For nearly eight hundred years Jew and Christian and Muslim had lived together in Sicily in a dynamic tension that had made it one of the creative centers of Europe. Sicilian Civilization had reached its peak under the Fatimids, who joined to the universal Islamic concern for justice an openness to other wisdoms. But even after the Normans, whose kings were little more than raiders and rough warlords, had taken the island for the Bishop of Rome, they relied on Muslim and Jewish scholars to run their courts. Their Angevin and Aragonese successors had done the same.
But now this long Convivencia was coming to an end. For ten long years the armies of Fernando and Isabella, the Catholic monarchs of a now united Castile and Aragon, who had inherited Sicily, had laid siege to Qarnata, the last stronghold of al-Andalus. The Emir Boadbdil, who had taken the kingdom by force from his father, had been told by his astrologers that he was destined to lose it by force as well, and now these prophecies seemed destined to be born out. Supplies were running low and winter was approaching. Rumor had it that the emir had sued for peace and that only the details of the capitulation remained to be worked out.
Here in Palermo, in the Jewish and Muslim quarters, debate centered on what the impending fall of Qarnata would mean for Sicily. There was no doubt that as the Christians grew stronger they also grew bolder. In Spain itself discriminatory laws had been enacted which purged Jews and Muslims from service to the State. Many, like Shmuel’s father, converted to evade those laws. Hence Shmuel’s baptism at only a month old as “Salvatore.” But still they faced harassment. The conversos had hoped that Fernando and Isabella would be strong enough to stand up to the hate-mongers, and urged their families and friends and business partners to follow their lead and to actively support the new monarchs. If only they would cooperate –with whoever was in power— they would be left alone, if not to practice their religion then at least, what seemed more important to them, to do business. Instead the new monarchs had, with the approval of Pope Sixtus IV, instituted an Inquisition to seek out reconversos, Jews and Muslims who had returned to the traditions of their people. But still the wealthy merchants held out hope that whatever the Catholic monarchs did in Spain, they would leave Sicily in peace.
–It is just the way things are in wartime, Shmuel’s father insisted. Once the Christians win –and the tides of history are on their side— they will stop seeing us as internal enemies and life will return to normal.
Ruben, the leader of Palermo’s most important cabalistic circle, knew better. Christendom –or Edom as he called it– was the kingdom of the demon Samael, who gained power over the people of Israel when men like Shmuel’ s father grew too comfortable trading in woolen cloth and eating rich stews flavored with harissa and ras al hanout and forgot that it was the vocation of the people of Israel to mend the torn fabric of the universe. And it didn’t help that young men like Shmuel spent their time with the daughters of Muslim spice merchants and spilled their seed on the ground, or had evil dreams and spilled it in their beds. This gave rise to qipploth, spirits trapped in matter that further increased the strength of Samael and his minions. The Reconquista was a good thing he said. It would shake the people loose from their slumber and set Israel back on the road home: towards Jerusalem. To this end he taught his followers complex rituals intended to give them power over the demonic forces of the present, in effect attempting to harness the dark in order to serve the light. They studied the motions of the heavenly bodies and prepared alchemical medicines and made offerings of various herbs and spices and even metals in order to strengthen one or another of the sephiroth. And they spent long nights singing psalms, which Ruben taught them were the war songs of mosiach. Above all, he prepared them for ‘aliyah, for the mass return of the people to the land of Israel, which he expected would follow closely on the fall of Qarnata.
Shmuel was undecided. He had no real interest in ‘aliyah. As far as he was concerned the Jewish people were called to serve as catalyst in the search for wisdom and the struggle for justice around the world. Would a secure homeland in which they could develop their civilization assist in that charge? Of course. But it seemed unlikely, and he could think of better things to do than to expend the limited energies of his people in what would inevitably be a losing battle to restore Zion. And yet he had heard the reports from Spain and found his father’s expectations of a quick return to normalcy naïve. Something was stirring the world. He was not sure what it was, but he wanted to be ready.
And so he studied …