When Shmuel came to he was lying in a bed of straw in the back of a wagon, moving down a very bumpy road. It was night and quite dark in the wagon. His impulse was to jump up, but he thought better of it and stirred ever so slowly. The wagon itself was enclosed but it was open in the back and he realized that he could probably jump out without hurting himself too badly. He waited for a moment when the wagon slowed and then made his move. Suddenly, though, there was a hand on him. It was his host’s daughter.
–I wouldn’t. You are safer with me. We are taking you to Krakow.
Neither his host nor the physician, it turned out (nor his host’s daughter for that matter) were Jews, secret or otherwise. On the contrary, they were —with the exception of the daughter— agents of the Teutonic Order and among the city’s chief persecutors of the Jews. Shmuel had been trapped in what was essentially the trial run of a ruse to catch Jews fleeing from al-Andalus, interrogate them for the Teutonic Order, and then murder them. But his daughter had, at considerable risk, made contact with the tiny Jewish underground in Gdansk and had made arrangements to transport her father’s victims to safer territory.
–Why? Shmuel asked,
–Because it is the right thing to do, she said. And because the Teutonic Order did horrible things to my ancestors on my mother’s side when they first came here in the great crusade against paganism.
–And your driver? Shmuel asked. He was gradually becoming more savvy.
–A … suitor. He is brave and strong and will do anything I ask him.
Shmuel was going to ask further questions, but the young woman placed her finger gently on his mouth.
–You need to rest. My father’s “physician” friend was gradually poisoning you and while you will recover, it will take time.
Shmuel protested, but her finger on his mouth and her hand on his arm convinced him to be silent for a moment, and then he was asleep.
The next several days were a daze. Mostly he slept as they drove, often through the night. From time to time they would stop in remote clearings in the forest or in a friendly village to relieve themselves and buy food. Then it was back into the wagon.
When, at long last, they arrived in Krakow, he was taken directly to the house of a rabbi who, he was told, was among the most important in the city. By this time, he was feeling much better and was anxious to meet with his host, but was once again told that he needed to rest and recover. It was only after three days that a young man came up to his room, helped him dress, and took him down to the rabbi’s office.
–Call me Yitzhak, please, the rabbi said, showing Shmuel to a comfortable chair next to a small table. What brings you here?
Shmuel was confused, as he considered the answer to the rabbi’s question quite obvious. But this was also the first time since Miriam’s execution that anyone had asked him to tell his story. And so, while he was hesitant at first, within a few minutes he was pouring his heart out. And for whatever reason he included his converso identity.
— But surely this is an odd time to embrace a half-lost Jewish identity? What drew you to this community that your family had rejected that everyone around you seemed to despise?
Shmuel was stunned by the way in which the rabbi framed the question. He came from a world where conversos and reconversos both were common. Perhaps this rabbi actually wanted to understand him …
—At first it was just the greater … intelligence with which people discussed … everything … from everyday problems to the fine points of the law —and the fact that there really wasn’t any difference between the two. That and the concern for actually doing justice. But gradually, as I studied —and I studied with the best, including the Dominican friar in charge of the Inquisition in Palermo— I began to believe that Christianity was simply a way of taming the subversive ideas of Judaism and of falasafa and of co-opting them to create a mechanism for ensuring submission. The Talmud, on the other hand, forms people for life in a just society. And Kaballah offers a way of actually mending the torn fabric of the universe.
—And falasafa? The Rabbi asked.
—Falasafa helps us understand the human condition: that we are the desire to be something we can never become, and so are trapped in a contingency hell from which even God cannot rescue us. This is another reason I find the Christian promise of eternal life so problematic. It is simply a prolongation of our dependence into eternity.
—Why not just kill yourself? the Rabbi asked.
—There was a time … said Shmuel. And I am certainly engaged in dangerous work. But I am every so gradually beginning to find joy in the work of Tikkun Olam.
The rabbi listened patiently, but interrupted whenever Shmuel mentioned his connections to kaballah or falasafa. Finally, Shmuel, who was beginning to feel less than fully welcome, asked his host directly:
–Are you among those who reject falasafa and kaballah?
–Let us just say that our ways here are very different. And while I am anxious to make Poland the safe haven for our people that I believe it can become, I have no intention of inviting into our midst philosophers and mystics who will only disrupt the community and make trouble with the authorities.
Shmuel’ s heart sunk.
–I am, then a very poor ambassador for the Jews of Spain, Portugal, and the Two Sicilies, Shmuel said. While I study Talmud and treasure it, my greatest joy is in dialectics and in … the feminine face of God which is fully acknowledged only in the kaballah.
The rabbi was silent for what seemed like an eternity. The clock behind him marked each and every second that passed with a slight clicking sound. Then finally he spoke.
–You are just a boy and you have been through a lot –enough for a lifetime. I am therefore reluctant to ask you to put aside your most vital interests –what seems to be keeping you, or at least your hope, alive. But I have no choice. I don’t think that Krakow will ever be a safe haven for Jews who, like yourself, have such deep roots in … what do you call it? … the convivencia. Indeed, it will like be an uncomfortable fit for all … sephardim. But for those among your people who simply want to live and work and make money –and do so as Jews, without betraying their people– I can offer some hope. But I need you to help make it happen.
–What do you need?
The rabbi then described in some considerable depth the network of safe houses and the “underground caravans” he was establishing along both land routes and in port cities.
–You will seem to be working largely alone and will know no names, so that if you are captured as little of the network is compromised as possible. But I can promise you that you will be working alongside nearly a hundred of the best young Jews, men and women, of our time. And a few goyim as well, like the brave young woman who brought you here.
–And my devotion to falasafa and kaballah?
–Keep it to yourself and we will get along fine. I can give you three days to think it over.
The rabbi then rose and opened the door to his office, signaling the end of the meeting.
Shmuel spent the next three days wandering Krakow, sampling dozens of different types of salted, smoked, and dried meat and fish. While much of what was sold outside the Jewish quarter was made with pork, within the quarter there were variants using duck and goose meat. His favorites, though, were the smoked black cod and sturgeon and salmon, which were rich and fatty so that only a few bites were sufficient to sate his hunger. There were also many varieties of mushrooms, fresh and dried and, as it was spring, a variety of different green herbs.
Shmuel did not want to work for this rabbi. But he knew that he had to. Wisdom, whether philosophical and mystical, did not exempt him from the Law. And the Law required that he resist the extermination of his people, and conserve it as a catalyst for justice.
He was reflecting on this situation while drinking tea and eating black cod and rye bread in a small restaurant across from the synagogue when the young woman who had helped him escape from her father in Gdansk and brought him to Krakow pulled up a chair and sat down at his table. She spoke to him in perfect Ladino, something which, in his illness, he had not previously noticed. He also realized that he did not yet know her name.
–We need you, she said.
–I know. But this is not my world. I cannot even really recognize this Judaism.
–You are a petulant child, she said. Do you think I identify with this Judaism? I am the furthest thing imaginable from a Jew of any kind. And yet I risked my life to save you and bring you here.
Shmuel looked down.
–And I thank you for that … I am sorry but you have not yet told me your name.
–Call me Jadwiga.
–Thank you, Jadwiga, Shmuel said. He smiled weakly. But you don’t know what I have been through. My whole world …
–I am here. Tell me, she said.
She did not sound especially inviting, but Shmuel spoke and the story flowed, with far more detail than it had with the rabbi a few days before.
–You really loved her, didn’t you?
–Yes, he said. I am not sure I will be able to love again.
–Love, Jadwiga said, is not a feeling. It is an act of the will. It is willing the good of the beloved. And it is carrying that will into action. And that you have done and continue to do. Act and the feelings which you treasure so much will follow.
She had taken is hand and he looked up, his eyes finally meeting hers. And he could see there, reflected in her face, the face he thought had been torn from him forever.
–And why do you do this? He asked. Your father is a … monster.
–I follow the old ways, ways of which you would probably not approve, which I learned from my grandmother.
–You are an idolater?
–You still have much to learn. Those of us who carry the old wisdom were and are persecuted by the Teutonic Order just as the Jews are. Indeed, they came here for the purpose of forcibly converting us. My world disappeared before I was born …
Shmuel reflected for a minute, looking her in the eye. If she can do this, an idolater, he said to himself, then surely I can.
–I will tell the rabbi tomorrow that I am ready.
Jadwiga looked down.
–Is something wrong? Shmuel asked.
–The rabbi is dead. He was murdered this morning in his bed. It has all the marks of an act of the Teutonic Order.
Shmuel was terrified.
–Who … who will replace him? he asked.
–He has a student who can stand in well enough for him with the congregation, Jadwiga said. But he is not .. suitable … for the rabbi’s other work.
–I will train you.