Rosh Hashanah Deja Vu

  “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return
And come with song unto Zion.”
  Isaiah 35:10

Seville, Spain; Summer 1480

“The fire is painful to the flesh, but kind to the soul,” said the man in red velvet robe who sat at the dark mahogany table. Such statements had earned him the title of “The Scourge of G-d”. He sat stiffly at a table that flanked one end of a courtyard fenced with 8-foot high stucco walls. Flaming torches stuck in the ground surrounded a pile of tree limbs at the other end of the courtyard. In the middle of the enclosure a family, surrounded by darkly-dressed men with swords, shuffled their feet and stared dolefully at the dust that rose with their movement. They stood rigidly facing the table where the red-robed figure scanned names from a lengthy scroll.

“It’s your choice, but be quick about it. We’ve got a town full of Jews to process before sundown,” said the man at the table.

It was a familiar scene all over Spain. The Inquisition was in full flower, creating martyrs and new Christians. And now it was the turn of the Capouya family. And that day Zalman Capouya, father to three whimpering daughters plagued with heat and terror, chose life for his family. “We already have enough martyrs in heaven. We need more Jews on earth so they can grow and multiply as the Lord commanded.” His wife nodded and sobbed softly in relief.

But the life that followed wasn’t so simple. No visible thread of their Jewish identity could be displayed. Like tens of thousands of Marranos, they attended church and disguised within an alien culture whatever level of Mitzvot obedience they practiced.

But only the Almighty can bend the whirlwind and only the Almighty can bend the soul. There was always a lifeline - a tether to the ancestral faith: the lighting of candles behind shuttered windows, a Shema before bedtime with the family huddled in a tight group, a favorite song now relegated to the basement instead of the gilded assembly hall of the synagogue. No bread during Passover.

There was always something. Slight and hidden, as light as a tallith thread, but a reminder that children wouldn’t forget. Maybe the seeds would sprout in other times, other lands.

New Jersey, USA, Autumn 2001

It was a haunting melody. A tide of suffering, but sweet with hope. And it poured out of the open doors of the synagogue. Catherine was a block away, but the song flooded her senses. She’d walked around the synagogue twice as she listened. Last year she’d heard it, too. And on this same holiday the Jews called Rosh Hashanah. Their New Year, someone told her.

But it was not only the beauty of the song that made her circle the synagogue twice in astonishment. This melody - sung by Jews - was her family song. That’s what her parents and grandmother called it - “our family song”. They sang it at Christmas and New Year’s. They sang it at baptisms and funerals. It was an old, old family custom, her grandmother had explained in her fine, lacy voice.

But Grandmother wasn’t much help explaining the song’s origins. “All I remember is that my grandmother sang it to me, she replied irritably after a hail of questions from Catherine. It’s a family song. Enjoy it and don't ask so many questions.” But why would the Jews sing it, Catherine wondered.

At school the next day, Catherine couldn’t wait to meet her Jewish friend, Rachael Levine, at their homeroom locker.

“Rachael, I walked by your synagogue yesterday morning - around 11:00 - on your holiday. Anyhow, they were singing this gorgeous song.”

“You must have heard us chanting Avenu Malkainu.”