In her Havdalah, poet Marge Piercy tells us we are a “quilted people. . . a varied people braided into one.” My mother’s father was a Lanienter, my father’s mother was a Lanienter. The name became Lantor in the US. For at least 200 years, perhaps as many as 500, the Lanientor/Lantors have insistently taught their children the same genealogy, the same difficult-to-document oral history: We left Spain in 1492 for Italy. A family feud, the cause long-since forgotten, sent the family moving again, from Italy to Poland then to the US. The earliest immigrants to the US (my great grandmother’s family) went South.
Each year during Elul, I walk the medieval streets of what was once the Jewish Quarter of León, Spain, streets named after the artisans who once lived there: Calle Zapaterias, the street of the shoemakers, Calle Plata, silversmiths, Calle Azabacheria, jewelry makers. An even older street, Calle Prado de los Judios, the Meadow of the Jews is just outside the medieval wall because early on, Jews were not afforded the protection of the city walls after dark. How should I feel about these streets, this history? For the past 20 years, in early September León has participated in what are known as the “European Days of the Culture of the Jews.” Not to put too fine a point on it, having eliminated most their Jewish population, the apparent goal is to recover, acknowledge, celebrate Jewish culture. Over the years, we have seen truly touching performances, for example, as non-Jewish musicians earnestly work to recover Jewish medieval music and the instruments that would have been used to play it. Other aspects of Spain’s relationship to Jews are more troubling, and others downright horrifying. There is much to admire in Spain’s attempts since the 500th anniversary of the expulsion (in 1992) to come to grips with its history and essentially to atone. Historians across Spain have studied the Jewish history of 21 cities and produced a beautiful large-format book of text and photographs. The Jewish Museum in Seville is staffed by young people trained by quite knowledgeable and responsible historians. And then there are the other things. In 2017 a Christian Choir showed up in robes for an advertised Sephardic music concert in León only to announce counterfactually that since no one knows what Jewish music was like in the period, they would just sing their usual Christian program, “which is what the Jews would have heard at the time.” A visiting friend quipped, “when would they have heard it, while they were being tortured?” And there are horrifying things. In Granada there is a “Museum of Torture.” Two floors display instruments of torture from the Inquisition, a third is an exhibit of everyday Jewish life before the expulsion. This year, as part of the 20th Jornadas Europeas de la Cultura Judia” León mounted two evenings of lovely concerts of Jewish music. The following day there was a street theater performance on the history of Jews in León. It was Saturday afternoon; lots of people showed up with children for this walking performance through the barrio. There was a primly dressed narrator and then foolish performances for the groundlings (think Shakespeare).
The fools were Jews. They spent their time cheating people out of money and, after a money changing table was overturned, crawling on the ground yelling, “My money, my money.” The play ended with a reading of the full Edict of Expulsion. It was pretty disturbing. Our local UW program director confirmed that that is how people see (learn to see) Jews. After all, he said, “on Easter, when we go to a pub, we say we’re going to ‘kill the Jews’,” and each time someone drinks a shot, they say they killed a Jew.
So.... Here we are in the Days of Awe. Maimonides and the Shulchan Aruch teach that, in most instances, we are obligated to ask for forgiveness only three times. Surely Spain has done that. They’ve offered citizenship to descendants of those expelled in 1492. (This is not unproblematic; you have to be certified as Sephardic, preferably by a rabbi, and a non-Sephardic rabbi will not do. Troublingly, the privilege is not extended to Muslims). But still for these purposes let’s call that One. Spain has supported Jewish cultural events (Two). And they have retrieved and tried to live with their history. Throughout Spain, a quite beautiful brass marker of stylized Hebrew writing of the word “Sepharad” is placed in the pavement at sites of Jewish importance (that’s Three). In Jewish tradition, after three earnest attempts to acknowledge wrongs and seek forgiveness one is considered to have atoned; the sin then rests upon the person who refuses forgiveness. An orthodox ask-the-rabbi website [dinonline.org] says, “Our sages teach that whoever forgives the faults of others, will have [their] sins pardoned by Hashem.” This is not to say that all wrongs must be forgiven. Our tradition is quite clear about this. Some transgressions do not have to be forgiven, may be unforgivable. Abuse of a child by adults, for example, is not something one has to “get over.” And that abuse can take many forms.
Here I am going to step out of the frame of Spain for a moment to our recent shared experience. I am haunted by the words of Greta Thunberg these days. In her speech to the UN on climate change she was very clear: “If you choose to fail us, we will never forgive you.” “We will never forgive you” rings in my ears. She is right. This is a form of abuse of succeeding generations that does not have to be, perhaps cannot be, forgiven. In our machzor, the Marge Piercy Amidah tells us “Bless . . . what never frees us from the cost of knowledge, which is to act on what we know again and again.” The cost of knowledge. The High Holidays mark the birthday of the world. And we have almost come full circle. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge and are banished from Eden. Today, many refuse to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, and we are destroying Eden, and the world. We must not fail Greta’s generation and those that hopefully follow.
Greta tells us that climate inaction, destruction of the planet, is unforgivable. This might be a yardstick for the unforgivable. Returning to Spain: Are torture and expulsion unforgivable sins? Or is Spain a model of repentance, consistently struggling to live honestly with its history, even if it is not always successful, even if not all Spaniards are (at least yet) on the same page? And what does it say about me/us if we are not able to forgive? What more do we ask of people? We can recall a pre-rabbinic debate from the time of Hillel: Is this a let-those-who-are-without- sin-cast-the-first-stone moment? I walk the Spanish streets and wait to hear the voices of the ancestors. But they are silent; this is on me. I am left only with questions. In these Days of Awe and the ones that follow, whom do we forgive? For all that governments do in our name, whom do we/can we/should we forgive?