In Plain Language: The song of the Marrano
As Rosh Hashana approaches, there stirs within Jews the realization that our fates, our very lives, have been placed in God’s hands.
The Great Synagogue Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ Ariel Horowitz
As Rosh Hashana approaches each year, there stirs within the Jew the realization
that our fates, our very lives, have been placed in God’s hands, and that He
will soon decide whether or not to grant us His greatest gift. The
rationalizations seem to melt away as we come to grips with what we are, how we
have lived, what we are capable of accomplishing, and how productively and holy
our days have been.
At no time is this realization as vivid as at slihot,
the prayers of penitence recited just before Rosh Hashana.
approaches, and others sleep at peace, the Jew is awake and aware. He is
vigilant now, for he knows that his life hangs in the balance, and his next
prayer may be the most important he has ever uttered.
All over the world,
as midnight approaches, the Jewish people will gather. In a squalid refugee camp
in Addis Ababa, in a kibbutz on the Mediterranean shore.
ln a tense and
tenuous synagogue in Tehran, in splendid opulence in Beverly Hills. At a
soldier’s lone outpost on the Lebanese border, in the small and large cities of
the globe, in every place where Jews may find themselves, this night is a night
of eternity, as still as the midnight air, as our lives approach a
There is another year and another time for Jews at the
crossroads. The year is 1497, more than 500 years ago; the place is Spain. It is
now almost five years since Judaism has officially been expelled and expunged
from the country, five years since Columbus set sail for the New World,
declaring on his triumphal exit that none of the lands which he would discover
were to be used for the Jew or the non-believer.
There are no synagogues
remaining in Spain, although just a decade ago there were hundreds of exquisite
and ornate houses of Jewish worship.
The sounds of prayer and
supplication which once echoed from the sanctuaries of this land have been
stilled. There are no longer any kosher butchers, nor is there even one mohel
left to perform ritual circumcisions.
The doors have closed on the Jewish
schools and Talmudic academies, exemplary institutions which for centuries
educated the young and the scholarly of this once-proud Jewish community. The
chief rabbis of Spain’s major cities, Reb Dov Ber of Granada and Rabbi Haim
Luzzato of Toledo among them, are gone now, either banished or
So, too, are their congregants a thing of the past. Most have
departed Spain by ship, even as Columbus sailed, seeking lands where they might
again openly practice their ancient heritage.
Many thousands have
suffered this cruel exile rather than adopt a new faith, a worse form of
punishment in their minds. Countless others have died for the sanctification of
His Name, sacrificed on the profane altar of the Inquisition. The perpetrators
of this inhumanity have written a new page in the annals of sadism, and have
created yet another sordid but stirring chapter in the history of the struggle
to be a Jew.
Only those Jews who have accepted Christianity have been
permitted to remain in Spain. Although they are closely watched by the priests
and the king’s guards, they are allowed to continue their lives here. Most of
them are wealthy and lead lives too comfortable to abandon, even for their
religion and their God. They have given public witness to their new-found
beliefs, though there are persistent, ugly rumors that they cannot be
“Once a Jew, always a Jew,” say the churchmen, but these Jews
have opted to capitulate rather than resist.
They have discarded their
Jewish identities for Christian ones, traded their freedom of religion in order
to remain comfortably ensconced within the amenities of life which surround
Such a person is Don Fernando Aguilar, the chief conductor of the
Royal Barcelona Orchestra. A tall and stately man, impeccably dressed with a
neatly trimmed goatee, he is known throughout the land, even to the king and
queen, as a master musician. His weekly concerts are the pride of Barcelona, and
the city’s nobility are regular guests in the front rows of his hall.
Fernando is a proud Spaniard, and his stature and musical acumen are his chief
adornments. He wears them as gallantly as his black silk cape and his gold
conducting rod. His music is his religion, and his musicians have a loyal
worship for his direction, even as a vassal would serve his
Don Fernando is also, by birth, a Jew, a fact not lost on
Barcelona’s clergy, who hold absolute power in all of Spain’s cities. Yet the
Don is tolerated, because of his immense talent and great reputation, and he
continues in his position seemingly unconcerned – unaware, almost – of the
strife his fellow Jews have suffered. His cool and controlled demeanor has
impressed the priests almost as much as the large gold cross he now wears
proudly at each of his concerts.
Yes, the great conductor has brought
much glory to the church.
It would seem that none may crack the stony
exterior of this nobleman, whose face never reveals what plays upon his mind;
whose hand leads a great symphony but is never tipped nor exposed. Yet we may
look inward at the Don, past his royal bearing, to see a very unusual
For Don Fernando Aguilar is a special kind of man: half-Jew and
half-Christian. He is a Marrano, a secret Jew, Christian on the outside but
Jewish deep inside. He is a man emotionally torn apart by conflict, possessing a
face and a heart that do not match. He can find no way to give up his faith, for
he is nothing if not a man of honesty and integrity, yet he also cannot abandon
his life’s passion, music, and the orchestra which he rules.
AND SO by
day, in the public eye, the Don is a paradigm of new-found allegiance to the
church, a friend and even a confidant to the clerical patrons of his art. But in
the deepest night, when shutters are drawn, he is a Jew, whispering the Shema,
kissing a mezuza which he keeps hidden in the floorboards, kindling a candle
with a furtive blessing, asking the Almighty to forgive him for his tragic way
In the year 1497, the leaders of the church have decided to
schedule a gala concert for Rosh Hashana night.
You see, they often test
the Don, and look for ways to prove his loyalty to them. They never cease to
watch him, to gauge his faithfulness, and a Jewish holiday is a very special
time for vigilance.
The Don gladly accepts their proposal, letting no
emotion show, yet he is fully aware of the momentousness of the date chosen for
the concert. Later, at home and alone, he breaks down in anguish and cries the
cry of the bereaved. Once again he will be made to desecrate God’s name, once
again he will be made a tool and a weapon against his people and his faith. He
knows he will be mocked, and that his tradition’s most sacred day will become a
further desecration of the Divine Name.
Yet still the Don informs the
leaders of the city that this concert of Rosh Hashana 5258 will be his most
spectacular ever. It will be a concert, he proudly announces, that will be
unlike any other ever seen in Barcelona – or all of Spain, for that matter. He
declares that this symphonic extravaganza will feature every musical instrument
known to man; a sublime cascade of orchestral delight for the greater glory of
From far and wide, musicians gather in Barcelona to prepare
for Don Fernando’s masterpiece. Hundreds of artists from throughout Spain bring
their instruments and their talents for their moment upon the stage. Every
conceivable instrument, from brass to percussion, woods and strings, is
represented. The Don spends long hours meeting with his musicians, rehearsing
and blending their wondrous skills.
Late on the Saturday evening before
the momentous concert is to take place, another meeting occurs at the Don’s
estate. This is highly unusual, for Don Fernando rarely allows others to intrude
upon the sanctity of his home. The purpose of this meeting is not known, but a
group of older men – apparently also musicians – meet at the Aguilar estate
until the early hours of the morning. It is another night of eternity, a night
of soul searching and soul expressing. Those who observe this shadowy gathering
assume that the old men huddling with the Don are expert practitioners of some
exotic instruments from rural Spain.
THE NIGHT of the great concert
arrives. Many hundreds of Spain’s magnificent personages are assembled –
including the Queen herself. The priests in the front row offer their accolades
and well-wishes to the Don as he takes the stage in his usual self-assured
manner. They notice – with some bewilderment – that he is not wearing the gold
cross as he always does, but they reason that he has forgotten it in all of the
How proud they are that a Jew has so completely and sincerely
forsaken his heritage and his holy day in order to become a true
The concert is a masterful display of orchestrated arrangement.
Hours pass like seconds as violins and harps and strings of all kinds blend with
cymbals and flutes, joining drums and bells in a wonderful display of melodious
Last of all, there is heard the sound of the trumpets, the
oboes and the horns, and their deep resonance fills the hall. Then, suddenly,
there is a moment of perfect silence, and the older men who had mysteriously met
with the Don days before rise among the other musicians on the stage. In their
hands are strange, curved horns, not seen before in this locale. As one, on cue
from the great maestro, they produce a series of shrill notes, some long, some
short, some a staccato wail.
One hundred notes are played in unison: the
Tekia, the Shevarim and the Terua. A long, sustained note that seems to last
forever ends the arrangement as the crowd wildly cheers this night of musical
magic. The concert has ended, and the Don takes his well-deserved
That was the last concert ever given by the illustrious Don
Fernando Aguilar of Barcelona.
Some say he retired to his country home
after his most triumphant achievement. Others say the church learned of his
deception and executed him in secret, so as not to reveal how he had fooled his
masters. What is known, however, is that the flames of Judaism within the
Marranos of Spain burned brighter after that night, and many left soon after for
a new life in a kinder, more spiritually hospitable place.
moment, too, the mystical sounds of the shofar have reached deeper into the
hearts and souls of its audience, striking a chord that reverberates within the
spirit of Man. It seems to find that Marrano within each one of us, and calls us
back to the pride and dignity which is both our duty and our destiny. In that
most eternal of sounds, stretching from the Shofar of Abraham to the Shofar of
the Redemption, our hearts and souls reclaim their truest and most harmonious
The writer is a member of the Ra’anana city council and
director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; firstname.lastname@example.org