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When Spain Paid Homage to Maimonides ...
The Words and the Music

When the riots broke out in Morocco two years ago, I thought of my Jewish friends from Marrakesh and Safi, and wondered how they had fared. Of course these were anti-French riots, but Jews often get roped into these things for good measure; and sure enough I read that large numbers of Jews had been singled out for attack, and killed or wounded, all over Morocco.

It was just twenty years since I had met them, at a strange Spanish-Jewish celebration in Cordova. It was 1935, and I had gone to Spain in search of history. The government of Spain—the Republican government—was putting on a fiesta for the Jews in celebration of the 800th anniversary of the birth at Cordova of the Jewish philosopher Maimonides. How can one explain what a celebration of this kind meant to a young Jew conscious of history? Spain, to a Jew, was the land of the Golden Age—and the land of the Inquisition. Had the moment now come when all these ancient quarrels could be resolved? Was there something in the air of Spain—the new Spain—which would let us breathe easily now—there and everywhere?

Not everybody, perhaps, would have felt this way, but I had spent my early years in a quiet land, listening both fearfully and nostalgically to the echoes of ancient violence. When I was a boy, in a dreamy little English seaport town, Jewish life had been my family happiness. Later, as a student at Oxford, I had burrowed into Jewish history, proud and sad at what I read. But now, in this graceful gesture by Spain, I seemed to see my youth and my dreams coming together.

Was it only my own dream? Surely, I felt, it was the Spanish dream too—to burst out of their Bourbon chains, and feel at ease again with all their past. Spanish history was alive in those days. Old memories were being stirred, old scars were being looked at wonderingly by the patient struggling to his feet. Was there any scar in Spanish history like this one? What Spaniard would not feel in those years a great curiosity to see again, with unclouded eyes, some members of that strange people who had dramatized, merely by existing, the paradox and loneliness of Spain; whose memory was burnt into the Spanish consciousness in language and proverb, in pride and guilt; whose love for Spain had been too disturbing to be accepted, too intimate to be wholly shuffled off. History would tell every Spaniard who could listen that the Jews were his other self.

Or was I reading all this into it for my own reasons? Even I, longing to believe, could sense uncertainty in the air. The Republic had run through its first rapture. The graceful gesture toward the Jews of the world was like the wave of a hand from a train passing through a country station. The passengers on the train are not quite sure of the name of the station; the country folk watching the train wave happily in return, but they do not belong on it, and they have no idea where it is going.

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I had called at the Spanish embassy in London before leaving for Cordova, to ask if there were any special facilities for delegates to the celebration. I was going as a half-official visitor from Oxford, where I had just begun to teach. A grand diplomatic señor who received me knew nothing at first of any Jewish philosopher or any celebration. He disappeared to inquire, and then returned to the room bursting with courtesies and pride. He hadn’t recognized my pronunciation of the philosopher’s name. His pronunciation was much more elaborately Spanish—Mai-mo-nid?s. “Of course,” he assured me. “There are reduced train fares in Spain, reduced hotel rates, free admission to all museums. We shall help you in any way possible. Ah, the great Spanish philosopher Mai-mo-nid?s.”

So Maimonides—Rabbi Moses ben Maimon—was a Spaniard. I suddenly felt, as I was to feel later in another connection, the inadequacy of all these tight categories. The Rambam as we call him—running the initials of his Hebrew name together—was not a Spaniard. He was an Arab Jew, the way I am an English Jew, and my father was a Russian Jew. We had remembered him better than the Spaniards had. I could hear my father reciting every morning the Rambam’s “Thirteen Articles,” each beginning with the devout words “Ani ma’amin be’emunah shlemah—I believe with perfect faith. . . . It was hard to think of the Rambam as a Spaniard.

Yet the Spaniards had felt some need to claim him for themselves, not because he could be fitted, with his calm humanism, into the death-obsessed fanaticism of the Spanish tradition, but precisely as an offset to their tradition, to help them see why it had developed the way it had against all the impulses of Western life. Maimonides, the Arab Jew, was the Europe they had bypassed. They had persecuted the Jews, burnt them, expelled them, yet in some way they now had to take a position in relation to them.

Did they understand this, and that other thing which my father would have felt, and which I felt? In the dark struggle then taking shape in Europe, Spain was the one word which balanced emotionally with Germany. In the long story of Galut or exile, the experience in Spain stood separate in Jewish memory—a golden age of poetry and learning which had never found its equal. To bring the Jews back to Spain if only for a celebration was to make every Jew who heard of it feel, for a second, a surge of faith in history. Even with Hitler in the wings, all was not lost.

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I entered Spain through its English gate at Gibraltar, and looked up an old friend there, Dickie Fothergill, who had been with me at Oxford and was now a naval lieutenant. We had a drink together and he offered to drive me round to see the country. But I had no patience to linger, and said that I would spend more time with him on my return.

In half an hour I was in the Malaga bus, en route for Cordova. For company I had with me Borrow’s Bible in Spain open on my lap. I would read a page or two—“A Night with a Brigand”—“A Prince of the Gypsies”—and then I would look out of the window dreamily at the same stony hills, the primitive inns, the dark peasants whom Borrow had wandered among a hundred years earlier.

At the bus station in Cordova, the first thing I saw was a large colored poster advertising a bullfight that was to be held that week at the Cordova arena “in honor of the 800th birthday of the great Spanish philosopher, scientist, and doctor Maimonides.” All the dignitaries of the area—the governor of the province, the mayor of Cordova, and many others with grandiose titles—had given the fight their patronage. Spain was paying its tribute.

As I wandered through the town in the evening, I saw the poster again in several places, only half-legible in the twinkling street lights, but still brave with its gaudy lettering and proud black bull. There were curious groups of foreigners in the street, obvious visitors to the celebration; and after the first look at each other, we were soon exchanging greetings in various languages. We were all kin, yet as different as the nations we now belonged to. The French Jews seemed spare in build, neatly dressed, and, with their closely trimmed mustaches, like so many editions of André Maurois. There were Greek Jews, small, dark, and eager, their brown eyes darting everywhere, taking everything in. From Yugoslavia, from Italy—we knew each other and were happy to meet. The company grew, and we sat down at a café in the main street. Up and down the young Spaniards took their traditional evening stroll, the men and girls in separate groups, laughing and teasing each other in their ritual parade. A Palestinian joined us—an English Jew who had left his native land in 1920 to settle in Palestine as a professor of philosophy. It pleased us when he spoke a few words in modern Hebrew, rare in those days. It seemed to make more vivid the peculiar miracle we were sharing.

We were delighted, too, with another visitor, Don José. Small, dapper, and bursting with good spirits, he had started life as Yossele Shapiro in a small Lithuanian town, had solidified later in Germany into Herr Doktor Josef Shapiro, and now, as a refugee living in Madrid, had been translated into Don José de Shapiro. He knew everything, everybody, every language. He was fully adjusted to his new life, and doubtful where he would be next year. He told delightful jokes in Yiddish.

When the party broke up, I wandered off with the Palestinian professor—my erstwhile compatriot—to the river, where the great stone mosque, with its towers and glorious arched doorways, faced the graceful pillars of the old Roman bridge. We stood in silence for a while, enjoying the beauty of the night.

“I suppose Maimonides walked here as a boy,” I said finally. “Perhaps he watched them building the mosque.”

The professor had a way of smiling ironically before he spoke. “How pleasant to meet a romantic,” he said. “Shall I shatter illusions, or would you prefer to keep them?”

“Oh, you mean the dates are wrong,” I said.

“The dates, and a few other things. The great Caliph who built the mosque died in 961. Fifty years later, the mob rose, slaughtered all the Jews they could find, and forced the rest to flee for their lives. The few that were left here were confined to a ghetto. That was the world that Maimonides was born into in 1135.”

“But the Golden Age had not really ended,” I said.

He smiled. “There were so many Golden Ages, with the Moors and with the Christians. Too many, really. All too short. Most of the Jews would have settled for one long tin age if they had had a choice. They didn’t have a choice.”

“But how did so much come out of Spain—Maimonides, Moses ibn Ezra, and the rest—while nothing came out of countries like England?”

“Nothing out of England? Come, come. I came out of England. All part of the same thing, you know.”

“The same thing?”

He was still smiling. “Oh, yes. That’s the beauty of it. The real International, you know. The scholars go on working whatever happens around them. The Arabs rescued Greek philosophy. The Jews picked it up in Arabic, translated it into Hebrew, and passed it on into Latin for the Scholastics. And it goes on, you know. After all, we’ve learnt something in England, and we’re passing it on again in Hebrew in Palestine. We’re a strange people, aren’t we?”

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We were all up early in the morning for the opening ceremonies in the city hall. Flags were flying, a band in gay uniform played cheerfully in the square, and as we filed in, rather hesitantly, toward the large hall, we found our hosts—courteous, stately, with long El Greco faces—waiting to greet us. In the hall itself the seats were crowded with Spaniards, except for a number of rows in front reserved for the visitors. An elaborately printed program was put into our hands. The first morning was to be devoted simply to the official welcome. On the Spanish side the speakers were to be some high officials from Madrid and Cordova. For the visitors there was to be one main speech, by someone I had not seen before—the Chief Rabbi of Belgrade.

I looked at the rabbi standing quietly on the platform, tall, black-bearded, calm. He had waited many centuries for this moment, and would wait again if need be. When the Christian conquest of Spain had been sealed in 1492 by the expulsion of the Jews, some who thought to temporize had stayed behind, waiting for the Inquisition. The others had set out in small boats, and those who survived the journey had found homes in Salonika and Yugoslavia and other lands of the Eastern Mediterranean. There they went on speaking the Spanish of the 15th century, singing Spanish folk songs, and remembering the old country.

Through the long mellifluous speeches that opened the proceedings, the audience kept their eyes on the tall figure with the black beard. It was nearly one o’clock when he finally rose. When he began to speak in Spanish, slowly, with perfect yet archaic diction, a shudder of recognition seemed to go through the hall. This was their past speaking to them, a past embalmed for nearly five hundred years. No one moved or breathed. He spoke of history and suffering and pride, and as he came to the end his voice rose to the peroration. “Viva!” he cried. “Long live the love that binds men and women to the soil of their ancestors! Long live the faith that burns in all our hearts! Long live the pity that opens men’s eyes to God! Long live the country that sheltered us and the land to which we have returned! Long live Cordova the beautiful! Long live Spain!”

He stood silent, and the audience too was stunned into silence. Then in a moment they were all on their feet, clapping, shouting, smiling. The mayor walked over to the rabbi and took both his hands in his. The audience applauded still louder, until finally the mayor raised his hand for silence. “And now,” he said, “we beg our distinguished visitors to honor us at a little refreshment we have prepared for them.” The doors at the side of the hall were flung open, and we moved hungrily toward the heavily laden tables.

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The moment of truth suddenly exploded into a moment of farce. The rabbi was escorted to the table by two distinguished Spaniards. We were all close behind. The waiters, in some elaborate 16th-century costume, were bearing down on us carrying huge silver trays on which stood crystal goblets of wine. But in front of us, consternation had broken out. The Spaniards, once again seeking the highest compliment in their power, had prepared a magnificent banquet of shellfish, bringing the lobsters, crabs, shrimps, and other delicacies from Malaga. Alas! It was five hundred years since they had dealt officially with Jews. Perhaps they had some vague notion that the Jews objected to eating meat with Christians and had therefore settled for fish. But no one had told them that religious Jews do not eat shellfish or even drink non-Jewish wine. The rabbi had taken one look and fallen back, as if the mere sight of this unclean food would defile him. The visitors around him also shook their heads. To such Jews among us who might well have enjoyed the food at a Spanish restaurant, it became unthinkable to let down the rabbi and his following. We stood around and talked politely for a time while our hosts played with the delicacies and washed them down with wine. Finally we got away.

The ice of the centuries had been broken, and for the rest of the fiesta everything worked with utmost smoothness. Even the bullfight the next afternoon, which might have been expected to pose some problems, passed off with reasonably good humor. It was too early in the season for the real thing. The fight was little more than a testing of bulls, a gay frolic in which the experts pricked and prodded the young animals to find out which of them had enough spirit to fight for their lives on another day. There were moments of discomfort, when the rabbis and the other visitors wished themselves elsewhere, but for the most part they were able to see the thing through. The Jews and the Spaniards were for the moment at peace.

Don José de Shapiro can perhaps settle down here after all, I thought, as I walked back from the bullfight to my hotel. His sons will go to school as Spaniards and parade at night during the cafe hour, bantering with the dark-eyed girls in the streets. Spain has rejoined Europe. What happened before was an accident of history. No nation—especially a Roman nation—can arrest itself, languishing forever in the 16th century.

No nation—except, of course, Spain. What proof had one anyhow that the centuries improved as they went on? The Spaniards knew better. They had seen their empire come and go, one stage ahead of the British. Were they really coming back into Europe now, or would they prefer to go on living by their private formula, in which fanaticism was the obverse of skepticism, and cruelty the strange bedfellow of gentleness?

I thought of the Inquisition. Everything else had happened before and elsewhere. But the Inquisition was different. For the Jews—as for the other Europeans—it was a ritual of cruelty, an affront to man’s humanity. For the Spaniards it was a triumph of consistency.

The Spaniards could treat with the rest of the world as long as it remained outside. But within the Spanish body itself, some constant auto da fé—an act of faith with its pyre of victims—had to testify to belief. This was how they waged their civil war, the eternal civil war that they had fought and re-fought for centuries. No mercy was ever asked for or given. Faith demanded its demonstration. With faith appeased, one could be quiet, courteous, gentle.

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Back at the hotel, I opened my Bible in Spain to the scene at Cordova where the old Carlist priest, no longer permitted to preach in the “liberal” era of 1835, contents himself and entertains Borrow by recalling the glories of the Inquisition in which he had served as a young man. Here were the Jews again, as large as life—larger indeed.

“Were you troubled with Judaism in these parts?” Borrow asks him.

“Wooh!” he replies. “Nothing gave so much trouble to the Santa Casa as this same Judaism. Its shoots and ramifications are numerous, not only in these parts but in all Spain; and it is singular enough that even among the priesthood, instances of Judaism of both kinds were continually coming to our knowledge, which it was of course our duty to punish.”

“Is there more than one species of Judaism?” asks Borrow.

“I have always arranged Judaism under two heads,” says the old man, “the black and the white. By the black, I mean the observance of the law of Moses in preference to the precepts of the church; then there is the white Judaism, which includes all kinds of heresies, such as Lutheranism, freemasonry, and the like.”

Borrow expresses his amazement that Judaism should be found among Catholic priests.

“Plenty of it,” says the old man, “whether of the black or white species. I remember once searching the house of an ecclesiastic who was accused of the black Judaism, and after much investigation we discovered beneath the floor a wooden chest, in which was a small shrine of silver, enclosing three books in black hogskin, which, on being opened, were found to be books of Jewish devotion, written in the Hebrew characters, and of great antiquity. And on being questioned, the culprit made no secret of his guilt but rather gloried in it, saying that there was no God but one, and denouncing the adoration of Maria Santissima as rank idolatry.”

“And between ourselves,” says Borrow, “what is your opinion of the adoration of this same Maria Santissima?”

“What is my opinion? Que se iol” says the old man, shrugging his shoulders. “But I will tell you. I think, on consideration, that it is quite right and proper. Why not? Let anyone pay a visit to my church, and look at her as she stands there, tan bonita, tan guapita—so well-dressed and so genteel—with such pretty flowers, such red and white, and he would scarcely ask me why Maria Santissima should not be adored.”

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The lecture next morning was a long penetrating study by a German professor putting the philosophy of Maimonides into its period. I found myself sitting next to a quiet little man who had come, he told me, from Marrakesh. He was with two others from the same town, and he pointed them out to me. There were other visitors also from Morocco, he said, from Safi, Casablanca, and Rabat. Looking at them in the hall, I saw something quite different in their faces from the other visitors; and as I talked with them, I began to understand what it was. The Jews had lived in these towns since the days of Maimonides—long before, indeed: as far back as the days of the Temple, some said. They were in effect Arabs, living in the squalor and ignorance of the mellah—the old Jewish quarter—cut off from the Western world, and existing only by fierce devotion to their religion. At the heart of this ancestral faith were two human figures, Moses and Maimonides, as real to them as Maria Santissima had been to the old priest. Moses was an Arab like themselves, a man close to the desert, a primitive man whose Commandments were all a man needed to know. Maimonides, who had come to live with them for a while at Fez when he fled with his father from the persecutions of Moorish Spain, was not a philosopher with views, but a wise man, the father, the healer, the saint. To the Jewish masses of the mellah the word had come that Maimonides was to be honored. In each town a few who could travel—traders whose work took them outside the narrow streets in which they had been born—banded themselves together to make the pilgrimage to the Cordova celebration. They listened to the lectures with the utmost intensity. They could hardly have understood the philosophy, but their lives were now graced forever by an intimate unity with their teacher.

There was a great serenity in such acceptance. I sat with my new friends all morning. In the afternoon I went with three of them to look at the old mosque, and then we walked for a while along the river bank while they talked to me in French about the lives they led. In the evening we sought out the “Synagogue of Maimonides” and heard the evening prayers read. It was a building that had been erected far later than Maimonides’ time, perhaps two hundred years later. But that made no difference. With its graceful arches and carvings, it seemed to belong to an eternal golden age. Somehow or other it had survived.

So the week passed. During the mornings we wandered over the medieval world with Averroes and Duns Scotus, or were led into the intimacies of the Responsa, the replies that Maimonides sent to inquirers in many countries on detailed problems of law and life. In the evenings we would gather at a café and tell each other stories, Don José excelling. In the newspapers, we read of a strike in Barcelona, a demonstration in Madrid calling for the return of Gibraltar to the Spanish, a speech of Hitler denouncing the Jews. It was time to go.

I traveled to Gibraltar on Friday in the same bus as the Moroccans, and left them at the bus station with warm farewells. Depositing my bag, I set out to find Dickie Fothergill. He was out when I telephoned the naval station. I left a message and went for a walk. Gibraltar was a cheerful place, yet I looked around me with unbelieving eyes: the sailors, the brick buildings, the tea shops, the cricket field—it had all overtaken me too quickly.

I strolled down to the harbor, and there on the quay, near the ferry for Tangiers, were my Moroccan friends. They greeted me with an outburst of warmth as if we had met in the desert, waving their arms, and chattering away in French.

As I stood with them, there was a great roaring of a car, and a big open Alvis drove up with Dickie at the wheel. “I thought it was you,” he shouted. “Just going for a swim. Hop in!”

It was rather strange. Seeing this big blond Englishman waving so cheerfully made it easier for me to realize what I wanted to do. I walked across toward the car. “I’ve changed my plans a bit,” I said to him. “I’ve decided to go over with my friends here. Following the trail to North Africa.”

He looked across at them. “Were they at Cordova with you?”

I nodded. “They’re from Marrakesh and Rabat and a few other places. I want to see what it looks like.”

He looked at them and at me and was silent for a moment. “Well, don’t stay away too long, old boy,” he said finally, bending forward to put the car into gear. He paused for a second and looked up. “You are coming back this way?”

“Oh yes, I’ll be back.”

With a wave of his hand and a roar from the exhaust he was off down the street. When I rejoined the Moroccans they looked at me questioningly. “I’ve decided to come with you,” I told them. “I’ll spend the Sabbath in Tangiers.” I went to get my bag, bought a ticket, and sat with them as we crossed the Straits.

I took a room in a small cheap hotel, and went straight to bed. I was very tired. In the morning, I got up early and found my way up into the old quarter. This was no Moorish town as Marrakesh and the others would be, but even here the fetid smell, the crumbling houses, the dark alleys of another world soon enfolded one. Children ran about, with sores dripping from their eyes, and a few scraggy dogs poked for food in piles of rubbish that lay around.

From a small open doorway I heard a low murmur of voices, a vaguely familiar sound, and I walked in. It was a dark low room, with a small dais in the middle from which a man was reading the Law in Hebrew. There were fifteen or twenty men in the room, all wearing prayer shawls. They sat or walked around, some talking, others listening abstractedly. There were some small boys there too. I sat down and listened. The Law was being chanted to a tune I had never heard before, but I knew the words.

Yes, I knew every word. I had heard them first in a little seaport town in the north of England, and I would always hear them that way, with the brisk east wind of the North Sea rattling the windows of the synagogue, and my father walking home with me afterward, our coats buttoned up tight, to the heavy Sabbath meal. This is how I would hear them. My children, if I had any, would hear something different.

Where were my roots? I looked around wonderingly at the hot dusty streets as I strolled down afterward toward my hotel. Some part of me, long unrealized, was vivid now. The words of the Law had fallen happily, comfortingly, on my ears. But the chant was different here. Behind the ancient sound, I was listening for a cheerful Yorkshire voice and the gulls’ raucous cry on a cold seashore.

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