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Writing on the Floor — Leonard Stein

You go listen to stories around you. To your father when you, a child, turn your back and he references some name from the sky. Or you go listen to nothing when you’re missing something erased or covered up. Do you work with English? I’d peel the varnish off for you and wait.

My author stood in front of me. This can happen to graduate students. She would say that she comes to these conferences, but my relationship with her until then only existed in the book we shared from opposite ends. I would defend her good name to my advisor and spend hours taxing over the questions of her novel that no one in my country read. I compared it to other texts, believing she embedded layers of secrets beyond the curvatures of her printed letters.

To tell this story right means finding the thread that rolls from here to there, but I have trouble finding the pieces that connect them. My country was engulfed in fire during the conference, my wife and children in a ghost city where sirens sent people running throughout the nights. I went to Texas (my first time leaving Israel in years) to speak on the topic of the desert in crypto-Jewish fiction. I passed terminals where muted television screens displayed families screaming in tears over wreckage done by people who looked like me. The pitch from the baggage-claim intercom made my body quake by reflex, the one that says I must carry my sleeping infant into the underground cell before a new rocket lands right now.

This is to come to a major-league Hilton where rooms spiraled into ballrooms into executive rooms into who knows what. Excessive luxury packaged with the sweat of breaking news updates from home. For three days, an array of speakers came to discuss their work or personal history in a corner of the hotel, alongside all the other conventions, seminars, and the obligatory Chinese calligraphy workshop. Our thing was devoted to research on the medieval Iberian Inquisitions and its aftermaths, when Jews concealed and revealed identities from then to now. Histories of forced conversions, tapered remnants, febrile claims to authenticity. People wrote books and sold them here. They started cheek-swab genealogy tests and ate catered food together. They even had a concert; a band of brothers playing music I had never heard (something like Mexican polka music, starring a show-stopping teenage accordionist enlivening the attendees to boogie). We carried name tags and attempted conversations.

I had come to Dallas with a little notebook and hurried to jot down impressions so as not to forget them. I’d write in tiny letters without spaces, encrypted by bad penmanship. Huberman: a kind and modest woman who walked with a cane. She also teaches comparative literature, she writes book after book, she says her husband lived on the first kibbutz. There was a sense of urgency in this ink, cluttered into little words that followed me onto skin I’d erase with my tongue. Bunch of laypeople that carry all this historical knowledge, driven by a passion to understand where they’re from. They say everything matter-of-factly. I do not yet know if this is an academic conference, but people are looking for kindred spirits, like themselves, grasping for confirmation of their suspicions. We’d almost recognize each other.

Then there are the pages of questions I wrote for my author. If it is surreal to hear your writing read back to you, consider my panel’s Q&A session, when my author speaks after I speak to elaborate on my writing on her writing. I stumble to the mic and tell my author, a tall woman of middle age with high cheekbones and long curly hair, that it is high time critics finally pay attention to the marginal voices of the wilderness. No, I didn’t say that at all.

At the end of my presentation, we continued talking and arranged to record an interview for the next day. So that night, I tried compressing many of the streaming thoughts that swam through me during the last months of the thesis. Does publishing about the experience and formation of crypto-Jewish identity abandon the chief characteristic (secrecy) that crypto-Jews assume? Some were things I couldn’t ask as an academic person. How do you define yourself? In my department, we’d sermonize over the death of the author. We direct our first-years to that infamous fallacy of intentions and meanings. That you do whatever the hell you want. Forget the author. Like I care what Joyce and his girlfriend did on a beach. Just focus on the text, we tell them. It has a life of its own. Of course, I transgress such principals because we are leaving critical writing and starting to know each other. You and I here. In the middle of our hours-long interview, I get risky and ask her about something from the novel. A mysterious set of poems that suddenly appear, its own text within a text, presented bilingually, without attribution, and removed from the rest of the story. You are struck when it arrives, the point I guess. But you notice when you read these poems, you’d place your fingers under the next line to catch yourself from seeing what it wants to tell you.

“Oh, those,” she stops me. “Those were a set of poems I found from an old book on Latin American crypto-Judaism.”

Boleslao Lewin, the Jewish-Argentinian historian who wrote the book, included the poems but admitted to knowing nothing of their source, only that they are definitely crypto- Jewish and that abrigamos, sin embargo, la esperanza de que con el tiempo se aclarará este enigma. My author says it came from the hands of a Peruvian crypto-Jewish doctor, a man named Francisco Maldonado da Silva, who spent too many years in the early seventeenth century imprisoned by the Inquisition. When da Silva was a kid, the church killed his father and brother for Judaizing. But before that time, his father had pointed to a Bible and told his son to look within the pages to find what he was looking for. That was how Francisco looked for his heritage, despite skewed biblical translations and the paranoia. He wore special clothes for Shabbat, fasted on Yom Kippur, and circumcised himself with improvised scissors. His sister, a devout Catholic, reported him to church officers, who locked him into various prison cells in Lima.

He’d buy time by answering the refutations. He encouraged more and more debates to consider the arguments meticulously prepared and explicated for hours in a room full of stubborn judges. I am the bachelor Francisco Maldonado Silva, graduate surgeon, born in the city of San Miguel de Tucuman, in the kingdom of Peru, and am 35 years old. This was when being a surgeon mostly meant bloodletting, when they believed such things cured diseases and ailments. Or to be part of the battlefield, when soldiers suffering shattered bones could survive by the unmerciful work of the knife. He would know, then, that his first attempt at circumcision was botched and that he would need smoother metal and something to bite on to fix what he had started.

A man cuts into people with a steady knife. In tribunals, he similarly ridicules the unlettered words of judges as a way to stay alive. Sarcasm: from the Greek σαρκάζειν (sarkzeyn): to tear flesh, gnash the teeth, speak bitterly. A year after da Silva is imprisoned the English doctor William Harvey publishes Exercitatio anatomica, revolutionizing the study of medicine by proving that blood in the body comes from one source. Arteries and veins do not carry different types of blood. No, they just send blood in opposite directions, and it is the heart, you see, “in a certain universal tension,” that is responsible for pumping everything into circulation. Would that a dying surgeon knew of the cycle within his dry bones. For every moment he jolts and returns. Would that he’d breathe and come to life. He starts whispering to himself, losing his sense for what is heard and what is thought. For all his clots and lacerations, he has not lost what keeps him whole. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. Stay awake and you will live to hear the foreign words turn natural.

*

My family is Sephardic, which means that their ancestors lived in Spain until they were driven out. My father’s family started new lives in Northern Africa and my mother’s in the Balkans, and the histories merged once my parents met in Netanya. It is true that my mother’s family took for a surname the Spanish city, Alcalá de Henares, from which they fled hundreds of years ago. I can pretend that we are all related to Cervantes. But my name (as well my face) betrays no trace of this. I slip through the comforts and pretense of white privilege. You are born in one country, raised in another, and return to the homeland that now sees you—you with the foreign accent and gentle disposition— as a new immigrant learning the ropes. You are always from somewhere else. But there are little mementos, a Bulgarian medal of honor, a grandfather’s prayer shawl, a love letter written in awkward block Hebrew letters, peeking out of the grey mural. My past can be read because I am writing it. It exists because I choose to keep it on the page.

*

What did it mean to produce literature in an Inquisition cell? They say Carvajal wrote on everything, even eggshells, when he was locked up and waiting for certain death. How does one find the strength to say anything by that point? And who inside gives the pen? In 1903, George Alexander Kohut surveyed the account of da Silva’s trial, which mentions the seized writings; these were hundreds of pages of treatises written “in very small, beautiful characters, and sewn together with such dexterity that they looked like pamphlets from a bookstore, having been written with ink made of coals and with the crooked leg of a hen.” He made rope out of stalk, infiltrated the cells nearby, chose not to escape the prison, and managed—get this—to convert other prisoners (including an unchaste Catholic friar) to Judaism of all things. And, he somehow does all this, by talking well. He convinces the guards to switch his meals from bread to maize, and makes rope by collecting and interlacing the husks. He can speak to the hearts of others and then later confess to his captors that, yes, he is responsible for their change. His charge of Judaizing comes full circle to where he started. The blood circulates back and forth and he is still alive. They order him insane, and notice the twitch near his temple.

But how did my author know to typeset the words of the poems in the novel as if a steady hand wrote them? When they arrive in her book, in medias res of a beautiful tale about her Mexican ancestors, they appear as artifacts dug up from wood and mud. In Spanish on the left side, with her English translation on the corresponding right, the nine canticles bear no page number. They detail the speaker’s pleas to God and a return to faith in a voice amalgamating Psalms with the New World.

“He was imprisoned for years,” she continues, “but he wrote and wrote and wrote. And, somehow his works were taken out of the prison. He wrote on little scraps of paper, little things that people brought in to him, and somehow they were disseminated and published in books like this.”

I imagine our doctor rolling on to his belly, hungry and covered in grime, sliding off a piece of material from the floor that will become parchment. From the vantage point behind him, it seems as though he sleeps in this position, but what they cannot see is that his arms are against his chest, his secret covered by his hands and long hair. He writes in the dark with his fingernails etched onto his parchment. To start from where he left off, he runs his fingers across the material until the rough becomes smooth again. To write again, after such a long fast and after seeing the first stars, will require all of his focus to stop shaking and whisper again that now you must return to write. And so, he writes touch my soul, tongue and will, and my heart as well because I begin with new strength and new power. Above that were other words like, I hope to proceed with such a steady hand that nothing will bewilder my thoughts. This is how I imagine him through my author, but she reminds me, of course, that his words originally sounded like this: Mi flaco aliento esfuerza y fortalice, mi ronco pecho aclara y da alregría, mi entendimiento alumbra y esclarece. But I intervene, thinking that maybe, actually, there was another voice that text never captured. That which was never passed on when another prisoner, a cousin, would enter the cell and find the scraps under the floor long after da Silva’s burned body and mad mind disappeared into the air. You could feel it if you passed your fingers through the letters and made out the gaps in between. An avowal for others who would pick up the text and slowly rub it over their eyelids in devotion, da Silva’s soul was saying something he understood but never learned how to pronounce.

הזורעים בדמעה ברנה יקצורו. הלוך ילך, ובכה נושא משך הזרע .בוא יבאו ברנה נושא אלומותיו.

*

Did you ever learn to read Hebrew?

“A rudimentary background. My father essayed from the vestigial pages available to us. My soul thirsted to drink from words denied to me. I did, nevertheless, cache a siddur sewed into my pants before they seized me. The jail was so mismanaged, however, they doubtless would not have noticed either way.”

So you mean you prayed in the jail?

“I tried what I could. During fasts, I would pray for hours with my own words.”

Is this how you went mad?

“I never went mad.”

They say you darkened your skin by grinding it on the stone.

“No, that would get my words on me.”

Fair enough. Can you talk a little about your writing?

“It wasn’t so complicated. The guards gave me a quill and a little ink so that I could prepare my remarks for the disputations. That is how I came to scrawl the treatises, as well as my privy notes and other intimate writings. What concerns you?”

Well, I imagined something else. I imagined you had no ink.

“That came as well. I amassed ash with shambolic results. But what difference does this make?”

It makes all the difference. Are these poems yours?

“It doesn’t matter.”

Can you just read it?

“I tend to stay away from others writing about me. I did enjoy the spirit of that other one, you know, the novel Marcos wrote.”

Hold on. What do you mean novel? Somebody already wrote you? How did I miss this? “Do you read Spanish?”

When I get back to my country we are still at war. Because of rounds of canceled flights, I get stranded in Amsterdam, desperate in an airport and stared at by eternal strangers for wearing a round cloth atop my head. They see me but cannot see me. They see a man sketched from a caricature, a bloodthirsty soldier concealed in shirt-and-tie. My wife waited for me and we get back to desert life. The days roll by but the thesis never ends and there are only fragments left from the conference. A couple of pictures, the incoherent scribbling of a couple of pages, that recording. The recording. I find my phone, that device that captures things when my fingers touch it, and play the track at full volume.

*

My voice is nervous when speaking to my author. There is that strange feeling of hearing yourself out of your body, saying the dumbest words imaginable to someone you have waited for and did not expect to see. Her high-registered voice in an accent I cannot pin down. Farmland Californian. There’s the background noise around us—I feared we would drown from the muzak of the hotel lobby and what sounds like a water fountain. We move on from da Silva and tour each of the topics bulleted on my notebook. During the recording’s silences I picture what our faces were doing (I must be looking at my shoes, thinking of where to go from here, stay cool). The silences are then filled with new questions about spiritual turns and the process of writing. How those become the same thing. By the end, my asking and recording and hearing and transcribing mesh into words that I still cannot piece together, losing my sense for what is heard and what is thought. What will become of this recording, and who will pass over my voice?

“You don’t know where the thread rolls because you and I are in it,” she says.

What do you mean, Kathleen?

“The words flow back and forth. The cánticos were written down, passed under clothes or under the ground, under your bomb shelter, and then one day someone put them in a book. And then much later I put them in my book and translated them.”

Right, and then I started my work on your novel and on the lost words.

“No, no, there’s more, somehow. Somehow, you interviewed me here, so now the words come back. It’s like a round. Even now, you’re writing me and the interview we did in this little story of yours. This story printed where others are finding the chambers of their own voice. The texts, this dialogue, are confined within margins but already leaving their chains.”

But then how do I end this? I don’t want to leave this interview. I want to keep tasting your poems.

“It’s not mine. It passes through us. And, anyway, you’ve already given the book.”

Will you end this story with me?

“Sure, Leonard. The pen is down, the hands stop typing, no one is recording anymore. No one is reading this anymore. Let’s go back to when you were interviewing me. We’re sitting in a hotel lobby. What can you tell me about coming out of the wilderness?”

I’m looking at my author now, before I must leave to go back to an Israel shaking its dry bones. In a song no one else hears, with words enveloped in a melody she will understand, I sing her my answer. My author stands in front of me and hears me. To return to the heart of the matter, I dare not tell much more than that. This page must embrace silence. I can say that my author will no longer find me between the dots and letters that I once carried for her. She will find me inscribed like a name from the sky, a secret song of songs that circulates from the crevices of walls of stone we have built with our memories to the memories we have imagined when carving in our whispers.

I am reading these letters. I am dancing between white spaces. Now write me back.