My Words

Understanding the World through words

Category: essay

Poetic Jousting

Francisco De Quevedo and Luis De Gongora had a tumultuous poetic relationship. Quevedo was a viejo Christiano and Gongora a Christiano Nuevo. During the height of the Inquisition, both poets jousted with each other as was the literary custom of the time. True to form, poetic jousting was practiced throughout the medieval period in Iberia–there are fascinating examples of Umayyad poetry, where poets spar each other in court settings.

During an epoch where sharp wits and even sharper quills ruled; this type of contentious poetry was a way to gather followers, set oneself apart from the competition and possibly bid for patronage. What is different in the Quevedo versus Gongora case, and of interest to Sephardim is the vicious condescending religious vitriol Quevedo uses against Gongora by associating him with questionable Jewish past. Quevedo’s poetic wit pigeonholes Gongora within the religious landscape of Judaism and sharply marks him as the “other” time-and-time again.

In the satirical poem, La Nariz, referring to Gongora’s nose Quevedo writes:

érase una pirámide de Egipto,
las doce Tribus de narices era.

yours is an Egyptian pyramid
the twelve Tribes of noses were you.

Here Quevedo’s allusion to the Biblical narrative of the Exodus by means of the Pyramid landscape and association with the twelve Tribes is meant strictly as a religious jab. A type of, “I know your background and I won’t let you live it down” statement. Quevedo, derides Gongora as an unmistakable Jew because of his unquestionable Jewish nose.

In his “Contra el mismo (Góngora)”, Quevedo writes of Gongora:

No altar, garito sí;
poco cristiano, / mucho tahúr,
no clérigo, sí arpía.

No altar, gambling-house yes
less of a Christian, / more a Gambler,
not a cleric, but a harpy yes.

Quevedo’s word associations in this stanza is remarkable, in that—”less of a Christian”, has perpetually been the mark by which Converso’s are known. Converso’s were nominal Christians at best. What is brilliant is the second line; Tahúr and Tahor are similar sounding words and poetically interchangeable–using the Hebrew and Spanish Tahor sí, literally means “Pure, yes”. Sephardi Tahor was the way Maimonides signed his work–Pure Sephardi. If that isn’t convincing then the second line brings it home. “You’re not a cleric but rather a harpy”, a mythological creature with the face of a human but the body of a bird. In mythology the harpy stole food from its victims, were cruel, and malicious. So, what Quevedo is saying to Gongora is–you’re no cleric but rather you disguise yourself as one (a Jew disguised as a Christian), yet steal our food, our spirituality, our Christian way of life.

Oddly enough, Gongora was a canon, a cleric who traveled from place to place with ecclesiastical power. So the sting of these words are loaded with innuendo and strong blunt/hidden accusations. What is troubling and something I haven’t figured out; is how did Francisco De Quevedo become privy to this information? Ironically, and something I suspect is that Quevedo himself is a hidden Converso—the classic kettle calling the pot black.

Family Secrets

Many years ago my ancestors left Spain, in search of opportunities for a new direction. And so in this quest for a new start, in this transition they settled in various lands far from their ancestral home. With them and in them they carried family secrets, family anxieties that through the generations were only spoken to select offspring. When they left Spain, it’s society had transitioned from a pluralistic society to a stringent, religiously persecuting society. Persecution begets fear and the need to guard secrets; to repress the past in order not to fall prey to the persecuting agents’s evil devises.

Many families whose past was guarded, ended up in the same situation. They needed to repress the past, maybe even forget it, never to speak about it again. Their sin was that they had belonged to a different religion. Whether it was worshipping Allah or Adonai, they no longer were, under punishment of death, allowed to do so freely, either in Spain or its outlining colonies. They had to, by force of law, accept the inevitable and become new Christians; with all the pomp and circumstance that Spanish society dictated, and they were closely watching every miscalculated step, with anticipation.

Many books have been written about this historical phenomena, about the horrors and triumphs. Few have touched upon the psychological imprint a trauma of this magnitude is carried and passed on to the offspring; what is currently being researched by scientist as transgenerational epigenetic inheritance. On the Jewish side of it, there are many rabbinical laws, retorts, and theories dealing with this oppressive religious phenomena. Perhaps the best rulings and or understanding of the subject matter was written by Maimonides. Maimonides lived in Spain prior to the Spanish Inquisition of which I am referring to here. During his time, oppression of this kind already existed. Many Jews were living as Muslims by force. Even though, some might have converted by force, convenience or desire, the existential problem existed. What to do with Jews who are not living as Jews?  One needs to remember that Jews were mostly living under Islamic rule and that problems arising like these were inevitable. Under the laws of Judaism the children of these converts were still Jews, regardless of their parents decisions—forced or not. In his mastery of Jewish jurisprudence, his decisions were in essence loving towards these lost and misplaced souls—those who are referred to as, anúsim. Regardless of the circumstances leading to their captivity, of living a duplicitous life—being internally Jews, but outwardly Muslim or Christian; the ancient laws relating to anúsim were cordial. Love not fear has always been the basis of Gods laws, Maimonides simply followed that precedent.

Many years later in Amsterdam, once hidden Jews, started to stream into the lowlands in search of their ancestral religion. The imprint of Judaism is remarkable in the mind and soul of Jewish returnees, I suspect yesterday, today, and forevermore that will be the case.  Again, following the precedent set by Maimonides, Jewish thinkers of the time made the transition of returning  to the fold, benign and simple. The emphasis was a loving welcome back, there had been enough suffering. The inquisition was over once the escape to the lowlands had been made. Now it was time to rebuild, to happily live as Jews with freedom to worship the God of Israel.

We can leave this story here and call it a triumph! However, nothing in life is that simple and this story was not written in a Hollywood fashion with bright happy endings. The fact is that transitions from being forced (a form of slavery) to freedom are seldom that seamless—internally or externally speaking.

It was several years ago that my mother told me that we were in fact, Jews. At the time, I really didn’t know what to do with that information. I was happy just being a high school student, wrestling, dating and hanging out with my friends. I wasn’t seeking spiritual insight or a religion. My religion was enjoying my youth and in retrospect there is no harm in that. My family life was pluralistic, we enjoyed every major American holiday without any religious trappings or undercurrents. I grew up thinking I was Catholic, even though we never practiced. There were biblical stories we nominally knew about Adam and Eve, Moses and the ten Commandments, and the Noah’s arc, of Jesus being crucified by Romans. Most of our religious education was based on movies; like the Ten Commandments, The Robe, Ben-Hur. I grew up loving Cecil B DeMille’s Ten Commandments, and looking forward to seeing it every year on TV. I remember always having a strong emotional reaction to Charlton Heston being called towards the burning bush, that scene was powerful. Then again, I loved watching the Wizard Of Oz and the Peanuts Specials too, so I never put any thought into it, into being Jewish or not.

Several years afterwards, I did experience a spiritual awaking and long story short, I ended up meeting people who like me, were returning to Judaism. Naive and yearning to know more, I studied, practiced Judaism, and tried to understand what was happening. My mentors were smart men who knew these things intimately and directed me to study correctly. The road back was not the “yellow brick road” or in anyway easy. In fact, the road back has been exceptionally disappointing and any lesser or smarter man would have quit long ago. The laws, what Maimonides referenced, are no longer understood in the fullness of what he wrote and much to my dismay dismissed outright. Jews today are much more doubtful, inquisitional, myopic. In short, I find that Judaism has mentally regressed. There is a darkness over Judaism today that cannot be merely swiped away with words. The love for the foreigner, so explicit in God’s commandments is nearly if not gone all together; and if there are converts, they are second class citizens. Nothing as idyllic as what the Torah commands to love the foreigner exists in reality. There are more issues that I have observed, a what’s wrong with Judaism list, can be easily had on many websites, mostly all written by Jews. The purpose of my writing today is not to add to that growing list. I wish that I could say my awakening lead to complete fruitfulness, but that would be disingenuous.

The returning Jews of Amsterdam pioneered a resurgence of Judaism and rabbinic intellect hardly matched. They spoke in Portuguese and wrote in Castilian Spanish. They were cosmopolitan and embraced into Amsterdam’s cutting edge society. They were merchants, shopkeepers, bankers and printers. In all respects, the Jews of Amsterdam flourished, they became an economic force to be reckoned with. Parents circumcised their sons as was the customs of the Jews and they built beautiful synagogues and places of learning. Outsiders, non-Jews, attended the sermons because the wisdom of the rabbis was famous throughout the land. Rembrandt painted the descendants of the children of the inquisition in some of his most memorable portraits and biblical themed paintings, transcending pictorially the depictions of Jews in European art. Prior, Jews in pictorial form, had a more dubious and un-sanctimonious artist rendering—rembrandt’s close knit ties with his Amsterdam Jews changed that perception. All together, if we left it at this segment in time, the resurgence of Jews who survived the inquisition, who lived in Amsterdam, would be perceived as successful, but it wasn’t totally that way. There were hiccups, not everyone accepted prima facie the complete authority of the rabbis and their wisdom. Two infamous typologies emerged.

Moses led the children of Israel after some hard negotiating and necessary biblical miracles towards the promised land. The premise was to worship God on the mountain, but the goal was to inherit the land flowing with milk and honey. The exodus from Egypt was left momentarily on a high note, Miriam danced and played her tambourine, and the children of Israel rejoiced. Soon following this great deliverance, the Jewish miracle of all miracles, my ancestors experienced difficult but unescapable existential dilemmas. The imprint of Egypt, was much too deep in their wandering souls.

My son had turned thirteen and his bar missavah was at hand, at the time, I had been looking forward to this milestone. In fact, I had been planning this event for years in my mind. I struggled to find the right synagogue, the right rabbi, the right atmosphere. We moved to Atlanta, I met the rabbi, I loved the congregation, they were Sephardic—Jews of Spain. I understood them, we had a common Spanish denominator, we were related. I asked my mother to come celebrate this important event. She refused to attend.

“Where are the leeks, where are the melons?”, the children of Israel cried, in the wilderness far from the lush gardens of the Nile—the descendants of Jacob mourned. They mourned the loss of food, they mourned the comfort of stability. Even if it was slavery, there was comfort in its stability. Wandering through the desert, burying loved ones from place to place, not knowing where the next fountain of water was, is at best disconcerting. Everything about the wilderness experience was rough. Sure they’d witnessed the miracles in Egypt, but in Egypt, they were in their homes. Now, they were out of their comfort zone walking without a definitive plan, other than what was expressed at first, vaguely. Yet the years passed and the thirst was real.

We’ve come to a place in technological advancement, information is at such a place, that we can learn about, listen, watch events happening thousands of miles a way as if we were there. Humanity has reached a cusp in history unprecedented. At our fingertip, we have power that we’ve never had before—for good or evil. For example, we are learning about what lies at the furthermost regions in the universe; or what is hidden in the depth of the sea, all without leaving the comfort of our homes. The images are real and never seen before and we don’t even have to leave our bed to see them. With the new scientific insights—discoveries in human genetic makeup, has reached unparalleled heights. Until recently, the understanding of what constitutes a human, psychologically, anatomically, medically has changed. Granted not everything is understood; but at least, we have discovered new insights that help us better understand ourselves. Some of the discoveries that I’ve been fascinated with recently has been, the study of human genetics, DNA and psychology. Not too long ago, a breakthrough in genetic understanding of the mind has come to light—that we inherit the memories, the strengths and weaknesses of our ancestors in our gnome makeup. That those genetic imprints help mold who we are, whether we like it or not, the strengths and weaknesses of our ancestors live within us.

Why did my mother refuse to attend a family religious milestone? What made her adamantly not attend her loving grandson’s bar missavah? Or the berit mila of our eight day old son, right following? At first, I was understandably upset by these slights. After all, she was the one that started this ball rolling, she was the catalyst that encouraged me to seek my Jewish roots. Now that I was in the midst of Judaism, as a returnee; her apparent disdain was unbelievable. My wife and I got over it, we excused her, even though we did not understand her sentiments. She was happy that we we pursuing Judaism, she was happy when my wife converted, but she remained aloof and distant from it. I asked her, “mom, why do you stay away from our roots?”

1st Typology

Uriel da Costa, couldn’t fully embrace the leadership of the Amsterdam rabbis. His view of the Torah and of biblical hermeneutics greatly conflicted with what was being taught at the time. He questioned the rabbinic authority in place and felt that they overrode what God’s true intention was for his people. That there was a biblical Judaism (popular with Jews returning from Spain and Portugal) and rabbinic Judaism, what the rabbis were teaching at the time. As a matter of fact, many Jewish returnees held these same views, Uriel just happened to be the most vocal and therefore the most visible. Many felt that the bible said one thing and that the rabbis taught another. There were many that felt disdain towards rabbinical leadership, that they misconstrued Gods words purposefully. In their defense they came from a religiously intolerant climate (Spain and Portugal) that misconstrued, spoke out of context, made up religious laws to subjugate the masses all in the name of God. So it wasn’t totally out of the ordinary to project their prejudices onto the new religious leadership even if they were their long lost brethren—Jews. Unbeknown to them, they brought these psychologically imprinted prejudices to Amsterdam, the disdain for religious authority ran deep in their veins. Their existence had been predicated on religious persecution and survival. They experienced first hand the shepherds becoming the wolves. Religion was forced on them in Spain and Portugal. Religious obedience was expected of them, and in order to survive they needed to play the part. To act as if they truly cared. They learned their parts. They survived and they were believed, but God help them if they slipped up. Secrecy was paramount because their religious, material, and physical survival was dependent on it back in Iberia. In Amsterdam, they needed to be re-educated, taught to understand rabbinic Judaism, and what the expectations are living in such a religious climate. Nothing about it was easy. Some took it in stride, some tolerated it, some made a point to fight it, Uriel was one of them.

When Moses returned from the mountain height he saw the people had returned to idolatry. This moment was a pinnacle moment in that the people had to make a decision to terminate their association with Egypt once and for all. The leeks, the melons and the familiar gods had to be done away with. Their destiny did not include the past. God told Moses to tell the people that they would never return to Egypt again. We say,” it was easy for God to take the people out of Egypt but impossible to take Egypt out of the people.” The psychological imprint on the Hebrews souls of Egypt was much too powerful. In the end, that whole generation that left in triumph, who rejoiced with Miriam, save Joshua and Caleb, were buried in the wilderness, they simply could not forget the wonders of Egypt—for them, the leeks and melons tasted better than milk and honey.

One day my mother finally opened up to me and revealed that she hates organized religion. That the religious authorities Christian or Jewish didn’t know as much as she knew about the bible. That she can never be subject to a misinterpretation of Gods word from either camp. Her view as narcissists as it sounds, is a common Converso typology of not believing in or accepting of religious authority over their perception of biblical beliefs. She was born in 1940, hundreds of years after the inquisition, yet her soul is imprinted with this anti-religious disdain for organized religious authority. The prejudices of her ancestors mixed with the undying love for the God of Israel is without a doubt imprinted onto her soul.

Could it be that all these affinities for and hatred of religion be passed on to us? Why is it that I have dreams so vivid of Spain, that when I research them they actually exist, yet I’ve never been there? The rabbis of Amsterdam as smart as they were, were ill equipped to deal with these issues, of imprinted genetic prejudices and memories passed on from generation to generation. They dismissed them, simply as rebelliousness, without fully understanding the undercurrents that led to them manifesting in the first place.

2nd Typology

Baruch Espinoza was born in Amsterdam and reared in its religious institutions from a small boy. He was bright and adept at thinking. However, his greatest assets, thinking and questioning turned him into a religious pariah in the end within his community. In Spain and Portugal some of the most brilliant thinkers were by default Conversos, converted Jews. They helped lead the way intellectually, in literature, poetics and learning. However, they were not content in just simply seeing the injustice of religious darkness take root, they critiqued it, whenever possible, intellectually. Some of the strongest and most virulent critiques of religion came from Conversos. Deep in the Converso psyche a complete and thorough opposition to religious structures exists. They understand that religion in general helps to mitigate subservience to a religious priestly class—and their need to access political power at all cost. They saw through the veneer, more or less, that religion is self-serving and hypocritical. This was no doubt the case in Spain and Portugal, that riches were amassed by the priests. That even though they made vows of sexual abstinence, children were birthed from unholy unions. That their epistemological beliefs and dogmas were easy to dismantle in light of reasons was not only applicable to Christianity, but could be used against Judaism as well.

They believed that both religions were steeped in Medieval superstition and had no place in what was to be known as the Enlightenment. These thinkers, not only saw most religious leaders, barring Maimonides, as intellectually obtuse, who perpetuate stupidity whenever they open their mouths. In light of the scientific method, developed by a Converso Francisco Sanchez, religion is and will always be fairytales, superstitious nonsense. Of course, these were gross generalizations. However, they did instigate in some religious dissidents like Espinoza, a unwavering need to critique biblical and theological superlatives so as to lay once in for all the the supremacy of reason over religion. This upset the rabbis and caused the Jewish community in Amsterdam to become nervous. They were guest in the Netherlands, tolerated more-or-less because of their merchant based economy and deep connection in the New World. What Espinoza was leaning towards however, was a complete dismantling of religious ideas never before questioned in such a way. Espinoza was laying the groundwork for a new class of people, the secular man—a non-religious, non-affiliated person with no ties to any form of ecclesiastical system. Yet in the eyes of the rabbis, its one thing to be a guest and to keep to yourself, enjoying the charity of the host nation by remaining quite and subservient. It’s another thing altogether to rip the foundations off the ideas that keep communities united. In the Netherlands, as like most European countries—that was the belief in God and his son Jesus Christ. Speaking against those two subjects in public was very likely to bring on a lynch mob complete with pitchforks and sickles.

What Baruch Espinoza was proposing was a revolution against most people’s cherished beliefs. An intellectual war against, God, the Bible, and theology as it was understood back then. The rabbis panicked and the leaders of the community issued a cherem—they disavowed all contact with him by all members of the community including his relatives. He was on his own, there was little choice in the matter, he was dangerous because his ideas were anathema to all known religions in Europe. The Jewish community was in a precarious situation of survival and they were not going to condone one of theirs taking them down haphazardly.

The bible mentions quite often the seed of Israel, or the seed of David. Man’s sperm carries all the necessary genetic markers to create a human with the help of a woman’s egg. Besides giving us all the required functions, limbs, cells for life, scientist have discovered that memories, traumatic moments, triumphant moments are also passed on. David replicated himself with the help of Bathsheba and formed a man named Salomon. In Salomon, the best of David’s traits are found; wisdom, a yearning for peace, political savviness. Yet, in Salomon we see the worst of David too, womanizer, materialistic, pridefulness, etc.

“And Moses struck the rock twice, and the water flowed, and the people were able to sate their thirst.” God commanded Moses to strike the rock. In his anger he struck it twice. The miracle was still performed, but Moses anger flared up against the people of God. Levi the son of Jacob we all know had anger issues, so much so that God commanded his descendants to be intermixed with the rest of the tribes. Moses was a Levite and was passed not only his devotion to God, obedience, and leadership skills, but his anger too. Because of his anger, Moses died in the wilderness, “with the rest of the disobedient generation.” Could it have been that Moses’ anger, biases, and weakness were genetically imprinted?

To this day I have secrets, I carry them with me. I don’t ever think about telling anyone. In fact, I strongly believe in guarding them unto death. Conversos, by the fate they were delt had to be good at carrying secrets. They knew who the Jews were, what they ate, that they didn’t work on the Sabbath. If these secrets were leaked that information had the ability to disrupt families, economically and physically. The holy inquisitors thrived on leaked information and secrets. The people who’s secrets were told paid dearly with their lives.

The rabbis teach that all the children of Israel were there at Sinai. We all witnessed that marvelous transaction between God and man. Those who were physically there, and those not yet converted or those not yet born are said to have been there. I was there.  I have vivid memories of the fire and the dark clouds—I cannot escape the imprint of my past.

 

 

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