Sedarim were fantastic. I love my family so much, it's just such a great collection of brilliant, interesting, fun, caring people. And when you liquor us up...
I love my family's love of language, of languages, of wordplay. Our rich ways of infusing the traditions with life and surprising new meanings. My uncle spontaneously translated the Four Questions into Spanglish. My father refined his rant about how God tricked the Jews into the sin of the Golden Calf. My cousin and my brother debated the merits of Haggadah translations, mourning the loss of "a band of evil angels" in the new Shop Rite Haggadah. Had Gadya delivered simultaneously at four different tempos, as I showed off my Aramaic speed-reading and my dad thwarted my mom's attempts to hasten the end of the Seder.
And the immense pile of food, which also emphasizes the hybrid traditions my family observes. Pot roast and latkes and my grandmother's amazing mandelbread from my mom's Ashkenaz heritage, dishes with eggplants and dates and grapes from my Romaniot aunt, turkey and cranberry sauce and other dishes that have slowly invaded from Thanksgiving season...
For the past two weeks, I've been obsessing over various details of the new Pirate Rabbi story I'm hoping to write for good_ficday
. This has involved various complicated researches, trawls over obscure sections of the Internet, and several trips to libraries. It eventually led to me buying from Amazon and then reading over Shabbos Garcia-Arenal and Wiegert's A Man of Three Worlds
, which is the source text that Kritzler draws most of the information for his section on the Pirate Rabbi from in Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean
. (And yes, I know that sentence is horribly tortured and that I could easily split it into three sentences that would be clearer, but that's just my writing style. I like tortured syntax. Deal with it.)
My story is dangerous, in many, many senses of the word. To begin with the obvious, I'm writing a story about Jews for a fanfic festival geared around specifically Easter and generally Christian practice. So I'm consciously skirting the boundaries of the festival's parameters. But this is okay, I think. The major activity my characters do in the story is observe the Easter Vigil, which is rather the bigger problem.
My story is set in 1607 Madrid, where there were apparently a surprising number of 'judios de permiso', Jews from France or Morocco who had been given royal permission to temporarily reside in Spain after the Expulsion in order to transact some sort of business that the Crown or one of his favored subjects found necessary.
From 1603-1607, Samuel Pallache and his brother Joseph were judios de permiso, and the implication if you read through the lines of various historical documents is that around 1605, their families or part of their families may have left Tetouan in Morocco to join them in Madrid. Back in Morocco, a civil war was being waged between supporters of two of the sons of the dead Sultan, a civil war that was having tragic impact on the persecuted Jews of Morocco. The Palaches apparently hoped that by offering strategic information about the Moroccan civil war to King Philip III and the Duke of Medina Sidonia, they could make themselves useful enough to create a home for themselves in the old ancestral homeland.
It wasn't enough, though, and as they grew increasingly desperate, they decided to cast their last bargaining chip on the table. They persuaded King Philip that they intended to convert to Catholicism and serve as loyal subjects of the Spanish crown. None of the historical sources I have tell what came next in any detail, but the end result was that the Palaches spent five months hiding from the Spanish Inquisition in the French Ambassador's house and eventually they fled Spain and made their way to the New Jerusalem called Amsterdam.
On one level, writing this story is so easy. It's an Easter story, which means it's a Passover story, which means that this story of subjugation and subordination of belief, followed by dramatic rescue and escape to a land of freedom works beautifully on a symbolic level. I love it when the story's structure comes to me, so I don't have to work for it.
But mostly this story is hard as hell to write. Getting into the mind of these people who were so beaten down that they would throw around their souls as bargaining chips is a gruesome experience. And telling the story for the good-ficday challenge, where my goal is not to write a story that elevates Judaism by demonizing Catholicism, makes it even harder. I have to write this story about temptations and visitations that chill me to the bone and somehow find a way to find the good in my Inquisitors. And though I wrote the phrase 'my Inquisitors' unconsciously, I find I don't want to change it. This story has gotten to me to the point where it feels like the Inquisition is after me.
And then I've thrown additional challenges on the heap. I'm not particularly good at writing female characters, but I'm telling this story from the perspective of Malca Palache, Samuel's incredibly badass wife. It's something I need practice at. I keep having to go back and rewrite sections when I realize that I've missed something obvious that no mother could forget. I don't write women as faceless sex objects or anything that simple, but I definitely have to struggle with male privilege to create believable female characters. I was uncomfortable with the realization that in the 6 stories I wrote for purimgifts
, none of them had significant female characters, except for the Yocheved I mapped out in the reflections of her off Moses and Aaron.
And then there's all the research I've thrown into it, obsessing over details of 17th century baptismal practice because this is the kind of the story where that kind of thing matters. I keep going back and forth in my head about that, because there are parts of this story that are obvious fictionalizations, places where I'm just making things up because they work best or seem coolest, places where I have no information so I all I can do is just make a best guess. The more I write, working hard to create a world which is believable and realistic, the more I am conscious of the fact that my story is a fiction, a fiction where the Jews who fought desperately to make a life for themselves in an impossible situation have been transformed by my imagination and wishful thinking into heroes lacking the complication I find essential. I wonder if it's worth it to really care about the true historical facts of some of these details. But I think it probably is.
And I think this story as a whole is worth it. The themes here, the battle for faith in a changeable world, the quest for a place where you don't have to hide your true self, the belief in deliverance and the fear that you're compromising your position to deserve that deliverance... this is the world I live in as a Jew in 21st Century America as much as it was the world Samuel and Malca Palache lived in as 17th Century Jews in Morocco and Spain and the Netherlands. And to tell that story in a way that isn't preachy but features sword fights and suspense and tests of character is absolutely worth the pain it takes to get there.