Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Chocolate, Watches, Army Knives and a Lot of Other Stuff You Can't Afford (unless you also have a secret bank account here)--Zurich (March 29)

Rosa and I left Spain early in the morning and arrived in Zurich around noon.  Since we didn't depart for Israel until 10:45 pm, we had the day to explore the city.  I'd hoped to get up into the Alps as a kind of preview of Nepal, but Zurich is a good distance from the mountains, so we decided to just stay in town and do a walking tour.

The old heart of Zurich is charming, similar in ways to Amsterdam and, I suppose, many other northern European cities.  Quite different from Mediterranean nations like Spain and Italy and, for that matter, Israel.  Here, the world is greyer, much more efficient and business-like, and also more polite.  The first thing that Rosa and I both noticed is that people actually stop for you when you cross the streets.  That was a relief.  At lunch we walked into a pastry shop, which was mobbed.  Yet two men in their thirties--partners, I think--both immediately offered us chairs at their table and shared their stories and their chocolate.  They gave us some thoughtful advice on where to walk, what to see--and offered it in such an urbane, finely-mannered fashion.  Very Swiss.

Our walking tour included one of the Zurich synagogues.  It was closed when we arrived, but was handsome in a stolid sort of way, much like the big churches in town.  After being in Catholic Spain, one understands the Protestant Reformation better.  The churches here reflect that history, and they are quite simple and restrained--so different from the Spanish baroque. Interestingly, one of them has stained glass windows designed by Marc Chagall.  Unfortunately, it, too, was closed.

The weather was very chilly and damp all day, so we stopped at numerous occasions for pastries and hot drinks.  For this, we paid dearly.  Switzerland must be the most expensive nation on earth. Surprisingly, they use francs instead of euros, so we had to change money again.  It didn't go far.  One Swiss franc is worth just a little more than a dollar--and to give you an idea of the prices, a Big Mac costs twelve francs.  We didn't have one of those!  But our pasta lunch cost eighty dollars and two hot drinks at Starbucks ran to $16.  I could go broke in a week here. Fortunately, for the wallet at least, we only had a day.  And we spent all of our remaining change on wonderfully creamy chocolate bars.

At nightfall, we headed back to the airport and caught our flight to Israel.  More on that to come. 

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Shadow Knows--Free Day in Madrid (March 27)

On the recommendation of my Aunt Wendy and Uncle Larry, I spent most of my free day in Madrid in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, a world-class art museum right across the street from the Prado. 

This is a terrific gallery.  Its permanent collection offers a journey through the history of European art, from the late Middle Ages until the mid-twentieth century.  It was very enlightening to view so many paintings in chronological order, especially with the insights offered by the audio guide, which I rented for four euros.  I left with a stronger sense of the changing aesthetics, of how one school grew out of another.  I gained a new appreciation for the connections between contemporary abstract art and its more traditional predecessors.

But the highlight of the museum was a temporary exhibit called “La Sombra” or “the Shadow.”  It documents the changing ways that artists have employed and understood shadows in their work.  In fact, legend has it that European painting began with shadows (yes, I know this overlooks a great deal, including the cave art in France.)  As Pliny the Elder tells the story, a young woman of Corinth was filled with melancholy over her lover’s departure, so she traced his silhouette on the wall.  Apparently, in the ancient world, shadows cast over the ground were harbingers of death, but this vertical shadow, captured by her hand, would symbolize enduring life in his absence.  The exhibit opened with several paintings of this scene, with the classical maiden painting her lover’s silhouette by candle light.

The rest of the story followed, in rooms full of fascinating artwork.  During the Middle Ages, it was taboo to paint any shadows emanating from sacred figures.  This changed with the Renaissance, when artists began to employ shadow to lend depth to their subjects, adding a third dimension to formerly flat medieval scenes.  Painters from the Romantic period used shadows as symbols of mystery, moodiness and, above all, mortality.  Later still, the Impressionists were the first to paint shadows in colors other than black, exploring their richness of light and subtly changing hues.  And twentieth century art was highly influenced by the invention of photography, which renewed interest in the shadow as a subject in its own right.

All of this made me think of the first Jewish artist, the architect of the tabernacle, Betzalel, whose name means, literally, “in God’s shadow.”  What does this intriguing name come to tell us?  Perhaps human artistry is a kind of shadow of God’s creative power.  At any rate, artistry is abundant in this city, and nation, and it has been a great privilege to see it with Rosa and her classmates and their families.  I’ve experienced so much in Spain, especially a rich Jewish history that still has much to teach us today.

Tomorrow we will enjoy a quiet Shabbat in Madrid after the rest of the group leaves.  I thought about going to shul, but the only synagogues even remotely near the hotel are Orthodox, and I don’t want to leave Rosa up in the balcony for the morning (and don’t really want to davven where there is a mechitzah anyway.)  So we’ll take it easy and get ready for our departure on Sunday.  We’ll have most of Sunday in Zurich, Switzerland, so my next blog entry will be either from there or Jerusalem.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Guide for the Perplexed, and The Incoherence of the Incoherence--The Golden Age and Beyond (March 27)

From Sevilla, we drove upstream along the Rio Guadalquivir to Cordoba.  Here, as in Toledo, Grenada, Ronda, and all of the other ancient cities we have toured, the streets are both narrow and labyrinthine.  The guidebook that I purchased aptly notes, “The streets have, from Moorish times, changed their routes according to the needs of the houses and their residents rather than imposing their will on the whole shape of the city. . . They seem to be designed especially for visitors who are in no hurry, and their twists and turns increase the pleasure of strolling and observing.”  Indeed—and what an essential lesson in urban planning, especially for Americans, as we tend to be so focused on the destination that we miss the journey.

More than any other place, Cordoba exemplifies the Golden Age in Spain.  It was already established when the Romans arrived at the height of their empire, but it blossomed under the Moors in the ninth and tenth centuries—the zenith of both Islamic and Jewish influence on the Iberian peninsula.  The Moors conquered it in 711, made it the capital of al-Andalus in 716, and in 929 it became the seat of the western caliphate and the center of the intellectual world, rivaled by only Baghdad and Constantinople. 

The most outstanding monument to that glorious age is the Great Mosque.  It was built in the late eighth century, though many additions were made over the next two hundred years.  It is a magnificent structure, with hundreds of arches, composed of white and red sandstone, illuminated by hanging lamps.  As in the Alhambra, the elegant koranic calligraphy carved into the stucco walls, geometric designs, and brilliantly colored tile add to the aesthetic, which creates an atmosphere of tranquility, rationality, and meditative contentment.

Yet the most interesting thing about touring this mosque today is that it is in the middle of a Catholic cathedral.  The Christians re-conquered Cordoba in 1236; by that time, the Golden Age had already past, since the Islamic fundamentalist Almohads had invaded and occupied Cordoba from North Africa in the mid-twelfth century.  At any rate, a few hundred years later, in 1523, the Christians began construction on the Cordoba Cathedral—literally enveloping the mosque in its center.  The cathedral itself took centuries to complete, so in addition to the juxtaposition of Islamic and Christian elements, the church alone includes gothic, renaissance, and baroque design.  It is, without a doubt, the most architecturally eclectic building that I have ever seen.  Islamic prayer niches are filled with statues of the Madonna and child.  It is mind-boggling, and expresses, in a single image, much of the history of Spain.

And to top it all off, just outside the mosque/cathedral, one enters the former Jewish quarter of Cordoba.  It looks much like its counterparts in Toledo and Sevilla, with winding streets and trendy shops and galleries.  Rosa and I ate at the Juda HaLevi restaurant on the main street of the Jewish quarter, Calle de Judios.  Interestingly, most of the menu items at this place, named after one of the most famous Jewish philosophers and poets of Spain (“My heart is in the East and I am in the uttermost West”) consisted of varieties of ham sandwiches and seafood paella.  Rosa and I enjoyed a cheese pizza.

After lunch, we explored the Jewish quarter.  Interestingly, in a time when the Jews’ political fortunes in Spain were declining, the community’s most renowned native son—Moses Maimonides—was born here, in 1135.  He would become the greatest Jewish philosopher and legal scholar of all time, known as the Rambam, an acronym for Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon.  A traditional line sums up his achievement succinctly: “From Moses to Moses, there was none like Moses.”  His Mishneh Torah was the first systematic code of Jewish law, and his Guide for the Perplexed is the pre-eminent expression of Jewish philosophy.  Its audience is the enlightened Jew, who has studied both Torah and secular science, and is distressed by the seeming dissonance between the two.  Maimonides brilliantly re-interprets Jewish wisdom in light of the neo-Aristotelian philosophy of his age—and in doing so, remains a role model for all  contemporary Jews who live in both the Jewish and secular worlds and choose not to compartmentalize the two.  As a worldly scholar, he epitomizes the Sephardi ideal.

His statue occupies the center of Tiberius Plaza, named after the town in northern Israel where he is buried.  It is a long-standing Cordoban custom to rub Maimonides’ foot while passing the statue.  This, apparently, brings good luck.  That’s a bit ironic, since Maimonides left here when he was only twelve years old, after the invasion of the Islamic fundamentalist North African Almohads sparked a wave of anti-Jewish persecution.  Their rule was also a bane to Maimonides’ Islamic counterpart, his fellow Cordoban, Averroes (Ibn Rushd), whose statue stands outside the Almodovar gate, a stone’s throw from the old Jewish quarter.  Although there is no evidence that Maimonides and Averroes knew one another, they pursued similar endeavors, and occupy similar positions in their respective religious communities.  Averroes’s magnum opus is The Incoherence of the Incoherence (there’s a good academic title!)  It is a brilliant critique of fundamentalist narrow-mindedness, and the ruling Almohads responded by banishing him from the city and burning the book.

From Cordoba, Maimonides fled with his family to Fez.  He eventually landed in Egypt, where he wrote his masterworks and served as physician to the sultan.  Interestingly, his experience under the new, reactionary Islamic regime influenced one of his essays, the Epistle on Martyrdom, in which he suggests that persecuted Jews should publicly convert to Islam while secretly practicing Judaism, rather than seeking martyrdom. He adds that one should then seek to move to a place where s/he can again live openly as a Jew.  This strikes me as solid thinking.  We, Ashkenazic Jews, tend to glorify martyrdom—but generally do so when talking about others rather than ourselves, which is rather cheap and easy.  It is important to note that the Rambam speaks of situations when the conversion is temporary.  I also recognize that publicly converting out is different from doing so privately.  There are certainly instances in which it is better to die a martyr than to break faith.  But there are, I believe, more instances when one is justified in choosing life.  Surviving isn't everything, but its significance shouldn't be underestimated.  To put this in a more contemporalry context, it is worth asking oneself: were the people who died in the German death camps  morally superior to those lucky few who were able to attain false papers, hide their identity and pass as non-Jews?  As for me, I think martyrdom is a vastly over-rated experience.  While there are, indeed, things I'd like to think I'd be willing to die for, here I’m with the Rambam.  He essentially argues that since the Almohads knew that Jewish professions of Islamic faith were insincere, they constitute the sin of making a false utterance—which is permissible for the sake of pikuach nefesh, or saving life.  Jane Gerber, the author of The Jews of Spain, notes: “This response served to counteract the wave of despair among the Jews of Morocco.”  

After passing the Maimonides statue, we toured Cordoba’s only remaining synagogue.  It is not from the Golden Age; it was built under the Catholics, in 1315.  It resembles its larger counterpart in Toledo.  It isn’t hard to see echoes of this Islamic-influenced mudejar architecture in my own synagogue in Boise, with its arabesque arches and geometric stained glass windows.  This is no coincidence; American Jews of the nineteenth century often saw the Golden Age in Spain as a pre-cursor to their own experience in the United States.  We shall see if we can enjoy as long a run as our Sephardi predecessors did.

We completed our tour of Cordoba with a walk through a typical Sephardi home of the time, built around an elegant courtyard and filled with exhibitions on Jewish literature, holy days and cuisine.  The kitchen featured a poster inscribed with Maimonides’ dietary advice; as a physician, he recommended that men avoid eggplant.  I follow his advice assiduously.

Leaving Cordoba, we took the speedy and stylish bullet train back to Madrid.  Tomorrow, we will have a free day there, then Rosa and I will depart for Israel on Sunday morning.

Alas, I have no pictures from Cordoba, as I left my camera on the bus.  I did, however, take some movies with my mini-video camera, and will post them soon.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Ferdinand the Bull and the Reconquista--Ronda and Sevilla (March 25)

We began our morning with a very windy drive into the mountains to the town of Ronda, which is known as the capital of los pueblos blancos, “the white towns” that are nestled high in the Anadalusian hills.  It is an extraordinarily beautiful place, reminiscent of Tzefat, with crisp mountain air, winding streets, and charming houses.  Here, the buildings are all white-washed, with red terra cotta roofing.  A river divides the town into two parts, and it runs through a deep canyon, traversed by an elegant and very high old bridge.  Shops and cafes line the gorge.  This would be a wonderful place to come for a few weeks, to write and enjoy the scenic, relaxed pace of life.

We had about ninety minutes of free time in Ronda, which I used to hike down to the bottom of the gorge.  It was a lovely walk, through green chaparral, which reminded me of the California coast—full of flowering shrubs, especially yellow-blooming mimosa trees.  I descended as far as the ancient Arabic walls of the city, then took a few pictures looking back up toward the bridge and the stream that runs under it. 

I then returned to our designated meeting place, the bull ring in the central plaza of town.  It is the oldest in the country (and hence in the world), for bullfighting began in Ronda.  A large bronze statue of a bull stands outside.  Later, our guide explained the origins of the sport, which dates back to the 13th century.  During the Reconquista, as the Catholics sought to re-conquer Spain from the Moors, their armies trained by fighting against large, angry bulls.  The locals would flock to the training grounds, eager to witness this spectacle.  Thus the sport was born, and though the Reconquista came to an end in 1492, bull fighting’s popularity and pageantry continued to grow.  Today it remains immensely fashionable, with a season running from the weekend after Easter until mid-October. 

As we drove out of Ronda, our guide Fernando pointed out the cork trees scattered through the countryside.  The cork used for wine bottles comes from the bark, so the tree is stripped bare almost all the way up its trunk.  The farmers then paint the denuded tree with a protective anti-biotic.  It takes five years for the bark to grow back, whereupon it is re-harvested. 

Eyeing the cork trees immediately after leaving Ronda, the home of bullfighting, I thought of the book Ferdinand, which was one of my childhood favorites.  It tells the story of a young bull who refuses to join his peers in their macho fighting; Ferdinand prefers to sit beneath a cork tree and smell the flowers.  I thought to myself: Ferdinand could be a kind of symbol of the Golden Age in Spain, a time of peaceful co-existence between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.  The violence of the Reconquista, symbolized by the sport of bullfighting that emerged from it, put an end to all of that.  The story of Ferdinand sitting beneath his cork tree itself recalls the time envisioned by the prophet Isaiah, when “every man shall sit beneath his vine and his fig tree, and none shall make him afraid.”  This story still gives me hope.

We arrived into Sevilla (Seville) on the main thoroughfare into the city, Kansas City Street.  Apparently, the two are sister cities, and Kansas City features a Seville Street (Andy and Lynn—you’ll have to confirm this for me.)    The outskirts of the city are shabby and dilapidated; our guide explained that this is typical of large European cities.  In America, the slums are usually in the inner city core; here, the heart of the city tends to be the beautiful old historic zone, and the public housing rings the city. 

Sevilla is home to over one million people, and it is known for its mujadar architecture, which is an Islamic aesthetic built under Christian sovereignty.  The central plaza is Cathedral Square, and it features the three primary powers of sixteenth century Spain: the Church (Santa Maria Cathedral), the monarchy (Royal Palace), and the economic barons (mercantile center and shops).  We toured the cathedral, which is the third-largest in the world, after St. Peter’s in the Vatican and St. Paul’s in London.

The cathedral is built directly over the foundation of a mosque; its bell tower was originally a minaret.  In 1401, the mosque was torn down by the conquering Catholics, and the church was built over the next two hundred years in high gothic style.  It is an ornate place, with a huge treasury of gold and ritual objects.  The main alter piece is composed of over 1500 figures carved from Lebanon cedars overlayed with gold.

It is a glorious space—but one wonders, looking up at the high ceilings, how many people were killed or crippled during the construction.  The beauty of this place was purchased dearly, and built on a foundation of blood.  The mindset is pretty foreign to me.  In my tradition, pikuah nefesh, the saving of life, takes precedence over nearly all the other commandments, so I can’t conceive of a Jewish building that would pay homage to God by sacrificing humanity.  As Heschel noted in The Sabbath, we seek holiness in study, and sacred deeds and times.

In the center of the cathedral, one finds the tomb of Christopher Columbus—or at least one of his tombs.  Columbus’s body was moved several times, from the Dominican Republic, where he died, to Cuba and then back to Spain.  Both Santo Domingo and Sevilla claim to possess Columbus’s remains; recent DNA testing suggests that they may have been divided, leaving both places partially right.

At any rate, Columbus’s tomb in the cathedral in Sevilla is a grandiose monument.  Four horsemen bear his body, which, by naval tradition, must not touch the ground.  The horseman on the front right has impaled, with his lance, a pomegranate with a crescent moon carved into its side, a symbol of Catholic hegemony over the Moors.  The church had no qualms about triumphalism in the sixteenth century.

Leaving the cathedral, just behind the royal palace, one enters Sevilla’s old Jewish quarter.  Today this is a funky, upscale neighborhood with narrow streets, handsome iron balconies, expensive homes and chic boutiques.  Eight hundred years ago, it was a lively Jewish center under the Moors.  The Catholics re-took Sevilla in 1248, but the Jewish quarter continued to thrive under Christian sovereignty for another one hundred and fifty years.  The proximity of the palace afforded the Jews protection, for they enjoyed the patronage of the royal family, for whom they performed significant financial services.  The Church prohibited Christians from lending to other Christians at interest, so the Jews became the bankers, a profitable but also perilous position to hold.

All of this changed in the summer of 1391, when a terrible pogrom broke out in Sevilla.  Undeterred by the Church and the Crown, Christian masses stormed the Jewish quarter, looting the synagogues, which were soon converted into churches.  Four thousand Jews were massacred and over five thousand more driven from their homes.  Hundreds—maybe thousands—were forcibly converted to Christianity.  Yet many of these conversos continued to secretly practice Judaism. 

As a result, “New Christians” were viewed with great suspicion by the rest of Spanish society.  With them in mind, Ferdinand and Isabella launched the infamous Spanish Inquisition in 1478. The notorious Grand Inquisitor, Tomas Torquemada, lived in Sevilla for many years, torturing and imprisoning scores of suspect conversos.  The first auto da fe occurred on February 6, 1481; six accused New Christians were burned at the stake for Jewish heresy.  Even the expulsion of the Sephardic Jews, eleven years later, did not halt the horrors of the Inquisition, which continued to hunt down and persecute accused conversos for centuries to come. 

Today, the former Jewish quarter is known as the Barrio de Santa Cruz, the Neighborhood of the Holy Cross.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Rock of Gibraltar and A Lot of Empty Doorposts

Our itinerary today was a trip across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco.  We woke early, drove about an hour to the ferry, then took a very cushy boat ride to Ceuta, a Spanish outpost on the North African coast.  During the ride, we passed the famous rock of Gibraltar.  This long-time fortress was disarmed after Britain entered the European Union, but it remains a British territory.  Today it is mostly a tourist site; we gazed at it in passing, across the ferry’s wake.

From Ceuta, we caught a bus to the border crossing in Morocco.  This is in many ways similar to entering Tijuana or any other Mexican border town—you know, right away, that you are entering the third world.  The contrast is striking.  Smugglers scurry across the dunes above the crossing, and the police are omnipresent, though also a bit lackadaisical. 

After entering Morocco, we drove ten miles to the city of Tetouan, which was established as a cazbah, or garrison point, in 1288.  We picked up our guide, Abdul, who would be with us for the day.

He was a character.  He immediately began referring to all of us as “my family” and every other word out of his mouth was shukran, the Arabic term for “thank you.”  He also asked us to call him “Michael Douglas,” joking that he bore a resemblance to that American actor (and then asking every woman in our group if she wanted to be his Catherine Zeta Jones.)  Most of our group found him charming; I didn’t.  I found him to be strikingly obsequious and insincere.  Being with him reminded me of my time living in the south in the United States, where everyone is fastidiously courteous—which only makes it harder to know when they are planning to knife you in the back.  My roommate on this tour, Steve Knick, who has spent a good bit of time in the third world, suggested that just beneath the surface of Abdul’s solicitousness lay a thinly-veiled sense of contempt.  Indeed, as we toured Morocco, I had that sense constantly: everyone showed a kind of deference that felt like the gilding over a great deal of jealousy and hatred.  This is not so surprising, of course, and even quite understandable.   They need our money and perform aggressively for it, but they hate the fact that they need it, hate themselves for needing it, and hate us for being at the other end of that need.  And I have no doubt that we Americans must come off as incredibly arrogant to these poor Moroccans—whose proud culture ruled the world fifteen hundred years ago.  

And yet, I was also surprised by an exchange I had with Abdul late in the day.  As we entered a shop, he approached me, pulled me aside, and asked, "Are you Jewish?  You look Jewish."  I thought for a moment, then nervously answered, "Yes.  I am a rabbi," not knowing what to expect.  He smiled and said, "I knew you looked Jewish.  In school, I once had a Jewish friend. Salaam."  So maybe I got this all wrong.  I still don't know.  All that I do know is that it is a strange and complicated relationship we have, Jews and Muslims, Islam and the West. 

At any rate, our day in Tetouan reminded me very much of a day spent in the Old City of Jerusalem, or the souk in Istanbul.  The old part of the city, the medinah, was what all of these places are: colorful, loud, vibrant, exotic, enervating and fascinating and a kind of guilty pleasure.  We toured a spice shop and a carpet purveyor and got pitched constantly and very aggressively at both.

The most interesting, and poignant part of the day, for me, was when we passed through the Jewish Quarter of the city.  Before 1948, Tetouan was home to a very large Jewish population.  After the creation of the state of Israel, the community basically left, en masse.  There were two reasons for this: the appeal of having our own nation, after two thousand years of exile, and the fact that in the wake of the War of Independence, the losing Arab nations made life miserable for their Jewish occupants.  At any rate, I was struck by the empty niches on all of the doors in this section, which still indicated, very clearly, where the mezuzahs had once been fixed to their Jewish homes.  

We returned to Spain that evening with the sense of relief one feels upon re-entering the West—and a renewed sense of just how very luck we are to live where and when we do.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Alhambra and Abravanel's Revenge

We spent the first half of the day at the Alhambra, the Islamic fortress of al-Andalus.  It was a palace, a fortress, and a small city, housing over two thousand people at the height of its glory.  Its name means “the red one,” referring to the red local stone from which it was constructed in the 13th and 14th centuries.  It was the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian peninsula, falling in 1492.  The sultans of Grenada lived there, along with their harems, advisors, entourage, and soldiers. 

The sultan’s gardens cover much of the grounds, and they are extraordinary.  The Moors who built the palace were not long-time gardeners, as they were desert dwellers, from North Africa.  But they were influenced by the Persians and the famous gardens of Baghdad, so they shaped their landscapes in that tradition: interior walled courtyard gardens that emphasize symmetry and tranquility, with water features at the center.  Each garden contains a combination of fruit trees, flowers, vegetables and herbs, making them both beautiful and practical.  They embrace nature rather than conquering it.  We could learn a lot from these gardens, which are soothing, meditative—and ecologically sound. 

The central garden, outside the sultan’s living quarters, contains a fountain made up of twelve lions.  This was a gift from the Jews of Grenada to Sultan Mohammed as a sign of friendship.  The lions represent the twelve tribes of Israel.  What a lovely thing—a powerful symbol of peaceful co-existence in `a bygone age.

The palace of the Alhambra is mind-boggling.  Each room is more amazing than the last, with koranic verses in elegant calligraphy filling the walls, brilliantly colored tiles, arched windows, and ceilings right out of “Arabian Nights.”  The effect of the whole was restful, ordered, inspiring.

I was especially struck by one room, which served as the sultan’s hall of justice until Ferdinand and Isabella took it over and made it into their own royal chamber.  As a result, the walls feature tile plaques with the motto of each kingdom.  The original design, for the sultan, proclaimed, in Arabic, “Allah is the only victor.”  When the Catholic monarchs conquered the palace, they inscribed their own motto, in Latin: “Plus Ultra,” which translates, roughly. into “More Beyond” or “Always More.” 

The difference between these two mottos explains a lot.  It captures the divergence between the Royal Palace in Madrid and the Islamic palace of the Alhambra.  The Royal Palace is all about excess, about showing off one’s wealth, about “Plus Ultra.”  The Muslims seem more secure with their power and affluence, not needing to be so showy.  They are more concerned with symmetry and beauty than ostentatious display—which is not surprising given their tradition’s ban on imagery and inclination to attribute all success to God rather than their own human glory. 

And I think that this difference also helps explain why the Golden Age for Jews in the Iberian peninsula happened under Islam.   It strikes me that at its height, the Islamic empire was secure enough to tolerate, and even empower Jews.  By contrast, the Christian empires, for all of their gaudy glory, were at heart always insecure.  We Jews, despite our meager numbers, somehow constantly represented a threat to them.  They feared us, and because they feared us, they persecuted us.  Perhaps the same insecurity that led them to display their power so ostentatiously also led them to oppress us.   Similarly, the self-confidence of medieval Islam was good for the Jews.   It is interesting to contemplate the implications of such a theory for our own time, when anti-Semitism is the order of the day in an Islamic world that has fallen so far from its glory days.

After leaving the Alhambra, we were given an hour to eat our lunch in Grenada.  I used this time to walk to the Grenada Cathedral.  There, in the Royal Chapel, one finds the graves of Ferdinand and Isabella.  Over twenty years ago, I wrote my rabbinic thesis on the Spanish expulsion, so I have lived with Ferdinand and Isabella and their villainy for a long time.  Remembering Don Yitzchak Abravanel, the courtier who vainly pleaded with them to revoke the decree, and Maimonides and Solomon Ibn Verga and so many, many more of my people, I had a mission to find that place and stand on their graves.  I would have spit if I could have.  Instead, I quietly gave them the middle finger, then said “Shehecheyanu,” celebrating the fact that they are dead and I am here.  Then, in a salute to their other victims, I went to an Arab stand and bought a falafel for lunch.

We spent the rest of the day driving to our hotel in Costa del Sol, along the beautiful Mediterranean coast.  Tonight we go to sleep early, as we head across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco tomorrow.

Into Andalusia--Toledo and Grenada (March 22)

We began the day driving to Toledo, about an hour from Madrid.  Approaching the city, the terrain becomes much hillier, with wide vistas.  After the extremely crowded streets of Madrid, it felt good to enjoy the open space again.

Toledo enjoys a magnificent setting, high on a mountain, surrounded by its still-intact and formidable medieval walls and a fast-running river crossed by several ancient bridges.    We drove around the circumference of the city, taking in the view from above, then entered near its highest point and commenced our walking tour through the town.  Our local guide warned us repeatedly about staying with the group, emphasizing that getting lost in Toledo would be a very bad thing.  This hit home the moment we began to make our way down the streets, for they are both narrow and labyrinthine.  Toledo was clearly built long before automobiles.  Strolling down its streets, one realizes how much we give up by designing our cities around our cars.  In exchange for convenience, we lose a great deal of charm and quiet.

Enjoying our walk, we eventually arrived at the Cathedral of Toledo, the center point of the city.  Toledo is home to ten thousand citizens—and eighty churches—thereby generating the phrase, “Holy Toledo!”  The cathedral, the mother church, is a typical medieval gothic structure, with dark spires and arches.  We did not go in, as they were conducting their Sunday mass.

The other church we visited in town was St. Thomas, which is best known as the home of El Greco’s masterpiece, “The Burial of the Senor of Orgaz.”  Painted in 1588, it has the other-worldly, ghostly look of many El Greco works.  The guide was very helpful, pointing out a number of features in the painting that enabled me to appreciate it more than much of what I saw, unguided, in the Prado.  Apparently, this was one of the first paintings to capture transparency in a garment.  Impressive, though still not really my cup of tea.

Then we entered the Jewish Quarter, and one of the two synagogues in town, the Transito.  It was built in 1346, after Rabbi Shmuel HaLevi raised the funds for it.  His statue stands outside (not sure if he’d have approved of that or not!)  At any rate, it is a gorgeous building, done in the Moorish fashion.  In fact, apparently Muslims designed and built the place.  The walls are filled with Islamic geometric designs, and key-hole windows, while the ceiling is rich, dark wood lattice.   It was wonderful to stand in a synagogue in Spain.

And our local tour guide did a superb job explaining its history and that of the Jews and Muslims in al-Andalus, ancient Spain.  He told us that in 1992—the five hundredth anniversary of the expulsion of the Jews—King Juan Carlos of Spain invited the Israeli prime minister, Yitzchak Rabin to this synagogue.  There, in an elaborate ceremony, the king took a handwritten copy of the expulsion edict and tore it up, apologizing for that chapter of Spanish history and inviting the Jews to return.  Our guide then added: “This synagogue is waiting for a Jewish community to come back and claim it.  When they come, it will be theirs.”  What a lovely dream, and nice to know that there are moments of grace and progress in history.

We spent the rest of the day making the four hour drive to Grenada.  We passed through the district of La Mancha and stopped at a windmill.  You could just imagine Don Quixote jousting at it.  It looked exactly like the prints that hung on the walls of all of my friends’ houses in the 1970s, featuring the “Man of La Mancha.”  Apparently, Don Quixote is now the third-most translated book in history, following the Bible and the text which recently bumped it from second place—Harry Potter.  I could hear my father singing one of his favorite show tunes: “To dream the impossible dream. . .”

We enjoyed a lunch in the very quiet farm town of Puerto Latife, sitting in a beautiful sun-drenched courtyard with our sandwiches and cervesas (beer).   The locals chatted with us across the language barrier, asking about America with great curiosity.  What a pleasure it is to be able to travel proudly again, thanks to Barack Obama and the end of the Bush administration!  And how good it was to eat slowly, to re-set our clocks to the relaxed Mediterranean pace.  We miss so much as we move so fast.

We arrived in Grenada around dinner time, passing through the snow-covered Sierra Nevada mountains and hillsides lined with olive trees as far as the eye can see.  Apparently, the olives are all picked by Gypsies, who beat them out of the trees by hand, catching them in nets.  We get our share of olive oil here, as in all Mediterranean cuisine.

For the evening’s entertainment, we went to a Gypsy cave to watch flamenco dancers.  This entailed driving up the narrow streets of the town to a steep hillside neighborhood where the Gypsies settled after moving here from India long ago.  They brought the music and dance of flamenco with them. 

The show was wonderful.  Two family groups danced and played, with a short intermission/wine break in between.  Each had a guitar player, a singer, and the rest of the family, who took turns dancing and clapping their hands to complex rhythms.  Meanwhile, the dancer pounds her heels rapidly on the floor, reminiscent of clogging or tap dancing.  The dancers wear beautiful frilled skirts, which they swirl as they perform.  I loved watching the interplay between the dancers and the musicians and singers.  The music urges on the dancers, and the dancers push the musicians in a passionate mutual exchange.  It’s a fascinating mix, classically feminine and fierce at the same time.   

We ended the evening with a walk through the gypsy quarter, to a view of the Alhambra, brilliantly illuminated against the night sky.  Tomorrow, we will tour there.

Madrid, Guernica and Tapas (March 21)

After a long series of flights, we arrived in Madrid last night and checked into our hotel.  We did a short driving tour of the city, which is both very crowded and also very graceful. 

Our first stop of the morning was the Royal Palace, which was right across the street from our hotel.  The palace was built in the 19th century, for the Bourbon dynasty, which succeeded the Hapsburgs, and it reflects their French origins.  The architecture and the décor are both heavily influenced by the palace in Versailles.  We walked through dozens of rooms, but saw only a fraction of the palace, which has over two thousand!  Each was decorated in a different style and color theme, with magnificent chandeliers and ornate furniture and frescoes.  The place is very rococo—decorated to the hilt.  Seeing it, I felt more empathetic towards those who launched the French Revolution.  The current Spanish monarchs, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia do not live in this palace, preferring more subdued environs in a more modern palace outside the city.

Next we drove around the city of Madrid for a few moments as our guide, Fernando, offered a capsule history of Spain.  Here, of course, one sees that so much of history depends on the vantage point of who is telling the story.   Fernando noted that Spain really became a nation-state in 1492, with the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella.  Of course that date was not such a propitious one for Spain’s Jewish and Muslim populations, whose history on the Iberian peninsula came to an end on that occasion.

Spain is an interesting place to tour as a Jew.  Our people have such a rich history here.  It ended with tragedy, with the expulsion in 1492, but it was full of glory and achievement, too.  I got a symbolic taste of this history this morning.  As we drove, we passed a few anti-Semitic pieces of graffiti, which were not too hard to understand even without any Spanish: “Israel Genocido.”  On the other hand, on the elegant plaza outside the royal palace, people danced while a street musician played Hava Nagillah on his accordion.

One sees this history in the diet, too.  The most popular food here is ham.  There are so many pork products, served at virtually every meal.  Our guide told me that this was a diet consciously constructed by the Church after the Reconquista.  Once the Moors were conquered and the Jews expelled, the eating of pork was emphasized as a way of celebrating that Catholic victory, and also rooting out those who were secretly practicing Judaism or Islam.  Downtown Madrid even features a “Museo de Jamon—the Museum of Ham.”  Rosa took my picture just outside that museum.  Maybe we get the last laugh after all.

We spent much of the afternoon at the Prado, the national art gallery, featuring the work of Spanish masters such as Goya, Velasquez, and El Greco.  Both the art and the architecture of the place were like the Royal Palace—ornate, gilded, lavish.    And overwhelmingly Christian, mythological, and military.  Basically, the collection consisted of room after room of gods and generals, angels and saints.  After a fairly short time, I began to find all of this Catholic art more than a little tedious.  So many crucifixions,  resurrections, annunciations. . .  and battle scenes.  I know that each offers unique perspectives, but still, I can only view so much of it before blurring over. 

I was, however, struck by the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch, known here as El Bosco.  They are surreal, and very modern.  The most famous is his triptych, “Garden of Earthly Delights.”  The panel on the left portrays the Garden of Eden.  The panel on the right shows the inferno of hell.  And the middle section shows earthly existence—or at least a kind of surreal version of it.  As I viewed the work, it struck me that Bosch and all the rest of the artists of his time suffered from a considerable problem: they wish to show the torments of hell and the bliss of paradise, and thereby induce the viewer to live morally, in consonance with the teachings of the Church.  But as any actor knows, the evil part is always the most interesting.  The liveliest parts of the Bosch work—and many others in the gallery—all fall on the side of hell.  Paradise is dull in its bliss.  Hell is pulsing with life.  Sin is intense and vibrant.  Goodness is ethereal. 

And what the gallery lacked, almost entirely, was paintings that showed real human life, ordinary goodness as opposed to heavenly sanctity. That’s why I like the Dutch masters better than the Catholic painters: they show such an interest in every day existence—commerce, love, loss.  There is something deeply human, humanistic, about them that I don’t see in the Spanish and Italian masterpieces. 

We finished the afternoon at another gallery, the Reina Sofia, which houses the Spanish national collection of modern art.  I’ve never thought of myself as a huge fan of contemporary art, but after the Prado (and the palace before it) I found it a relief to be in a museum with white walls, clean lines, abundant light.  I wasn’t crazy about most of the work—rooms full of Miro and Dali.  And above all, Picasso.  His most famous piece here is “Guernica,” which he did in response to the bombing of the Basque capital during the Spanish Civil War.

Looking at “Guernica” and the other Picasso works was very interesting.  I found most of Picasso’s paintings of women to be terribly unappealing, to the point of grotesquery.  They reek, to me, of misogyny.  And yet, ironically enough, when I experienced “Guernica,” it suffered from the opposite problem, which is to say it did not seem grotesque enough.  This piece was created as a response to the horrors of war, but it struck me as way too mild.  I suspect this reflects the passage of seventy years.  When Picasso painted the work, war-time bombings of civilians were a new phenomenon.  Over the intervening decades, we have seen so much genocide, destruction and violence that it now takes a great deal more to shock us out of our complacency.  Picasso’s once terribly daring piece now strikes me as a bit naïve.  What a sad fact!

We ended the day by dining at a local-favorite tapas place, in a basement-cave in the center of old Madrid.  I couldn’t eat most of the food—chorizo, kalamari, prosciutto.

But I filled up on eggs and potatoes and loved the atmosphere of the place.  During dinner, a flamenco band entertained us, and we sang and danced along to “Guantanamero” and “La Bamba.”  Tourist shtick, for sure, but really, really fun tourist shtick!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A last blast from the Great White North (or "Take off, eh?"

Well, I'm packing my bags and heading home early tomorrow morning.  I didn't get to see the northern lights, but upon reflection, I'm very  happy.  After all, I spent a lot of time standing alongside my car, far outside of town, on beautiful starry nights.  No aurora--but being in a beautiful wild place on a freezing night, with the dark trees all around me and a jewel of a crescent moon in the sky is pretty damn good even without the northern lights.  We spend a lot of life waiting, for so many things.  It's good to enjoy what you have even as you wait. Furthermore, this gives me good reason to return to Fairbanks to try again!

After teaching Sunday school, I went out to the Alaska Ice Park, to view sculptures that are part of the international ice carving championship, which is held here.  They are absolutely amazing--jewels of art that change with the shifting light of day.  And all the more gorgeous because they are not permanent.  I could have stayed for hours, but the temperature was below zero, and the wind was blowing hard, so even bundled up, I got very cold very quickly.  Still, I went back again later this evening to see the statues at night, when they are illuminated with multi-colored lights. It is like being in a fairy wonderland, a kind of dream, really (albeit an extremely cold dream!)
I'm attaching a couple of pictures; with time and space I could have included so many more.

The ice bust of Al Gore is NOT from the Ice Park.  It is an entirely different enterprise from the apolitical reliefs and lovely abstracts in the park.  Al Gore sits on a busy street corner in the heart of downtown, as a local citizen/ice artist's protest against environmentalists and talk of global warming.  His point, of course, is that Al isn't melting, so global warming is not real.  He even has a little sign by the statue indicating how many days it has lasted.  Hey, everyone knows that all the best science in the world is a sham, because the frozen Al Gore statue in Fairbanks in February is a much better barometer than melting ice caps and glaciers.  I'm convinced;)

In between stints at the Ice Park, I watched a film/picture show of the northern lights at the downtown theater.  Wonderful images, accompanied by classical music.  Not quite the same as being there, no doubt, but certainly the next best thing.  

And so I head home with some very good memories and hopes to come back some day. The Jews here call themselves "the frozen chosen" and are very proud to be the northernmost Jewish community in the world.  It would be a pleasure to return.