Flight

Shmuel fled. And it was not just the Spanish crown and the Holy Office of the Inquisition which he was fleeing. He was fleeing himself. He felt as though he had failed Miriam, failed his teachers, and failed the people of Israel of which,  now more than ever, he insisted on believing he was a part. The Franciscan friar who had served as Miriam’s confessor during her last days, perhaps because he was consumed by guilt at having been party to the execution of a woman he knew to be in every way his spiritual superior, and quite possibly a saint, helped Shmuel plan his exodus.  He could not bear to face his family, but Miriam’s father sought him out and gave him a substantial shipment of frankincense and cardamom to “help him get started” and booked passage for him to Marseilles, where he quickly sold a small portion of the frankincense at an enormous profit and, buying up a good portion of the year’s lavender crop hired a ship and set sale for Lisbon. There he heard from a fellow merchant that on learning of his departure his father had died of a heart attack. Miriam’s father had simply disappeared and was never heard from again. 

Shmuel knew that Lisbon was unlikely to be a safe haven for very long, but it had a large Jewish community and he divided his time between gradually selling off his merchandise at the best price he could get and warning everyone who would listen about what was in store for them. While most of the merchants sounded much like Shmuel’s father had a year before, trying to console him by saying that all this turmoil would soon pass, the leading scholars and especially the cabalistic circles were already making active preparations to flee. Most were looking east to Salonika or Constantinople. And the Ottomans had, indeed, made a generous offer, promising a monopoly on the wool cloth trade in return for an agreement to supply their Janissaries in perpetuity. But others were talking about places about which Shmuel had never heard: Amsterdam where, it was said, a revolt against the Spanish Crown was brewing, and Krakow, far to the East, in the lands of the Poles, where Jews had long enjoyed special privileges but where the current situation was uncertain. He also followed with fascination rumors that shortly after the expulsion of the Jews an explorer by the name of Christopher Columbus has sailed west into the Atlantic Ocean in search of a new route to Asia, and that he had now returned claiming success, as well as the more credible rumors that the Portuguese had found a way to sail east to India and China by rounding the southern tip of Africa.

For three months he sailed back and forth across the Mediterranean world, arranging passage for Jews escaping from Spain and helping them find temporary refuge in Lisbon, Casablanca, Cairo, Salonika, and Constantinople. 

His practice in each city was the same. He would find the Jewish quarter and seek out a family from whom he could rent a room. He then spent most of his days wandering through the markets, seeking buyers for the merchandise he had brought from the last city –mostly woolens bought from the local Jewish community, with whom his father’s reputation held great stead, but also, increasingly herbs and spices and rare minerals as well. Once he had sold off whatever he had brought with him, he would begin buying again. All the while he listened to rumors, checked them against the testimony of other sources, and gradually became one of the leading authorities on the condition of Jews throughout the Mediterranean. At night, though, he would hole himself up in his room and weep. 

Shmuel was, by this time, actively seeking death. He could, to be sure, have found it easily just by returning home to Palermo and confronting Miriam’s murderers. But that would accomplish nothing. His death needed to be an atonement for the death into which he had, unintentionally but carelessly, drawn his beloved. And he found himself drawn deeper and deeper into a dark place where he told himself that atonement was impossible. What he had done he had done and it marked him not only for life but for eternity as precisely the opposite of the divinity to which he had aspired. And when he was feeling this way he plunged himself deeper into every vice he could find, not because it brought pleasure, but because it increased his degradation.

Once, while in Cairo, driven as much by a desire to purge himself of everything good and holy as by sexual desire, he went to visit a house of prostitution. The prostitute was a young Coptic woman with deep cinnamon skin and ebony hair.  She looked at him, waiting for him to do something, but he could not. Searching her eyes, he could only see Miriam looking back at him. He threw a bag of gold coins down on her dresser and ran out into the street, hating himself more than ever. 

That night he had a dream of a woman with skin and hair like the Coptic prostitute. But her face was covered by her hair, which seemed to be blowing in the wind and her dress was covered with stars. She called out to him:

Shmuel! Shmuel! Shmuel!

And he called back, using a name he did not know:

Citalinicue! Citalinicue! Citalinicue!

The next morning he opened his notebook for the first time since Miriam had been killed, and wrote down the dream, including, as best he could, the name of the woman who had appeared. And then he hid it away again. 

Indeed, while he guarded his books carefully, he did not open a single one. Indeed, he rarely even attended the synagogue and he avoided the yeshivas and cabalistic circles which existed in most of the cities he visited, dealing whenever he could with Muslim traders, apothecaries and alchemists. More than one family threw him out onto the street because his wailing kept them awake through the night. But almost without realizing it he was becoming a rich man. He had an eye for the unusual and for people with the money to pay for it.

Towards the end of this period, just as he was about to return to Lisbon, word arrived that King John had yielded to pressure from Spain and ordered the enslavement of all Jews who had not already left the country. Worse still, people were forbidden to take their children with them, and children were being deported to Sao Tome, off the coast of the Kingdom of the Kongo, to be used as laborers in the sugar plantations. This news, which made any return to Lisbon out of the question, finally awakened him from his melancholy and gave him a new sense of purpose. He had, he realized, both the skills and the resources to find a safe haven for this people to whose fate he had joined himself, and he was determined to do just that ….

Published by:

Anthony Mansueto

Humanity is the desire to be God (Sartre, Jean Paul. Being and Nothingness, 1943/1993: 556). Being finite, we are aware of the infinite and seek it without limit. Being contingent, dependent on other beings for our existence, we seek the power of Being as such and seek it absolutely. Human history is fundamentally the history of this seeking, and of the distinct ways of being human to which it has given rise. Precisely because we are finite and contingent, our seeking takes place under definite material (physical, ecological, demographic, built-environmental) conditions which shape the ways which emerge, as well as the social structures through which we pursue them. As something set apart we call this power of Being the sacred but it is, in fact, the warp and woof of the world in which we live, driving secular projects as much as those which understand themselves as religious. My work is centered around an effort to engage the sacred analytically, interpretively, normatively, creatively, and practically. My scholarship is centered around an effort to restore theoria to its original sense as an encounter with the sacred which is empirical, analytic, interpretive and normative, and specifically to understand the diverse ways (including secular ways) in which humanity seeks (to be) God in the context of the material realities out which they emerged and the structures through which they operate while engaging these ways normatively, contributing to the transhistorical deliberation around what it means to be human. As an artist I work first and foremost with narrative, telling stories which, blending elements from magic realism, science fiction, and fantasy, highlight humanity’s engagement with the sacred. But I also create paintings, photo collages, and illuminations and am experimenting with alterealities, games which actually change the world, and which engage all these elements in an interactive context. And I work in the medium of food, creating alchemical cuisine which at once encodes meaning and transforms those who consume it —especially in community. My scholarly and creative work aims at charting a new way of being human, at making the sacred present to people in their day to day lives, and at helping people situate their lives and their decisions, individual and collective, in he context of the ultimate aims of human life. My practical engagements with the sacred cross the boundaries between teaching and mentoring, leading and organizing. As a teacher, it is my aim to cultivate free, creative human beings and engaged citizens with a mature spirituality who have the ability to make rationally autonomous decisions regarding questions of meaning and value, to understand their particular calling and how to realize it, to build and exercise power in service to the common good, to learn the difficult spiritual lessons that come from both success and failure in our lives, and thus to pursue and progress along the way they have chosen. In addition to teaching in formal academic and community based settings, I mentor individuals using a process which integrates deep listening with both traditional spiritual disciplines and secular insights drawn from organizing and business strategy. I cultivate both scholars and practitioners, and challenge my students to cross the boundaries between these two domains. As an academic leader I have worked to promote liberal education for students from working class and ethnic minority communities, to make the institutions I serve into centers for deliberation around questions of meaning, value, and public policy, and to restore (nonconfessional, pluralistic, but still normative) engagement with the sacred to its rightful place in the academy. I see this academic leadership as an extension of my broader work as an institutional organizer helping organizations and institutions find their way, and working to build, conserve, and transform them in service to the Common Good. My work as an organizer has also included significant contributions to interfaith dialogue, deliberation, and organizing, from building financial and institutional support for interfaith organizing through catalyzing public deliberation around questions of meaning and value across diverse spiritual and civilizational traditions. I bring to this engagement a substantial record of publications, including nine books and numerous articles in both scholarly journals and journals of public opinion setting forth my vision and strategy, decades of experience teaching the liberal arts to students from working class and ethnic minority communities, a history active civic engagement, primarily in interfaith dialogue, deliberation, and organizing, and a range of institutional leadership roles in the academy including department chair, program director, dean, and campus leader with responsibility for all community college functions for a large rural area. As I continue my formal institutional engagements as an academic administrator over the next several years, I am also looking to build support for my creative work and a consulting practice mentoring individual leaders and organizations across the academic, religious, and civil society sectors. Supporting my work through Patreon is a way to contribute to making this possible while getting a glimpse of my creative process, free or discounted artifacts from my alterealities, and the opportunity to benefit from my mentoring and consulting practice at much reduced rates.

Categories UncategorizedLeave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s