A new translation of a Yiddish young adult book revives the legend

How could there be a Jewish Pope? Doesn’t a Pope have to be Catholic? Doesn’t a Jew have to be Jewish? And yet there was the stranger-than-fiction case of Peter Pierleone, who in 1130 became Pope Anacletus II; Pierleone was descended from the Jewish family of Baruch. His short reign was controversial, causing a schism in the Church. Anacletus was labeled an “antipope,” accused by his enemies of incest and Jewish heritage; but he held onto the throne thanks to the help of powerful friends, including King Rodger of Sicily. He died in 1138, whereupon the throne went to his rival, Innocent II.

That much is history. But there’s more to to be told, because the story of Anacletus II has always been too intriguing to dismiss. Legends and fictions have grown up around this bizarre Papal reign. The most recent addition is The Jewish Pope, a young adult book by translator, teacher, and scholar Yudel Mark. First written and published in 1947, the story has now been translated into English by reading expert and award-winning young adult book author Ruth Fisher Goodman. Ms. Goodman, a professional translator, was once a student of Yudel Mark’s.

This new telling sticks to many of the historical facts. In the book, Peter Pierleone, whose ancestors include the Baruch family, becomes Pope Anacletus. He is supported by King Rodger, and he is attacked by enemies loyal to Innocent II. But in Mark’s retelling of the story, the man named Peter was originally a Jewish boy named Elkhanan, who had been kidnapped and indoctrinated by Catholics before being raised and adopted by the Pierleone family. He developed a deep love for his adopted sister, Tropea (hence the accusation of incest). He also had a strong sense of justice with regard to the official Catholic persecution of Jews, and in the end he reconnected with his original family and his original faith.

The Jewish Pope is a blend of history and fiction, but even the fiction has truth: about the times, about the Catholic Church and the Papacy, and about the enduring value of Jewish heritage.

About the Author

Yudel Mark, (1897-1975), was the foremost Yiddish lexicographer of the twentieth century and editor-in-chief of The Great Dictionary of the Yiddish Language. He was born in Palangna, Lithuania and was educated at the Vilna Gymnasium (academy) and the University of Petrograd. He wrote many textbooks, essays, and short stories and translated the works of Thomas Mann, Rilke, and other major European writers into Yiddish. He was editor of The Folksblatt, a daily Yiddish newspaper in Kovna, from 1930-1935, and he was one of the founders of YIVO, the Yiddish Scientific Institute. Mark emigrated to the U.S. in 1936, where he became the founding editor of Der Yiddisher Sprach. He was a frequent contributor to the Jewish press and radio, and in 1968 he received an honorary doctorate from the Baltimore College for Jewish Studies. In 1970 he relocated in Jerusalem, where he received Israel’s top literary award, the Manger Award, in 1973. He died in 1975 while visiting his children in America.

About the Translator

Ruth Fisher Goodman, a professional translator of Yiddish books, documents, and letters, was educated at the Workmen’s Circle Yiddish School in New York, New York, where her Jewish history and Yiddish literature teacher was Yudel Mark. She is a retired reading specialist and is currently an instructor of Yiddish at the Academy of Lifelong Learning, a division of Professional and Continuing Studies of the University of Delaware. She is the author of the award-winning juvenile fiction book Pen Pals, published by Fithian Press in 1996. Her award-winning Easy Steps to the Hebrew Alphabet (Teach Yourself Hebrew) was published in 2000. Among her many volunteer positions, she serves on the Advisory Council of Retired Senior Volunteer Services of Delaware, is a docent at the national Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, and is founder of a tutor-mentor program in Delaware.

The Jewish Pope
A Yiddish Tale
Yudel Mark
Translated by Ruth Fisher Goodman

ISBN 1-56474-459-0
128 pages, paperback, $14.95

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