What is known is that the candlelight of Judaism still burns in the heart of many Marranos and is slowly emerging into the light of day
The coincidence of the Shofar, New Year, and the fate of the Jews
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Life in the Jewish State of Israel is often made up of significant and special coincidences, a meeting of separate moments in time that merge into something ethereal.
My cruise vacation had taken me, among other places, to the Balearic Islands of Spain and into Barcelona. In Rome, we had made a special part of our visit to the Synagogue and the Jewish Museum to learn about the long history of the Jews in Rome. We wanted to do the same in Barcelona and discovered that although the most prominent geographic feature of this town is Montjuic, meaning ‘Jews Hill’, though you have to do some serious research to find out the reason for this name. It is harder still to receive any information pointing to the ancient synagogue or the Jewish Quarters in one of Spain’s major cities with a population of over 1,600,000. Spain had been the nurturing ground for ancient Jewish genius.
The reason for the absence of Jews or Jewish heritage in this place dates back to the Spanish Inquisition that massacred Spanish and Portugese Jews, forcibly converted them to Catholicism under pain of death, or banished them from their lands. This reign of anti-Jewish terror went on from 1480 until 1501. In fact, it was not formally and finally abolished until as late as 1834. The spark of Jewish creativity and genius in Spain died at the stake, together with our rabbis and leading academics.
On return from my vacation I found an invitation to attend a conference to be held at the Netanya Academic College on October the subject of which is “The Struggle for Identity of the Secret Jews of the Balearic Islands of Spain” which neatly brings me to one of the coincidences I mentioned at the outset of this article.
The timing of our holiday was to get us back in time to celebrate Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year, at home in Israel. Reading through the supplement of the Jerusalem Post I stopped to read an interesting personal anecdote from Rabbi Yona Metzger, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel. He described his meeting with the King of Spain. Rabbi Metzer told the newspaper team this story;
“Let me tell you a story that happened to me over seven years ago. It was 800 years since the death of the Rambam (Maimonides) and we organized an international conference in Rambam’s birthplace, Cordoba. Two months beforehand, I traveled to Spain to invite the king to the conference. Before my trip we wondered what gift to give him. I saw this long Yemenite shofar (ram’s horn) partly covered in pure silver, with a crown that had an engraving of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount and a menorah on it. We put it in a glass box and I presented it to the king who asked what was this strange horn.
‘Allow me to close a historical circle with you that began about 540 years ago,’ Metzger explained to King Juan Carlos. ‘When your great-great-great-great-great grandfather was king of Spain, he decided to expel all the Jews, and among them was my great-great-great-great-grandfather. Only the Marranos remained in Spain. These Marranos were Jews who continued to practice their Judaism in secret, otherwise the Spaniards would have killed them. Before Rosh HaShana the question arose, ‘How do you blow the Shofar quietly and secretly?’ One of them had an idea. He was the conductor of the king’s orchestra, and the king loved music and didn’t know he remained a secret Jew. He went to the king and asked to put on a special concert using all the known musical instruments in history.”
With the king’s approval the conductor arranged to hold the special musical celebration on Rosh HaShana. He invited all the Marranos he knew to attend this concert.
“He showed the king the ram’s horn that he said was the oldest known instrument, from the time of Abraham. ‘Before you expelled the Jews from Spain,’ he said, ‘they used to usher in the new year with this, and before blowing the shofar, they used to say the following blessing, and he said the blessing for the shofar. And all the Marranos quietly said, ‘Amen!’’
“And thus, 540 years ago, my father’s father’s father’s father heard the shofar. And now today, all these years later, I am the Chief Rabbi of Israel, and I am returning this shofar to you, not under the table, but on your table. Because today you allow our fellow Jews to conduct prayers openly, learn Jewish studies and blow the shofar.”
“When Tzipi Livni was foreign minister, I met her at an event in Jerusalem, and she said, ‘You have regards from King Juan Carlos.’ She had visited the king, and had also given him a gift. And the king took out the shofar and asked her if she knew what it was. And she said to him, ‘Yes. Jews blow it on Rosh HaShana.’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘You don’t know the story,’ and he then proceeded to tell her the whole story.”
Further details of this remarkable event were divulged by Stewart Weiss in another article in the same magazine. It seems that the conductor of the Royal Barcelona Orchestra was Don Fernando Aquilar, a proud Spaniard and a Jew converted to Christianity during the Inquisition. He was a Marrano, a secret Jew, a Christian on the outside but Jewish to his core, a man emotionally torn apart by the conflict of indescribable religious pressure.
According to Weiss, the church, still holding Aquilar under deep suspicion, decided to hold a gala concert In the year 1497 on Rosh HaShana as much as a test of the musical leader as an entertainment. The Don decided to make this concert the most spectacular ever seen in Barcelona. This extravaganza would include every musical instrument, as mentioned by Rabbi Metzger. It was to be, as Stewart Weiss described in his article, ‘a sublime cascade of orchestral delight for the glory of the church.’ It was a sell-out. Most of Spain’s rich and famous attended, including Queen Isabel. The concert was a masterpiece of orchestral arrangements that climaxed with the appearance of strange curved horns never before seen in a concert hall in Spain. On cue from Don Fernando Aquilar they produced the shrill and tremulous chords of ‘Tekia!’, ‘Tevarim!’, ‘Teruah!’ ‘Shevarim!’ one hundred notes played in unison with one last long note that seemed to go on forever. The audience went wild.
This was the last concert ever given by Aguilar of Barcelona. Weiss is not sure of his fate. Some say he retired to his country home after his final triumph. Others say that the church learned, or were suspicious, of his deception and quietly executed him.
What is known is that the candlelight of Judaism still burns in the heart of many Marranos and is slowly emerging into the light of day. Hence the importance of the upcoming Netanya conference.
The shrill notes of the Shofar this New Year, especially in Israel at this auspicious time, emanates with great significance.