The liturgy for the Ninth of Ab, the day of fasting which marks the destruction of the First and Second Temples as well as other tragedies in Jewish history, laments the fate of Jerusalem, “The mournful, wasted, degraded, and desolate city.” Every year the Israeli rabbinate is asked if one must still say these words, if indeed it is not now blasphemous to say them at all. And every year the rabbinate furnishes its rabbinical answers. From my window in Jeruslaem, where I often spend the summer, I view the frenetic activity of the Ramot Eshkol shopping center, the bands of tourists and children scurrying across Ammunition Hill, the luxurious homes on Givat Hamivtar, and it takes more inner vision than I can muster to see a wasted and desolate city.
It is not that the Ninth of Ab no longer has any meaning or that mourning is inappropriate; it is that these surroundings are not conducive to it. The situation evokes and is evoked by the words of a contemporary Catalan poet, Salvador Espriu, in his The Bull-Hide (La pell de brau, 1960):1
And so we know that we are still
scattered across the earth,
blown by the winds, by the pilgrimage
of the Golah.
And we no longer want to weep
for the Temple,
nor suffer infinite longing
for Jerusalem, our city.
(The Bull-Hide VII)
Espriu, of course, is expressing concerns of his own, but his words are not inappropriate to my thoughts.
It is the words of another, earlier Catalan poet, Bonaventura Carles Aribau, that help me out of my quandary. Aribau’s “Ode to the Homeland” (“Oda a la pàtria,” 1833) was to become the clarion call for the 19th-century Catalan literary revival, the Renaixença. Writing the poem from distant Madrid, he gave vent to his longing for his homeland and bade adieu to “la tomba del jueu” (the tomb of the Jew). For the Catalan, the “tomb of the Jew” was a metonym for Montjuich, the mons judaicus, the great hill which housed the medieval Jewish burial ground of Barcelona and which dominates the city, serving as one of its principal landmarks. For the Jew, the reference to that particular tomb may be read as an allusion to Catalonia itself, indeed to all of Spain. There, Israel, the “ever-dying people” in Simon Rawidowicz’s phrase, was to be buried—like the biblical Jephthah—in the cities of the land, in 1391, in 1414, in 1492, in years prior and in years since. Among the other tragedies which Jewish tradition associates with the Ninth of Ab is that very one of 1492—the expulsion from Spain. Tombs are for mourning; I shall go to Catalonia.
If you wish to find Jews in Catalonia with whom to share the fast, you must go to Barcelona, the home of Spain’s largest Jewish community and of the first synagogue officially consecrated since the Expulsion. The medieval community of Barcelona met its end, for all practical purposes, relatively early—in 1391. Justice would dictate that the new beginning should take place here. This booming industrial and financial capital of Spain has always gone its own way—politically, ideologically, even visually. This is the hub of the land of Dali, Picasso, Miró, and Antoni Gaudí, whose architecture is encountered not only in the ever visible “gingerbread spires” of the Church of the Holy Family and the Güell Park but, when least expected, at street corners and on the major and minor thoroughfares. The visitor is not at first blush easily reconciled to an architectonic which draws its inspiration from the rock formations, flora, and waterfalls of the Catalonian countryside rather than from a textbook of solid geometry. But if even Franco had to be somewhat resigned to Catalan audacity, the receptive tourist soon makes his peace with it. Barcelona was the last city to fall to Franco and he knew ever after that it was the one place of which he had better steer clear. He was to have his revenge.
Culturally, Catalonia (or, more properly, the Catalan regions including Valencia, the Balearic Islands, and Roussillon over the French border) flourished brilliantly during the Middle Ages; Ramon Llull, Ramon Muntaner, Bernat Metge, Arnau de Vilanova, Ausias March—the list is more than impressive. After the union with Castile in the 15th century, the literary language fell into desuetude, although it never ceased to be spoken (the reverse of the situation of Hebrew). Then in the 19th century, romanticism and nationalism came to Catalonia too, and its cultural rebirth, the Renaixença, was under way; its literature flourished once again. Under the Republic, there was a measure of autonomy; Catalan was an official language in the schools and its future seemed secure.
And then came Franco. As Jewish Old Jerusalem receded into Mt. Scopus, so did Catalonia recede into Montserrat, the sacred shrine, “el nostre Sinai” (our Sinai), where, defiantly, the only publishing in the national tongue took place. There was some relaxation in the 50’s but it was more token than real. Throughout this period, like the Jews of Mandate Palestine, the people felt themselves aliens in their own land.
Franco departed—more quietly perhaps than he came—and one could be Catalan again. Under the unexpectedly enlightened guidance of Juan Carlos and Spain’s new-found democracy, Catalonia has once again received a degree of autonomy and has exploited it to the full. In sophisticated ulpan-type institutions, it is now teaching its teachers correct Catalan to meet the demand in the public schools. Castilian street signs come down and those in Catalan go up. And if the marble signs do not appear quickly enough, hastily prepared paper improvisations are provided or little red and yellow striped stickers demand: Ho volem en català! (“We want it in Catalan!”). Street names are changed completely—the Avenida de José Antonio Primo de Rivera is now the Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes and the Avenida del Generalisimo is more descríptively styled the Diagonal. There are magazines, daily papers, radio, theater, films, music, and gradually, television, but above all, there are books—countless books in Catalan on all subjects, Catalonian or otherwise, to the extent that many stores stock nothing but books and phonograph records in the national language.
But there is also old Barcelona, the Barri Gòtic, the former center of the medieval community. On the canned tours to “Jewish Spain,” now so widely promoted by travel agents, one would be taken to see the Carrer de Call, the street of the Call (Qahal or Jewish community), now a not very Semitic business street, and the nearby funerary inscription of Samuel Ha-Sardi, expropriated as a building-stone in a nondescript edifice on the Carrer de l’Arc de Sant Ramon del Call. But one may retreat from the tourist atmosphere of the Gothic Quarter and imagine things as they once were.
The ninth of Ab is approaching—any ninth of Ab—1981, 1492, 1391, 1263. In the great cathedral of Barcelona lies the crypt of Ramon de Penyafort, the Dominican who founded the schools for Semitic languages which were to serve as bases for the missions to the Muslims and Jews. Ramon was present at the Disputation of 1263 when Paul Christià, a Jewish apostate, confronted Nahmanides. Such disputations, formal debates organized by the Church at which Jewish participation was coerced, were designed to expose the falsity of Judaism and hence to win fresh converts to Christianity. But sometimes the Jew “won.” Nahmanides’ success in the debate led to his having to flee Spain and Catalan Jewry was to be on the run ever since. The pogroms of 1391 allegedly massacred a third, converted (forcibly or voluntarily) a third, and left a third as a remnant. After the debacle of the Disputation of Tortosa in 1414, Catalonian Jewry was whittled down even more.
But we felt ourselves alone
In front of the window, in front of the blind-
Tiny blank pupils, the strange fortune-teller
And we did not forget what the ancient law
“Thou shalt not lie, nor steal, nor kill . . .”—
Valid everywhere, in Israel and in the Golah.
(The Bull-Hide XXXIX)
In 1492 it was over.
So much for those who “did not forget.” And who is to pass judgment on those who did?
One man must die for a people,
But never a people
For one man.
(The Bull-Hide XLVI)
Or for one God? A cultivated Castilian Jew, Solomon Halevi, became a cultivated Castilian Christian shortly before or after the pogroms of 1391. For the Jewish historians, it was after—he was forced into it. For the Spanish historians, it was before—he saw the light of his own accord. One is inclined to side with the latter. Solomon, now Pablo de Santa Maria, became a protégé of Cardinal Pedro de Luna, later to be anti-Pope Benedict XIII and convener of the Disputation of Tortosa in 1414. Pablo was sent to the Sorbonne and eventually attained the dignity of the see of Burgos. After his conversion, a younger associate, Joshua Lorki, wrote him a letter: Why did you do it? Money? Power? Gentile women? No, Joshua admitted he knew him better. Was it perhaps because of despair over the interminable exile? Or did he indeed have a religious experience? Pablo responded, apologizing for his rusty Hebrew—he was out of practice. That, of course, was a touch of irony; his Hebrew was still quite competent. Fate was less so. That is all of the apologia it has left us; his answers are lost.
Whatever those answers were, we next find Joshua Lorki going the way of Pablo and becoming Mestre Jerònim de Santa Fe. His Jewish contemporaries gave him a Hebrew acronym, M.G.D.F. (megaddef—the blasphemer), for his role as the chief Christian antagonist at Benedict’s Tortosa Disputation. The scholar assigned the task of writing the article on Joshua Lorki in the old Jewish Encyclopedia wrote two articles instead—one on the Joshua Lorki who chided his former mentor for his conversion and another on Joshua Lorki the renegade. But there was no need to bifurcate Joshua; there was only one. It is just that the doubts and anguish had been building up in Joshua’s mind, so that in one last paroxysm of zeal he lashed out at Pablo and then followed in his footsteps.
Why did Solomon and Joshua convert? Why did so many Aragonese and Catalonian Jews pass over to Christianity after the calamities of 1391 and the disillusionment of 1414? Did they, like Abner of Burgos a century before, witness a rain of crosses from heaven with a message instructing them to take a lesson from the misery of the Jewish people and seek a better way? Non-mystics have come to respect the legitimacy of the mystical experience, but the unconverted still resist recognition of the conversion experience. Few beyond professional students of religion or those who have undergone a conversion experience themselves have taken them seriously.
I stood in the Cathedral of Barcelona observing mass. It was being conducted in Catalan and some non-Catalan Spanish tourists were grumbling that it was a disgrace that they couldn’t hear mass in their own language in their own country. As I contemplated the problems of multinational states, I looked up. There above the altar was the clear and unmistakable outline of the Star of David. I stood transfixed. Was it my turn now?
I am not comfortable with this sort of supernatural intervention in my life. Were the Messiah to appear at my door, I would ask him please to wait—I have some galleys to read. But I could think of no rational explanation for the Star’s presence; the ecumenical movement had surely not penetrated the Cathedral of Barcelona.
Mass was over and the congregation left. I walked up to the altar. The Star was still there—well, almost there. There was a railing, and the railing was held up by two bars in the shape of a V forming a triangle, and the lighting produced certain shadows, and what wasn’t there my mind filled in.
It was a valuable lesson—the soul sees what it is disposed to see. And so, I, the newly converted Franciscus de Dubia Fide, walked over to the crypt of Ramon de Penyafort to slip him a note of farewell on behalf of my forebears. I had done this before. Last time it was in Latin, now it is in his mother tongue. If I were a character in a story of a certain author, it would be in Yiddish. It would present no problem to a linguist like him and, in any event, it is always the same message and not a very original one at that. General MacArthur said it first.
From Cathedral to synagogue. The synagogue is on the Calle Porvenir, Future Street, though it is not clear what future this modest byway off the Diagonal might have. You ring the bell and wait for someone to let you in. This is no romantic relic of Iberian crypto-Judaism but a symptom of European Jewish insecurity in the face of terrorism. The congregation was small, very small for a community so sizable: a handful of Moroccan Jews sitting on the floor about to recite Lamentations. One should not, however, take the paucity of numbers as a sign of a lack of piety. It was, after all, August and in Iberia in August things grind haltingly if they do not grind to a halt completely. (Once in the Lisbon “Sephardi” synagogue, we were still waiting at 11 A.M. for a minyan. Two men looked at each other: “Farvos kumt men nisht in shul?” “Nu, s’iz yetst ferias.” “Why isn’t anyone coming to synagogue?” “Well, it’s ferias [vacation-time] now.”)
The service was dignified but abrupt. There was nothing of the turbulence and semi-carnival atmosphere of the Ninth of Ab in Jerusalem. Not that one missed it, but this was not what I had come for. Perhaps I should have been in Tortosa.
That scenes of horror can take place in paradisiacal surroundings always unnerves me. I visited Constance once to see the site of the Council which deposed Benedict XIII and which burned Jan Hus. The surroundings of the house where Hus was sequestered, the countryside, Lake Constance, were all so exquisitely beautiful that I marveled that nature itself did not recoil in horror and turn brown and wither. Perhaps its beauty was not after all a sign of indifference but a brilliant blush of embarrassment? It was the same in Tortosa, which to me represented one of the most dismal episodes of Sephardi anguish. The Ebro, the hills, the very charm of the town, the view from the balcony of the parador which made the term “castles in Spain” more than a figure of speech, stood in, marked contrast to that pathetic campaign of an exhausted Catalo-Aragonese Jewry who had no strength left to carry on the fight.
My object was to see the episcopal palace, the supposed locale of the Tortosa Disputation, and still the headquarters of the diocese. I appeared at the time appointed for opening but no one appeared. A policeman thought that sooner or later someone would come. The shopkeeper across the street told me exactly—to the moment—what would happen, and it was as she prophesied. The wooden gate opened on one of the loveliest Gothic courtyards in Spain. One could amble about the courtyard but the audience chambers themselves were locked.
I asked if I could enter. An attendant went through countless boxes of keys, assembled a collection, and finally found one that fit. There were the rooms—gracious and handsome—but they and the building which housed them were of such modest proportions that only by seeing them could one realize how Solomon Ibn Verga, the 16th-century Hebrew chronicler, told a tall tale indeed when in his propagandistic Scepter of Judah he made this little conference hall sound like St. Peter’s, in order to magnify the dignity and distinction of the Jews in his readers’ eyes. A side door led out to a small balcony overlooking the Ebro. Again, without—tranquility, calm, sunlight; within—dismay, discord, doom.
There was nothing left to do but see the rest of Tortosa, and the supposed site of the call (Jewish community)—Jerusalem Street, the customary lapidary inscriptions, the stone recalling Meliosa, daughter of Judah, the Cathedral. There would be no crowds in the Cathedral here and there would be no Star of David. There was only silence and solitude and a baptismal font. I fixated on the baptismal font. How many Jews had been dragged to this font and how many had just given up the struggle and gone of their own accord? Hebrew writers of the period referred to the waters of baptism as “the iniquitous waters” (Psalm 124:5), and many were the Jews who had been inundated by them.
Suddenly and quite unexpectedly, I too was inundated by a flood of water, not from the font, but from my own eyes. Clearly, like Joshua Lorki, a torrent of emotion of which I was not consciously aware had been welling up within me waiting to burst forth at this moment. No memorial to the destruction of Jewry, however theatrical and however pretentious, could have the effect on me that that simple understated baptismal font had. Traditionally, Anglo-Saxon males do not know how to cry—with the result that, on the odd occasion that they do, they may not know how to stop. I wept a bekhiyyah le-dorot, a weeping of generations—not so much a wail of lamentation as a cry of frustration at having been hounded and importuned and cajoled for decade after decade and century after century by those who shrieked, “Do not be what you are but be what we want you to be!” or, indeed, “Do not be at all,” by those who could not grasp and would not see that
Men are different, and speech is different,
And there are many names for one unique love.
(The Bull-Hide XXX)
Yes, I had felt the Ninth of Ab as I had never felt it before and perhaps never shall again. The waters which flowed over Joshua Lorki were to sweep him along new currents; the waters which flooded me at that moment were not intended to alter my course.
But even so, I had had a surfeit of waters of despair. Other waters flowed in Spain and I was intent on seeing them. In Besalú in the province of Gerona, there is a medieval mikvah, a ritual bath, still intact. It was discovered by chance a few years ago and preserved as a sort of monument, one of the chief tourist attractions in Besalú. I was not eager to negotiate the Spanish highways and so set out, as I had many times, taking my chances. The rapid Catalán-Talgo brought me to Gerona in an hour, and the first cab driver to approach was willing to make the trip. He wasn’t sure why I wanted to go there. There were better places—Roman ruins, beaches; why Besalú? I tried to explain. I proffered a few sentences in Catalan as a gesture but it was far less painful for both of us to continue in Castilian.
As Iberian towns have a way of doing, Besalú appeared almost without warning—a splendid Romanesque bridge leading into a splendid Romanesque town. Signs heralded the “mikwá” and we found it with ease. It was of course sealed by an iron gate. My driver asked a nearby resident for help, and we were directed to go to the town hall to get the key. It was a fairly simple matter: a tour would be leaving in a quarter of an hour to see the monuments of the city. We set out, a dozen Catalans and I. The young guide spoke Castilian for my benefit but there was really no need—the Catalan of the Geronese region is so precise and clear that it was readily understandable. The guide pointed out the location of the call and the “university of the Jews.” We went from Romanesque church to Romanesque guild hall to Romanesque church with appropriate delays to find the appropriate keys. One was so large, it seemed that it must have been a donation of St. Peter himself. “Ah, la claueta” (the little key), a member of the party joshed.
Then finally the mikvah. It is situated near the Fluvià River, so that the water could flow into it conveniently. You descend a flight of stairs and turn right. Another short flight of stairs leads you to the basin of the pool which is now dry. A small aperture in the wall provides light. The guide carefully explained what a mikvah was and how this one was discovered. The Catalan tourists seemed not to know quite what to make of it and my driver seemed not to know quite what to make of me wanting to come such a distance for this. With my eye, I measured every step, every corner, every stone. When we emerged, I thanked the guide. He looked at me apologetically: “I know you probably wanted to spend more time in the mikwá—but the others weren’t very interested. But I am. You see, my great grandfather. . . .” Yes, my friend, we call it “roots.” These days, every Ashkenazi Jew needs his Sephardi progenitor and every Spaniard his ancestral Jew.
My driver was waiting. As long as we’re here, could we detour to Castelló d’Empúries? There is another Carrer dels jueus there and who knows what I might find. “It’s quite a detour,” he replied, “Yes, but isn’t it worth it?” “Look, hombre, I wouldn’t come here but you’re all excited.” (My elation was showing.) “So, I won’t tell you not to go there.”
We arrived at Castelló d’Empúries at 2 P.M. One should never arrive anywhere in the Mediterranean world at 2 P.M. Tancat, cerrado, fermé, chiuso, mughlaq, sagur—all variations on the universal theme: CLOSED. But at least I could wander about the streets of the putative call easily marked by the shadow cast over them by the distinctive belfry of the church, and I could view the church and the adjacent lonja at leisure. But people were coming out of the church after all! I entered. A teen-age boy gave me a personal tour—the magnificent altarpiece, this from the 11th century, that from the 12th, this from the 14th. I thanked him and offered him a suitable sum. Oh, no. He wouldn’t take it. I bought some tourist literature and postcards instead. As an afterthought, he suggested I step out onto a terrace. It was freshly whitewashed with plants placed about. Since Franco’s demise, Catalonia has been given funding for all sorts of restoration projects and the church was one of them.
In the process of restoration, some inscribed stones had recently been excavated and these were neatly mounted in the stucco wall. Then—for the stone shall cry out of the wall—there facing me in Spanish rabbinic script was the inscription, “Gone to his rew[ard] . . . Year  170 .” I had not expected to meet this son of Israel here, but I reflected on how he, whoever he was, had witnessed the atrocities of 1391 but was spared what was to come shortly after. I was grateful for the contact—only a stone bath, only a fragment of a gravestone, but Iberia has not left us much more, so one is thankful for anything. I returned to the cab. “Did you find anything?” “I certainly did!” “¡Estupendo!” My enthusiasm began to rub off even on him. He started to ask me questions, good questions, intelligent questions. It occurred to me that he might have made a good graduate student—but then it occurs to me quite often that some graduate students might have made good cab drivers.
If Judaism recognized holy cities outside of the Holy Land, Gerona would be one of them. The Catalonian Safed, it was the home of the great mystics, disciples of the Provençal, Isaac the Blind, Ezra, Azriel, Nahmanides. To walk there is to walk hallowed ground. The call of Gerona is undergoing urban renewal—luxury apartments, elegant shops, boutiques. It is all done so tastefully, /?/ugh, that the medieval character remains intac/?/ There is little specific that remains. A syna/?/ue was supposedly here, another institution wa/?/upposedly there. The Moorish baths, which a/?/gedly became Jewish baths after the early reconquista of Catalonia, are still well preserved. But, most important, you feel that you are walking the streets that Nahmanides and Isaac the Blind might have walked.
Yet who here ever heard of Nahmanides, who of Isaac the Blind? In a shop window there is an ad for a performance of Indian music, part of Culturàlia 79, a cultural festival sponsored by La Caixa, a banking institution, in honor of its seventy-fifth anniversary. The poster has a Miró at the top commissioned by La Caixa for the occasion. It is attractive and I go over to read it:
Recital de música Hindú
Amb la col.laboració del Centre Isaac el Cec
The Isaac the Blind Center? Is this the Isaac the Blind? There can be no doubt. The address: Pati dels Rabins de Girona, the Gerona Court of the Rabbis. I wander up one of the narrow inclined alleys to the center. It is a charming, partly enclosed, partly open-air performance hall. An impromptu cello recital is taking place. No, no one really knows who Isaac the Blind was—but in a strange way, he is remembered.
It is in a strange way that Catalonia remembers its Jews. There is a Catalan fascination with Jews which borders on philo-Semitism, a philo-Semitism which has been succinctly outlined in Thomas Glick’s afterword to Burton Raffel’s translation of The Bull-Hide. To my mind, the most telling example was an incident from the Six-Day War of 1967. Castilian graffiti in Barcelona proclaimed “Mueran los judíos” (“Death to the Jews”). In Catalan, the message was “Visca Israel” (“Long Live Israel”). Now, too, Castilian wall posters in Barcelona, hawking a certain American book, proclaimed “Holocausto-mentira” (“Holocaust-Lie”). The Catalan bookstores, though, were selling phonograph records of Israeli songs sung by Catalan troupes. It is not all that clear-cut, of course. Some seem to have a very foggy notion of what a Jew is altogether. In one store, when I asked for books about Jews, I was offered one on Freemasonry. On the other hand, it did not occur to the proprietor that a booklet on the Jewries of Lérida was something I might be interested in.
Over the years, apart from the many fine scholarly studies which have appeared as monographs or in the journal Sefarad, occasional popular works have been published. There was Carles Rahola i Llorens’s Els jueus a Catalunya (Barcelona, 1929[?]) and more recently, El jueus i nosaltres (The Jews and We, Barcelona, 1977) by Lluis Marco i Dachs. These, however, are by and large merely surveys and catalogues. (I do not speak here of the recent surge of interest in the Xuetes of Mallorca, the pariah group of “crypto-Jews,” who form a subject quite unto themselves.) Recently the talented historian and philologist Jaume Riera i Sans has published a volume of medieval Jewish wedding songs in Catalan (Cants de noces dels jueus catalans, Barcelona, 1974), and has also edited a volume of medieval Hebrew poetry translated into Catalan by Eduard Feliu i Mabres, Poemes hebraics de jueus catalans (Barcelona, 1976)—adding them, as it were, to the national patrimony.
But there is a more subtle form of Catalan philo-Semitism, which has been best expressed in Catalan literature and most notably in the writings of Salvador Espriu. Espriu is one of Catalonia’s, if indeed not one of Spain’s, finest poets. Last year he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Barcelona, which was, according to the Barcelona daily, Avui, a hint to the Nobel Prize committee. As a poet of reconciliation, he is highly popular in all of Spain and is read in Castilian translation and in bilingual editions.
Espriu began his academic career in classical history, Egyptology, and Semitics but this was cut short by the civil war. Yet this, plus a childhood indoctrination into the legends of the Book of Esther by an aunt, has left an indelible Hebraic mark on his work, especially his play First History of Esther (Primera història d’Esther, 1948)2 and his most famous work, The Bull-Hide.
The First History of Esther, an “improvisation for puppets,” takes place simultaneously in Shushan and in the mythical Catalan coastal town of Sinera (a reverse anagram of Arenys de Mar, Espriu’s ancestral home and the scene of his early childhood). The protagonists of the biblical story are represented by puppets who are witnessed on the stage by a live audience composed of the inhabitants of Sinera. (Espriu insists that any resemblance to Goethe’s Das Jahrmarktfest zu Plundersweilern is coincidental.) The two mythic casts are separated by gaps of space and time which seemingly cannot be spanned, and yet they interact—“Susa, far from here, near to here.” This inter-involvement takes place first on a superficial, almost farcical level, as when Vashti decides to flee to Sinera with a lover and a cook who will prepare all sorts of delicacies for them during the flight. The real fusion, however, is achieved by the presence of the Altíssim, the blind storyteller of Sinera. (The blind are prominent in Espriu since it is only they, spared the vision of this world and its illusions, who can truly see.) The storyteller instructs his audience as to the real message of the biblical myth for them: one subject people parallels another subject people; the one is threatened with extermination by Haman (read: Hitler)—the other by a fratricidal civil war which has shed the blood and destroyed the identity of the Catalan, indeed of the Spanish, people.
It is fratricide which is the supreme sin, but Espriu makes it clear that fratricide is not only murder of one brother, one fellow national, by another, but violence perpetrated by any man against any other man—Spain’s civil war or the Nazi persecution of the Jews. When Haman announces that “all men, except for the Jews, are my brothers,” Zeresh begs him to spare her the pious platitudes and naiveté: “Jews or not, all men are your enemies.” Thus, the Altíssim charges his listeners to bestow on each other a mutual boon of pardon and tolerance:
Avoid the ultimate crime, the sin of war between brothers. Keep in mind that in the beginning the mirror of truth was shattered into tiny fragments and nevertheless each piece reflects a particle of true light.
Espriu returns to these themes in The Bull-Hide, a long poem in fifty-four units tracing the drama of Spain. Employing the textbook image of Spain as a stretched bull-hide tacked onto Europe, the poet here has the bull lift its own hide, this “drum beaten in fear,” as a banner which is so drenched in blood that it cannot be dried out. Once again the saga of Spain is told in images of the Jewish experience in exile, in the Golah (Hebrew terms recur throughout), and once again this saga of Spain is that of the supreme crime: “a war with no victory/a war between brothers.” The scenes of fear and terror—the death of the sky-bird, the suicide of Iehudi the old tailor (whom we know from the First History of Esther) when the wine runs out—soften gradually into a realization that a morbid dwelling on the past leads nowhere and that fear must be countered by reconciliation—“Let dialogue follow freely from point to point”—and by hope—“Mills of Sepharad:/Dreams will be converted/Bit by bit into reality.” Sepharad. “Spain”—Espanya—does not connote for the Catalan the totality of the Hispanic peoples, and so Espriu has recourse to the Hebrew to express his concept of a land in which no nation will be in exile in its own home. Sepharad’s reconciliation will be its liberation:
Listen, Sepharad: men cannot exist
When Sepharad knows it or not, we cannot
And the people cry, in one voice “Amén.”
(The Bull-Hide XXXVIII)
Catalonia seems to understand the Jew as few other nations have. And so too the Jew can have some special understanding for Catalonia. The cry “perro catalán” (“Catalan dog”) or “mercader catalán” (“Catalan businessman”) is one that will not be lost on a Jewish ear. For centuries, after the Expulsion and up to this day, there has been a persistent Jewish fascination with Spain, felt no less by Ashkenazim who may be quite indifferent to their own Eastern European origins than by Sephardim. On one level, it is due to an admiration and a nostalgia for a brilliant epoch in Jewish history. In the case of Catalonia, there is perhaps another dimension—the identification of one n/ever-dying people with another n/ever-dying people, a satisfaction in the sharing of one nation’s rebirth by another continually reborn.
There is no promise that the cycle has come to an end; that is after all why there still is a Ninth of Ab. After relating Mordecai’s glory, the Altíssim continues that “another prince succeeded Ahasuerus on the throne of Susa and perhaps once again persecuted the tragic tribes of the Wandering. And the monotonous chain of struggles and assassinations, infamy and debauchery, continues, for in Persia and throughout the world a cruel folly has always enslaved man and made of his history a bad dream of dark and arid pain.” No, what has been cannot permit euphoria—but neither need it demand obsessive brooding.
So, when someone
in a harsh voice:
“Why have you stayed
here in this hard, dry land,
this land soaked in blood?
This is surely not
the best of the lands you came upon
in the long
of the Golah.”—
With a small smile
that remembers our fathers
we only say:
“In our dreams, yes, it is.”
(The Bull-Hide VII).
One comes to mourn and leaves with hope—and that is as it should be.
1 English translation by Burton Raffel with a preface by Lluis Alpera, an introduction by Fritz Hensey, and an afterword by Thomas F. Glick (Calcutta, Writers Workshop, 1977). Throughout I have occasionally departed from the translation to maintain closer conformity with the original.