Confronting the Spanish Inquisitors

How much of our anguish should we share with our children?

THE VILLAGE of Castrillo Matajudios (Kill Jews Fort), Spain, 2014. The book takes place during the era of the Spanish Inquisition (photo credit: RICARDO ORDONEZ/REUTERS)
THE VILLAGE of Castrillo Matajudios (Kill Jews Fort), Spain, 2014. The book takes place during the era of the Spanish Inquisition
Yes, as author Gail Carson Levine so movingly demonstrates, the life of Jews in 15th-century Spain was as fragile as a ceiling made of eggshells.
The question is: How much of our anguish should we share with our children?
How much potentially frightening information should we divulge to them?
When I was 15 in the 1950s, my mother died and the family kept this information – at least, initially – from my nine-year-old brother. On the day of her funeral, he was sent to a picnic with a neighbor’s family.
Yes, that was true folly, remarkable even for a decade full of bad ideas – hula hoops, racism, McCarthyism, slicked-down hair, etc. As a result, my brother for years was unable to accept her death.
If this book is any indication, things have changed radically in the ensuing 63 years.
In A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, supposedly written for kids eight to 12, Loma is kidnapped by a Christian family and then by a priest in her family’s synagogue.
She witnesses a pogrom, whose adherents are prevented from ravaging her home and family only by the intervention of her politically powerful grandfather. Christian priests continually threaten her with forced conversion. Jews of a nearby town are expelled, and she accompanies her grandfather and father on a journey to bribe the townsfolk to permit the Jews to return.
Worst of all, she and her grandfather, one of the leaders of the Spanish-Jewish community, are at the royal court when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella proclaim that all Jews will either have to convert or leave Spain.
The book, in short, presents a reality in which it was dangerous to be a Jewish adult or child.
Yes, it’s scary stuff. The question is does such knowledge strengthen a child’s resolve or does it simply scare the daylights out of him or her?
I believe this book definitely falls into the character-building end of the spectrum. Yes, Loma, who is seven-years-old at the beginning of the book, often is frightened and bewildered by her environment. But she also is extremely intelligent and creative and loves her family and her people. Her determination to help her fellow Jews is unwavering.
Despite the hostile environment, she never allows fear to keep her from acting. Her courage and innovative approach to crises are remarkable. Her love of, and loyalty to, the Jewish people is enhanced by contacts with her grandfather, with whom she often travels.

Planning to take her on a trip to the royal Spanish court, her grandfather says, “Queen Isabella will see a girl where girls usually are not. She may remember herself when she was a princess. Loma will raise us in her regard. … Loma will be good for the Jews.”
Her wisdom and understanding of life and of Judaism also grow from contacts with him. One of her brothers, Yuda, she learns, may convert. After the young man reveals his intentions to Loma, she begins to think about Christianity. In a discussion about religion, her grandfather tells her that Jewish “law isn’t about staying out of hell. It’s about how we behave and feel before we die.
That includes joy. We don’t have to wait to be blissful until we’re dead and have entered their heaven — after torment in their purgatory.”
Despite her grandfather’s enormous presence in her life, Loma’s strength seems to come from within. She is fleeing from the royal court, having put her grandfather, who had suffered several strokes, on a ship bound for Italy and safety.
She and Hamdun, a loyal Muslim family servant, are trying to return home. They join a caravan heading in that direction. Seeing a vulnerable child, the caravan master seizes all her money and jewels and Hamdun, as well.
The teenager appears to be lost. However, her quick thinking saves her. She tells the Christian caravan leader that she comes from a good family, and that she and her grandfather have dined with a local cardinal. She will put in a good word for him with that high-ranking prelate if he will return her possessions and Hamdun. He agrees to the deal.
This is a well-written, fast-paced book. If a parent needs to read it as part of the vetting process before giving it to his or her child, it will not be an unpleasant task. 
The writer is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available online.
By Gail Carson Levine
371 pages; $17.99