April 26, 2019

A Judia Among Christianos

Their gravestones were simple.

Some were engraved with just the woman’s first name: Orabuena.

Some honored them only in reference to a husband: Mujer de Yuçe (Wife of Joseph).

Or a son: Madre de Mose (Mother of Mose).

The Jewish women of medieval Spain may not have been large in death, but I knew they were large in life. I wanted to find out more about them.

My husband and I, along with our youngest son, had taken a year sabbatical in Madrid. And although a religious quest was not my impetus for going, it soon became my passion.

I’m Ashkenazi by birth, but I was raised partly Sephardic because of the special man who became my adoptive father. This duality sparked my curiosity.

What happened to the Jews of Spain? How could an entire race of people, who made up 20 percent of a country’s population, who held esteemed positions in government, medicine and tax collecting, be systematically destroyed?

I read numerous books. I toured the tiny alleys of former Jewish quarters. I looked for clues.

There was the small, rectangular shape on a doorframe in Girona, a ghostly reminder of a mezuzah.

There was the Hebrew inscription over the back entrance to a pharmacy in Hervas. This is the gate of the Lord. The just will enter through it.

There were the bricks with Hebrew writing, interspersed across the municipal brick wall in Barcelona.

There was the water ring of a forgotten mikveh in Trujillo.

And everywhere there was pork — cochinillo (baby suckling pig), the specialty dish of just about every small town in the Castilian countryside. It is a remnant from the Inquisition, whose intention was to “out” crypto-Jews, those forced to convert and become “New Christians,” yet who still held onto their traditions in secret.

In Toledo, you can tour the Sinagoga de Santa Maria La Blanca. Think about that — the synagogue of a saint! There seems to be no guilt, no shame that the Catholics took over a Jewish house of worship after most Jews of Toledo were slaughtered or forced to convert — only a clinical explanation on an audio guide of how this building came to be. The beautiful scallop shape, where the ark was held, is still there — with a big dome and a cross over it.

When we first got to Spain we were advised by the family who lived in the apartment before us: Tell your son not to mention he’s Jewish when he’s at school. Spanish kids have never met a Jew before. It’s better left unsaid.

My son became a modern-day crypto-Jew.

One day, my son’s teacher was talking to the class about Tres Reyes, the post-Christmas Christian feast day of Three Kings, when she accidentally outed him. That was my bad. Earlier, the teacher had asked me if we were going to stay another year. Forgetting the warning, I told her my son couldn’t stay because he needed to go home to have his bar mitzvah. She was an adult, I thought. It was OK that I told her. But in an effort to create a lively Navidad discussion, the teacher announced, “Someone here doesn’t celebrate this holiday.” My son had to defend himself in Spanish: Yes, he believes in God. No, he doesn’t have a Christmas tree. Yes, he still gets presents.

Later, when a boy approached my son at school and asked him what was the difference between a Jew and a pizza — a pizza doesn’t scream in the oven — my husband and I were horrified. But not surprised.

At a fancy dinner party, a Spanish woman asked me, “Aren’t there a lot of Jews in Hollywood?” At first, I was taken aback. Did she say “studios” or “Judios”?

“About half,” I replied, hedging for some reason. I knew there were more. She seemed pleased with my answer, nodding, “That’s not so bad.”

The Spanish Inquisition led, in part, to the Holocaust. Dehumanize a people and you can do anything to them.

Calle Rabillero: It sounds suspiciously like Rabbi Street, but Rabillero is slang for “a dump.”

Marrano: The name used for Converso Jews. It also means “swine.”

San Benito: A gown of coarse fabric with a devil symbol on the front worn by any Converso found Judaizing.

Like the Nuremburg laws, anti-Jewish laws were also passed in Spain, designed to impoverish and humiliate. Juderías or ghettos, were formed, enclosing neighborhoods with locked gates. Jews could no longer practice medicine; deal in bread, wine or meat; engage in handicrafts or trades; fill public offices; or act as money brokers. They could not assume the title Don, carry arms, trim their beard or hair. They could not hire Catholic servants, farmhands, lamplighters or gravediggers. Jews were not permitted to cross the Plaza Mayor, the main center of town, en route to the cemetery. They had to walk around it, burying their dead at night so no one would hear them saying Kaddish.

We were advised: Tell your son not to mention he’s Jewish when he’s at school. Spanish kids have never met a Jew before.

I confess that at times, while living there, I felt very alone. I wanted to tell everyone I met: “I’m a Jew. You tortured me. You turned my neighbor against me. You burned me. You kicked me out. Your inquisition worked!”

Then, something amazing happened.

A friend took me to a service at Bet-El, the Masorti Synagogue with an Argentine rabbi and a congregation of mostly Ashkenazi Jews, who now live in Spain or are just passing through. When I saw the prayer book with Spanish on one side and Hebrew on the other, I nearly wept.

I met the widow of Max Mazin, the man who founded the Orthodox Synagogue Comunidad Judía de Madrid in 1948. I saw her stunning collection of Chagall paintings hanging proudly in her dining room. Her third Spanish-Jewish grandchild recently had been born.

I heard Jorge Drexler, an Oscar-winning composer, singing about being a Judio among Christianos.

Yes, a population was decimated.

But today, there are Hanukkah celebrations in the streets of Madrid, Barcelona and Malaga.

There are tour guides proudly telling Jewish visitors that they are descendants of Converso families.

Here in the United States, there are Latino families in New Mexico who are learning why they always go to the basement and light candles on Friday night.

There are Sephardic Jews in Los Angeles who are discovering why they can’t point at the stars at sundown on a Saturday night.

We can exhume the past and relearn traditions.

Doctoral candidates at UCLA are translating ancient Hebrew Aljamiado, Judeo-Spanish texts, to learn directly from the source.

My uncle reclaimed his Spanish citizenship. He studied the language, retained a lawyer, found documents of embarcation from Istanbul to the United States that proved his family tree, and took a written test.

We can teach the real story of the Spanish Inquisition to the next generation.

We can sing Ladino songs “Los Bilbilicos” and “Morenika” like my great-grandmother Fortuné Gormé sang and then taught to her daughter, Eydie. Yes, that Eydie Gormé.

We can tell our loved ones “Vaya con leche y miel” (Go with milk and honey) when they leave our house.

We can cook frittata and bourekhas, arroz con pollo and biscocho the way the Spanish mamas did.

We can travel to Spain and show school children what a Jewish boy looks like.

We can choose life.

Cambria Gordon is a children’s author and mother of three. Her current project is a young-adult novel set during the Spanish Inquisition.