Monday, December 09, 2002

Two brief stories about Jews, exiles, and keys.

Point: On Newbury Street in Boston, near Dartmouth Street, there is the Pucker gallery, which regularly shows new work by the painter Samuel Bak. Bak is a Holocaust survivor, who has taken the experience as his theme; his pictures are surreal images of what might remain of a community when the people have vanished. An alley from his youth is filled with discarded books. Buildings melt into trees and hillsides. Fenceposts, gates, and papers meld together into shadow images of people who are gone.

Through this all, there are several repeated motifs --- the image of one of his childhood friends, now dead; plants, trees, rocks, and cracks in walls forming themselves into Hebrew words; and the images, over and over, of broken locks, keys and keyholes. This last, it was explained to me, refers to an incident in his childhood, when the Nazis had decided to do the final roundup of Jews in his neighborhood, and dozens of them were crammed in a room. A woman was crying. Despite the desperate attempts of everyone else to keep silent, she kept on, inconsolable. She had forgotten the key to her apartment --- a key she could never use again.

Counterpoint: In 1492, under the influence of the Spanish Inquisition, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain outlawed the practice of Judaism. Much of the Jewish community fled. The exiles, called Sephardim, hung on to what they could, which was mostly tradition. Yesterday evening, I was at a concert of their songs, one of which asks, in Spanish, the musical question, "Where is the key to my house in Spain?"

A few years ago, almost exactly five hundred years after the exile, the same group performed this song in Philadelphia, and a woman in the audience was suddenly reminded of a memento, nearly forgotten at the back of a drawer, which she received from her grandfather, who also told her that they were from the Spanish city of Toledo, and before that, from the tribe of Zebulon. She brought it backstage at another concert, and so it wound up on a video which was played for the audience yesterday evening. It is a large iron key, about six inches long; upon it is inscribed, in Hebrew letters, the family name.


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