Remember how I mentioned that I originally wanted to set the historical story in Málaga?
Below is an early draft of the historical story before I chose Lorca as the location. You’ll notice that in this version, Míriam has two brothers and the background is a little different from the Lorca version. I actually quite like this version, almost better than what I ended up using; it sets up a strong dilemma and does a great job of showing how Jews apply the Torah and Talmud to make decisions about things that are not necessarily Judaism-related. In the Lorca version I didn’t focus on that nearly as much–which I think was a wise choice overall–but I like what I did with it here.
A few other details (particularly, the names they are using to refer to other places) are historically inaccurate, but I’m not touching it.
I was sitting in the study room in our old house in Seville, poring over our precious leather-bound Talmud. I smelled smoke. I rose from my chair and headed for the doorway, and as I neared I heard shouting from the streets. I opened the door and was immediately thrown back by the heat of a great inferno. I covered my face and gasped, and then turned back to look. The entire city was in flames. I saw seven stakes in the street ahead of me. Men were tied to six of them, their bodies limp. Three figures lurched forth from the smoke, followed by a crowd of chanting people. It was two men, dragging another between them, hooded and bound. I tried to scream or to run, but I couldn’t move. The guards began to tie the condemned man to the seventh stake as the mob cheered and shouted. One of the guards removed the black hood, and I screamed in horror.
I awoke with a jolt, drenched in cold sweat and panting as though I had just run from an angry mob myself. I closed my eyes and tried to slow my breath. It was still dark outside, but I could hear the distant call of the muezzin. A rooster crowed from a garden nearby.
A dream. It was just a dream.
I sat up and hugged my knees, burying my face in the woven blanket and breathing in the comforting smell of wool. It had been a long time since I had dreamed of Seville.
I threw off the covers and groped around in the dark for my dress. I put it on and tiptoed out of my room. I peered down the hallway in the dim light. The door to Papa’s room was open, and it seemed that he was not there. So I walked down the stairs and headed straight for the study room.
Sure enough, there he was, a candle burning solemnly next to the Talmud, and him leaning over it, his head covered with a knitted woolen cap. He was murmuring to himself, stroking his bushy gray beard, his payot swinging back and forth as he rocked. It was only when I took a step closer that he started, looked up, and saw me. His face crinkled into a smile.
“Good morning, sweet daughter. What brings you downstairs so early?”
“The muezzin woke me.”
He laughed. “I’d have thought you’d have gotten used to it after six years.”
I pulled out the chair catty-corner to his and sat down. He returned to his learning, and I watched him for a few moments. Finally, I said, “I had a nightmare about the auto-da-fé.”
He looked at me long and hard.
“I have always said about you that you are sensitive to the vibrations of the universe.”
My heart sunk.
“What do you mean, Papa?”
“The Catholic Monarchs have seized Vélez.”
I clapped my hand to my mouth.
“Elazar told me last night. It is as we expected. I didn’t think El Zagal would hold out very long. It is only a matter of time before they advance to Málaga.”
I shivered, staring at the page of Talmud open in front of Papa.
“So, we are leaving?”
My father sighed. The shadows cast by the candle made his wrinkles look deeper, the circles under his eyes look darker. “Ever since the refugees from Andalusia started passing through, I’ve been hearing stories. Horrible, horrible stories about what the Spaniards are doing. You remember when my old friend Arié stopped by.”
My father drew a shuddering breath. “I feel terrible that I fled and left them behind.” His voice cracked. The sun was beginning to rise and a dim glow began to fill the room; I could see now that his face was streaming with tears.
“What choice did we have, Papa?” I asked gently, putting my hand on his shoulder. “How would you have been able to rescue Aarón from the dungeon if you hadn’t had a plan to flee afterwards? They would have burned both of you at the stake instead of just him. And if you had done nothing and he had been burned—they would have forced us all to convert or leave anyway a few years later.”
“I know, I know. I just… I feel that I can’t leave now. This community has become our family. They took us in when we had nothing but the tattered clothes on our backs, the horses we rode on, and these.” He gestured at the modest bookshelf, and patted his chest, over the spot where he kept a small Torah scroll tucked in his coat. “I don’t know how much you remember—you were still a girl—but we can never repay the kindnesses of Rabbi Sassón, the Ben-Ishai family, the Tishbí family…”
“I remember how Sara took care of me when you and Judás and Solomon went away on business.”
“Without them, I would never have been to establish my business in Málaga. We would have been beggars.”
“So… we are not leaving.”
He pulled a handkerchief from his belt and wiped his face. He returned it to his belt, took a deep breath and looked at me.
“I feel I cannot make that decision, Míriam. I cannot leave them. But I also cannot put you in danger. I am torn.”
I stared down at the Talmud again, dread filling the pit of my stomach. I could sense that I would not like what was coming next.
“There is, of course, another option.”
I started to shake my head.
“You are sixteen, Míriam. You are a woman now. A beautiful, pious woman with impressive lineage. We should be able to find you a good match somewhere safe. You will need to get married sooner or later anyway. You’re not getting any younger.”
“But if the Spaniards are in Vélez, that gives us maybe a week, two, three if we’re lucky. There is no way you can find a suitable match in that time. It would take longer just to send an inquiry. And besides, what place is safe? Italy? France?”
“I have some contacts in Morocco.”
“I am not going to Morocco. Especially not without you.”
He sighed, finally closing the volume in front of him.
“I’m not sure you’re going to have a choice about Morocco. The Muslims have been much more gracious with our people than the Christians have. I don’t want to risk going to Italy or France or Germany. Who knows when they’ll start off on another crusade and slaughter entire villages again.”
“And who knows when the Muslims will decide that the Jews killed Mohammed, or something, and start off on a killing spree of their own? It’s not like they love us, either. Nowhere is safe for Jews, Papa.”
He frowned but did not respond. We sat, not making eye contact, for a few long minutes.
Finally, my father raised his head. “The Lord has protected us this long. I can only trust that He will get us out of this.”
I stared down at my hands. I did not feel particularly protected.
“Passover was last week, Míriam. Don’t you remember what we recited from the Haggadah? For not just one has risen to destroy us, but in every generation…”
“They rise up to destroy us, and the Holy One, Blessed Be He, saves us from their hands.”
“Exactly. The Holy One, Blessed be He, has never abandoned us, and He never will.”
“Shahareet!” called a voice from down the street. My father pushed his chair back from the table and stood. He hoisted the Talmud onto the shelf, and then paused for a moment. He plucked a small cloth-bound volume from the shelf and studied it. In the faint morning light, I could see its sky blue color and its intricate embroidery with threads of black and gold and purple and green. He closed his eyes and hugged the book to his chest.
“Shahareet!” The call grew louder as the gabbai, the manager of the synagogue, drew closer to our house.
My father walked over to where I was sitting and handed the small book to me.
“Your mother’s Tehillim. She always knew what to do in times like these.” I took the book from him and ran my hands over the careful embroidery my mother had stitched long ago. They formed the Hebrew letters, Sefer Tehillim. The Book of Psalms. When I looked up, my father had gone. The sun was rising; it was time for morning prayers.
I opened the book, flipping to Psalm 22, and let King David’s prayers become mine.
I stared into the flames licking the bottom of the pot. Waiting for the coffee to boil always felt like an eternity to me. Today in particular it seemed to take forever.
Familiar voices drifted into earshot. I peeked through the small window in the stone kitchen wall, and sure enough, my father, brothers and cousin were approaching. And sure enough, they were arguing loudly.
“We can’t possibly let her stay. You know what the Spaniards will do to her if we don’t come back for her. And you know the Moors don’t stand a chance against the Christians.”
“So you think we should just flee, with our tails between our legs, like we did from Seville?”
“Oh, you’re right, Papa. Maybe we should just pretend to convert. That one worked really well, didn’t it, Aarón.”
“Solomon! For shame!”
I drew back the curtain separating the kitchen from the main room and walked across to open the door for them. As I drew it open their bickering silenced at once.
“Good morning, Míriam.” My father stepped over the threshold, kicking off his muddy shoes.
“Good morning.” I retreated to the kitchen and scrambled around for cups, plates, and some cake to serve them. They continued their conversation in hushed voices and I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I tried breathing away the tingle of annoyance that rose in my chest. When I returned to the main room, they fell silent again. I set down my tray with a clunk and glared at them.
“Why do you think it helps to talk about this behind my back?” I demanded.
“Talk about what?” Judás tried feebly.
“Well?” My father gave me his piercing look. “If we were to stay and help the Moors fight against the Christians. What would you want to do?”
I returned his look with equal intensity, even as the flames of fear and dread licked at my heart.
“I am not going anywhere without you.”
Solomon slammed his hand on the table, making the cups jump.
“I am not letting my sister stay here to be raped by the Christians and sold into slavery.”
“Then we should all go,” Judás said, looking at me. “There is no hope for the Moors and four more men are not going to make any difference. If we stay, we are committing suicide. The Torah says, ‘You must safeguard your souls.”
“The Torah also says, ‘Will your brothers go to war, and you will sit here?’”
“This is not our war, Solomon. Don’t take the words of the Torah out of context. That was discussing the conquest of the land of Israel at God’s word, when the two and a half tribes wanted to settle the east bank of the Jordan.”
“But it is our war, Judás.” My father had not taken his eyes off of me. “It is. The Torah says, ‘Stand not idly by the blood of your brother’. Our brothers in Castile and Aragon are in grave danger.”
“So you would have me stand idly by the blood of my sister, instead? ‘The members of your family first’—”
“You are quite the expert at quoting out of context, aren’t you?” Judás scolded, grabbing the cake and the knife and beginning to cut. “That passage discusses the hierarchy of giving charity.”
“But we do learn out of it that family comes first!” Solomon retorted.
“There is a Gemara regarding the priority hierarchy for saving a life,” I piped up. Everyone looked at me. “And as I recall the instrumental criterion was how much Torah the individual in question could learn, teach and practice later in his life. Because women are not obligated to study Torah, or to practice as many mitzvoth, they come second.”
There was a moment of silence. Judás passed my father a slice of cake on a plate. My father ignored it, still looking deeply at me. “You may not be obligated,” he said slowly, “but your Torah rests on equal scales with any of the men at this table.” My brothers and cousin shifted uncomfortably. My father finally broke eye contact with me and glared around the table. “Is she not a ‘cistern that loses nary a drop’?”
Aarón, my cousin, cleared his throat and finally spoke. “Please, let’s not get into the argument about women studying Torah again. We need to decide what we are doing. I for one have had enough of the Spaniards and I would rather flee while I can. Maybe I could take Míriam to Morocco.”
“I am not going anywhere without Papa!” I repeated. I walked around the table and knelt by my father’s chair, taking his hands in mine. “Please, Papa. Don’t make me leave you.” I tried to swallow the lump in my throat. “What use is the Torah knowledge I have without the man who gave it to me? What use is my life without you?”
My father closed his eyes, releasing a stream of tears.
“Oh, stop it.” Solomon stood from his chair and came over, yanking me to my feet. “Don’t let a woman’s dramatics confuse you. You know it is against the Torah to put yourself in danger when it is not necessary, and there is no question that it is not necessary for Míriam to be in danger.”
“If this is a halachic question, we should take it to the Rabbi,” said Judás. “But somehow, I don’t think it really is, Solomon.”
“Get off me.” I struggled free from Solomon’s grip and glared at him. “The coffee should be ready by now.” I swept past him toward the kitchen.
Sheila Levitt says
I prefer the one in the book. Have just finished reading it and really enjoyed it. I was not sure at the very beginning if it was my type of story, but once I got into it I could not put it down.
After I finished the book I saw details of the launch on Facebook and was so thrilled that you had dedicated the book to my granddaughter Abi.