Showing posts with label Jewish fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jewish fiction. Show all posts

07 May 2017

Meet the Mendozas: A Family of Cultural Relativists in An Age of Absolutism


 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the ninth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!
by Elizabeth Zelvin

Diego Mendoza, a nice Jewish boy from Seville, was born knocking on the inside of my head one night, demanding that I tell his story: he sailed with Columbus on the voyage of discovery on the very day in 1492 that the Jews were expelled from Spain. Why did Columbus take him on? (I have my reasons for not believing the theory that Columbus himself was Jewish.) Diego's dad was shipwrecked with Columbus off the coast of Portugal in their youth (the shipwreck is historical fact), and he'd remained a friend of the family. Young Columbus also had a crush on Diego's mother, though that didn't come out till Journey of Strangers, the second novel, as a piece of ancient family history.

So Diego had a father, did he? Diego escaped to what turned out to be "the Indies." Where did the rest of the family go? In "The Green Cross," the first of two Diego stories about the first voyage that appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, I sent Diego's "parents and sisters" to Italy, where many Spanish Jews fled at the beginning of the Sephardic diaspora. Diego sprang to such vivid life that I decided he deserved a novel, which presented new challenges.

I needed women characters, so I created Diego's sister Rachel, a spirited and endearing girl of 13 who had been sent away to a convent school in Barcelona for safety's sake and left behind due to the ruthless speed of the expulsion. Her only protector was an aunt, Doña Marina Mendes y Torres, a true converso rather than a marrano who secretly practiced Judaism. I intended Doña Marina to be stern and forbidding, but the lady surprised me, eventually becoming a staunch protector to her niece and nephew and putting up with a fair amount of discomfort and shenanigans. The first half of Voyage of Strangers takes place in Spain, where Columbus is received at the court of Ferdinand and Isabella and charged with outfitting a fleet for the second voyage. Rachel is burning to go along, and in the end, Diego and Columbus combined fail to stop her.

In the second half of Voyage of Strangers, Diego and Rachel meet and fall in love with the gentle, generous Taino, the indigenous population of Quisqueya (Hispaniola) and are powerless to prevent its destruction by the Spaniards. We get to know more about their parents and their upbringing via the principles instilled in them, which allow them to embrace a culture very different from their own. As Jews, they have always been outsiders in the Christian mainstream culture of Europe. This has made cultural relativism their natural point of view. For example, the Taino teach Diego and Rachel batey, a game not unlike soccer.
We both became skilled at batey. In such perilous times, one might think that sport would be abandoned. But batey was a religious observance, the game a ceremony like the Christian Mass or, in Judaism, carrying the Torah. In troubled times, spiritual practice is a necessity. My father had told me so, and the Taino understood this as well.
Both Papa and Mama Mendoza are revealed as counselors whose wisdom their children cling to in difficult situations, since they are far from home and have no one to rely on but each other. In one historically accurate scene, Diego and Rachel are forced to listen to the sounds of a young Taino girl being beaten and raped by a childhood friend of Columbus. The man himself wrote an account of it when he returned to Europe. The story survived because historians quoted it as a comical anecdote as late as 1942. That's right: Samuel Eliot Morison, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Columbus, thought the rape of an Indian maiden, with a beating to make her compliant, was funny.
“Diego!” Rachel cried. “What is he doing to her?”

I took her hand and pulled her down beside me on a coil of rope.

“Do you know what is meant to happen between a man and a woman?”

“Yes,” she said. “Elvira told me.”

“What did she tell you?” I asked. Our eldest sister loved to hoard information and spring it on us at the moment when it would most devastate or embarrass us, and she did not always pause to verify her facts.

“She said a man and a woman do the same as when a bull is set to a cow, so she will bear a calf and furnish milk. And that is how human folk make a baby.”

“And what do you think of that?” I asked. I expected her to say that she found it hard to believe of our parents, who both had a full measure of dignity.

“I know it is true,” she said, “for I asked Mama. She said there is pleasure in it too, when it is done correctly.”

Papa had said the same. I would not admit to Rachel that I had had no opportunity yet to investigate the matter for myself. So I simply nodded, hoping my little sister thought me wiser than I was.

“Mama told me about rape too,” Rachel said. “That is what Cuneo is doing, is it not?”

“Yes, but—Mama told you?”

“She knew it was a danger, sending me to Barcelona when things were getting worse,” Rachel said, “and none knew what the King and Queen would do about the Jews. She said I must have this knowledge so that if I were taken, at least I would not be taken by surprise.”
For Journey of Strangers, I had to do some serious research on the Sephardic diaspora so I could address the issue of what had become of the rest of the Mendoza family. I quickly found out that the Mendoza family could not have stayed in Firenze (Florence), where I had so blithely put them, under the protection of Lorenzo di Medici. First, Lorenzo died in January 1492. Second, his successor, along with the Jews who had sought refuge there, fled the city in November 1494, when King Charles VIII conquered it. Many of them ended up in Istanbul, where Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II welcomed them, although the famous one-liner, still quoted– "You venture to call Ferdinand a wise ruler, he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!" –was made up by a writer, who else, in 1523. So the Mendozas settled in Istanbul, and I got to develop the characters of Papa and Mama, along with older sisters Elvira and Susanna and their fianćes, later husbands, and in-laws.

The complex rules governing the lives of Jews in Istanbul in the late 1490s; the trauma of their travels; the pressure on the Jewish community to marry their children young and have them reproduce as many Jews as possible--very much like the situation of Jews after the Holocaust--all of these challenge Papa and Mama Mendoza to show what stuff they're made of. Into this situation come their long-lost children, who have befriended naked Taino and helped Moorish slaves escape. Their best friend is Hutia, a lone Taino survivor, and Rachel is determined to marry him. They've been running around the Caribbean half-naked and fighting their way through Europe living by their wits. How are you going to box them into a nice Jewish marriage and a job in Papa's business?

Rachel, with Mama's help, finds herself a job as a personal shopper to the ladies of the Sultan's harem. Diego goes into partnership with a Muslim ship's captain and former pirate. The plot thickens as Hutia must decide whether conversion to Judaism or to Islam is more likely to win him Rachel's hand in marriage. No spoilers. Read the books! Both are available as trade paperbacks and e-books. Instead, I'll give you the final lines of the homecoming scene (the end of Chapter 23 in Journey of Strangers, when Diego, Rachel, and Hutia finally arrive in Istanbul). I confess that I cried not only the first three times I read it over, but also while I was writing it.
Someone must be coming to the door. It swung open. A young man I did not recognize, wearing a tallit, peered out at us, squinting as if nearsighted.

“Yes?”

Then I heard my sister Elvira’s voice call out, “Akiva? Who is it?”

A girl with a mop of hair as unruly as Rachel’s came flying out of an inner room, shrieking, “It’s them! It’s them!”

My sister Susanna flung herself upon me, arms tight around my neck and legs clinging to my waist.

“Mama! Papa! Come quickly! Diego and Rachel have come home!”

And then Rachel was sobbing in Mama’s arms, and Papa was lifting Susanna down so he could hug me himself, his beard wet with tears as it brushed against my cheek, or maybe the tears were mine.

“My boy, my boy!” Papa said. “Baruch Ha’shem! Thank God you’re home!”
After I'd finished writing Journey, I realized that not only did Papa and Mama Mendoza represent an idealized version of my own parents and a blueprint for the aspects of family that I would have liked and hadn't had, but they also reminded me of the March parents in Little Women, who in turn were Louisa May Alcott's idealized portrait of her own parents, the high-minded but impractical philosopher Bronson Alcott and her beloved mother, immortalized as the March sisters' Marmee. Wise, kind, ethical, loving, principled without being the slightest bit dogmatic, fiercely loyal to family, flexible, open-minded on a deeply intelligent level, and utterly reliable. Cultural relativists. Who wouldn't want such parents? My own being long gone, I'd go home with them in a flash.

Elizabeth Zelvin, a once and forever SleuthSayer, is the author of the historical novels Voyage of Strangers and Journey of Strangers, the Bruce Kohler mystery series beginning with Death Will Get You Sober, and numerous short stories. Her stories have been nominated twice for the Derringer Award and three times for the Agatha Award.

Liz is currently editing the fourth Murder New York Style anthology for the New York chapter of Sisters in Crime. You can find her on Amazon's Elizabeth Zelvin page, on her website at elizabethzelvin.com, and on Facebook as Elizabeth Zelvin.

28 January 2016

What's a nice Jewish girl doing in the Sultan's harem?


Elizabeth Zelvin

It's not what you think!

When young marrano sailor Diego Mendoza boarded Admiral Columbus's flagship, I didn't know his voyage of discovery, which began on the very day the Jews were expelled from Spain, would lead me—and Diego's sister Rachel, a character who didn't even exist yet—to the harem of Sultan Bayezid II in Istanbul, at the heart of the Ottoman Empire.

Diego appeared inside my head in the middle of the night, as our best fictional creations do, and nagged me until I wrote "The Green Cross," a mystery short story set aboard the Santa Maria that was published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and nominated for an Agatha Award. One thing led to another . . .
In my novel, Voyage of Strangers, about Columbus's second voyage, I accounted for Diego's parents by saying they had fled to Firenze (Florence), whose de facto ruler, Lorenzo di Medici, was known for his tolerance toward the Jews. Rachel, who had remained in Spain, escaped the Inquisition by wangling her way onto the Admiral's ship and participating in the events of 1493 to 1495 in Hispaniola, which included the tragic destruction of the Taino people. At the end of Voyage, Diego, Rachel, and their friend Hutia, a Taino survivor, are sailing back to Europe to embark on a search for their family.

Once I started researching events after 1492, I realized that the Mendozas were in trouble, and so was I. We all had to be resilient if we wanted to survive. Here are some of the historical events that shaped my new novel, Journey of Strangers, (just out in e-book and paperback):

1492: Lorenzo di Medici died, making Firenze less of a haven for the Jews.
1493: 120,000 Spanish Jews fled to Portugal. Eight months after offering them refuge, the King of Portugal changed his mind. He abducted two thousand Jewish children, forcibly baptized them, and sent them as slaves to São Tomé, a pestilential island off the coast of West Africa.
1494: King Charles VIII of France invaded Italy, claiming the throne of Naples and occupying Firenze along the way. The Medici had to flee, and so did the Jews.


The harem! you say. What about the harem? I'm getting there . . . War-torn Italy and the pirate-infested Mediterranean were dangerous even to Christian townsmen, villagers, and travelers and even more so to the Jews, who tended to get scapegoated in any crisis. The Ottoman Empire offered a haven. Sultan Bayezid extended an invitation to Jewish merchants, scholars, artisans, and physicians, seeing them as potential assets to the Empire. And that's how so many Sephardic Jews ended up in Istanbul and other Ottoman cities.

By the time Rachel reaches Istanbul, she's added a wealth of remarkable experiences to her native charm and ingenuity. She wants a life that offers more than being married off to some nice Jewish boy, keeping his house, and bearing his children. For one thing, she's in love with Hutia, who plans to convert to Judaism so her parents will consent to their marriage. The rabbis may have something to say about that. In the meantime, Rachel learns, as I did, that the purveyors of goods and services to the women sequestered in the Sultan's harem were Jewish women known as kiras, a word derived from the Greek for "lady." The kiras were the harem's conduit of communication to and from the outside world. In the course of becoming a kira, Rachel gets to know the Sultan's women, the hatuns (Turkish for "lady"), and has some difficulty steering clear of their intrigues.

Let me tell you some things I bet you didn't know about the harem. I didn't either. I didn't come across Leslie P. Peirce's brilliant book, The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire, which is by far the best source of information on the Ottoman women, until later. So not all of these details appear in Journey of Strangers. Oops. I apologized in the Afterword.

• By the late 15th century, the Ottoman Sultans were not taking wives from neighboring Turkish princely houses but choosing slave women as their concubines and not marrying them. This freed them from the potential problem of ambitious in-laws. (Twenty years later, Suleiman the Magnificent broke tradition by marrying the concubine Hürrem, whom you may have heard of as Roxelana, but that was the exception. She'll appear in my next book.)

• A woman who bore the Sultan a son gained enormous prestige and position. As a young man, he would be given a province to govern. His mother went with him and in some cases played a role in the governing of the province. If her son became Sultan in turn, she won the jackpot of power, wealth, and influence. If he did not, he would probably be strangled or beheaded so the new Sultan would not have to worry about rivals, and his mother became a nobody.

• It was the custom for the Sultan to keep his current favorite as a bedmate only until she bore him one son. Then their sexual relationship ended. From then on, she was defined by her role of mother to a prince. (Again, Hürrem was the exception.) If she had a daughter and the Sultan still desired her, she could try again. Each mother conspiring on behalf of multiple sons would have created intrigues of intolerable complexity. So they weren't given the chance.

• The harem was not in any sense a bordello. It was the Sultan's household, his home, the quarters of the female members of his family according to Islamic law. Besides his concubines (past, present, and future), the harem included his daughters and sisters and their many attendants, as well as his mother. Each of them received a daily stipend. One source of Peirce's myth-busting scholarship was the harem's household accounts from the 16th century on.

I could go on. Did you know that not only the janissaries but also the viziers and other palace officials were all the Sultan's personal slaves? The Sultan would marry off his sisters and daughters to these high-ranking damads (slave sons-in-law) to ensure double loyalty. Hmm, this isn't really about sex at all, is it? Maybe the title should have been "How the Sultan made sure he didn't have any trouble with his in-laws."



Elizabeth Zelvin is a former SleuthSayer and author of the Bruce Kohler mystery series and the historical novels Voyage of Strangers and Journey of Strangers. Her short stories have appeared in EQMM and AHMM, been nominated for the Agatha and Derringer Awards, and listed in Best American Mystery Stories 2014. Her most recent releases are a new e-edition of the entire Bruce Kohler series and Breaches & Betrayals: Collected Stories. Liz is a New York psychotherapist who practices online, a poet, and a singer-songwriter whose album is titled Outrageous Older Woman. You can learn more at www.elizabethzelvin.com, friend her on Facebook at Facebook.com/elizabeth.zelvin, and find her work on Amazon's Elizabeth Zelvin Page.