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by Elana Michelson
Greetings, all, from the city of Granada, my sabbatical home away from home, where the Muslims and Jews once held civilization together while Europe was throttling itself into modernity, at which point, in a staggering display of hypocrisy, Ferdinand and Isabel rode into town in Moorish dress and proceeded to break every promise they’d ever made. The story that follows involves the two of them, damn their eyes, only indirectly. More directly, it involves a weekend trip to Cordoba and, on my part, at least, yet one more run-in with ambivalence and history.
To begin: Penny and I boarded the bus to Cordoba, the cultural flotsam and jetsam in my head ranging from the poetry of Yehuda Ha Levi to what Alec Guinness says to Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. We arrived on Friday, spent the evening sampling Lonely Planet's inevitably disappointing culinary recommendations, and on Saturday dutifully wandered into the old synagogue, a lovely place circa 1300-something with the remains of Biblical quotations carved into the walls, all about home, and exile, and yearning, and joy. I indulged various forms of historical nostalgia, none of them to my credit, but what I didn't know until we went across the street to the Casa Sepharad museum was that an American rabbi was upstairs in the museum leading a Shabbat service.
Self-importantly or otherwise, we wandered upstairs.
As I read American Jewish subcultural self-representations, the rabbi and the twenty-five or so students with him were Shaarei Suburbia reform, by which I mostly mean that the girls were wearing tallises. But without the slightest hint of left-of-center in anybody’s mien, the commentary was everything that the most opinionated, judgmental representative of Beit Tony Kushner Ahavat Shalom lefty Jewish secularism (yes, that would be me) could have wished. The Torah portion for the week was Moses, Jethro, and Mt. Sinai, and the rabbi talked about why Jethro, that Midian chappie, was in the middle of This Important Moment in the Constituting of Jewish Identity. The answer? That we can’t do it alone, that no people’s identity exists in isolation from the identity of others, who, among other things, play the role of reminding us how badly we need help. And then the haftorah was a piece of Isaiah in which Himself behaves very much like a character in a stone age epic written by a tribal people (gee, how did that happen?), but the rabbi interpreted it in this rather wonderful way connecting Moses and Isaiah through their shared inability to speak, thus equating what Isaiah says with the Ten Commandments, meaning that the law is never fixed but must be written again for each generation to find meaning and commitment to the right and the good.
And so, our sages tell us, the commentary for the week, khevre, is: Justice for the Palestinians, and tell the black hats they haven't cornered the market on righteousness. Yeah, I know, I know, the various liberation theology rabbis of my acquaintance will tell me that the commentary wasn’t anything special, it's all actually in the Talmud, just ask the Rambam, who happened to have been born down the street.
But I was touched, and explained earnestly to Penny why that was, and how it mattered to me that a bunch of American twenty-somethings were in a room in the old Juderia of Cordoba studying Torah, and in that particular way. She had lots of questions: Why do they read so fast as if the words don’t matter? (We always talk fast. We’re Jews, okay?) Why don’t I pitch a fit about Isaiah taking slavery so much for granted? (Hey, bubele, saying that even your slaves deserve a day off each week passed in those days for radical social justice.) And then she asked the big question, the one that I never have a satisfactory answer for: Why do I care that there continue to be Jews in the world, let alone in Cordoba? Since I don't believe that Jewish theology is any more right or wrong or meaningful or irrelevant as anyone else;s, why? Since I don't believe that, given half a chance, Jews behave any better than anybody else, why? Since I think that organized religion does more harm in the world than good, why?
Answer: I have no idea.
Why indeed? In any event, having unburdened myself to Penny both of my usual unsolicited and entirely unearned opinions and my usual inarticulate ambivalence and guilt about my non-participation in continuing the, um, tribe, we proceeded on our tour of the remains of the Andalusian religious heritage and into the Mesquita, an extraordinary 10th-century mosque into which some Castilians who should have been shot for it imposed a very ordinary 16th-century cathedral, and we ran into the other late-middle-aged lesbian couple who had been at the service. One, Amanda, was from Texas, with an aura of U.S. military about her, but the other, Asun, was a real-life, honest-to-goodness marrano whose mother sat her down sometime in her 20s and said, It’s time you knew the secret. We're Jews. We're conversos. Here’s the family Bible. It’s yours now. Pass it on.
Talk about no nos moveran. Five hundred years, mother to daughter, and if even one generation had dropped the ball. . . . I felt as if I was meeting someone who had actually been born in the 15th century. One thought was that Asun was the answer to Penny's question: because you have no right not to. That seems to me overwhelmingly glib. The other thought, which was certainly no better, was that I had inadvertently wandered into an episode of The Twilight Zone.
A month later, I am still processing it, trying to read my reaction through the writings on the ruins of the synagogue walls and my own still-socialist, ex-Zionist history. If every people has a lesson to teach the world, surely the lesson that Jews teach has something to do with home, yearning, joy, and exile and how complicated indeed is the idea of home. The cathedral in Cordoba rearing up inside that mosque is an obscenity, but it is also of a piece with a world in which nobody is at home, exactly, whether or not they know it, and perhaps that is all to the good. Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin have written that diasporic identity cannot be about passing through other people’s territory and caring only about home, but about bringing moral intelligence and moral courage to bear on wherever it is that we sojourn. Living in the diaspora is viscerally connected to tikkun olam, because it is only by repairing the world that any of us will ever be able to go home.
Insufficient, perhaps, but at least it's not glib, and at least it's not The Twilight Zone. Still, I am haunted by Asun in Avery Gordon's sense of those instances "when home becomes unfamiliar, when your bearings on the world lose direction, when the over-and-done-with comes alive." When I think about Asun and her five hundred years of fore-mothers, I don't know if I am witnessing home or exile, yearning or joy, but only a tenacity that takes my breath away. No nos moverán.
Works Cited: Gordon, A. 2008. Ghostly matters: Haunting and the sociological imagination. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Elana Michelson is on sabbatical from Empire State University, where for thirty years she has mentored students in the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. Center for Labor Studies, the Hudson Valley Center, and the Master of Arts programs. She is an international expert on adult learning and the assessment of prior learning.