“And the ransomed of the Lord shall return / And come with song unto Zion.” (Isaiah 35:10)
Seville, Spain, summer 1480
“The fire is painful to the flesh, but kind to the soul,” said the man in red velvet robes who sat at the dark mahogany table. Such statements had earned him the title of “the Scourge of G-d.” He sat stiffly at a table that flanked one end of a courtyard fenced with eight-foot-high stucco walls. A heap of faggots surrounding a pile of tree limbs stood at the other end of the courtyard. In the middle of the enclosure, a cluster of people, surrounded by darkly dressed men with swords, shuffled their feet and stared dolefully at the dust that rose with their movement. Destitute of hope, their hearts were as dry as the earth.
One family stood rigidly facing the table where the red-robed figure scanned names from a lengthy scroll.
“It’s your choice, but be quick about it. We’ve got a town full of Jews to process before sundown.”
It was a familiar scene all over Spain. The Inquisition was in full flower, creating martyrs and new Christians. And now it was the turn of the Capouya family. And, that day, Zalman Capouya, father to three whimpering daughters plagued with heat and terror, chose life for his family. “We already have enough martyrs in heaven. We need more Jews on earth so they can grow and multiply as the Lord commanded.” His wife nodded and sobbed softly in relief.
But the life that followed wasn’t so simple. No visible thread of their Jewish identity could be displayed. Like tens of thousands of crypto-Jews, they attended church and disguised within an alien ceremony whatever level of mitzvot obedience they practised. There was always a lifeline – a tether to the ancestral faith: the lighting of candles behind shuttered windows, a Shema before bedtime with the family huddled in a tight group, a favorite song now relegated to the basement instead of the gilded assembly hall of the synagogue. No bread during Passover. There was always something. Slight and hidden, as light as a tallit thread, but a reminder that children wouldn’t forget. Maybe the seeds would sprout in other times, other lands.
New Jersey, U.S., autumn 2016
It was a haunting melody. A tide of suffering, but sweet with hope. It poured out of the open doors of the synagogue like a stream, swollen with the rains of spring. Catherine was a block away, but the song flooded her senses. She’d walked around the synagogue twice as she listened. Last year she’d heard it, too. And on this same holiday the Jews called Rosh Hashanah. Their New Year, someone told her.
But it was not only the beauty of the song that made her circle the synagogue twice in astonishment. This melody – sung by Jews – was her family song. That’s what her parents and grandmother called it: “our family song.” They sang it at Christmas and New Year’s. They sang it at baptisms and funerals. It was an old, old family custom, her grandmother had explained.
But Grandmother couldn’t explain the song’s origins. “All I remember is that my grandmother sang it to me,” she replied irritably after a hail of questions from Catherine. “It’s a family song. Enjoy it and don’t ask so many questions.” But why would Jews sing it, Catherine wondered.
At school the next day, Catherine couldn’t wait to meet her friend Rachael at their locker.
“Rachael, I walked by your synagogue yesterday morning on your holiday. They were singing this gorgeous song.”
“You must have heard us chanting Avinu Malkeinu.”
“Let me go with you next week. Would you mind?”
“No, of course not. It will be chanted again next week on Yom Kippur.”
Catherine did not tell her family the exact truth about the lure of the synagogue, only that she was meeting a friend. And that was true enough. They met a short block from the synagogue and, as they walked, Rachael explained the meaning of the day, the elements of the service. Catherine listened somberly, almost apprehensively. Something larger than she had ever encountered was looming on her horizon.
Once inside, she followed her friend’s instruction and carefully read the English for each prayer. It was all so familiar – like a dream reencountered – a spiritual déjà vu.
The congregation sang – their voices filled the domed assembly hall like the prayers of the lost fill the heart of G-d. Deep in Catherine’s being was an ache she’d never known before. She sang and let a gentle tide carry her home.
Ted Roberts is a freelance writer and humorist living in Huntsville, Ala. His website is wonderwordworks.com.