Excerpt: Dina’s Tale 2

stone-king-1566658They came in the deep of night. “They always come at night,” my father said. “No need to worry though; they will also go away again by daybreak,” he added. He pointed out that the Jews have lived through episodes like this many times before and the seneschal was a trusted friend. Whether he really did not worry or just wanted to put my brothers and me at ease, I don’t know, but if he thought this was just another raid or that his friend, the seneschal, would stand by him, this time he was mistaken.

It was the night of Friday to Saturday, Shabbat, our day of rest. The hour of midnight had passed when a great commotion in the street awoke us.

“In the name of the king! In the name of the king!” Coarse shouts roared through the narrow, winding alleys of the Jewish quarter of Toulouse. e stomping of boots as from a hundred foot soldiers resonated on the pavement. Hoofs clanked on the cobblestones, swords rattled, the din reverberated in our hearts. An army of horsemen and foot soldiers moved from house to house, rousing the residents with merciless ferocity. Windows shattered, doors splintered under the force of ramming blocks. Our house was at the far end of the crammed quarter to which the Jews were relegated, and we waited with bated breath for the horde to reach us.

“Open up, in the name of the king! Open up!” To the confusion of noises were now added men’s voices, some we recognized as our neighbors’. All arguing was crushed with brutal force, with the hilt of the sword, the kick of the boot. Women’s shrieks and children’s cries raised the general din. To this day, I cannot forget how my heart raced and my body trembled as the king’s guardsmen drew closer to our abode. My father still put his faith in his friendship with the seneschal. Maybe he was aware of how serious the situation was and he merely tried to rein in our fears and keep his household from breaking out in a panic. When it was our turn, he walked with firm stride to the gate and opened it before any damage could be done. ere he stood in the gate of his house, robed in Shabbat white, a knit skullcap covering his head, his grizzled beard swaying as he repelled those intent on violating the sanctity of his property. His dignified bearing, the image of a prophet to my eyes, made my heart overflow with pride and love for the man who had raised me and surrounded me for the sixteen years of my life with his protective love.

“I demand to speak to his lordship, the seneschal,” he said with a resolute, calm tone as he barred the clamoring horde of guardsmen from entering our courtyard with his body.

“Hear that? is one wants the seneschal,” mocked one of the soldiers. But my father’s firm stance apparently gave him pause, and he did not try to push his way in. Nor did any of the others, especially since my brothers and several of our gentile servants joined now in blocking the entrance.

“In the name of the king! In the name of the king!” was all they could shout, and by then more meekly.

“The seneschal is a servant of his majesty, the king of France. I want to hear from him exactly what the king’s will is.”

The captain of the guard stepped up and made a respectful gesture toward my father.

“Don Elazar,” he said, “we are simply here to carry out the king’s orders. All members of the Israelite community are to be taken from their homes to the town’s dungeon. at’s all I know.”

“But why? ere must be an explanation, a reason for this sudden nocturnal assault,” my father insisted.

“Sorry,” said the captain. “We were not given any reason.”

The captain spoke with a certain tone of regret and even respect. He had known Don Elazar ben Simeon de Sola e Lunel for a goodly number of years. He had witnessed many times the yearly event when my father, as one of the elders of the kahal of Toulouse, presented himself on the Thursday of Holy Week at the cathedral door with a tax of thirty pounds of wax. On this occasion, it was also the custom for the townsfolk to box that Jew’s ears to remind him of the Jews’ guilt for the crucifixion. is was a popular local custom, going back to the time of the early Crusades, a sporting event for which half the town turned out. e fortitude and dignity with which my father bore the insults and abuse meted out by the good people of Toulouse had gained him a certain respect among the magistrates and guardsmen who surveyed the proceedings and made sure the mob did not get out of hand.

“Go get the seneschal!” the captain ordered one of his men.

The seneschal came, but he too had no explanation. Orders of the king! There was nothing to be done.

Meanwhile, our brethren with their wives and children were being shackled and led away, one by one, into another Babylonian captivity. So it seemed to me.

Time Capsules in the Human Imagination

 

The human desire to hold on to time is universal. We don’t want to let go, we want to freeze our lives in time. One expression of this basic need is our fascination with time capsules. People put together assortments of artifacts and documents they deem significant of their own time, place them in boxes or coffers, which they seal, for future generations to discover. We want to establish a link, to extend a hand, to invite those who come after us into our lives, to let them know that we have been here. Such time capsules are hoped to afford a glimpse into what we did, what we thought, what were our endeavors, our struggles, our accomplishments and perhaps even failures. Most of all we hope that our lives matter, that they have lasting meaning.

Of course, this fascination, maybe even obsession, with time also goes the other way. It extends into the past. That’s why we have people who devote their lives to the search of the past–historians, archeologists, anthropologists. We have a naturally curiosity to know who past generations lived, we want to know how they lived their daily lives, not merely the wars they fought, what institutions they established. Those are well documented. Such time capsules exist all around us in the form of monuments–buildings, cathedrals, temples, tombs, dwellings, simple or elaborate—as well as documents created by the hand of those who came before us. We set up libraries, museums, archives, that is, shrines through which to capture and preserve these testimonials to past human endeavors. We get very upset when monuments are destroyed by either human action or natural disasters. We go on journeys to foreign lands to see first-hand not only how people there live in the present, what they eat and drink, and to enjoy the natural beauty of a particular place but also to follow the traces of the past in a particular locale. Overseas travel is on many people’s bucket list. How often do we hear people say they would like to see such and such place before they die?

Most of what we find in museums, at archaeological sites and the like has been curated, that is, it has been restored, put together, cataloged as filtered through the experts’ mind. What we get to see is the result of how these experts interpret the clues. As is well known, there often is little agreement among experts. Sooner or later someone will come along and tell us that the others have been wrong. It is, therefore, all the more exciting to come upon a world preserved in pristine form, a world frozen in time, untouched and unaltered over an extended period of time. Such a discovery was recently made right in the middle of Paris, at an apartment that had been sealed, its content untouched, for decades. Crossing the threshold of this place opened a window into the world of a Parisian actress and courtesan who lived and loved there a century ago. What could be more exciting, inflame our imagination, than coming upon the plush furnishings of a by-gone era preserved in-lived condition? Not only that, but to come upon a treasure of little trucs like cosmetics, clothes, jewelry, and a stash of love letters neatly bundled with a ribbon! A testimony to a life lived, in this case, in the opulence of the Parisian demi-monde.

While this Parisian apartment is a swathe of time cut from life, the human imagination, the desire for dominion over past and future also extends into the realm of fiction writing. The futuristic novels create a world as the writer imagines it will be. Historical fiction seeks to recreate the past of a particular time and place. Historical novelists are restorers of tapestry of people and events. Some aim for authenticity, for reality, others create an imaginary world set in the past. Others seek to accomplish both: to tell the story of past events, to hold up a mirror of past lives within an imaginary world. My novel Dina’s Lost Tribe centers on such a place, a Shangri La frozen in time, sprung from the author’s imagination. Please stay tuned. More about this next time.

Excerpt: Dina’s Tale Begins

I9781450251082_cover.indd breathe! I breathe free! We all can breathe free at long, long last. e pall is lifted, the stranglehold gripping my throat loosened. I fling open the shutters in the early morning mist. My nostrils widen, my lungs fill with the clear mountain air streaming in with the rising sun. My heart beats with joy; my voice soars like a lark’s. e echo of my voice resounds with “ e mountains skip like rams; the hills like young sheep!” It is here, on this blessed piece of earth, in this valley ringed with granite turrets that we shall build our lives, our future. Not so much my future anymore as your future, my sons. is is your inheritance, my bequest to you. May all that is past remain behind us; let us embrace the future. e Lord G-d of Israel has seen my affliction. He has heard my entreaties and has forgiven my sins. e G-d of Moses who freed the Israelites from bondage in Egypt and guided them to the Promised Land, in that spirit, he has set me free as well. is mountain valley is our promised land, my sons! True, I was accorded this gift—some may regard it as a gift, when in reality, this precious piece of earth is my just reward —through the good offices of a Christian holy man now in Avignon, the erstwhile inquisitor of Pamiers. But I am certain it was the G-d of Israel who used him as His tool to carry out His divine will. I have no doubt it was He, the Eternal, who softened his heart toward a woman in distress. Like Job, she was beaten down, lost everything, endured humiliation and servitude; now she has been restored to life through the grace of G-d. He heard of her plight, He heard her moaning; He answered her prayers. Let us rejoice, my sons! Let us praise the G-d of Israel, our benefactor.

In my years of darkness, those friendless years devoid of hope, you, my sons, were my only light, my consolation. You made my dark world luminous. You made an unbearable fate bearable. You even brought me moments of joy—when I held you in my arms, when I saw you growing into manhood. And now you too are free from the curse of your birth. e mark of shame has been wiped from your forehead. You are no longer outcasts, bastards; no one will ever again shun you, spit at you, curse you. You are free men now! Do you understand what this means?

Then why the muttering in the shadows? Why the doleful miens? The suspicious stares? Why the doubts, the whispers, reproachful glances—yes, even secret accusations? I see the questions in your eyes. I feel them burning in my back. I sense them even when you lower your eyes at the table or when I pass you in the fields, as you build your homes here in this mountain valley. I know you would not confront your mother openly. But I am not so blind as not to sense what tears at your souls. You want to know what made me do what I did. You have a right to know. He was the man who fathered you. You are flesh of his flesh. His blood flows in your veins. But that is all; he is nothing else to you. You owe him nothing—no loyalty, no love, no respect, no honor. Remember it was he who condemned you to the status of bastardry; he left you exposed to the scorn and derision of the lowliest of peasants. He dishonored your mother, kept her in a perpetual state of degradation and bondage, lower than the swineherd in the village. Remember, it was your mother who raised you, who instructed you in the teachings of her people. It was she who told you about the glory of our forefathers, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. She taught you about Moses the lawgiver, she recalled the stories of David and Solomon, the kings of the ancient Israelite realm. She also nursed you on the many stories of persecution and suffering my people, your people, had endured since the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. She told you these stories in secret, for these heretic villagers scoffed at our scriptures, what we call Tanakh and Christians call the Old Testament. The man who was your father paraded as a good Christian, a priest ordained in the Roman Church. In reality, he was the devil in priestly garb, a wolf in sheepskin, a fornicator and a deceiver, a depraved miscreant from whom no woman in this mountain region was safe.