Monday, March 6, 2017

Inverted Inquisitions: Some thoughts on Martin Scorsese's Silence

Inverted Inquisitions: Some Thoughts on Martin Scorsese's Silence

During the few days between when I turned in my Fall semester grades and began polishing my syllabi for the Spring I walked to my local cinema for a matinée treat. I am actually lucky enough to live a few blocks from a great little movie theatre –Teaneck Cinema- that offers a mix of big Hollywood and more artsy films. I took advantage of their matinée discount on a cold and overcast Tuesday and saw Martin Scorsese’s latest masterpiece, Silence. It was a strange form of vacation escape- a film about torture, trials of faith, betrayal and love for a silent God. Years of studying the Inquisition will mess with your sense of “fun”!

The NYTimes Magazine did a great job giving the back story to the making of Scorsese’s passion project: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/27/magazine/the-passion-of-martin-scorsese.html?_r=0  Scorsese first became interested in this story about the persecution of Portuguese Jesuits and their humble peasant converts after finishing his first great “religious” film, the controversial “Last Temptation of Christ”. The difficulty of finishing and releasing that film complicated Scorsese’s ability to sell this admittedly more obscure and possibly darker project to Hollywood executives. It became a slow-burning passion project for Scorsese that after 20 years he is able to bring to the screen.

Silence is an adaptation of the novel by the Shusaku Endo and it is based on real events that transpired in the 17th century. The Jesuits initially had great success with sharing the Gospel in the far way islands of Japan beginning with Francis Xavier in 1549. Japanese authorities eventually saw the missionizing as integral to European designs at carving up Japanese territory and markets and they initiated a brutal campaign against the Church. They targeted priests and then turned to their followers. Our film begins with a scene of slow, aesthetically searing torture of a priest. He is tied to a cross on the edge of hot springs as the torturer drips the burning water on his chest. We watch this scene along with the spiritually broken former priest Cristóvão Ferreira (fully inhabited by Liam Neeson) who after renouncing his faith is forced to watch the martydom of his fellow priests. Scorsese forces us to stay with this scene, to inhabit the shoes of the failed priest Ferreira as he is forced to watch his companions, many of whom were his students, suffer in ways that he could not.

Scorsese brings us inside the dark huts of the crypto-Christians as they hear mass, confess their sins, baptize their children. Scorsese lets us listen in as they clamor for promises of a better life in the world to come, and we see the bafflement in the eyes of the young priest who are ministering to them. These are sophisticated mystics, worldly, philosophically-minded zealots. For them this is a journey of the soul, it is about the ineffable place where the divine fire burns, the scared, starved Japanese peasant’s concerns are not their own. They have no babies who may not make it through the winter; they are amazed at the peasants’ ability to suffer for their faith, to suffer, to protect each other.

Eventually their hiding place is revealed by the same Judas-like scoundrel whose wretchedness and contrition will continually beguile the priests who can’t deny him the forgiveness he asks for, no matter how many times he will betray them.  Scorsese gives us a seat as Rodrigues’ encounters with the Japanese Inquisitor, with his sophistication, his arrogance and controlled rage. Is this an inverted mirror of a certain image of the Catholic inquisitor, probing, urbane, ruthless? Is the use of the term “inquisitor” anachronistic, off? Did the Japanese see their persecution of the Christians as an inquisition? Were the Japanese aware of the procedure of the Iberian inquisition? Were the cruelties of the Japanese against their Christians an echo of the images of inquisitorial torture made famous by the partisans of the “black legend” or was it a result of the universality of intolerance and the madness that grips us when we feel we have “God on our side” against a diabolical enemy?


The film engages, without resolving the big questions which came to the fore with the first age of global expansion in the early modern period—what does it mean to have a universal truth in such a diverse world? how can the world and experience be captured truthfully when the world we are seeing is so far from the world of our countrymen? Can truth be translated? What is lost in translation? Can we understand the other without knowing their language? Can there be encounter without conquest?

It was disorienting to see Christians on trial for their beliefs- to see them tortured for their beliefs- the horror-fueled thrill that the young Jesuits feel at seeing these poor peasants suffer like the primitive Church, praying in the dark like they did in the catacombs, to see their piety put to the test as they are crucified and given sake instead of vinegar like Jesus on the cross.

And then to see how the inquisitors figure out how to break them --not through pain and suffering but by upending what it means to be a Christian. They subvert their faith with the essence of the faith itself. The priests are compelled to reject the faith in order to fulfill it- reject Jesus in order to imitate him. They don’t torture the priest- they torture the flock until the priest sacrifices his belief for them. What a cruel antinomian impulse.

After the film I am also struck by the universal ability of good, cultured men to enact tremendous cruelty in the name of a high ideal. In this case the cause is about cultural purity and defense from foreign influence and the inroads of colonialism- can you blame them? And yet, might there have been another way?

To Rodrigues he sees the church as universal and not connected to politics- the Japanese see that as laughable/naïve and extremely dangerous.

Some thoughts on language:  The Jesuits speak with an accent- an indeterminate accent, the contemporary Hollywood move to create a foreignness while keeping our handsome stars speaking English- their faithful converts all use a little Portuguese when they refer to a religious concept and they know some Latin prayers.  The promise of the Church is expressed in a supposedly universal language which is disconnected from political entanglements.  Thus the power of the Latin mass invoked from Poland to Spain to Mexico to the Philippines. But culture is not universal and it is never divorced from political and soico-economic trends. Latin is after all the classical language of Europe and bears no kinship to the rich cultural legacies of the non-European world. It is a universal call but coded in western hegemony.  Can any cross-cultural encounter be free and equal? Silence is also a study in what happens when we face the other. It sketches the limits of our comprehension.


Silence captures the complexity of the religious experience and shows what happens as the soul is on trial, and it is stretched beyond itself. It also conjures a moment of cultural confrontation- an encounter between East and West where suspicion, appropriation and misunderstanding commingles with a desire to see the gifts that the other brings from afar.


Silence received only one nomination at the Oscars this year. La-la-land it is not! It is not an easy movie to watch but it is transporting and moving and well worth the investment. 


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Magic in a Square Pad of 400 Year Old Papers: Luis de Carvajal's manuscripts up close



This morning I had the pleasure of meeting a long lost friend. The curators at the New York Historical Society took the manuscripts of Luis de Carvajal, the 16th century crypto-Jewish mystic, communal leader and martyr who is one of the main figures in my Narratives from the Sephardic Atlantic: Blood and Faith, out of their glass case and allowed me to look at their fragile pages. I have worked on Luis and his family’s story working from transcripts of his writings and Inquisitorial records for the past 15 years. I and all of the scholars who have investigated this sensational case of crypto-Jewish activity in the heart of colonial Mexico have relied on the transcription of Luis’ autobiography made by Alfonso Toro, a historian of the colonial period with a penchant for picking fights with his contemporaries and of peppering his history of a famed crypto-Jewish network with stereo-typical anti-Semitic jabs, “the greedy Jews, fanatical Jews, like others of his race, etc.” However, I am forever indebted to Toro, despite these atavistic bursts against “my race”, for making his transcription of the autobiography because in 1932 under mysterious circumstances it was stolen from the Mexican National Archive along with other precious documents from Carvajal’s Inquisitorial file, many in his own hand. If not for Toro I and those who came before me would not have had a copy of his unique piece of spiritual self-fashioning. Two years back the manuscripts appeared for sale by one of New York’s premier auction houses. Leonard Milberg, a collector of early Americana, Judaica and Irish poetry sensed that something was not right. He investigated the matter and realized that these were long lost and stolen manuscripts. The FBI and the government of Mexico got involved and in gratitude to  Mr. Milberg the Carvajal papers are on display till March 12 as part of THE FIRST JEWISH AMERICANS: FREEDOM AND CULTURE IN THE NEW WORLD (http://www.nyhistory.org/ ). I have previously written about this exhibit (http://sephardiphilia.blogspot.com/ ) and I am currently working on a full review of its rich and varied portrait of Jewish life in the Americas much of which is based on Mr. Milberg’s personal collection. (I highly recommend making your way to the show before it closes!) After many years living with this text, analyzing, contextualizing it, turning it around in my head, it was a real thrill to sit with it, up close. The staff at the New York Historical Society, the director Louise Mirrer, Debra Bach, Michael Ryan and Alan Balicki were so gracious and helpful. I sincerely thank them for making these texts accessible and for welcoming me.

I felt I was sitting with a small magical object. It was waiting to enchant me. The small bundle of manuscripts were inviting me into their neat lines of tiny script. The first section was like meeting an old friend, or seeing the face of a far away pen pal. I knew the lines of Carvajal’s autobiography inside and out but I never saw them in his own hand, nor did I know about the small side notes and elegant arrangement of the heading- the dedication to the Lord of Hosts that announces the beginning of his tale- and the way he arranged the last lines in a final triangular flourish. Those details point to the fact that it was a text he went back to and added and revised. It also tells me that he really thought that he was about to escape the shadow of his persecution and that his story of trials and tribulations was wrapping up.
But then I encountered works I never knew of: "MODO DE llamar a Dios y exercicio devotisimo de oración" a guide to prayer for himself and for his fellow Mexican secret Jews. A list of the acts of mercy that the “most high God performed for Joseph”-a review of the major events of his short and tumultuous life (pages 39-40). Right before this list which takes up two pages I found a section with the ten commandments in Latin written out in large print letters with gold leaf- it is beautiful! I knew he was an expert calligrapher but where would he have access to the materials and knowledge of the technique apply the goldleaf?
There is another page towards the end (back of page 44- the second half of the work had page numbers; it was unclear if they were a later addition or not.) with a list of Jewish holidays and their corresponding Christian dates, another column featured  the name of the Hebrew months and then on the bottom right hand corner there was a list of the Hebrew numbers from 1-10 transliterated “Ehad, Senahim etc.” A Hebrew primer for a fully Latinaized Jew? A Jew who is completely dependent on the Latin he learned in a Jesuit school in Medina del Campo for his exploration of religious texts and his mining and transposing of Jewish content in those works of medieval scholasticism. What follows are harder to decipher texts in Portuguese and Latin- some psalms in Latin and some prayers in Portuguese along with some deeply cryptic lists that seem to be some sort of mystical codes awaiting to be deciphered.  

I am excited to look at these pages with greater care in the near future. In particular I want to see if his guide to prayer tells us anything new about his religious mentality or the wider religious circles he was a part of. How was he refashioning new spiritual trends into his own practice? Do the passages in Portuguese, perhaps, belong to a different hand and might they be examples of Jewish material that some converso with experience in the “Lands of liberty” wrote down, translating from the Hebrew original into romance (Spanish or Portuguese)?  We know of several such cases and Luis himself thanks certain Italian Jews who passed through Mexico in search of financial gain and shared their knowledge with the secret Jews of New Spain.  I am excited to ask more questions of these beguiling records of a vibrant and short lived religious life.

Luis de Carvajal concludes his Spiritual Autobiography by praising God and expressing confidence that he was about to leave for the lands of liberty. 

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Wednesday, December 21, 2016



A Visit to New York Historical Society’s The First Jewish Americans



This semester in my course, “New World Encounters: Narratives of Discovery and Conquest from Columbus and Beyond” my students have been delving into the earliest accounts of the European encounter with the Americas: Columbus, Pané, Cortés, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, the codices compiled by teams of Christian missionaries and native scholars and Cabeza de Vaca and his tale of shipwrecks and ten years wandering throughout the American South. We spent time thinking about how the experience of travel and exploration in the Americas was recast into narrative and what sort of political, economic, religious and ethical issues were at play in these retellings of experience. We looked at three films that try their hand at telling the story of the American encounter: Ridley Scott’s 1492: the Conquest of Paradise, Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (shot entirely in Mayan!) and Werner Herzog’s Aguirre the Wrath of God.
As counterpoint to these narratives and films we finish with a reading of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In both subtle and more overt ways, Shakespeare provides a space for many of our central themes to unfold: the sense of wonder at the newness and strangeness of the Americas (Miranda --the one who is marveled at- declares “O what Brave New World!” after seeing the Neapolitan and Milanese nobles walk into her father’s chambers), the ethics of colonization (“This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,/ Which thou takest from me” cries Caliban in chains) and the mixed blessing of “civilization” (Caliban tells Miranda that: You taught me language, and my profit on ’t/ Is I know how to curse).
We spent the semester shuttling between history and art, between experience and narrative and its cinematic and dramatic projection. Normally the semester ends with The Tempest but this year we went one step further.

With the generous support of The Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought of Yeshiva University and its Kapito program in Early America and the Jews we went to “The First Jewish Americans” a gem of an exhibit at the New York Historical Society. The exhibit picks up where we end off in our course and amplifies our lens to see how the wider colonial project, especially the Dutch and British colonial system transformed the western world and the role of Jews and conversos in that “brave new world.” 
When we discussed Columbus we noted the ways he invokes Biblical imagery to describe the beauty of the Caribbean islands and the almost prelapsarian innocence of the American Natives. Columbus also explicitly links the conquest of Granada, the last Muslim kingdom on Iberian soil and the expulsion of the Jews to his epic voyage. Cortés viewed himself as a modern day Joshua overturning the depravities of the Aztecs and winning souls for the True God. Cabeza de Vaca finds his own burning bush in the desert.  But what of the Jews and Judaism in these new promised lands?


The opening lines of Luis de Carvajal's autobiography

The exhibit gave us a chance to explore this essential and often misunderstood part of American and Jewish history. We began with the lives of the secret Jews, the conversos who maintained their Jewish beliefs in secret as they lived under the eye of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. The first glass case contains the elegantly penned booklets of prayer, autobiography and spiritual nourishment compiled by the Mexican crypto-Jew Luis de Carvajal, aka Joseph Lumbruso, the Enlightened.  The original manuscript of Carvajal’s diary was stolen from the Mexican National Archives by a mysterious visiting scholar in 1932. The text only resurfaced last year and was identified by Leon Milberg a collector of Americana who arranged for its repatriation to Mexico and its inclusion in the show. It anchors the story of open Jewish life in the Americas in the parallel experience of Converso and crypto-Jewish life in the Iberian Atlantic world. The students marveled at the tiny script and we discussed how Luis and his family treated these books as sources of inspiration and would carry them close to their hearts wherever they went- thus the tiny size.



We then looked at pieces of open Jewish life in the Caribbean and North America: Torah scrolls, Hebrew books penned by Rabbis in Curaçao, Suriname and Barbados, a certificate ensuring the kashrut of meat sent from New York to Curaçao, a ketuba from New York. In the top left corner we find an image of a worried merchant with a globe at his feet. He is hard at work at his desk with his cargo ships far off in the distance as his wife lovingly takes care of a baby. Close by there is a Spanish Bible, originally translated in Ferrara but printed in Amsterdam, its title page had an exquisite image of the Israelites being carried on eagles wings out of their exile which must have had a powerful resonance for this society of former refugees that wandered the ports of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic in search of religious freedom and economic opportunity.



A student noticed the prayer for circumcising a slave which led us into a discussion of New World Jews and slavery. Another student wondered what a portrait of Abraham Lincoln and an Indian chief were doing in the exhibit only to discover that the artist of these two canvases along with many wonderful western landscapes and an eerie but beautiful interior of a synagogue was the intrepid explorer of the American frontier, Samuel Nunes Carvalho a native of Charleston and a member of  that port city’s Kehila Kedosha Beth Elohim.









This is an exhibit about Jews as Americans, and the Americas as a haven for Jews.  The Americas afforded these individuals the opportunity to remake themselves, to express their faith and make their fortunes in freedom and dignity in ways unimaginable back in the old world.  Our time at the New York Historical Society offered us a moment to reflect on this complex story and to find our place within this brave new world that is still busy being born. 

Here are looking at Isaac Mendes Belisario's painting of the Synagogue at Bevis Marks in London as well as some of the Jamaican artist's images from carnival in his native Jamaica

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Periphery and Center, reading Natalie Zemon Davis at Stern College for Women



Catalan Atlas by Judah Crescas


I am teaching a new course this semester at Stern College: Wanderers, Exiles and Merchants: Jewish travel writing, medieval and early modern.
We start with the Radhanite merchants and their global trade-network as described by a contemporary Muslim geographer and then move on to Eldad the Danite’s tale of the lost tribes, strong and free, in the Indies.  Benjamin of Tudela’s Itinerary gives us a picture of Jewish life throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond but tells us very little about the famous traveller (much to our regret); Yehuda Halevi’s poems imagine his journey to Zion and stand as a rich counterpoint to his poems written from tempest-tossed ships or while admiring the beauty of the Nile delta- KeGan Hashem/Like God’s Garden! We read these Jewish writers in light of Marco Polo and Ibn Batuta. We explore the world of the Cairo Geniza and its intrepid merchants, European Jews on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, David Reuveni the messianic messenger from beyond the Sambatyon river who comes to Rome with a message from his brother the King of the lost Tribes and then we see how a century later the Portuguese converso merchant Antonio Montezinos arrives in Amsterdam telling of his journey to the kingdom of the Reubenites hiding in the heart of the Andes.  It’s a wild ride!
During one of my first classes I was looking out at the room filled with bright and curious students, all women, and the reality hit me: there are no women in this entire syllabus! Not only are there no women authors, the texts we will read almost consistently elide any mention of women in their travels with just a few exceptions scattered in this vast sea of texts. I reached out to a friend and colleague who has thought about this felt absence both in her scholarship and her teaching. Sarah Pearce suggested I think about the Geniza as a resource because so many of the letters between husbands and wives refer to the spouses’ travels. We read a great article by Joel Kraemer weaving together a rich “itinerary” of letters and other personal documents that opened up the world of Middle Eastern Jewish women and pointed to the frenetic movement of people and goods throughout the Mediterranean. The students were energized by this reading and it inspired some excellent essays. Sarah also referred me to an interview with Natalie Zemon Davis where she discusses her methodology and the challenges and opportunities at stake in capturing the voices of those who left no clear testimony behind for historians to unravel. In “’Being speculative is better than to not do it at all’: an interview with Natalie Zemon Davis.” The ground breaking historian of the early modern period talks about the challenge of reading the lives of people who left behind a scant paper trail with two other historians of the early modern period Jessica Roitman and Karwan Fatah-Black.[1]  Zemon Davis reflects on her own approach to listening in on the past and of filling in the empty space around marginal figures who would otherwise be forgotten: women, the enslaved, Muslims, Jews, peasants, etc.   I paired this theoretical piece with a short essay Zemon Davis wrote about the Surinamese Sephardi man of letters David Nassy, his daughter and his (eventually freed) slave Mattheus. The article follows Nassy from Suriname to his 3 year furlough in Philadelphia in the 1790’s. Zemon Davis weaves archival documents with what we can know about the places that Nassy and his household travel: the members of Congegation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia that he befriended, the rich intellectual culture of Philadelphia that Nassy enjoyed and participated in, the abolitionists and vibrant community of freed blacks that his manumitted but still indentured slave Mattheus would have encountered on the streets. Without any scrap of autobiographical material about Mattheus she tries to recreate the world he inhabited and she charts out the contours of his intellectual and social orbit. In the absence of reading his own words NZD paints the details and texture of the possible interactions and experiences he would have had. NZD discovers that Nassy and his servant held the ropes when the visiting French avionist Jean Pierre Blanchard launched himself into the sky in a hot air balloon on January 9 1793- we can only imagine what a strange and wondrous sight this might have been for both Mattheus and Nassy and how this extraordinary event and so many other things particular to Philadelphia might have influenced master and slave as they returned to the Caribbean. 
One student found the project something of a swindle.  Zemon Davis presents conjecture as fact! Most women in class rejected this view. They were drawn in to her story telling and appreciated her caution and careful erudition. I believe that they were also inspired by her indefatigable curiosity. We discussed her long career and her interest in the marginal as a way for better understanding the center. I mentioned hearing her give a talk at NYU last spring. At 88 she is clear, focused and energizing. She is a great listener and mediated a very fiesty group of professors and graduate students with elegance. She seems to feed off her discoveries and the connections she finds. My students and I fed off that energy! One was taken by the Zemon Davis’ excitement at finding a Creole dictionary. Another found magical the way she tied disparate pieces together, with care and self-awareness of the pitfalls and possibilities of this reconstruction. The original nay-sayer was not persuaded but I thanked her for providing a spark to our discussion of the essay.


I teach at a university where Jewish studies is not marginal, it is at the center. However, to a great extent it is through my students’ exploration of Jewish history that they discover world history. Starting with themselves they move outwards. They encounter Christianity and Islam as they trace the development of Jewish culture and society from the late classical into the modern age. They encounter the harsh realities of the slave trade by meeting a New World Sephardi who owns slaves and who wrestles with the economic realities that make slave-owning so tempting at the same time that he is moved b the ideals of abolition. We also read the grand narratives against their grain to find the stories of the marginalized and forgotten, the poor, women, heretics and misfits. So center and periphery shift and the particular and the universal are ineluctably tied. Reading the other is no simple matter because inevitably it brings us to see our selves in a new light. History should return us to this imbalance, this frenetic and generative dissonance between our comfortable assumptions and the yet unknown and strange which can lead us to new knowledge and a deepening awareness of our ever changing place in the world.  Natalie Zemon Davis is a great guide to this hermeneutical dance.

Jodensavanne, the “Jews’ Savannah” where Jews had large farms and employed slaves to cultivate the land. The synagogue was the tallest building in the center of the town. It can be made out in this image drawn from across the river.


[1] http://journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S0165115315000108
Jessica Roitman and Karwan Fatah-Black (2015). “Being speculative is better than to
not do it at all”: an interview with Natalie Zemon Davis. Itinerario, 39, pp 3-15
doi:10.1017/S0165115315000108