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Within My Walls: Chapter 15   

Mashiach — the anointed one — he must be here, somewhere, born and walking the earth, waiting to pick up all the fragments of their nation, to bring peace


Leonora turns on her heel, quietly climbs the stairs, and leaves the courtyard. As she strides past, she startles a kitten, who runs — a black and yellow streak. A fly buzzes around her eyes and she swats it away, but even as she does so, it grows blurred and all she can see is a spot of darkness in a sea of late afternoon sunshine, darkness moving to the right and to the left, here, there, and as much as she waves it away, she cannot free herself.

Home. She needs home. She needs Ines. She unwraps the shawl from around her shoulders — she is hot, intolerably hot — and holds it in both hands as an offering. Wooden soles beating on the stone flagstones, she follows the narrow passageways, through the darkness of the late afternoon shadow, and past the warm, apricot sunlight, to home, home.

When she gets there, she retreats to her room and pours herself a glass of wine. She drinks it slowly, willing her hands to stop trembling.

A chevrat teshuvah. This is where Yishai goes every afternoon. She has heard of them, of course. But in her mind, she thought of them as something akin to the flagellants, that obscure Christian sect, who gather in town squares and give each other lashes and wear horsehair vests under their linen shirts, so that they are always in a state of suffering.

As a child, she and her friends would watch them, fascinated, even when the mothers and fathers who were passing through would scold them: Go home, go home, this is no place for a good Jewish child.

She thinks of Yishai’s face, not as earnest as Amram’s, but with an underlying seriousness, a graveness to his demeanor. She hopes that they do not hurt each other or themselves, in their quest for penance.

She puts down the goblet and paces her bedroom. Thoughts tumble about her like rocks falling from a mountainside.

Papa’s voice comes to her. Whenever you set out to do something, make a list of your resources. There is the soup kitchen. It bustles over with children. Why, they are supplying hot food for half of Tzfat. Surely, the Almighty must delight in this work.

There is the wool factory, which should have been producing its first clothing by now, but is still empty. With no sheep to sheer, there is no wool, though they have the best location in the city, near a large stream that will power the machinery. This will bring families and prosperity to this city.

More is needed. People who know the secrets of Heaven’s ways. People who know what to do, which prayers to say, which books to read, which phrases to utter when the moon is full, and which when the night is dark. People who know how to arouse G-d’s mercy, that He reach down and comfort, and save, and spread wings of peace over all the stormy hearts.

She sits down on her bed, runs her finger over the silk cover, pulls the tassels clear from knots.

But what is there to do? To be forgiven. To forgive themselves.

She squeezes her eyes closed.

Mashiach — the anointed one — he must be here, somewhere, born and walking the earth, waiting to pick up all the fragments of their nation, to bring peace.

The first thing he will do, she thinks, is to sort out all these poor women who do not know whether they are married or not. They married as crypto-Jews and thought they would try to live good Jewish lives, albeit clandestinely. Only to realize after a few years that their husbands were content to leave the vestiges of the Torah and mitzvot behind, and live without worry or fear as New Christians. The nights that these women stayed awake, wondering if they would be betrayed by their very husbands to the Inquisitors. Afraid to stand their ground in an argument, for any disagreement that lost its way could end up with flames licking their feet. They all knew cases like it.

And finally, the women would run, and eventually they would settle and the questions would begin. Was their marriage ever a marriage? Were the witnesses valid? Would a Jew who became a Christian give a get? Even if he would, how to do so, when he remained in Spain, and no Jew would venture over the border for fear of their lives?

Ines walks in, takes the wine glass from her hand. She takes her by the hand and leads her to the oak rocking chair in the corner of her bedroom. Ines sits down opposite her, on the little stool with the embroidered seat. She leans forward and sets the chair into motion, so that Leonora begins to rock back and forth, back and forth.

“Tell me what happened?”

But she does not know where to begin.

“It is…”


“Spain, of course. Portugal.”

Ines sighs.

“It is still with us. All these years later.”

Ines nods. She has never looked older, and Leonora’s heart goes out to her. Ines will willingly hold Leonora’s pain even though it makes her own more difficult to bear. Where could be found another woman like her?

“We have not escaped it. It has only gotten worse.”


Leonora rocks harder.

What could be worse, exactly, than the hot, sweaty journey by foot along the dusty, sunbaked roads, west to Portugal? Hour after hour, plodding forward, stopping only because the pathways were congested by fellow Jews. Here and there, the walking would stop altogether, and they would find out that on the road before them, something had happened.

In the best scenarios, it was just a donkey, overburdened by all the things a family could not part from, panting from the heat, lain down across the road. But there were other times, too. A woman whose birth pangs had come, although her time had not yet arrived. An old grandmother, pleading with her family to let her die in the place she called home, not for her was the upheaval of the journey, while her son and daughters-in-law pleaded and cajoled and eventually threatened her, forcing her to continue against her will, when all she wanted to do was put her head on a hillock of soft grass and cover herself in the hay that was stacked up in the fields, still not brought in for the winter, and sleep and sleep and sleep.

What could be worse, exactly, than what took place in Lisbon? Invited to live there as Jews, being allowed to leave as Jews instead of convert, only to find out that the ships promised by the King were just a fantasy, ghost ships, and that if they did not convert they would die.

Ines shakes her head. “What has happened?”

“It is Yishai.” She tells Ines what she heard.

Ines clucks her tongue against her mouth and her eyes are bright with sorrow. “It is not just that we lost our homes. It was that we lost our faith. And even those who held on, suddenly were confused.”

“Confused, how?”

She lets out a deep sigh. “The church held up…” She screws up her forehead in thought. “…a dark looking glass. So if we saw one thing in the church, we saw the opposite in our own lives.”

Leonora shakes her head.

Ines lifts her small, white apron and twists it around her hands. “Christianity painted itself as the religion of love. So we were left with a G-d of anger and exactitude.”

“We saw the opposite.”

“Indeed. And if the Catholics are now chosen, then to be a Jew became to be persecuted and bitter and degraded.”

Leonora whispers. “And rejected.”


It is hard for Yannai to walk today, and Eliyahu wonders if he has missed that golden time, between recovery and weakness. He heaves the old man out of the cave and they begin their routine walk, up a gentle slope, stopping to watch the young lambs, then down again toward the stream.

“You are weak today.”

Yannai grunts.

“Is it meat that you seek?”

The man is not accustomed to eating grains and seeds and wild things. He needs the strength that comes from eating flesh. He wonders if he could find a bird to shecht, although doing so would be hard.

Yannai shrugs, and steps onward, eyes trained on the tufty wild grass.

“Surely, you are worried about your family.”

“And perhaps they are worried about me.”

His voice is harsh, but he glances up at Eliyahu to soften his words. Eliyahu does not mind. Better a harsh Yannai than one who is withdrawn.

“We will get you home. We will begin—”

He looks around. The sun is up but the day is not yet too warm. If the old man stays here now, he will likely only weaken, until it will be almost impossible to get him home. He settles the man on a small boulder and runs back to the cave. He packs up a small pot with some grain and milk, so that they will have food for the journey.

With the pot banging against his leg, he strides back over the hill. “Come, Yannai. We will get you home, here and now.”

The man sniffs. “And what about your sheep?”

“They are hardy enough. The lamb is cared for by its mother and the rest will manage a day or two without me.”

They set off, struggling down the hillside, pushing aside the wild wheat and the long grass, the flowers and the thistles. Soon enough they are out of breath, but they press forward, Yannai leaning heavily on Eliyahu’s arm until Eliyahu’s back aches.

When the pace slows, Eliyahu tries to coax him forward. “What waits for you at home?”

Yannai’s smile spreads slowly across his face. “My wife. My children and grandchildren. The deep chair where I sit, a grandson at my feet, teaching Mishnayot.”

Eliyahu flinches.

“Come, it is not so painful to dream. And you never know what may come true.”

Eliyahu guides Yannai over a small stream, and allows himself to dream.

“I… I return home and find it, not empty and dusty. But full. There is a smell of fresh cooking. And—” He swallows. “There are children. The place will be full of children.”

They stop to rest just after lunch, but Eliyahu does not allow Yannai to fall into a deep sleep, for he wants to cover more ground before nightfall. The late afternoon sun is a glare of heat, and now they have come to the bottom of a valley that they must climb out of, and then wind around toward the east, before beginning to ascend once again.

An hour of walking and they are both drenched with sweat, arms and back and legs heavy with the effort. Eliyahu looks up, trying to judge how long the incline. Could he, perhaps, put Yannai on his shoulders and carry him up?

“I shall not do it,” Yannai protests when Eliyahu suggests it. “I am not a child.”

Eliyahu sighs. “Can we just try it? So that at least we will have a more sheltered campsite tonight?”

Yannai nods, slowly. “It is an indignity.”

“Well, not only to you.”

Yannai laughs and clasps on to Eliyahu’s shoulders. Eliyahu tries to straighten but the old man is surprisingly heavy and pain stabs his shoulders and back.

He tips forward, kneeling on the grass, so that Yannai can stand on his own feet.

“It is no good.”

The man is pale. His gait has become even slower and he is breathing rapidly. This is just what he feared. They are far from his cave, far from shelter, and far from Tzfat. And the old man can not move.

They sit together, side by side, waiting for the shadows to lengthen and the day to die and the night to confirm their helplessness.

And then, from in the distance, they hear the sound of horse hooves. Above them, the shadow of a dark horse against the sunshine. Eliyahu looks up, squints, and sees the figure of the woman they have seen before.

He cups both hands around his mouth. “Help us! Please, help us!”

She slowly trots down toward them, expertly directing her horse as it steps across the pits and troughs that scar the earth.  When she is almost beside them, she dismounts.

“What have we here?” she says.

“An old man, far from home, without strength or agility,” Yannai says.

“We are trying to get to Tzfat,” Eliyahu explains. “But my… my teacher here has hurt his leg. He has been here with me recovering, but we are trying to return him to his family and he can go no further.”

“It is an hour’s ride from here to Tzfat,” the woman says. “If I send my servants, you will have to wait.”

Eliyahu looks at her with relief. “We will wait.”

The woman nods. “Then I will send my servants.”

Eliyahu watches as the woman leads her horse to a copse of trees. When she emerges again, she is astride the horse, tall and dignified, silhouetted against the sunshine.

Later, perched on horses and led by the strange woman’s servants, Yannai and Eliyahu see the roofs glow rose as the last sunlight of the day strokes the town of Tzfat. Eliyahu stares. He could turn back, now. He could return to his small flock of sheep. To the cave that has become his home. All he need do is to jump off his stead, now, and hike back through the valley and lose himself in the wild grass, the wood, the hills.

He stiffens, his whole body tense, every muscle quivering with the question: continue on or turn back.

Turn back. Turn back. Turn back.

There will be stares. There will be sorrow. There will be noise and strangeness and the hustle of life away from the comfort of nature.


He lifts himself up, ready to swing his leg over the horse’s flanks and jump to the ground.

But just as he moves, he feels Yannai’s hand on his. The man’s grip is like a chain snaking around his arm, stronger than he could ever have imagined.

“Do not even think of it. You are coming with me.”

to be continued…


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 803)

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