Sephardic Farewell/Ancestors by Joseph Hobesh - HTML preview
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Don Pablo de San Miguel
Four months had passed since the newly baptized Pablo de San Miguel had arrived in Toledo. With nothing more than the letter from Brother Pablo in his possession, Samuel’s arrival caused no undue disturbance, and he was accepted into the Alverez family almost as if he had been born into it.
Accompanied by brother Benito, who on the way had offered Samuel additional tutoring regarding Catholic prayers and liturgy, but refused to provide any information regarding Don Jose Alverez.
On their arrival in Toledo, Brother Benito showed Samuel the way to the Alverez home, cautioned “Pablo” about his new identity, and departed very quickly.
Pablo was unsure how he was going to cope with this
“Christian” life thrust upon him. But many surprises lay ahead.
The first being the Alverez family themselves. Señor and Señora Alverez were a handsome couple. Don Jose was tall, 54
with flashing dark eyes and dark hair to match. Dona Marina was small, stately in her bearing, with reddish brown hair and sky blue eyes. Their daughter Gracia, at eight years of age, showed the beginnings of the beauty she was to become. They were a warm and loving family.
Señor Alverez, as a physician to the royal court, enjoyed access to the upper echelons of Spanish society. His superior medical knowledge had made him a favorite of the court.
The Alverezs welcomed Pablo, instructing him to address them as “tia” and “tio,” aunt and uncle. Gracia was to be considered his “cousin.”
To all appearances they appeared to be a model Catholic family. Attending church, observing holy days and feasts, all of which was very confusing to Pablo. Yet he was not unhappy.
During his first month in Toledo Señor Alverez introduced him to a Señor Juan Salcedo, a herbalist, and explained that Pablo would serve an apprenticeship with Señor Salcedo, which would last two years. If his performance was satisfactory, he would then begin his medical training with Don Jose. Training that would lead to becoming a physician. His training, and the fact that no one questioned where he had come from, or why, pleased Pablo very much. He was very grateful to the Alverez family, but everything was so puzzling.
Pablo accepted the fact that Samuel Ben Coloma no longer existed. But living his life as a Christian was another matter. This was a struggle he would have to wrestle with for his whole life.
For the next few months, under Señor Salcedo’s tutelage, Pablo’s routine consisted mainly of mixing herbs and studying various potions. One Friday evening, returning home tired after a particularly busy week of study. His “cousin” Gracia—who was constantly taunting him for not knowing the proper words to the “Hail Mary” or the “Our Father” or whatever prayer she decided to tease him about—looking very solemn, quietly indicated for Pablo to follow her.
Not knowing what was happening, Pablo cautiously did as she asked, accompanying her to a part of the house he had never seen before. Passing through a number of twisting passages, and down some stairs. A solemn Gracia led the bewildered Pablo to another passageway ending at a heavy door, which, with some difficulty, Gracia managed to open.
There, well hidden from prying eyes, was a small chapel empty of the usual statuary normally found in a catholic sanctum. In its place a simple wooden ark had been placed along the eastern wall. Candelabra similar to menorahs scattered about provided the only light. And waiting at a table adorned with the traditional Sabbath bread, wine and candles was Señor and Señora Alverez.
“Welcome, Pablo, Shabbat Shalom. I am sorry we had to be so secretive about our true beliefs. But our world is filled with danger, being Jewish in a Christian world is not easy nor safe.”
Pablo could scarcely believe what he was seeing or what Don Jose was saying. Had God finally smiled upon him? With tears in his eyes, he pulled Gracia to him, and ran to Señor and Señora Alverez. Hugging them tightly, together they recited the blessings, and lit the Sabbath candles. Pablo, feeling the joy and true meaning of Shabbat, experienced a flood of happy memories; and sadness for his lost family.
* * *At the festive meal which followed the Kiddish prayers, Señor Alverez explained how his family had continued their secret practice of Judaism by sharing “courtyards” with other Jewish families and friends, participating in Jewish festivals, keeping the Sabbath and observing Jewish dietary laws. There existed between practicing Jews and “New Christians” an unspoken, intermixed, emotional community. A community very vulnerable to exposure, and fraught with danger. Pablo was cautioned about the need to conceal all of these practices, 56
speaking of them only while here in the secret chapel or when attending festivities at a “courtyard.”
Pablo listened to Don Jose with intense interest, a multitude of questions racing through his mind. Blurting them out as quickly he could think of them. Why did Señor Alverez help him? Why did he take him in, an act which seriously endangered the whole Alverez family? And what was his connection to Brother Pablo?
“Paciencia— patience, Pablo, the explanation is not very complicated, although the story may take a little while in the telling.”
Don Jose relaxed as he sat back and poured himself a little more wine. Señora Alverez and Gracia both smiled, they had heard parts of the story a number of times before, but tonight’s version would certainly be complete.
“One hundred years ago,” Don Jose began, “the Jews of Toledo enjoyed an economic and social well-being that had not been seen even in the earlier years of Muslim Andalusia.
Commerce, as well as textile manufacture, tanning, dying, and wine making was largely in their hands. They were more envied than Jews anywhere else in either the Christian or Muslim worlds. Toledo, capital of Castile, exemplified that Jewish well-being. With scores of Jewish markets, shops, offices, homes and many synagogues. Don Samuel Ben Coloma, Pablo’s grandfather, was a courtier, a personal advisor to King Pedro I.
Enormously respected in both the Jewish and Christian worlds.
With his wealth Don Samuel established a large estate in Toledo, and married into the well known Arama family. A learned and practicing Jew, he was instrumental in the founding and building of the El Transito. The most splendid synagogue in all of Toledo. The Ben Coloma family was blessed with two sons, Avraham and Isaac, both handsome and intelligent. My family, and myself, on the other hand, were Conversos. When or why we had converted and for what reasons I do not know, but we were secret Jews, and the ‘courtyard’ of the Ben Coloma family 57
was always open. It was where I first met Avraham and Isaac.
We quickly became good friends, always discussing and arguing the merits and shortcomings of Judaism, Christianity and the impact of Greco-Arab rationalism on both.
“Avraham and Isaac were very close, as was all of the Ben Coloma family. But that all changed on that fateful day in March of 1351. It was the Feast of Esther—Purim, that most joyful and festive of Jewish holidays. At a fiesta honoring the holiday, held at the El Transito synagogue, they met Sarah. And both brothers fell helplessly in love. Sarah Mendes, your mother, was as beautiful as she was gracious. Kind to everyone she met. With a laugh that made one think of chimes swaying gently in the wind.”
The reference to his mother brought a flood of memories to Pablo, but he quietly continued to listen.
“Everyone at the fiesta was stirred by Sarah’s beauty, but none more so than the Ben Coloma brothers. Isaac, the younger and more outgoing of the two, immediately engaged her in conversation. Shared a glass of wine with her, and before any other possible suitors could react, began dancing her around the ballroom. When the dance was finished Isaac escorted her to his family and introduced her to everyone.
“Extending her hand to Avraham, she smiled and began to engage him in conversation. So taken was he was by her beauty, he could only mumble his replies. He felt his whole being soar as he gazed at her. Sarah, although amused by Isaac, for some unexplained reason was very moved by Avraham. She felt a closeness to him, something she had never experienced before.
As the festivities began to end, Isaac insisted on accompanying Sarah home. She agreed, but only if Avraham would come along, her duenna would not object then, she explained.
“As the months went by Isaac became captivated by Sarah.
His whole life began to revolve around her. Sarah, although enjoying the attention, remained cool to the relationship. Her thoughts kept returning to Avraham, whom she had seen and 58
spoken to on several other occasions, began to realize that she was experiencing strong emotions for him. Avraham, trying to resist his feelings, had fallen in love with Sarah the first time he saw her. Not wanting to hurt his brother, he tried to deny the love he felt for her.
“When Sarah finally chose Avraham to become her husband, the estrangement between the brothers exploded into a violent quarrel. Isaac, angry and bitter, left Toledo, vowing he would never return. What prompted him to convert I do not know. But he was baptized Pablo de San Theresa. Became friar of a monastery in Seville. Don Samuel, on learning of his son’s conversion, declared Isaac dead. And began the prayers of mourning. His name was never to be mentioned in Don Samuel’s presence again. Avraham blamed himself for the break in the family’s closeness. He tried many times to heal the breech, to no avail.
“After his marriage to Sarah, your father worked very hard and became a very successful and well-known physician, and as fate would have it, also settled, along with your mother, in Seville. Don Samuel and your grandmother both passed away within months of each other, about a year after you were born.
I visited with both brothers—separately never together—when I had business in Seville. The estrangement between them still lingered. But time and your mother’s influence softened the feelings between them, although the anger and hurt never really healed. Why your father chose not to tell you of your uncle I can only speculate, and this I will not do.
“Your parents’ death, the way it happened, filled us all with despair. When Brother Pablo informed us you were alive but in great danger—Fray Vincente’s death, I believe has been adequately explained to the authorities—made us realize that God works in mysterious ways. Brother Pablo, your uncle, was there to help you in your time of need.”
Young Pablo moved beyond words, was too stunned to do anything but ponder what he had just been told.
Señora Alverez, realizing the news of his family was a great shock to Pablo, gently said, “You must take time to understand all that you have learned tonight, Pablo. It will take time for you to understand. But now it is very late, and we must all get to sleep.” Lifting the sleeping Gracia in her arms, she bid Pablo and her husband a good night.