready to sprout horns. At the same time, our supposed heroes seem to lack brainpower. Unlike the Mortaros, who whipped the world into a frenzy, the Congedos spend most of the first act sitting around worrying. Four weeks pass before they think about putting together a list of people who might have baptized their boy, and it takes another five months to ask their former maid if she might know anything about it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mitch Canoff.