Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Report from Spain and Israel: Flailing at Windmills

I returned from Spain and Israel this morning. It was a trip framed by windmills and the life of Maimonides. On the one hand there was a singular windmill we saw, high up on a hill in central Spain, on the outskirts of the province of La Mancha. On the other, there is a single windmill in Jerusalem, and a tomb in Tiberias, that tell us all about the long journey home.

A windmill in La Mancha

Montefiore's Windmill in Jerusalem

If you click on the photo below you'll be able to read the plaque posted near Montefiore's Windmill. It was constructed for no practical purpose other than to promote Jewish settlement and industry outside the Old City walls. At a time, in the 19th century when people succumbed to the fear of the unknown, Montefiore encouraged them to settle and cultivate their homeland. This windmill, unlike Cervantes', symbolized battles that were quite real and not imaginary, and an Impossible Dream that could come true.

As we sauntered through La Mancha (in a car, not on horseback), I tried to imagine what was going through the mind of Cervantes when he conjured up Don Quixote's signature moment of chivalry and valor. How pointless it seems to fight windmills. Yet how courageous it was for Cervantes to flail away at the windmills of oppression and the scourge of the Inquisition.

The Inquisition is a taboo topic in Spain to this day. On the eve of my trip I did some research and, make no mistake, this was a brutal country back then - and, if you are as appalled by bullfighting as I am, it remains brutal to this day. We arrived in Madrid just as Spain beat Germany for the European soccer championship and I found myself wondering whom to root for, simply on the basis of which nation has been worse to the Jews. Lots of countries could vie for that title, but these two have been the worst, hands down. Yet, in an amazing twist of history, both places nurtured the two great motherlodes of Jewish cultural diversity and creativity: Ashkenaz, which means Germany, and Sepharad, which is Spain.

And let’s not cloud matters because half a millennium has passed since the Expulsion. It was bad then, and Spain has not fully recovered. The Jewish community is minuscule. A thin veneer of cordiality, for the sake of tourism, covers a culture that is still thoroughly rooted in anti-Semitism, even without Jews.

I enjoyed the country, and its Jewish sites are a must see, but every time I picked up a menu and saw just how omnipresent pork is in the Spanish diet (the Spanish words I used most there were “sin jamon,” (“No ham.”), I understood that this was no cultural coincidence. Pork was the means of sniffing out those Jews who hid their Jewishness from the Inquisitors, those crypto-Jews who indeed were called “Pigs,” “Marranos.”

Maimonides was born in Spain and lived in Cordoba until he was 13. Cordoba was a capital of Moorish Spain, and the place where the Jewish Golden Age really began in the 10th century. But by the time Maimonides came along, things were already turning sour. In fact, it is almost impossible to name a great Jew from that period of several centuries – a Golden Age of Jewish achievement and acceptance – who died in the same community in which he was born. They were constantly being booted out and moving on to greener pastures.

But now they love Maimonides in Cordoba. There is a statue of him (see below)

There is even a hotel named for him. There is also a fantastic new museum of Sephardic culture there, in the very spot where Sephardic Judaism was born. Here are some samples of the art work found there. The museum is completly accurate in how it spins the story of this great Jewish center. It contains Ketubot and Menorahs interspersed with expulsion edicts. The full picture. We got an excellent tour from a lovely young woman.

Of course the guide was not Jewish. Neither is the family behind this important educational venture. There is, in fact, not a minyan of Jews to be found living in this great Jewish center, she told us. It is like a ghost town of Jewish memories. Although with much nicer intentions, this museum is basically what Hitler wanted to create in Prague - an exhibition of what it was like when Jews lived here, the museum of a dead people

Only we are not dead.

Right next to the old synagogue, which has been partially restored (much like the two medieval synagogues in Toledo) after having been coverted to a church following the Expulsion. You can see evidence of that below:

Still, the walls are covered with Hebrew inscriptions, like the one below:

Read now what some of those quotes mean (including the one shown here):

As their fate became increasingly perilous, and even when things were good, all eyes were on Zion. The Sephardim were the original Zionists. The great poet Judah Halevi wrote, "My heart is in the east." Those words have echoed across the ages.

From Moses to Moses, there was no one like Moses. Maimonides was compared to his biblical namesake, but Moses Montefiore took a similar journey, one that began in Europe and ended with burial in the Holy Land. On the final day of our trip in Israel, we closed the circle. We had seen where Moses ben Maimon had begun his life, and now, in Tiberias, we went to his grave.

Like so many graves of ancient sages in Israel, this one has become sensationalized to the point of absurdity. Note the crown over it and the hawking of Rambam booze:

The grave is divided evenly between the men's and women's sides:

There was something very moving about being there, at the end of this journey. When I thought back to the inscriptions on that synagogue wall in Cordoba, the place where Jews dreamed and died, and shifted sights to this spot where the Jewish dream lives, whee the Jewish people lives, where we have flailed against the windmills and triumphed; now, in the Golan, they are using those very instruments to harness the wind for power. In this place, those verses from the walls of Rambam's hometown shul have themselves come back to life.

"One thing have I desired most of all, to dwell in the House of the Lord all the days of my life."

I also think of Psalm 126, which appears not on the walls of Codoba, but in the windmills of La Mancha and Jerusalem, and wherever else people dream:

"A song of Ascents. In our return to Zion, we were as dreamers..."

It is for such dreams that so many have died, including the two captive, murdered soldiers that Israel mourns today. Their remains have returned home but their dreams have not died.

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