The sound of trumpets coming from the direction of our town gates tears me from sleep, my dreams forgotten as I jolt out of bed.
My whole family dresses quickly as the sun begins to rise. Then I follow Mother and Father and my brothers, Isaac and Jacob, to the Plaza Mayor.
“Hurry, Benvenida,” Mother says, turning around. “Don’t dawdle. We don’t want to miss any announcements.”
Hearing my name usually makes me smile—as the youngest and only girl of the family, I was named Benvenida because everyone welcomed me when I was born.
But today is not a day for smiles.
The cobblestoned path, glistening from the morning dew, is slippery under my feet. It is strange to be out this early, but the familiar scent of almond sweets that perfumes our town calms me.
As we join the hundreds of townspeople gathered in the Plaza Mayor, we watch the solemn procession approach.At the front marches a line of Catholic priests carrying the green cross of the Holy Office of the Inquisition. Behind them, soldiers with swords at their sides.
The sun shines brightly, but the last gasp of winter air makes the day feel chilly. I draw closer to Mother to stay warm.
“Mother, what is happening? Why must we be here?”
She whispers, “The rumor is that King Fernando and Queen Isabel will now insist on uniting the kingdom under the Catholic faith, which means things will get even worse for us as Jews. Let’s hope that rumor is false.”
We wait as the officer at arms, dressed in a black robe and white collar, takes his place at the center of the Plaza Mayor and unrolls a parchment. Slowly he reads aloud a proclamation, shouting in Spanish: “On this day, the thirty-first of March of the year 1492, we order all Jews and Jewesses, regardless of age, who live in our kingdoms and lordships . . . that by the end of the month of July of the present year, they depart from all of these our realms and lordships . . . And whoever disobeys us and does not leave within this time and is to be found in any place in our kingdom will be sentenced to death by hanging . . .
A gasp arises from the crowd.
I can see the Jews around me lowering their eyes at the indignity.
Echoing in my heart, those words . . . death by hanging
. . .
I shake with fear as we head home, hardly believing what I’ve just heard.2
Father closes the door swiftly the minute we arrive home, and we all slip into the kitchen, the room farthest from the street, where we can speak without being heard by neighbors.
“You know what they’re calling for?” Father asks Mother, clutching his chest.
“Expulsion,” she replies solemnly.
“What does expulsion
mean?” I ask.
Isaac, who is fifteen and knows the answers to most anything, says, “It means we Jews are to be thrown out of the kingdom. We have to leave by the end of July—that’s only four months.”
“How can that be? Hasn’t our family lived in Toledo for hundreds of years? Don’t we belong here?”
“Yes, we do belong here,” says Jacob, who knows almost as much as Isaac, just having celebrated his bar mitzvah. “But they will only let us stay if we convert to Catholicism.”
"And that we will never do!” I exclaim.
I’ve heard Father say this many times, even though in our own family there are converts, called conversos
. To Father’s great shame, his two sisters and their families accepted baptism to the Catholic faith. “I thank the Lord that our parents are no longer alive, for they would cry without end for my sisters,” Father had said when they began to wear crosses around their necks.
Life would be easier if we converted, though. Around us are family, friends, and neighbors who gave up being Jewish in the hope that they wouldn’t stand out as different.
The friends I played with as a small child, two sisters called Susanah and Deborah, no longer speak to me. Yet not so long ago, the three of us were best friends. We ate together, prayed together, dreamed together. As little girls, we chased one another on the streets, skinning our knees, and kissing one another’s wounds so they’d heal.
At first, after they converted, I thought I’d done something to make them angry. I tried to ask for forgiveness by giving them candied figs.
“Stay away!” they yelled. “We can’t be friends with you until you stop being a Jew.”
And I yelled back, “Then we shall never be friends!”
I pitied them for turning against their own religion and forsaking our traditions. I wondered what that must feel like and wrote a poem about it:
I fear for all
who hide their faith.
Do their tears burn
as they fall down their cheeks?
Poems come into my head all the time, and I usually try to write them down. I am fortunate Mother comes from a family of book printers and has taught me to read and write in Hebrew and Spanish. I even know a little Arabic, because Mother shared with me the verses of Qasmuna, the Jewish poet who once lived in Granada—the land that King Fernando and Queen Isabel seized a few months ago from the Moors. I’m dark-eyed just like you, and lonely,
Qasmuna wrote—and it felt like she was talking to me. However, I must not speak about these things, because females are not supposed to read, but Father respects Mother’s family background and doesn’t object to her teaching me. Writing poems, though, is a high art, which he thinks is best left to men.
Now Father pulls at his robe so sharply that the fabric rips. Then he breaks into a song, borrowed from a psalm, a tune so sad tears come to all of our eyes.Be merciful unto me, O God, be merciful unto me:
for my soul trusts in you.
In the shadow of your wings
will I make my refuge
until these calamities shall be overcome.
Soon I join him and feel the wings of the song lifting me.
I accompany my singing with the tambourine, and the music fills the air with the hope and courage we need so badly at this moment.
“Stop singing, stop singing. My heart is hurting,” Mother says, looking at Father and me with a pained face.
“I am sorry, querida,” Father says. “It is how I express myself. And Benvenida sings like a nightingale, doesn’t she?”
He wipes away the tears from his eyes, and I wipe mine too, though a part of me is happy hearing Father’s compliment. Father is a hazan—he sings the songs of our prayers, at synagogue and at home, and he has taught me how to sing too.
I’m not allowed to sing in the synagogue because I’m a girl, but at home I raise my voice and sing proudly.
On the day we leave Toledo, I fear I will be speechless. How will I say goodbye to the only home I’ve ever known?3
They Can Take Away My Home but Not My Words
That evening Father’s sisters, my aunts Leah and Raquel, come to visit. They are now known by Christian names, Asunción and Juana. They only visit under the cover of night, their faces hidden by their shawls, so as not to raise suspicions that they might be coming to pray or to celebrate a Jewish holiday. And they always come alone, which means I no longer get to spend time with my little cousin Miriam, who is Raquel’s daughter. We used to love playing together, hiding and running after each other in the courtyard. How I wish I could just hold her hand for a moment, but I’ve been told to keep my distance as it could cause her harm to be seen with me.\\
Now we sit together with my aunts at the kitchen table, and Mother serves the almond marzipan sweets she makes with honey gathered from the hives around Toledo and warm cups of anise brewed with lemon and yet more honey. It is very late, and Isaac and Jacob have already gone to bed, but I am allowed to stay awake so I can help Mother in the kitchen.
Together, my aunts plead with Father. “Samuelico, listen to us. Convert now for the sake of your wife and children. Isn’t that wiser than losing everything and taking to the road like a vagabond?”
He responds with fury. “How can you suggest such a thing to me? I may not be a rabbi, but I am a hazan. I am a singer of our sacred prayers. How can I give up the faith of our beloved ancestors? How can I forget the commandments of Moses?”
His sisters whisper, “But haven’t you heard that even the great rabbi, Abraham Senior, has converted at the age of eighty? You know you can practice Judaism secretly, like so many do. We still light the candles on Friday night, just for a fleeting moment, to remember we were Jews.
Father shakes his head. “I don’t want to snuff out the Shabbat candles. I want their light to shine bright and openly.”
The oldest of the two sisters, Tía Asunción, who used to be Tía Leah, speaks firmly. “But, Samuelico, the journey to the seaport is a long one. The heat will be brutal. And how do you know the captains and sailors won’t rob you or even kill you at sea? Is it not better to stay here and be safe? Doesn’t our faith teach us that life is the holiest thing we possess?”
“There you have a point,” Father replies sadly to his sisters. “La vida, life, is everything. I cannot bear the thought of leaving our home here in Toledo, but I also cannot bear the thought of staying and no longer being allowed to keep my faith. That is death to me. I have worn the torn robe of my grief since this day dawned, when I heard the edict of expulsion of the Jews.”
No one knows how to reply. We sit in silence. Each and every almond mazapán that Mother shaped into a beautiful half-moon has been eaten, and the warm drinks have all been sipped.
My aunts stand and prepare to leave, adjusting the shawls around their faces again. “Adiós, adiós, adiós,” they whisper, only their eyes showing.
Father sighs and replies, “Adiós, hermanicas.”
He is tired of battling with them. I feel sad that we were once a united family, and now we will be separated because we no longer share the same faith.
While Father is out during the day with my two brothers, selling our possessions and making plans with other Jews who are leaving, I sit and write. I try to put into words how this most beautiful time of the year, when grapes and olives and figs sprout again, and the trees and flowers bloom and perfume the air, is now heavy with sorrow as we prepare for our departure.
Mother has given me some ink and parchment paper. “Write, Benvenida, write; let your heart speak,” she says.
Then she too sits down to write. Our desk is large and edged with a leaf design in inlaid wood. It has been passed down for generations. We look out at the courtyard, the air cool and soft, the hills aglow, the nightingales singing for us.
Mother is always writing letters to her family in Naples, but now her letter is urgent. We are coming soon, dearest family. We are being expelled from Toledo. Please, please be on the lookout for us.
She looks up, brushing away a tear. “My beloved parents and brother and sister left for Naples just after you were born, Benvenida. They couldn’t bear it here anymore after the king and queen created the Holy Office of the Inquisition to torture the conversos who secretly practiced their Jewish faith.”
“Oh, Mother, I fear for Father’s sisters and their families.”
“I fear for them too, Benvenida. They have to watch their own shadow. Just taking a bath and wearing clean clothes on Friday evening or refusing to eat pork sausages at a neighbor’s house could get them reported to the Holy Office. Long ago things were different in Toledo, and Jews and Christians and Muslims lived peacefully here. There were mosques and synagogues and churches. Then King Alfonso conquered the Muslims and built churches on top of the mosques. Soon they will do that with our synagogues—the few that still remain.”
“Father had hope that things would get better again.”
“Well, your father was wrong! How I wish we had gone to Naples with my family! Now we’ll have to fight against our own people to secure passage on one of the ships. It will be very crowded with everyone rushing to the ports at the last minute.”
“Mother, crossing the sea scares me.”
She gently runs her fingers through my hair. “We will all be together. I will not let you out of my sight for a moment. And we are lucky—in Naples we have family to go to.”
My worries disappear for the moment as Mother and I embrace and I smell the rose petals she uses to scent our dresses. Then she glances over at the page where I’ve written a few more words.
“May I read it?”
“Of course,” I tell her, but I feel myself blushing as she calmly reads my simple verse aloud.Nightingales sing
send greetings from those who suffer
to those who are free
tell them the land that was once our home
is now a prison
Mother smiles. “You have a gift, hijica. Keep on writing your poems.”
We both settle back into our writing, the light of the afternoon illuminating our words. As I write, I think about how they can take away my home but not my words, the words that form themselves into poems.
I promise myself I will hold on to my language, no matter how far away we go, how many seas we cross, how distant I am from the almond-scented streets of this land. Even at the ends of the earth, I will remember where I came from.
Copyright © 2024 by Ruth Behar. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.