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 credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Ariel Horowitz )
The Great Synagogue
(photo credit: 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.
As midnight 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 crossroad.
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 martyred.
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 trusted.
“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 them.
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.
Don 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 landowner.
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 creation.
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 of life.
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 the church.
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 excitement.
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 believer.
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 perfection.
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 bows.
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.
Since that 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 expression.The writer is a member of the Ra’anana city council and director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; [email protected]