Twenty years ago, Marjorie Sandor chanced upon a performance of 15th-century music attributed to Spanish Jews who fled the Inquisition. She was instantly captivated by the melodies, which sounded familiar though she’d never heard them before. The experience was so powerful, she told The Times of Israel, that it propelled her on a nearly two-decade journey resulting in her debut novel, “The Secret Music at Tordesillas.”
The book is told from the perspective of Juan de Granada — a fictional musician who was left behind as a child when his Jewish family was expelled from Spain amid the forced conversions, torture, and killings mandated by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella as part of their religious crusade.
De Granada is the last of the court musicians to remain in the castle after the death of Juana la Loca, the queen he had entertained for 47 years while she was held there in forced seclusion. Now, he is being interrogated by two Spanish Inquisitors — but it is his hope that he can play them off each other to achieve his goal, which will be revealed with time.
“I was at a friend’s house and there was this music that sounded really Jewish to me on the stereo,” Sandor said, in a telephone interview from her home in Corvallis, Oregon. “I sat down and I’m like, ‘that’s gorgeous, that sounds like synagogal music to me,’ and I found the CD cover and it was called ‘Music for Joan the Mad.’”
The mysteriously-named album was by a Canadian band called La Nef, and when Sandor looked at the sleeve she saw that it was a concept album taking an imaginative journey into late 15th- and early 16th-century Spain.
“I had never heard of Joan the Mad, the third daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella. She was 13 years old when they took over Granada, the last of the Moorish kingdoms, and raised their standards on the Alhambra,” Sandor said.
“Ferdinand and Isabella literally paraded through the Jewish quarter on their way up to the top, and then of course gave the command that all Jews must either convert to Christianity or leave their kingdoms by August,” she said. “So these musicians speculated that young Joan would have heard the music of the departing Jews as she sat up there in the Alhambra — which is very fanciful, but also not impossible.”
So began a years-long research process to uncover a piece of Jewish history that the 16th-century Spanish monarchs tried their best to eradicate. Sandor visited the Jewish ghettos of Spain, scoured transcripts of actual Inquisition trials, unearthed ancient recipes, and picked the brains of musicians and academics around the world in her quest to learn as much as she could about the conversos — those Jews who remained under Spanish rule and converted to Christianity — some of whom continued to practice their traditions in secret, sometimes for hundreds of years.
Sandor is the recipient of the National Jewish Book Award for her 2003 collection “Portrait of My Mother, Who Posed Nude in Wartime,” as well as the prestigious Oregon Book Award for her book of personal essays, “The Night Gardener: A Search for Home.” She also teaches fiction at Oregon State University in Corvallis (full disclosure: Sandor was this reporter’s thesis adviser) and is an accomplished musician in her own right.
The Times of Israel spoke to Sandor prior to a frigid, socially-distanced practice session with the local traditional Celtic music group she plays guitar for. Though it was early in the morning, Sandor was as full of esotericism and intrigue as ever. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Times of Israel: The genesis story of this novel is so interesting — can you elaborate on that a little more?
Marjorie Sandor: Right, so first of all, I didn’t know who Joan the Mad — or Juana la Loca — was. She inherited the crown from her mother Isabella after her death, and she was married off to Philip the Handsome of Burgundy, and that was the beginning of the Habsburg scene. She had six children, and then her father had her locked up at Tordesillas for 47 years to keep her from actually reigning. And word on the street was that she was mad as a hatter after her young husband died when she was 27. And I just started thinking, wow, that’s so weird — what do the Jews of Granada have to do with the mad queen of Spain who was locked up for 47 years far to the north? And I didn’t recognize any of the names of the instruments that were being used on the La Nef album — the oud, the saz, the crumhorn, the list went on, everything was very exotic.
But the weird thing that happened is that I started thinking, what if you were a little Jewish kid in Granada and your father was a great player of one of these instruments, and you got left behind when your family and all the other Jews departed rather than convert. And like Moses in the basket, you got left behind and somehow wound up in the gardens of the Alhambra and taken into the court as a curiosity and you could never forget the music of your childhood?
And in fact I had him clutching his father’s oud as he is left behind, so he is found in the garden by the young princess, and a young woman of the court takes his oud from him, and for years and years he doesn’t know where it is — but it’s actually never far away. He’s with that queen for 47 years as one of her court musicians. During that time, he starts in a rage against Joan’s first lady in waiting — her favorite — but gradually comes to understand that this young woman is a fellow converso who is actually a crypto-Jew. So it’s a love story — but it’s a really bizarre love story.
It took you some time to complete this novel — in fact, we even occasionally discussed the challenges of writing it when I was late turning in parts of my thesis back in 2013.
Yeah, it took me 17 years to actually get it written, first of all partly because the research was so hard — I didn’t know anything about early music, I didn’t know anything about the Inquisition, really. About how Jews — or new Christians — got caught practicing Judaism. I didn’t know anything about Joan the Mad or anything she went through, which was kind of a shocking story in itself. And I had to figure out to let the protagonist speak, rather than trying to be good and write in third person from all these different points of view, or tell it from my own vantage point in the future.
Once I gave up and said, okay I’m going to be a 16th-century male Spaniard, and I’m going to talk — once I did that, and figured out that he needed to be telling it to someone in his own time and place — and sort of like journalism, there had to be a deadline and a problem and a reason to tell it and an urgency, and then my dear friend, the novelist Suzanne Berne, said “if one Inquisitor, why not two,” that’s when it really came to life. But it was pretty weird that the one point of view that seemed like the worst idea on the planet — just like, are you really gonna to try to write in the voice of a 16th-century male Spaniard? Are you really gonna do that? But that turned out, in fact, to be the only way the story was going to get told.
Can you tell us a little bit about all the research you needed to conduct? It covered a pretty diverse range of topics.
It started in sort of a world of mistakes. I read those delicious liner notes from the CD cover, believed everything I read, and kind of fell in love with the possibility of this romantic story. I think I started with the instruments — ‘cuz I thought oh, he must be an oud player at court because that was the coolest sounding instrument.
Well, it took me a couple of years to figure out that he couldn’t have played an oud in public — it would have been taken away from him because it was an instrument that was associated with the enemy and with the conquered. And that’s nowhere among the liner notes at all, and you have to really dig around to get the picture. And that’s just the starting point.
One of the other amazing things to me is the subject of the Inquisition itself. There are Inquisition trial records, and they’ve been translated into English, so you can actually read trial transcripts from the Inquisition. And one of the big surprises that hit me over and over again as I read, was that most of the ways that people got caught Judaizing — which is the word for practicing Judaism in secret when you’re supposed to be a good Christian — is through food and domestic activities.
So women were often at huge risk, and it could be something as simple as no smoke coming from your chimney on a Friday night or Saturday morning. Or you put on a clean blouse or sweep your stoop on a Friday afternoon. The Inquisition used to send functionaries out around the country, and they’d be at the church for a couple of weeks taking notes, and if you had a pissed off neighbor or a pissed off maid, they might sidle up to the church and say, “check out so-and-so’s house over the weekend, because something’s up,” and the next thing you know, you’re in prison, and it goes from there.
That blew my mind that it could be such a small and private thing that ends up destroying your life and the lives of your descendants for decades to come. They would hang these sambenitos, these tunics that the penitent would have to wear to the trials, they would hang them up in the churches with the family name emblazoned on them, and they would stay there for decades, no matter what happened to you. And they burned people at the stake — but they also burned effigies of people who had escaped and run away, so your family name was still smeared even if you’d gotten away.
So basically what happened to me is I went on a series of forking paths of astonishment over the research, that there was so much I didn’t know, and in every avenue of that exploration I was just bowled over by the surprises on the one hand, but also the intimacy and familiarity of what could happen.
So there was a way in which it lost its exotic and mysterious quality and became desperately familiar — to the point where I was still writing this in 2016, and as I was writing some scenes I realized that they were the same scenes that were being played out in America with ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] coming to people’s doors and people pretending not to be home, or hiding in the back. Our own country’s immigration policies were starting to resemble Inquisition Spain.
Do you have any Sephardic heritage yourself?
This is a big question for me — and it’s not the first time I’ve been asked. I think my father, whose family comes from Hungary, is of Sephardic background, but I haven’t done any genetic tests yet. My mom’s side is Polish-Lithuanian, and they’re redheads with green eyes and they’re super pale. And my dad had black hair, dark olive skin, and bright blue eyes — I don’t know exactly where he came from. His whole look is radically southern Europe, as opposed to the Ashkenazi side, so I’ve always wanted to do one of those tests. The only thing that stops me is that various friends of mine who are scientists go, “ehhh.”
But you’ve traveled quite a bit both researching this book as well as your own personal family history.
I went back to Hungary and Romania in 2008 to the town where my grandfather is from, and the Jewish cemetery is up on a hill above a junkyard, and it’s actually locked up tight, we had to scale a wall to get in. It was being used as a haying field, and you had to push the hay aside to see the names on the gravestones. And the priest in the town, when we got there, said “It’s too bad you didn’t come earlier — the last old man who knew a Jew died last year.”
This and the trip to Spain itself to do research were so full of erasure and being absolutely unable to find any evidence of what I was looking for: the life of the Jews. There were these empty streets with the word Juderia on it, or these graveyards that are now being used as haying fields.
The devastation and the loss of memory was so striking
The devastation and the loss of memory was so striking, and I guess that’s the counterpoint to this idea of ancestrally knowing and having a sensitivity to these things is also the modern-day shock of awareness of the ease of erasure. You’re confronted with the sort of consequences of erasure; you can’t find the heritage that you somehow romantically dreamily thought was yours.
Can you talk about the role that music itself plays in the book?
Right, so another element of inspiration for this book is the big hole or question mark that emerged as I started researching Sephardic ballads — the songs that went with the Jews from 16th-century Spain to all the countries, like Morocco, and France, and Turkey, all these different places. The music of course, like cooking, took on the flavors of the new place that it went to, but the ballads preserve the original Judeo-Spanish of that time and place in Spain.
So when I started asking these Sephardic scholars what happened to the music of the Jews and the Moors in Spain who didn’t leave, but stayed and converted, one by one all these world experts wrote back, saying “nobody knows.” Because it would have been a death sentence to sing or play the music that was associated with piyutim — prayer melodies from the synagogue or wedding songs.
I found one wonderful Israeli scholar who writes about music in the Inquisition, Eleazar Gutwirth, and I got as much as I could from him — a lot of his work was inaccessible to me — but I found an amazing article that fueled much of what I wrote in terms of memory and music, the way you can’t forget music. Another scholar, Israel J. Katz, who studies Sephardic ballads, was an enormous help. He’s a wonderful man, now in his 90s. He said, “maybe your imagination can discover what none of us can actually know.”
He was very tough with me in terms of historical accuracy, but he also said, this is a place that’s unknown. I started thinking, this is a lot like Midrash — I found a hole in this story, and I’m going down into this threshing floor, into this cave, where nobody knows that happened, and I’m looking around and imagining and trying to think about what might have been, since we cannot know.
The act of writing a book like this is an act of trying to re-establish a connection that’s been frayed and that perhaps can’t be set down in stone. So in a weird way, I’m reclaiming a possible history. And if it’s not exactly mine as an individual, it is ours [as Jews]. I fell in love with the sound of a culture that might be mine, and from it, I went down into this cave like a spelunker and I came back up with a story.
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