Friday, April 18, 2008

Looking for Convivencia: Tibet

Passover: a retelling of the journey from slavery to freedom; the leaving of our internal Egypt, the narrow place of our fears, our narrow ways of thinking, - and moving forward into unchartered territory. Jews everywhere are in a frenzy of cleaning, shopping, and cooking, getting ready for the seder. This family home ritual conducted as part of the Passover observance starts tomorrow night.

Arthur Waskow's Shalom Center sent out the following:
"This year, Roger Kamenitz, who wrote The Jew in the Lotus, and developed the Seders for Tibet, (a 'grandchild' of Arthur Waskow's original Freedom Seder) writes

Suggestions for Tibetan additions to seder:

Symbol: an empty picture frame placed beside the seder plate.
When we tell the story of our own slavery in Egypt we pause to
consider the current oppression in Tibet:

Tibetans are forbidden to have photos of the Dalai Lama in Tibet.
The Chinese government confiscates them. The Tibetans took to hanging empty picture frames. The Chinese police confiscated them as well..."

We embrace this addition to this year's seder. Looking for Convivencia does not only apply to Spain!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Looking for Convivencia: I Left My Heart in Cordoba

Timelessness happens in Cordoba. The stones of the small, and simple synagogue were cool to the touch. I could feel their roughness surrounding my back and shoulders as I huddled in a corner. This was not the site of a destroyed synagogue, or one 'built over' by a church. It was really still here. One of the Hebrew verses at the top of the North Wall, a plaque told us, was from Psalm 27:4, "one thing have I asked of God, one goal do I pursue: to dwell in the The Eternal's house throughout my days, to know the bliss of The Sublime, to visit in God's temple." The coarse broad stones held me up as the tears flowed. The Psalm in the synagogue of these Medieval Jews who lived The Convivencia, the people who translated the Greeks into Arabic, and from Arabic into Hebrew, who read Arabic love poems, is the same Psalm we recite today every day in the month leading up to the High Holidays in the Fall. A few feet away the guide was saying something to the rest of the group. It was a distant drone.

I was with my people, connected by this spare and humble building, feeling their prayers still inhabiting the space. Were any of my ancestors among them? Or was it a past life? I know I was here before. It was home.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Looking for Convivencia: The View from Toledo

Light poured through the stained-glass window, pooling on to the stone floor. The Toledo Cathedral was stunning, awesome beyond words. We ended our tour at a small courtyard surrounding what had once been an exit portal. There was a beautifully painted fresco around the archway and surrounding wall, but the content was confusing. It seemed to depict the capture and crucifixion of a young boy. It turned out that the Cathedral's exiting message to the Toledo populace over hundreds of years was the old blood-libel myth that Jews capture and kill young Christian children. And it was so beautifully painted...

La Convivencia, "The Coexistence", has its tensions and contradictions. There was no way to be in Spain during La Semana Santa, Holy Week, without falling under it's spell. Easter here was definitely not about chocolate and bunnies. If I were in India during a major Hindu festival, I would want to learn about it and experience its spirit. We had seen incredible floats depicting the Passion of Christ in Girona on Good Friday, which would be carried in procession on Easter Sunday. We had gone to the Granada Cathedral on Easter Sunday morning hoping to see Granada's floats. And yet, it was the zeal of the Inquisition that expelled my people, or forced them to convert to Catholicism, or burned them alive in auto da fe's. So, it was both like enjoying a Hindu fesival in India as outside observers, and not like it at all. How to reconcile the incredible beauty of the Alhambra with it being the place the Edict of Expulsion was signed in 1492? How to reconcile the fun of the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, with all its wonderful restaurants and shops, learning at the same time that it was a place that people came to watch Jews being burned alive in auto da fe's? And how to reconcile the beauty of Toledo's Cathedral, largely due to it's core of Moorish architecture and it's former life as a Mosque, learning that the Muslims were later also subjected to the same treatment as the Jews? And then the frescoe at its exit portal - essentially fine art used as hate speech?

The weird thing is that I came away in love with Spain, despite all the contradictions and unanswered questions. I understand why people became Conversos rather than leave the warmth and beauty of the land, the people, the climate, the wonderful mix of cultures.

Looking for Convivencia: Santa Maria La Blanca, Toledo

Only a small plaque on the walled entrance indicate that the Church of Santa Maria La Blanca was originally a synagogue in the twelfth century. A visitor wouldn't necessarily be aware of it, except perhaps for some Judaica in the adjoining gift shop. And this one hidden six-pointed star... Off in a corner, high up near the ceiling, added during a renovation, we would never have known it existed, had we not been told.

The Synagogue was considered an example of La Convivencia, "The Coexistence," when it was first built in Toledo in 1180: designed by Moorish architects on Christian soil for use as a Synagogue. The Moorish architecture is very beautiful, uplifting and inspiring. To simply say it became a church in the fifteenth century glosses the truth of the Inquisition.

I am intrigued by the one hidden six-pointed star, added in a later renovation. What is the back story? Was it a Converso workman who snuck it in? (A Converso was a Jew compelled to convert to Catholicism). Was there a Converso overseer who allowed it to slip by? Was it an act of civil disobedience? Why was it allowed to remain? Did La Convivencia go underground ? Did it remain in the hearts of of certain individuals, particularly those who had intermarried over the centuries, whose DNA was more like than unlike each others?

Still looking for Convivencia.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Looking for Convivencia

We got to the Museum of Jewish History in Girona, Spain, fifteen minutes before it closed early for Good Friday. The employees were Catholic, and were being given time off for the holiday. Worst of all, the bathrooms were out of order. It had been a long bus ride through gridlocked holiday traffic .

The previous evening, some of our group had gone to the synagogue in Barcelona to celebrate the Jewish Holiday of Purim. They reported a festive time, enclosed in careful security. The men were instructed to remove their kippah, (skullcap) upon leaving - that is, to remove overt signs of being Jewish. The group was told to disperse quickly afterwards, or go back into the building while waiting for the bus.

Today, back at work, I was telling my office neighbor about the trip. Her face froze in shock. She had never heard that the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, under threat of forced conversion or extermination. Same for the Muslims a little later on. And that Good Friday had in the past been a time for attacks on Jews.

We had signed up with a traveling university group, in search of La Convivencia, "The Coexistence," - a time when Jews, Muslims, and Catholics not only got along, but experienced a rich and deep cultural interplay. We treasured any glimpses both of Convivencia in the past, and hope for the present and future.