Sunset in Toledo
By Michael Dak | 15/10/2009
Michael Dak was sent to Toledo by his hi-tech company, and returned with new insights on the Jewish fate. According to him, every Jew must go to Toledo, at least once
View of Toledo by El Greco, 1599-1597
The last beam of sunlight slowly leaves the Puerto del Sol, the "gate of the sun," one of the gates of ancient Toledo. The beam leaves the city gradually, waiting for the guard to come out of the guardhouse and close the wooden gate behind it. It's a quarter to ten, and soon the city will return to the rule of darkness. The sun's entry in the morning is no less dramatic. About a quarter to seven it feels its way over the San Martin bridge and enters, actually enters, the Alcantara Gate.
The sun's summer heat hangs over the city most of the daytime, but at every moment its deceptive light falls on another wall, floods another window, climbs to the roof, slips between the houses of the lane that we call "Jerusalem d'Espagne" (Jerusalem of Spain). A local legend relates that the exiles from Jerusalem journeyed westward, from the end of the East to the heart of the West, and settled down in Toledo because it reminded them of Jerusalem. To this day some here call it "hija de Jerusalen," "the daughter of Jerusalem." They love legends in Toledo. Some teach about the city, some are about its history, others, about our history, and they often are intertwined.
A street passes by the Door of the Lions of the cathedral, we'll call it by name right away. The cathedral is the very heart of old Toledo, and is built over the remains of the central mosque of Muslim Toledo. After its reconquest by the Christians, the victors reneged on their promise not to destroy the mosque, that had been built where a church had formerly stood. Stratum is built over stratum, but today the city is marketed as "the city of the three cultures."
Bitter Well Street
The name of the street that descends the side of the hill is el Pozo Amargo, the "Street of the Bitter Hill." The version on the city wall-tiles tells of a young woman who fell in love with a young man. The two would meet by a well, and when the lad vanished, the girl's tears of sorrow turned the well bitter.
But every Toledan will tell you the real story: a young Toledan fell in love with a beautiful Jewess named Rachel. Her father refused to give his daughter to a Christian, and in the end he killed the young man. Rachel burst into tears, that flowed into the well and turned Toledo's water bitter. And what is this, if not the infamous Middle Ages libel of poisoning the wells? It's just a bit more romantic in the Toledo version. And Toledo is a romantic city.
Another legend tells of the glory days of the Spanish Inquisition: in the time of the Catholic King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and the chief inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada, the number of Jews seeking to convert to Christianity was so great that the cathedral's supply of oil for anointing almost ran out. But amazingly, a great miracle occurred, and the supply lasted for an additional eight days!
A new Jew, whom we will introduce later, says that hatred has its source in jealousy: Christian Toledo was jealous of its Jews. The Toledans could not forgive the Jews for Jesus himself being a Jew.
Religious elevator music is being played in the cathedral for the public's enjoyment. The El Transparente chapel is pierced through a window in its roof by a beam of natural light surrounded by angels. The beam of light pours into the dark and cool cathedral. This magnificent work by Narciso Tome is only one of the treasures of this ecclesiastical empire with its great property and power.
I take comfort in the graffiti that bluntly calls out from one of the alleys next to the church: "God, we don't believe You," signed "the anarchists." Until recently, they would be skewered for much less. I keep my fingers crossed for any secularist wherever he is. I rejoice in the church's misfortune.
Marzipan and Swords
Despite a certain Jewish unease that takes hold of me in the vicinity of the cathedral, I am enchanted by Toledo. I can't get rid of the feeling that there is some exaggeration in the statement that Jerusalem took nine out of the ten measures of beauty that descended to the world. And if this saying is nevertheless true, then Toledo took nine tenths of the meager allotment left for the rest of the world.
Some of that allotment is set aside for the marvelous Toledan food, beginning with the quails immersed in garlic and laurel leave sauce, continuing with the delicate tapas hors d'oeuvres, and finishing with animal products with names that are difficult to repeat, out of respect and sadness. Respect for the reader, who isn't used to the likes of these, and sadness, because Toledo is about a five hour flight from Tel Aviv, with another hour in the train from Madrid, and half an hour from Jerusalem to the airport. In short, you can't hop over there for lunch.
One of the magnificent dishes of the local kitchen, cabrito al horno (kid in the oven), recalls a Torah dietary prohibition. And this is not the only sin that is committed here. Some are prohibitions with a medical basis: diabetics should take care in Toledo. marzipan and the other delicate sweets of the Toledan sugar artists put to shame anything in the expanse between Gibraltar and Constantinople that calls itself a pastry shop.
In addition to sweets, there is another field of hand craftsmanship of which the Toledans are very proud, namely, the industry of Damascus swords and metal works. An American company that distributes Toledo swords publicizes itself with the slogan: "We care. We are dedicated to your satisfaction and success." How can the satisfaction and success of a sword buyer be expressed? The streets of the old city are filled with shops displaying sweets and swords. What does a peace-loving and tolerant city do with so many sweets and swords?
Don Quixote, with his faithful servant Sancho Panza at his side, slowly rides along, among all the swords and sweets. Admittedly, the dreamy knight was not active in Toledo, but they won't give up this tourist attraction here. Nor do they forget to mention that Cervantes spent time here in Posada dela Sangre (Inn of the Blood), next to Jesus' Soul Gate, and sang the city's praises in his writings.
Shopping in the Jewish Quarter
Two American youth enter the Jewish heritage store located in the Jewish Quarter. They're looking for a Passover Haggadah. At home, in America, they read the Haggadah in English, and when they near the end, they begin some song in Spanish, something about "Cabarito."
Cabarito is the "one kid that Father bought for two zuz," from the song that ends the Haggadah, and the youth come from a Spanish-Jewish family in America. I recall that the first Jewish grave to be dug in New York, next to what would later be the Twin Towers, was that of one de Mesquite*, a Spanish-Portuguese Jew who was one of the first settlers in the New World, and some people insist that Columbus himself was a Jew.
For a moment I feel that Israel is only one of the exiles of the Jewish fate. One more unfinished chapter in the endless Book of Tears by Simon Bernfeld, that portrays the sufferings of the Jews throughout the ages. I think that if I lived outside Israel, I might be a better Jew. I am disgusted by the religious institutions in Israel because of the religious politics, the hypocrisy, the greediness, and the evasiveness. It's ironic that a devoted secularist like myself receives inspiration from the Jewish heritage in Toledo. Toledo turns me topsy-turvy. Not that Toledo has a long history of humor. To save your life, you won't find a single normal joke about Toledo. Just like the Jerusalemites, the Toledans take themselves completely seriously.
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra spoke of the wild rocks of Toledo and its being the pride of Spain. The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was captivated by its charms, and slept on the banks of the river that runs below it, just so he could wake in the morning and see the enchanted city above him. The Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel said that he was enamored, not by its touristy beauty, but by something indefinable in the atmosphere. I agree with the indefinable definition.
Was Don Quixote Paranoid?
I walk down Toledo's narrow streets, and I imagine that I hear my shadow behind me. I turn around, it's not there. No one is walking behind me, nevertheless I sense that I am not alone. I keep looking around, and now the shadow is in front of me. In Toledo, as in other cities that cast a mystical shadow on anyone walking in them - Jerusalem's Old City, Jesus' chosen haunt; Prague, the birthplace of the Golem; Salamanca, the Department of Sorcery in the university where Dr. Faustus taught; Cracow, where, too, one can study for a certificate in magic - the streets deceive anyone who walks in them.
There are outlying quarters in Toledo, but it's hard to say that they are of any account. There is no traffic hub in Toledo. A helicopter flying above won't spot anything. A traffic jam can be two cars, with six pedestrians behind them, all waiting for an especially narrow truck to unload. In the lanes and alleys there is no room for both cars and pedestrians.
Even letters surrender here to the crowding. Street signs run letters together, as if they take into account the fact that there isn't room for them all. In King Alfonso's name, the A and the L serve as a joint typographic retaining wall. And it isn't only typography that surrenders to the topography here, but sounds, too. The Toledo quiet has no equal in all the world. The city's streets are tremendous conduits for sound, and Toledo's acoustic structure is worthy of study. Wherever you are, only the bells of a single church can be heard in the street. It's only on Sunday that the entire city is flooded with the sounds of the cathedral's bells. The sounds of its bells don't stop for half an hour. I try to hide. Unsuccessfully.
Auto de Fe
Toledo is occupied with its heritage. Every day you can find a poster for an evening concerned with Islamic culture, architecture in the prism of cultures, or the heritage of the Spanish romancero. On the bars of a dark window in an alley near the Door of the Lions I read an invitation for an evening on the Inquisition.
I'm sitting in a coffee shop in the Plaza de Zocodover, which is the plaza of the old marketplace, protected by the shade of a red Coca Cola sunshade that covers half the world. The nearby coffee house is protected by the shade that covers the other half of the world, in Pepsi blue. The plaza before me is dotted with benches portraying scenes from the adventures of Don Quixote.
Suddenly it dawns on me that this is the square where the auto de fe, the "act of faith," was held. Through my Jewish eyes, this was the burning at the stake of someone who converted, while secretly observing the precepts of Judaism, or even someone who held onto anything from his Jewish past.
I sit in the coffee house, and I'm appalled to read in an old Spanish tourist guide about the part played by Jews in the handing over of other Jews to the investigative bodies of the Church. "Anti-Semite," I think to myself about the writer, and discover to my horror that Jewish chroniclers, too, tell of the phenomenon. Yitzhak Baer, the author of A History of the Jews in Christian Spain, argued that this was the source of the term "malshiner" (from the Hebrew malshin, informer) in modern Spanish slang.
Anyone about whom it was said that he uttered something that could be interpreted as a heretical thought about his conversion would end up in the plaza. The lexicon of terms that sufficed to place someone on the pile of blazing wood includes familiar words like "berachah" (blessing) and "terefah" (nonkosher). These words are taken from the records of the Inquisition court, as collected by Haim Beinart of the Hebrew University.
I am talking with Juan Perez, a bona fide Christian, and he shifts uneasily upon hearing the word "Marrano." Marranos, "pigs," was a name given the Jews who, for appearance's sake, accepted Christianity, while secretly continuing to maintain their Jewishness. The Marranos no longer exist. Those who were caught, and who refused to recant, were burned at the stake. But green beans in their pods are still called "judios," Jews. Search me why this is so. Maybe an ethnobotanic expression for someone who isn't what he seems.
To Live with the Memory of the Dead
The Jewish quarter is called the "Judeia," from "Judio" (Jew). The ring of the name doesn't lack a humiliating nuance. Those who utter it do so with some distaste. The La Juderia restaurant has a menu for tourists posted in its window. The "El Greco" sandwich, the first item in the menu, consists of bread with smoked pork sausage and queso manchego, cheese from the La Mancha region. The person for whom the sandwich is named was the neighbor from down below, Domenikos Theotocopoulos, a devoted Christian painter who settled in Toledo in 1576. Until the end of his life he was known as "El Greco" - the Greek. All of Toledo is a giant museum of religious art, mainly the works of El Greco. He lived in a street that is now named after Samuel Halevi Abulafia, the treasurer of King Pedro the Cruel.
Pedro's cruelty was not reserved exclusively for the Jews. In the Alcazar fortress, that dominates the city, is a reconstruction of the dungeon in which he kept his wife, Dona Blanca (Blanche) of Bourbon, under lock and key, while he carried on an affair with his mistress in the second story up above. When Pedro no longer needed Abulafia's political support and services, the Jewish treasurer was executed.
In the meantime Abulafia built the amazing El Transito synagogue. Nearby is more a popular synagogue, that today is called the "Sinagoga de Santa Maria La Blanca" (the Saint Mary the White Synagogue). Tolerance in Toledo apparently means living with the memory of the dead, the exile, or the apostate.
Gideon - I'll call him Gideon - a new Jew, claims that he is the descendant of a family of anusim (forced converts). According to him, Toledo's current facade of tolerance is false, and is intended for tourists. I'm not calling him by his real name. There might still be something from the forces of the Inquisition in the city. Five hundred years and more after the activity of this thought and belief police, the Christian obsession with purity and self-righteousness hasn't vanished from Toledo. And it seems that the Jewish hereditary wariness hasn't disappeared, either.
The truth be told, it wasn't only the Jews who were brought to heel, subjugated, and removed. Ever since the Reconquista by the Christians, the city's main mosque, which is one of the only two left standing, has been called "Mezquita Cristo de la Luz" (the Mosque of Jesus of the Light). The other mosque is located in the city center, and houses the Society for the Advancement of Popular Art in the Toledo region.
The Mezquita Cristo de la Luz is decorated with crucifixes, despite its "cultural" standing as a "mosque." The gate in the city wall that leads to it, Bab al-Mardum, was consecrated by Alfonso VI in 1085, and the image of Jesus gazes over those entering the city gates. The Jews were exiled in 1492, and the remains of the Muslim community were banished in 1605.
Evening slowly descends on the city. Above, in the plaza, I order another coffee, and mention to Pedro the waiter that he works too many hours. He explains that he has to pay for his son's tuition. Like any proud father, he pulls out his wallet and shows me a picture of a baby less than a year old. "What a cutie," I say. "What's his name?"
"Oh! You're a foreign worker?"
"No. There are foreign workers here from Ecuador, Peru, Poland, and Romania. I'm a Toledan Muslim."
"But you said your name is Pedro."
"That's only for the sake of convenience. My real name is Saif ed-Din. And this is my son, Ismail."
"Are you a descendant of the Moriscos [= the Moors]?"
"No. My family is Christian. Only I became a Muslim."
"You know that I'm a Jew from Jerusalem."
"And do you know that Toledo is called the daughter of Jerusalem?"
"Very nice. So that makes you my mother: ola Madre*, hi, Ma."
Gideon says that other Spaniards call the Toledans "bolos*." That is, the pebbles used to pave the streets. Like all the squares of the tightly compressed pebbles, all the Toledans are pressed together one next to the other; step on them, and they become stronger by the force of the compression; until someone begins to fall apart. "But don't dare say that to a Toledan," he warns, "they don't have a sense of humor, and they'll be insulted."
Judah Halevi, who served as a physician in Toledo, wrote to a friend: "And so, I am occupied at this hour, which is neither day nor night, in the futilities of medicine [...] and the large city and its huge inhabitants are harsh masters."
El Greco, the most famous Toledan in the world, too, was a stranger and longed for his native land, Crete. His wish to return to it did not come to pass, and he was buried in one of the churches in which he worked. In one of his paintings, Las Lagrimas de San Pedro (Saint Peter in Tears) I imagine I see El Greco's own tears of sorrow. The sorrow and longing of exile. The tears of anyone else cannot be described like that.
One morning of tourist sleeplessness I decide to go outside the city, to the hilly point where El Greco painted View and Plan of Toledo. From here we can plainly see that the hilly city is a sort of dry land peninsula surrounded on three sides by the Tajo River.
Before sunrise, I walk down Cervantes Street, go out through the Alcantara Gate, cross the San Martin Bridge over the river, go up the mountain, pass alongside the fortress that contains a youth hostel, next to the psychiatric hospital and the officer's academy, and arrive at a breathtaking observation point overlooking the Jerusalem of Spain.
Gideon doesn't accept the comparison. Toledo is somber, Jerusalem is dazzling. Perhaps a typical statement for someone who found the light. After the sun is well up on the side of the hill, I return to the city, to the shadows.
An elderly couple, who questioned me at the train station upon my arrival in Toledo, wanted to know why, actually, we don't believe in Jesus. The inaudible sorrow in their clapping their hands is heard in the question. Almost as if they asked: Isn't it too bad? Isn't it simpler to receive the light? I get the impression that they came to seek succor or a miracle for the husband's evident illness. Here there are several aids to faith that, like amulets, if they don't help, won't hurt.
The Saint Mary Synagogue
Every guide and every map of Toledo proudly proclaim its tolerance, but the windows in the women's section of the Saint Mary the White Synagogue (that is in a quiet courtyard in the street of the Catholic kings) are blocked, and a Christian altar is next to the eastern wall (that faces Jerusalem, and is traditionally reserved for the Torah ark).
In the fifteenth century the followers of the preacher Vicente Ferrer attacked the synagogue and threw the worshipers from a cliff to the turbulent Tajo River below. After the Exile of 1492, the building was transferred to the Alcantra order, in the nineteenth century "Saint Mary" was given to an order that housed in it repentant prostitutes, and afterwards it was turned into a stable. Afterwards it became a national site. Two very common words in the historiography of Toledo are "afterwards" and "became." How simple. At the entrance to the "Sinagoga de Santa Maria La Blanca," that is run by some order of nuns, the ticket seller explained to me why Catholics don't have to pay admission to the synagogue, whose ceiling is made of the cedars of Lebanon, like Solomon's Temple, and under whose floor the earth of the Land of Israel is scattered. This is a church, she says fervently, and believers are exempt from payment, because it is forbidden for a believer to pay for his faith.
Admission to Santa Maria La Blanca is free for Spaniards [Sefardim - also the Hebrew word for the descendants of Spanish Jews; a wordplay is coming up] on Wednesdays, but it can't be helped: today is Tuesday, and I'm not a Sefardi, but an Ashkenazi [Jew]. In Hebrew this sounds better.
Some say that Toledo's name originates in a distortion of the Hebrew word toledot (history). The linguistic adoption to Hebrew sounds forced to me, but, for me, Toledo and its toledot-history make way for a feeling of Jewish depression. Maybe the librarian of the Search Department for Missing Relatives of the Jewish Agency was right when she claimed once that the source of my name, Dak(s), might be the initials of "de Castro." With a name like that and opinions like mine, I would have revolved on the coals in the plaza then, like a chicken on a grill. At double speed, and with the anarchists who don't believe God.
Give Him Coffee
When Pedro the Cruel grew tired of someone, he had him put to death. When Generalissimo Franco grew tired of someone, he ordered his aides, "Give him coffee." They already understood what he meant. I ask Pedro the waiter to bring me more coffee.
The last bullfight was held in the city plaza a hundred and fifty years ago. During the time I spent in Toledo, the traditional running with the bulls was held in Pamplona. Hemingway introduced it to the world, and CNN continues in his footsteps. I never understood why a gang of hundreds of young men provoke a herd of frenzied bulls running amok in the city streets. Is it any wonder that the bulls are enraged? What I found the strangest are the regiments of commentators, who relate to the event as if it were the Tour de France. I always was more in tune with the peace-loving Ferdinand the bull in the children's book by Munro Leaf. He sits in the arena and smells the scent of the flowers in the women's hats.
Pedro asks me what I'm doing in Toledo. I tell him that I was sent by my hi-tech company that will provide a cell phone tourist guide, with its first test in Europe. Once what I'm doing was called writing. Now this is called providing content for a digital platform.
I get on a bus to the surrounding neighborhoods. The bus goes through the ancient Puerta de Bisagra gate and comes to the Cornisa promenade. Towards evening, crowds of Toledans are in the shade of the cola sunscreens. In the center, the Toledo naval orchestra plays Spanish melodies. The white navy uniforms put me in a festive mood.
Everything's fine, except for the fact that Toledo has no sea, and obviously no navy. And if there's no navy, why should it have an orchestra? This is the municipal orchestra, with children gathering around. All about are hundreds of elderly Spaniards, whose coughing fits last longer than their nearsighted eyes can see, a natural consequence of the national smokescreen. I never saw as many smokers as in Spain, not even on the no. 5 bus in Tel Aviv in the 1950s.
Where do the hundreds of tall, handsome, tanned, and elegant young men and women always disappear in Spain and in Italy? You look around, and all of a sudden you're surrounded by old people, with glasses, hoarse, and short, leaning on a cane, wearing the belt of their trousers a bit under their armpits, with their wives holding on to the arm of the wreck with one hand, and with the other, their purse, as if it were a weapon.
A disabled woman dances behind the stage. I'm swept by pity. Several children decide to play with - and without - her. They approach her and flee with panic-stricken cries, enjoying every minute. She dances the dances of Spain with expressive movements. Perhaps she isn't aware that the children are laughing at her, and perhaps she actually understands. But she is stronger than they are. With the back of her hand he supports her chin that is about to slip down, with her foot in a high support shoe she moves like a flamenco dancer. Her hands fill the air with the notes of the sarsuela played on the stage. Her fingers wave first, and her palms wind about following them. Her hump doesn't stand in her way, and she responds to the notes.
The sun heeds the orchestra's conductor, and sets in accordance with the signs he gives it. All the rest, including the musicians, do as they please. The clarinetist, for example, leaves the stage to talk with relatives. Towards the end, the orchestra bursts into song with the anthem, Magnificent Toledo. Everyone stands at attention and sings from a throat parched by cigarettes and local pride. The hunchback wants to continue in motion. She grumbles expressively.
Some experts argue that El Greco found the images of the apostles and saints that he painted in the hospital for the mentally ill. The disabled woman dancing to the tunes of the sarsuela is stronger than everything I saw in Toledo.
This is my first time here, and I haven't seen even half of what Toledo has to offer. I didn't sleep on the banks of the river. I wasn't in the Tuesday market, Martes, which is the birthplace of the Castillian language. As a matter of principle I didn't eat in the cardinal's gardens (that one, from the Inquisition). I didn't walk about the Inquisition building, and I stuck my tongue out at Torquemada. I didn't see the amazing painting called Woman with a Beard (that looks like a bearded man, who uncovers a breast and nurses an infant). Tour guides recommend spending a day in Toledo, tops. How wrong they are.
I met only two small family delegations of Israelis in my eight Toledo days, slipping away in the alleys like me. A Jew cannot not go to Toledo, at least once. Unlike Naples, about which people say, To be in Naples and then die, you could say about Toledo: To be in Toledo and learn something about yourself.
On the plane back from Madrid is a group of several dozen Jewish youth from Latin America, who are coming to Israel with Birthright to discover something about their roots. Actually, I went to Toledo for the same purpose. When the El Al airplane lands in Lod they clap hands. For the first time in many years I don't mutter about this stupid gesture. Perhaps because this time the aisles aren't full with the depressing greediness that generally overflows with the bulging plastic bags from duty free, but with the innocent backpacks of the Birthright young people. It's hard for me to deny that I, too, am moved. In the shuttle bus going from the plane to the airport gate one of the youths - a tall and proud Argentinean Jew - reads to his friend in slow, intent, and emphasized Hebrew the words that sound so banal to us, "Brukhim ha-baim le-Yisrael," Welcome to Israel. Tears come to his eyes. El Greco would have killed to give his San Pedro tears like those.
Michael Dak is an author, translator, and journalist.
translated by Ed Levin