We are all children of the chamber of yearning
In the lands around the Mediterranean, the olive trees endure. If these branches could give voice to what they know, they would sing the ancient modes of the Sephardic synagogue, the scales and rhythms so different from the Ashkenazi tropes. They would whisper secular love songs in Ladino, songs sung by the women in the language that mixed Spanish, Arabic, Hebrew. But this olive tree, marking the centre of this courtyard in Cordoba, is silent, and the smooth flagstones surrounded by the yellow buildings typical of medieval Moorish towns, their Juderias no different from the Muslim or Christian quarters, are mute. Only this modest building, this tiny synagogue—for five hundred years used as a church—bears witness to a thousand-year presence erased long ago.
“What difference does it make?” you ask. I ask myself often enough as I wander throughout Spain searching for remnants of my family’s past, remnants that remain elusive. I find wifi cafes, send you emails about the traces I find, hoping to win you with references to your own ancestors. Sephardim, those who lived in Spain until the expulsion of 1492, the same year their relatives set out for new continents. I search for signs of threads that were broken in all but memory, the stories your mother told you, that you told me.
The wifi café in Barcelona places me in the wrong part of town, the part the guidebooks tell you to avoid, among the guest-workers from Casablanca, the illegal transients from Fez. I’m in the Bari Xines, the dark home of the working girls, the place Picasso picked for its debauchery, for its life. This is not the bourgeois Modernismo of Gaudi, the light-filled fantasy north of the Bari Gotic, the medieval Gothic quarter. Here the wretchedness of centuries sticks to cold stone walls, bent old women shuffle down dank stairways. This is where the unwanted migrant workers live, the ones who are excluded from the new borderless Europe.
The café is heavy, its concrete walls sweating in the damp heat. These people are the reminders of a Moorish conquest long buried in collective memory; descendants of invaders who were vanquished long ago, re-vanquished every year in the festivals celebrating Santiago Matamoros, Spain’s patron Saint James, the killer of Moors. Members of the underclass, of cheap labour, they remain the suspect reminders of that distant Islamic rule, the unacknowledged shadow of the past. Now that there are only fledgling Jewish communities—communities so small and hesitant they keep a discreet and timid silence—the past of the Jews who were expelled and of Conversos, who became suspect Christians, can be reclaimed by contemporary Spaniards as part of Spanish history. But the new Muslim presence is larger, vocal, impolite about its persecution by the Inquisition, its expulsion by the Reyes Catolicos of the Reconquista. The people remain suspect, marginal, feared. After some 40 years of fascist rule that ended only in 1975, Spaniards still speak un-selfconsciously of sangre pura, pure blood; how ironic that during my visit newspaper headlines proclaim recent scientific findings that twenty percent of all Spaniards carry Moorish and Sephardic genetic markers. They are here in force, in this wifi café in the wrong part of town, where the hot air is musky, insistent, laden with coriander.
“I am haunted by your accounts,” you write. “I dream of my mother and her stories.”
When we met, I tried to resist you. But you insisted on telling me your story. “Alexandria,” you whispered, “that’s where I was born.” You knew you had me. “But we were not Egyptian. My father came from Smyrna, my mother from Istanbul. She sang to me in Ladino.”
How expertly you drew me in, lost language to lost language. “I knew you in the desert,” you murmured. And I colluded in the memory, the fantasy, yearning for a way out of my lonely inheritance.
“Yes,” I’d said, “the tents, the well. You met me by the well.” I liked to imagine that we moved to the same ancestral rhythms, of desert heat and camels drinking in the oasis.
But it was the sojourn in Sepharad that sealed my seduction. My mother’s stories were of Ukrainian wheat fields, Polish forests; she sang her lullabies in Yiddish. And yet there was a name in her family— Saginur—that was odd for an Ashkenazi family. It was decades before I learned Saginur was a Sephardic name. Sepharad—the time of sun, of mysticism, of Jewish physicians to the Caliph of Cordoba, ruler of the Moorish empire.
Wherever I go, my ghosts come with me. I know they are the fathers, going back in an unbroken thread stretching from Warsaw and the Ukraine, through some unknown detour in Germany, back through southern France and into Spain—and back to the beginning, to Jerusalem before the expulsion. It took decades to find the various sections of this thread, to learn where it started, how it meandered through the Mediterranean and northern European worlds of exile.
As a child, I thought they were all from my parents’ time, the ghosts of the grandfathers and uncles murdered in the most recent round of killings, in the Holocaust. This was crowded enough, this cloud of male presence that accompanied me wherever I went, claiming me for their own unfinished purpose, surrounding me with their stifled yet powerful love. Their presence was a burden, their silent demands weighing me down with the mystery of obligation. They needed me for some purpose, only I had no idea what that purpose was or how to fulfill it. Still they held me captive, hovered around me with the constant reminder that my life was not mine alone. Growing up with no male relatives apart from my father, without even a photograph to see what the men looked like, I had only my parents’ stories and my own imagination to people my world. A thirteenth-century kabbalist is as real to me as my grandfather.
You mention God, and I am at once back at the Seder table of my childhood. There were only my parents and I, the three of us locked in our cocoon of remembering. Although I didn’t know it then, I was being inducted into one of the smallest societies in the world, those who know what Yiddish life was like before the destruction. It was that world we inhabited around the too-tiny Seder table. As she read, in Hebrew, the ancient words of the Haggadah, my mother would add, in Yiddish, “Hitler was our Pharaoh.” When the Haggadah would instruct, in Hebrew, “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt,” my father would add his yearly commentary in Yiddish. “I know what it is to be a slave.” I was beginning to enter the timeless world of Jewish history and memory, where every empire becomes like all those before. As an adult I learned the timeless joke. “Question: How do you define a Jewish holiday? Answer: They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.”
I would sit in my own little world, with my own little Haggadah in English. It is the custom for Jewish charities to fundraise just before Passover, maintaining an ancient tradition of charity before festivals, and in those days contributors would receive small commemorative Haggadahs as thanks. I still have the tattered, wine-stained, modest booklet that was my favourite. Provided by an orphanage in Jerusalem, with English text opposite the Hebrew, black and white photos of orphans in old-world caps and tiny lace-up boots, photos of the mittel-Europa lady physician who attended them, the booklet also has line drawings, and it was those drawings that provided my enduring image of the transcendent.
“With a mighty hand,” the Haggadah recounts, “and with an outstretched arm, God brought us out of Egypt.” And there was the drawing, long lines of shuffling slaves in rags, carrying bundles, crossing wasteland, wandering in the desert for forty years. These were the slaves out of Egypt. Even then I knew who else they were: the remnants of Yiddishkeit, sneaking across borders to the DP camps of post-war Europe. When I see images now of refugees in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Ukraine, I see that drawing. And I see that mighty hand, that outstretched arm, black lines on white ground, like a streak of lightning, of fire, above their heads. Still that image remains, of the mighty hand and the outstretched arm, the sense of a destiny larger than my personal will or the ego’s desire.
When we first met, you wooed me with stories of your boyhood. “We were among the wealthy Jews of the city,” you told me. “I was too young to understand what was happening, why we would have to leave with nothing.” You would whisper the words your mother taught you, the Ladino words reserved for love, preserved in songs. “My grandparents had a great love.” You told me how every morning your grandfather would wake early while your grandmother was still asleep, buy fresh coffee beans from the stall around the corner, grind the beans and boil them over a small gas fire in a special chezbeh, the Turkish way, in the small copper pan with the spout and long handle that your family had brought with them from Izmir. Then you would boil the coffee for me in the way that he had taught you. And I would remember my father, how he would search the shops of Montreal, and bring home old-country pastries and chocolates for my mother and me.
It is midday under the scorching August sun of Israel, and I am sweating on a hillside dotted with gnarled olive trees. I am twenty in 1970, on my first visit to the land of my ancestors. Like most hills in this place, vegetation is sparse, scrubby, tough, matching the people and their ideas. This holy land is harsh and demanding. The sun is blinding. This is the land promised to us Chosen People, and I am thinking of my family history, wondering why so many were chosen for death, wishing like the old joke says that some others could be chosen for a while so we could get a break to just be, to just live.
Most hills in Israel evoke struggles for light and struggles in darkness over millennia, but this hill carries more. Somehow, without knowing where I was going or what the significance of the place might be, I find myself in the graveyard of Tzfat, a medieval town in the hills above Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee. Here I sit among the tombs of rabbis, not knowing how privileged I am to be here—soon, as the Haredim become more powerful in Tzfat, these tombs will become closed to women and accessible only to men.
I know nothing of these rabbis; even their names are meaningless to me. I sit on this hilltop filled with a Holy Land awareness built up by four precocious years of university literary studies, filled with the Christian interpretation of this landscape. Earlier, in Jerusalem, I had walked the Stations of the Cross, visited the Garden of Gethsemane, made pilgrimage to the Churches of the Ascension and the Assumption, encountered the city sacred to my ancestors as the Christian Holy City, through the overlay of interpretation of those who took my great-great-grandfathers’ stories and retold them for their own purposes. In 1970, the Tzfat cemetery is still somewhat obscure; kabbalah will not become trendy for another couple of decades; the great all-night vigils on holy days are still to come. But as I sit here, twenty years old and ignorant of the spiritual teachings of my own heritage, I feel something.
I am aware of a power, some essence that I cannot name, something that fills me with what I can only call a blue light. I am aware of certain other consciousnesses sharing the space with me. They seem to be male, although I cannot really say what that means or why I feel this. They are connected to me in some way, although this too is unclear. Unlike the male ghosts who have been with me all my life, these presences have a power I have never felt before. All I know is that I am not fully alone on the hillside, among these graves. I am with others, I have no idea who. Oddly for me, taught by my mother’s traumas to be fearful of nearly everything, I am completely calm and peaceful.
Years after my brief time in the Tzfat graveyard, I will learn that I had been visiting the graves of the four holy Rabbis of Tzfat, the great mystics who expanded on the Zohar, the primary text of kabbalah. I will learn that the presence I’d felt, the blue light I’d dimly sensed, had been at the grave of another kabbalist named Isaac, the sixteenth-century Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the Ari, the one who taught that what is below is also above, the one who taught that we can only do spiritual work through the body, the one who explicated the correspondences among the four levels of reality.
I will learn kabbalistic teachings about levels of soul within us, how the lowest soul is inextricably linked to the physical body and dies with it, but other souls correspond to the various other levels of reality and are linked to these worlds beyond physical life and death.
I will learn how a certain level of soul can speak to our consciousness even after the physical person has died, can return to visit us as an invisible ibbur, a dimly felt presence who guides or helps us. These ibburim, the kabbalists teach, are the souls of those who no longer live with us in this physical realm, but who come to us when we need their help, providing assistance even when we are not aware of their presence. These ibburim appear near the graves of their physical bodies, or in the presence of the yahrzeit candles lit on the anniversary of the death of their physical body.
She still has the key to our family house,” you had told me, “the house in Toledo. My family has been carrying it for half a millennium, through the history in Turkey, in Egypt, through my own refugee days in Venice, in Sao Paolo. She still has that damn key.”
As I report my travels, your replies become more troubled. “My back is in spasm,” you write. “I didn’t know that Sepharad is the Hebrew word for Spain.”
With my earlier passion for the soul-drenched stones of Tzfat, perched above Kinneret, that inland water known to the world as the Sea of Galilee, I expected to feel at home in Toledo. After all, it was the exiled kabbalists of Toledo who had built up the tiny holy city of Tzfat, transforming it from a backwater of the post-Temple days to a replica of the Spanish town that had expelled them. The exiles loved her all the more for how she echoed that place of betrayal, memorializing the Sephardic street patterns and stone arches, their great exile echoing the one known from the Bible, immortalized in Eichah, the Book of Lamentations.
Perhaps it was the Reconquista confidence of Toledo, or the sheer audacity of its tourism-driven museum and synagogues, homage to a reimagined Jewish past by a still proudly Christian present, that made me feel so perpetually Other. I wasn’t opposed to this reclamation of a history that had been suppressed for over half a millennium; I didn’t even mind the utter appropriation of story and ritual by the descendants of those who had driven both away. If anything, to claim Converso identity was becoming chic in the peninsula that had been Judio-free for so long, and although the parallels with my own far more immediate dispossession were unavoidable, I was bemused by these strange ironies of history. No, it wasn’t primarily sadness I felt, or grief at the irrevocably lost legacy; not even anger at the easy appropriation that somehow denied the living remnants. Mostly, what I felt was disconnected. I sensed, in Toledo, the triumphant Reconquista, the cross supplanting the menorah as completely as it supplanted the Islamic crescent. For me, the soulfulness of Toledo was better expressed by El Greco’s mournful clerics than by museums to a long-gone Sephardic presence.
It was Avila that stirred embers long extinguished in much of Spain. If medieval Spanish towns had specialties—Cordoba known for philosophy, Toledo for translation—Avila was the town of mystics. Her most famous citizen was Teresa, Counter-Reformation Catholic saint and reformer of the Carmelite order, progenitor of a Christian mysticism that remains seductive and provocative to this day. St. Teresa is Avila’s industry now, boasting a church, museum, two convents. Pilgrims come from around the world to ride her tour buses, visit her sites. They are rarely told that her family was Converso.
The civic predilection for mysticism is celebrated in this walled town high on a mountain. Just outside the walls of the medieval city, the Dominican brothers have established a Museo del Mysticismo, complete with research centre and conference site. Teresa in her sealed room, meditating and living in silent isolation, has been succeeded by a modern museo-recreation of the mystical experience, a centre for international colloquia. To every age its forms.
Avila’s lesser-known mystical son is a predecessor to Teresa. Moses de Leon, son of Guadalajara, composed much of the Zohar in a house within Avila’s stone walls. First appearing in Spain in the thirteenth century, the multi-volume Zohar remains the primary text of kabbalah, retaining a canonical status just below that of Torah and Talmud. It is Avila then that retains something of the pre-Expulsion Jewish spirit. Perhaps it is the homage to mysticism which allows for some kind of attunement to that yearning which is the bedrock of the Jewish soul.
There is a small garden in Avila named for Moses de Leon, a rare Spanish gesture of ecumenicism, tribute to the Jewish mystic who yearned for connection and who received text within the city’s walls. Little more than an outcropping of stone and scrabble, the garden remains a minor tribute alongside the glorious cathedrals to the Christian saints. There is no living Jewish presence in Avila, and nothing commemorative by contemporary Jews, kabbalist or otherwise.
Who are you, Isaac SagiNaHar? We know you are the first major European kabbalist, the one whose teachings were brought to the Iberian Peninsula where they flowered. Are you the blind seer, your gaze turned by necessity inward, attuned to the timeless light rhythms of your soul because your material body lives in darkness? I’ve tried to find traces of you, pored over ancient maps, finding clues in place name changes, in historians’ hints. I know your name, I know that somehow my mother’s family carried the same name—but is that enough to seal the connection, to prove our kinship?
“They were famous rabbis,” my mother would say. “Even though my father was a Hebrew teacher, it was my mother’s family that carried the line.” Then she’d go into one of her long, complicated family stories, intricate webs of people with strange names who had lived in places that no longer existed, that I could never find on a map, and anyway the spelling always changed, with so many different combinations of scz’s and iedcz’s that I’d lose the connecting thread. Besides, everyone in the new world claimed their old world family had been illustrious—the Jews all descended from great rabbis, the Poles from lines of counts and noblemen, the English all with royal blood, the French laying claim to chateaux in the countryside. It was tiresome, really, all this striving after lost family pedigree. Even as a child, I wondered why no one had ordinary ancestors.
Still, it’s you I long to know, Isaac SagiNaHar.
I always knew you’d visit me from time to time, lay claim to me without my knowing, although for many years I would call this imagination or daydream. I’d feel your presence in the ancient trope of the chazzanut my father would chant at home, even though he refused to set foot in a synagogue. I saw you in the blue light that hot afternoon in the cemetery of Tzfat, the protective light that had no face, no name, but spoke to me of the home I’d never known and always missed. You surprised me one Shabbat morning in a hot August, when I stared at the German names in a monastery graveyard and understood that I was somehow kin to these old brothers of the wheat fields.
I long for you, Isaac, the way a student longs for her truest teacher, for the missing link in the chain of transmission.
You lived in a time when women did not engage in such pursuits, when the transmission was only from old man to young, when the women merely entered silently, modestly, with downcast eyes, pouring the mint tea and discreetly offering sweet pastries on blue-glazed ceramic plates. I was trained to be such a woman by my mother, although she also taught me, perhaps without intending it, that the frustration of unfulfilled inclination is almost unbearable, that the stifled rage of suppression emerges as physical maladies. You would understand this, I know, with your teachings about correspondences, your awareness that the tree of life is our very body as much as it is the structure of the universe. You would see the longing in my eyes, translucent in the reflection of my blue head covering, seeking the mysteries you taught.
I see you first as an old man, revered, sending your students across the mountains with the invisible, revolutionary power of your teachings. I see you sitting in the shade of your olive tree in the still heat of late afternoon, quietly transmitting the knowledge you’d received about the deepest levels of reality, the constant movement of energy that underlies the appearance of solidity, the eternal fluctuating balance of forces that comprises the foundation we see and feel as solid but is actually merely flow, as fluid as the sea you lived beside. I see you in that medieval woodblock drawing, the one that became the famous frontispiece of the first published book of kabbalah, an old man in a striped silk caftan, holding a sketch of the tree of life with its sephirot, its constituent parts, labeled with the Hebrew names you gave them. Did you know, then, that your diagram would become the template for esoteric understanding, that your rendering would serve as the foundation of an entire worldview?
I imagine myself as your daughter—the only way I could ever have been admitted into your holy circle of transmission. Perhaps, if there were no sons, you’d teach me as Rashi, the revered medieval Talmudic scholar and commentator, taught his daughters; if so, you would ignore the custom that excluded my sex from the joys of holy language and thought, that limited our spiritual connection to childbirth and service to others. Perhaps if I were your daughter, the prison and seduction of sex, that ambiguous joy, would be ignored, and you would see me beyond my material manifestation, beyond even the categories you yourself had named, of giving and receiving, active and passive; perhaps you would view me as a vessel of learning as well as love, as you yourself were such a vessel.
It is impossible, of course. Only men were allowed into your circle, blessed by your teachings, but also blessed to have incarnated into the right kind of body, the kind that was allowed to learn, the kind that was viewed as the appropriate vessel for mystical teachings.
I imagine myself as the daughter you never had. You did have daughters, daughters whom you gave in marriage to the brightest of your students, daughters who created the new homes and transmitted the next generations in the new places you sent them while their husbands, your students, your sons-in-law, carried your teachings to new communities and spread the hidden light of your visions. But I imagine myself as a different kind of daughter—acknowledged as the inheritor of your truth as well as your love, one whom you could see with those blind eyes of yours as the one able to unite the disparate kinds of being, the disparate kinds of knowing.
You had such vision, Isaac, such incredible piercing into the very heart of existence, the ultimate secrets of creation; and yet you remained so blind to so many around you, to those of us who quietly poured your mint tea and gracefully prepared the couscous for your meals. You only saw us through the lens of your own desire, Isaac. You, who roamed the universe of forms and peered into the heart of relationship, were blinded by your own body’s needs. You longed for all things feminine: you called out to the sheltering presence of the Shekhinah, the divine emanation of love and protection; you sang to welcome the Sabbath Queen; you called your wife Bride of the World every Sabbath eve, as you entered her as Bridegroom, as you re-enacted the cosmic dance of energy, the marriage of the worlds, the reunification and repair of the fabric of creation. You incorporated the feminine into yourself, merging the forces of action and reception, opening yourself like a flower to be pierced by the divine bee of inspiration.
But with all this, Isaac, with all your love and all your vision, you remained blind to me, your daughter, the daughter I know myself to be, the daughter I became when you claimed me so long ago in the piercing light of gentle certainty.
You could only see me as the manifestation of what you placed in the left pillar of existence, the left side of the ladder of creation, the left side of binding and definition. Women give form to essence, you said, and nothing can be manifest without them. Thought can only exist through the container of language, soul can only manifest through the journey of birth, ideas can only live through the reality of form. You named us “vessel,” and thereby exiled us to the material world forever. Could you not see my own desire to receive as you received, through learning and argument, through language and interpretation, through the magical universe of the holy language?
I am the daughter you did not have. If only I had been the one you were able to recognize as your true heir, the one who sat at your knee with her brothers and was initiated into the mysteries and joys of the tradition. The daughter you plucked out of the kitchen, away from the secrets of plants and herbs, fruits and spices, and led to the worlds of invisible knowledge.
In the wifi café, I read your latest email message. “It’s the past,” you write. “What difference does it make? We live now.” I understood what you were telling me. You were choosing the blonde one, with her intimations of normalcy, her innocence formed of ignorance and hope. You and I carried too much—destruction, obligation, guilt. You were choosing to forget.
But I would continue to remember. I would continue my travels, thinking of my ancestor, that Isaac Saginahar who gave my mother’s family its name. Saginahar—Aramaic for “filled with great light.” There are four worlds, he taught, four levels of reality; and four levels of meaning to everything in the universe. The ultimate level is Sod, Secret, the hidden spark within, the final meaning which turns the worlds upside down and inside out, linking human with divine. Alone, I would continue my search for Sod, for the secrets long forgotten, hidden in the ancient shining stones.