Isaac Halevy, King of the Jews
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Antonio Elio Brailovsky
Translated from Spanish by Clark Zlotchew
Historical context for this excerpt:
The action in this novel begins in Inquisition-era Spain. A group of crypto-Jews sail from Spain to the New World to conquer and settle territory, like Hernán Cortés and the other Spanish conquistadores.. Once on the high seas, they openly revert to Judaism, change their assumed Christian-Spanish names to their original Hebrew ones and ban the use of the Spanish language in favor of Hebrew. They settle in the most inaccessible reaches of the Mexican jungle and convert the local Indians, with whom they intermarry, to Judaism. These Jewish Indians have been waiting centuries for the Messiah to arrive and lead them to the Promised Land. By the 20-th Century, members of the village begin abandoning their homes to follow Mexican political leaders or revolutionaries, like Emiliano Zapata, whom they believe to be the Anointed One. Still others leave the village to see the wonders of Mexico City, or to travel to the Promised Land of California with other illegal immigrants. In the 20th Century a group of them is brought to Israel, where the media believes them to be part of a political hoax.
So many years had passed that he no longer remembered how many, and the most recent events seemed inextricably confused, while those from long before became clearer and more real, as though to give testimony that the only thing men truly possess is memory. And it was exactly the night of the great fire, the night in which this Mexican jungle was filled with flames and houses were collapsing closer and closer to his own, when Isaac Halevy remembered the afternoon so long ago back in Spain on which the news of the conflagration that destroyed the Jewish quarter reached his parents’ home.
The men arrived in clothing that was blackened and torn, with poorly bandaged wounds. They had been flogged as they stumbled along the roads, robbed by the soldiers at the gates of the city and robbed and beaten once again as they moved along the streets, there where the beggars fought over the few belongings the soldiers had scorned.
The Jewish quarter had been torched and its houses were nothing but heaps of ashes and wreckage. It had been another religious pilgrimage that drove them out of that city, where their ancestors had put down roots centuries before, and on to the roads, which had been their true home for fifteen hundred years, and to which they always returned.
Wanderers, seafarers without a safe harbor, thought Simon Benveniste. He had never believed the stories told by the old folk, nor did he ever think the burning down of the Jewish quarter of Seville one hundred years earlier could be repeated. At that time they had murdered one of his ancestors because they found him praying in his own home. Now, Simon Benveniste began to believe that the hatred in men’s hearts, which he could not understand, but was certain of its definite existence, its solidity in others’ minds, was transmitted from father to son, and the Jews, he intuited, were nothing but a symbol of the real object of their hatred. This was one of the subjects that now circulated in his mind.
Isaac Halevy had been cold that long-ago morning back in Spain, and now in his old age he tried to remember what that feeling of cold was like, that feeling of cold that he used to have in his legs, in his neck and in his hands, in that land they had left, where time had distinct seasons that served to help one experience the passage of time. This was unlike the jungle, where the years were one single wave of humid heat, day and night, where in spite of the written calendars, he lost all notion of the season in which he lived. He even lost count of how many years had passed since they built that jungle city which was now burning.
The man was corpulent and everything about him reflected the years spent buying and selling, bringing silk from the Court of the Grand Turk, gauze from Gaza, muslin from Mosul, and spices whose origin lay in the dominions of the Khan of Cathay. He had brought these goods on mules over great distances, crossing the vast fortified barrens, out there where men had constructed a wall so long that it had neither beginning nor end. On camelback these goods had traversed indescribable deserts where the wind was so strong that it made houses fly through the air to land many leagues away. The goods had been loaded with the utmost care onto little ships constructed of wood and bamboo reeds, that had only one single sail, and which yellow-skinned men handled with rare skill in a sea filled with man-eating animals. They sailed until they found the true course where, after endless deprivation, the spices were loaded onto galleys that plied the seas of the known world, propelled by men chained to their oars, so melded with their chains that the chains sweated together with the men in the enormous effort of hauling the spice-bearing ship through the sea to Spain.
And from so much buying and selling of those products that came from such distant lands, a bit of dust from the Great Wall and of gold from Cipango had become attached to Simon Benveniste’s eyes. If one looked into them, perhaps scenes of shipwrecks and battles and long caravans crossing sandy deserts might be seen.
It was that image—Isaac saw it so clearly that he had no doubt his father had seen it too—that determined that Simon Benveniste would begin to work with the Halevys while the rest of the refugees were put on the street with a loaf of bread in their hands.
And one day in which the cold and luminous winter sun of Spain beat against the closed windows, trickled through shutters and balconies and fragmented, filling his room with reflections of all the known colors, a black carriage, curtains closed, its gilded emblems covered by black cloths so that no one could recognize the occupant,pulled into the courtyard. The visitor stepped out of the carriage only after his father had ordered the doors to be closed and the servants to withdraw to their quarters. Even then, the visitor descended from the carriage with his face hidden in the folds of his cape. They locked themselves in his father’s office with Simon Benveniste.
Isaac was in bed and remembered it all with that glassy clarity typical of memories engendered while suffering from childhood diseases. Isaac Halevy had one of those visions that would give his life direction, one of those sparks of lucidity that would replace the methodical, orderly reasoning that he was incapable of developing. This was true to such a degree that many years later, when he was in the jungle, before he made any important decision he resisted thinking about its natural, logical effects, instead waiting for a sudden inspiration that would dictate exactly what he had to do. The older he grew and the more despotic he became, the more he convinced himself that this was the voice of the Supreme Being, and that his own behavior was one of the manifestations of divine wrath.
That afternoon of his childhood, and that is why he remembered it, was the first time he had had that precise sensation, like a tingling in his hands, of knowing something that no one else knew. The man who was in the office with his father was Luis Santángel, treasurer of King Ferdinand.
The elder Halevy would also remember that afternoon for the rest of his life when, as he left his office—where he had just made the most important decision of his life—he found his son in the hallway, barefoot, trembling with fever, gazing off into an unfathomable vision.
“We’re going to change our names,” said little Isaac.
The three men froze in place for some moments. Then the two men had to restrain his father because the first thing the elder Halevy did was to make a move to strike his son for eavesdropping, but he stopped himself because he realized there was no way their whispered conversation could have gotten through the thick red drapery and the double bolted door, then run down the long corridor, cross the closed window, continue along two cobblestone courtyards and slip into the vapors of the room that Isaac had left, in order to go and tell his father, “We’re going to change our names.”
Their family name was Peña Fajardo and he was no longer Isaac, but Manuel Fernando. This name was a shiny new toy that he could read, in order not to forget it, in the little medallion showing a mother and her son which he now wore hanging from his neck and which felt as heavy as a stone. And the paradox of maternity without sex, which at a different time might have struck him as interesting, was now relegated to this new identity that he needed to read and re-read over and over to convince himself that it was indeed he himself. And there was his father going out to the courtyard to organize preparations, with his head uncovered, his beard trimmed back and a cross hanging from his neck.
That figure, so familiar yet so subtly altered that Manuel Fernando detected changes even in the timbre of his voice as he gave orders to the servants, distributed the cargo which would be placed into the twenty-three coffers and chests that were locked with heavy keys and chains. He supervised the packing of the crystal, with glasses and bowls wrapped in thick cloths and wrapped again with great care and placed in boxes on a cart that would be driven by the expert hand of an old servant, who had entered the Halevy household at the time of his father’s father. This servant had more than once traversed the roads of Flanders, where the family had a commercial enterprise, the point of departure for an arduous voyage to the Holy Land, which Isaac had imagined almost since before being born, and that now he would never make. He now had a different name which he resisted learning accurately, and once again he took the little medal out and read: Manuel Fernando de Peña Fajardo.
When the last of the coffers had been tied to the carts, and the women and children were on the coaches, and the men mounted on horseback, the side doors locked and the windows nailed shut in preparation for a long absence, which Manuel thought to be irreversible, his father unfastened the mezuzah from the doorpost. He then took the two seven-branched candelabra and the full-sized prayer shawl that his grandmother had crocheted in gold when the Halevys settled in that city, fleeing from the Turks. He took the Bible in the original Hebrew text and the books written by so many wise men of his people and in whose veneration he had instructed little Isaac, whom he made kiss the text of Moses even before he knew how to read it. With the past in his hand, he returned by himself to the empty house while everyone waited for him outside—Manuel imagined his steps toward the great hall—and didn’t come back out until that column of smoke had dissipated, smoke that everyone saw and of which no one spoke, because the pillars of salt remained behind.
The road was monotonous on this journey, in which the slow advance of the overloaded carts with so many belongings that no one knew from what hidden places they had emerged, from what thousand-year-old hiding places they had been removed to be deposited in these slow-moving carts which, as they moved along, were dragging the days with them, infinitely lengthening them. In this way, Manuel Fernando felt—and Isaac Halevy still remembered it when they had crossed the sea—he had been born in that caravan, whose unchanging landscape he dreamt of at night, dreams in which he never managed to reach the mountains that covered the horizon and that accompanied the people in their advance.
Perhaps to cover up the illusion that space no longer existed and time passed empty allowed them to sing for the last time the traditional songs, the ones that had been part of his childhood, a childhood that had been abandoned several days earlier in a house that had been shut up.
It was his mother’s voice as she had never used it in his presence, although he once heard that his father had fallen in love with her without having seen her. His father, walking along the Jewish Quarter’s main street, had heard a voice singing of yearnings and of grief, sorrows and joys, with such expressive vitality that the usual clamor and din of the street had ceased, the clamor and din with which merchants transacted their business, the braying of mules and the sound of cases of goods being handled, and of pots and pans and hammers. These sounds all came to a halt. People communicated with body language and whispers, so that this voice, the voice of a woman, could fill the street, so that this anonymous man to whom it was addressed would hear it.
And Manuel never found out why his mother had stopped singing. Nor did he know if it came to a halt suddenly or if it was a slow and gradual process; if it simply represented the loss of youth, as though a mature woman could not allow herself that kind of behavior.
That afternoon, when the sun hid behind the mountains and the sky was streaked with broad red brush strokes, he heard it for the only time in his life, and understood what his father had felt in that crowded but silent street which to his father seemed empty. His mother was now singing and the evening was filled with mythic figures. Those images accompanied them for quite a while even when silence descended on them. Some of the words of the ballad were:
“To him who will slay Goliath,
Half the Kingdom I shall give.”
He would give him half the Kingdom
And the daughter that he had.
Standing there was a young lad
Whose name was known as David.
Night had fallen when they reached an inn. In the midst of the tumult and hubbub of a dining hall filled with travelers of every stripe and from all corners of Spain, the family sat at a long table. They were about to eat when Simon Benveniste stood up, dressed as a priest, blessed the bread and the wine and invited them to join him in an Our Father. Manuel began to eat, carefully separating the bacon and placing it on one side of the plate, until his father’s glare reminded him that swine flesh was no longer forbidden but was now obligatory.
They went to bed early and little by little the sounds of the people who prolonged the after-dinner activities, playing cards or telling stories, died away. Long after silence had descended on the inn, a great uproar of yelling and shouting awakened them, and when lanterns and candles were brought, they saw an old man who, in his nightgown, was hollering, sword in his hand and his eyes wide open—not closed, as someone who would later write his story would say—who was hacking away at some leather bags filled with red wine, which sprayed him, making him think about the blood that was flowing from the seven giants who had failed in their attempt to surprise him as he slept.
Curiously, Manuel had completely forgotten this episode. Many years later on a sad grey afternoon, his father, after having contracted the illness that everyone thought would put him in his grave, had to relate it to him in detail, even though his objective was not to tell of this event but something that happened immediately after.
But Manuel Fernando insisted on dwelling on this part, and wanted to know more about that melancholy nobleman he had seen and heard, without that sad personage having impressed itself on his memory. But his father insisted on passing over this minor episode and coming back to the center of the narrative.
Years later, out there in the jungle, Isaac Halevy thought very often about that old man whom Manuel had forgotten immediately and who, nevertheless, refused to be dislodged from his mind. It was as though the old man were some secret symbol, or as though some message in code joined the destiny of the deluded giant killer with that of those false Christians.
But his father did not want to speak, and never managed to tell him the reason for those puddles of wine on the floor, nor about the old man’s hoarse voice cursing the apparitions that hounded him. Nor was he willing to describe that grey stare so profoundly lucid, so encompassing, that it would make one believe that the man actually had seen the giants and that a sorcerer had snatched his victory away from him, making him an object of ridicule.
Because in the middle of the pandemonium raised by that old man, Simon Benveniste came into the room with a candle in his hand, still wearing his cassock, and when he turned into the hallway he stumbled upon Rodrigo Martínez, assistant to the Hooded One, killer of Jews, who preached the imminence of Doomsday, and who recognized him.
At this point his father held his peace, as Manuel Fernando recalled shortly before boarding the ship for the great voyage. At the same time, the boy was watching the sailors hoist the ochre sails, on what had been one of the last afternoons that Manuel spoke with his father. It had slowly begun to rain when the very weak voice told him that when they were leaving that inn and once more repeated their ancient songs along the roads, the Hooded One’s procession of cross-dragging, self-flogging penitents was headed for the same city that they had abandoned. A carrier pigeon flew over the mountains, over a mighty river, over the slow march of the penitents and over the Hooded One’s black cart, leaving them behind until losing sight of them.
Manuel Fernando, later taking back his original name of Isaac Halevy, very often imagined his father writing that message, in the cold light of dawn, surrounded by the sounds of the awakening inn. Old man Peña Fajardo would write it and tear it up several times with growing anxiety, choosing his words, mixing entreaties, deception and threats, until he came up with the exact verb that could penetrate into the very fibers of Luis Santángel, the King’s Treasurer.
Manuel imagined him selecting from among several pigeons the one that would carry the request for aid, would perch on his hand while his father looked into its eyes, and spoke softly to it while tying the note to a leg. He would spread the bird’s wings to place on each one a small whistle, so that as it beat its wings, the device would emit a deep moaning sound which would keep the falcons away.
Whether it was due to the message Manuel’s father had sent, or whether there was some other reason, the fact is that when the Hooded One’s followers arrived at their destination, and Rodrigo Martínez made his boisterous entry into a tavern, two guards seized him without his master lifting a finger to prevent it.
An empty house is filled with echoes, and young Manuel Fernández was losing himself in those whitewashed rooms whose high ceilings rested on tie beams of dark, ancient wood. He and the other children were playing among the coffers and chests, shouting to produce echoes in what would be the social chamber, the dining hall and the sleeping alcoves, killing imaginary enemies who slept under the heavy furniture covered in canvas and tied with numerous ropes, as though they were prisoners whom Manuel and the other children were responsible for liberating.
After the furniture had been untied and positioned in their proper places, Manuel Fernando discovered that even though they were the same, they had changed. His own bed was much smaller than it had been in the other house, while some of the cupboards had suddenly become larger. His parents’ bed was darker and the table had carvings and moldings which had not previously existed.
That change was so imperceptible—something like the change he had noticed in his father’s voice and mannerisms—that Manuel Fernando didn’t dare comment on it to anyone, until his mother, tossing a stick of firewood into the fireplace, mentioned how different the furniture looked in this house, and that perhaps it was the light in this new city to which the furniture had not yet adjusted.
The house had a cozy, closed balcony, partially shaded by a tree whose name he didn’t know, where Manuel would spend the cold afternoons seated on a high-backed chair which had a soldier’s head carved into the back, with a brazier whose warmth clouded over the window panes, and a grey cat curled into a ball at his feet. From the balcony he could see the whole world passing by, and it was so different to be facing a wide, uncluttered street, and not in the alleyways of the Jewish Quarter, that he never tired of looking at the carriages, the men riding horseback, and the ladies in elegant dresses, and imagining their origins, their life stories, and their destinies.
Until one day the street was filled with a suffering multitude, which at first Manuel confused with some kind of parade, in one of the festivals in that calendar whose internal laws he could not understand, to such an extent that he still didn’t know the Spanish name of the month in which they were then living. But those throngs moved along, unlike the processions led by The Hooded One, which at the head of the procession carried placards painted with images of skeletons, representing imminent doom. And these present wretched masses carried too many belongings, as though they’d fled from some war, although Manuel didn’t remember having seen soldiers in the preceding days.
The multitude kept moving along and when it seemed it had come to an end, new groups appeared, some exerting great self-discipline, others weeping and bawling loudly, some empty-handed, others with rows of carts filled with sumptuous luggage. Some were on foot, others on donkeys, and there were sheep, goats and even cows that went mooing along the main thoroughfare, and a cart bearing cages filled with hens. There was an old man dressed in black, carrying with visible strain a headstone, and a girl of Manuel’s age who looked at him with sad, black eyes. And there were fights every step of the way with people who lived in the houses and with the others crossing the road, and there was a woman sleeping in the doorway next to another who suckled a baby boy, and there was smoke from the braziers and cooking fires in the middle of the street.
At that moment, Manuel realized that his was the only open window on the entire street. He heard his father’s voice ordering him to close it, without giving any explanation, his face showing fear as though he had seen a ghost, but at the same time as though he had been expecting that ghost for a long time. His father refused to talk to him about those people, whom he continued to observe secretly from the rooftop, but he intuited there was something in common between the stealthy departure of the Halevy family and the uproar in the street.
Passing among the people, there were the drums and trumpets of the King’s soldiers, who stopped every once in a while to read from a long sheet of paper which they unrolled and then ritually rolled up again each time, while the people shouted at the wanderers and occasionally threw stones at them, and the soldiers threatened the crowd with their halberds, and there were intervals of silence between the bouts of yelling and the hoarse voice of the herald: “The harm caused to Christians following upon their dealings with Jews, who pride themselves on constantly attempting to subvert our holy Catholic faith with regard to faithful Christians.”And there was a deafening roar loaded with imprecations in different languages; a window was being opened on high and a serving girl hurled insults and water at the throng, and the detached voice of the herald: “And we know that the best way of precluding all this aforesaid harm and trouble consists of completely preventing aforesaid Jews from contact with Christians by expelling them from all our kingdoms and domains.”A soldier was stealing a mule from a woman and two adolescents were slashing away at each other with knives in the hallway of their house. “And we likewise give our permission to the aforesaid Jews and Jewesses to take their worldly goods and possessions from our kingdoms and domains by sea and by land, with the provision that said goods and possessions not be made of gold nor silver, nor include minted coin.”And his father, livid with rage, got him down from the roof joining words with slaps, while Manuel tried to find a cause that would allow him to understand his father’s anger and the meaning of that prohibition, which he intuited as being very close to him and his family but at the same time he could not grasp, perhaps because of that very proximity.
It was then that he remembered the expression on his father’s face several months before, when he forbade him to spy on his cousin Raquel when she was bathing. But he had managed to see something. Raquel was already a woman and had two breasts whose consistency surprised him when he touched them with his gaze. And his father’s expression was almost the same when he moved Manuel from the keyhole as when he made him climb down from the roof, so that he realized that in some mysterious manner the people in the street were naked while he and his family were clothed.