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Candy Schulman | Longreads | July 2019 | 10 minutes (2,622 words)
I could practically see Morocco from Frigiliana, where I was feasting on tapas in an Andalusian hill town known as a Pueblo Blanco. I was puzzled by the label on a bottle of La Axarca Malagueña, a locally crafted beer. Aligned in one row was a Jewish star, a Christian cross, and a Muslim crescent.
I asked the owner of this tiny restaurant, an expat from the Netherlands who taught kundalini yoga on a nearby beach, to translate the label’s contents.
“Every August we host the Festival de las Tres Culturas,” she explained. “We celebrate the coexistence of all three cultures and traditions.” She boasted that Frigiliana’s population of 3,000 swells to 35,000, with food, music, and dancing.
I wondered if Spanish festivals celebrating peaceful coexistence were rooted in guilt for the past, or hope for the future. As a native New Yorker, I strolled through one of the largest melting pots in the world every time I left my apartment. Three cultures and traditions? That was nothing compared to the range of skin colors and mellifluous languages on just one E train subway car from Manhattan to Queens; one-third of the borough’s residents were born outside of the United States, hailing from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, India, China, Jamaica, Mexico, Italy, and other countries.
Peaceful coexistence was not always part of Frigiliana’s history. The town dates back to 3,000 BC, settled first by the Phoenicians, then the Romans, and later the Moors, who created some of Spain’s most authentic traditional Islamic architecture. Eventually Christian rulers heavily taxed the Moors and restricted their religious and cultural practices. The Moors rebelled, culminating in a fierce 1568 battle. El Fuerte, a ruined fort atop this village of pristine houses lined with wrought iron boxes of geraniums, allegedly contains remains of bones and weapons from the Moors, when they resisted being captured by the Spanish.
How ironic that the Festival Frigiliana 3 Culturas was promoted on the back of my beer bottle: “Honoring the imprint left in medieval Spain by the Hebrew, Christian, and Islamic culture… committed to cultural diversity as a value.”
The notion of “cultural diversity as a value” made me feel even more at home in southern Spain. Everyone treated me like a welcomed visitor. Before my trip, I worried that I’d be stereotyped as someone aligned with the racism and prejudice permeating America’s heartland. Would I be seen as today’s version of “The Ugly American” of the 1950s?
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Since the 2016 presidential election, I had not felt completely at home in my own country, which was more divided than ever. As an American secular Jew, I was even more apprehensive about traveling abroad, given the rise in anti-Semitism everywhere. I felt secure and sheltered in the tangle of 8.5 million New Yorkers, my safe haven, my ciudad santuario. There was a joke my friends and I often shared: we could really never leave “the island,” meaning Manhattan. Here is where we truly felt at home, whether or not we were born here.
The subject of “home” is a theme I assign to my writing students at The New School, a progressive liberal arts university. First I ask them to read Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That,” exploring Didion’s arrival in New York City after leaving her native California:
When I first saw New York I was twenty, and it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already.
I migrated in the opposite direction from Didion, to the Midwest for college at the age of 16. My Brighton Beach neighborhood was a mix of Jews and Italians. Many of our parents were first generation Americans; some were Holocaust survivors. Whether we ate ravioli or kreplach, whether our windows flickered with menorahs or tinseled trees, we teamed up for Ringolevio games in the street and walked together to school.
My mother had grown up in an orphanage in Jersey City when her Russian-immigrant mother was too poor to take care of her. My father lived in a type of shtetl in Bedford Stuyvesant, once a home for poor Jewish immigrants and others long before its recent hipster gentrification. My grandmother cleaned houses and sold hand-knitted sweaters. My father became an engineer through free tuition at Cooper Union, working on iconic projects in his home town: the Hayden Planetarium and the George Washington Bridge. He never traveled west of New Jersey, as if that state line were the frontier.
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For no logical reason other than to see someplace west of Coney Island, I applied to Ohio State University, yearning to discover what was out there. In those days, passengers descended planes on an external staircase and then walked on the tarmac to the terminal. I was stunned to disembark my first solo plane ride in Columbus. The first things I glimpsed in Ohio were cows. Cows! Grazing right next to the airport! I’d never even seen a cow before — except on the label of pasteurized cheese from Waldbaum’s. Where was I? Why had I left the familiarity of my home?
My dorm mates, mostly farm girls away from home for the first time, had never met a Jew before. The only four Jews in the dorm — including me — huddled together as the others scrutinized us in the lounge. “Where are your horns?” they demanded in threatening voices. “Did you kill Jesus?”
I was too young to know that prejudice could be fueled by ignorance and lack of experience. Frightened, we begged a dean to move us across campus, against her objections to stay put and work to resolve it. We were determined, and eventually fled to Taylor Tower, nicknamed “Taylor Temple” because of the preponderance of Jews inhabiting a 12-story dormitory. There, no longer scared or harassed, we were relieved to feel at home. But we also felt guilty about setting ourselves apart to be with our own kind. My first experience with anti-Semitism taught me more about the world than my college classes.
I returned to “the island” for grad school at New York University, then never left — except for brief excursions.
I traveled throughout France, even though some of my Jewish friends couldn’t understand how I’d give my dollars to a country they were convinced hated Jews. Contrary to stereotypes that painted the French as cold, rude, and ethnocentric, it has the third largest Jewish population of any country in the world. I always felt at home in France. I studied the language, making every attempt to speak it on their turf. I’d experienced more anti-Semitism in Columbus than in Paris, Normandy, or Provence.
Decades later I ventured to Spain, aware that a small town called Castrillo Mata de Judios (“Fort Kill The Jews”) didn’t change its name to Castrillo Mata de Judios (“Jews Hill Fort”) until 2015. Another Spanish city, Valle de Matamoros (“Kill the Moors Valley”), still exists. Peaceful coexistence, it seemed, was far from nationwide.
Southern Spain had its own knotty history. In Seville, I was struck by the cheerful sunny days and ubiquitous sweet, fresh orange juice. I watched passionate foot-stomping flamenco dancers elicit lively clapping from the audience, but the performers’ faces exuded a puzzling mournfulness.
“They understand heartbreak,” observed my friend Barbara, my traveling companion. “I suspect a lot of lost love.”
But I thought it went deeper than that. I was keenly aware that my husband’s Sephardic family had left their home in Spain in 1492, rather than becoming conversos, or risking being burned at the stake in the Spanish inquisition. Spanish Jews had been one of the world’s largest Jewish communities. When King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella enacted the Alhambra Decree, many practicing Jews left their home rather than converting to Catholicism. My husband’s family resettled in Germany, changing their name from Sedaka to Schulman.
I stayed in Barrio Santa Cruz, Seville’s old Jewish quarter, two blocks from one of the largest Gothic churches in the world, built on the site of a 12th century mosque, after The Moors fell to the Christians. The cathedral houses the tomb of Christopher Columbus, complicating history even more. Some scholars believe Columbus was a Jew pretending to be Catholic, his mission to find a new home in North America for Jews expelled from Spain.
Seville’s old Jewish quarter is now dominated by stores selling ceramic pottery, touristy tee shirts, saffron and other Moroccan spices. I savored Iberian ham from legendary pigs raised on acorns — until I learned that after the Jews and Muslims were expelled in 1492, ham became prominently featured in Spanish diets, a way to proclaim you were a Christian. By the time I reached the hill town of Frigiliana in Andalusia, I switched to vegetarian tapas, which felt akin to and honoring my kosher Orthodox ancestors.
Frigiliana looked like a dreamy movie set of steep, winding cobblestone streets, white-washed houses, and tiled store signs carved into façades like artwork. It was hard to believe this picturesque town was once a scene of bloody hatred. Sipping sweet local wine, I admired the turquoise sea in the distance.
An elderly man, who’d never traveled farther than down the mountain, started a conversation using the little English he knew. When I slipped ice into my wine in an effort to cool down in the heat, he waved a shameful finger at my behavior, like a disapproving sommelier. He inquired how people could really live in Manhattan. I nodded, unable to answer that complicated question with my 50-word Spanish vocabulary. He taught me how to describe our panoramic view in two simple words: “Muy bonito.” I ran into him later, after dinner, and he waved to me like an old friend. “Muy bonito,” I called out, gesturing to the town’s many sidewalks made of flower-lined cobblestoned steps, hoping he understood that I meant his home was beautiful.
Over the years his birthplace had been invaded by British homeowners: signs in English, pubs serving bangers and mash. A local store-keeper told me, “When the British leave home, they want everything the same — except the weather.” It made me wonder how locals really felt about this, and whether they were putting on a happy face for tourists.
Reluctantly I left Frigiliana, wishing its celebration of three religions could spread beyond its lofty perch in the Sierra Nevada mountains. I spent my last day abroad seven kilometers down the mountain in Nerja, a former sleepy fishing village transformed into a beach resort. A cacophony of British, French, German, Dutch, and Spanish tourists share the sun that shines here 320 days a year. Moroccan peddlers trudged through hot sand, their backs to their home, just across the sea. All day they traipsed from chaise longue to chaise longue, toting armloads of beach robes, knockoff Rolex watches and Chanel bags, their shoulders retail racks.
“Bling bling,” one woman in colorful African garb kept reciting like the lyrics to a song.
I shopped for a beach cover-up on this mostly topless beach. Something fashionably lacy and inexpensive. The tag said “Made in Italy,” although I suspected it was imported directly from Morocco. The tall slender man made a living in the searing sun from tourists lazing under rented straw umbrellas. He let me try on as many robes as I wanted, as if I were in a department store dressing room. The German couple next to me watched the show, approving my final selection with a thumbs up.
Quickly I texted my daughter back home, who had studied Arabic in college. “How do you say thank you?” I asked her.
A minute later I spoke to the friendly man eager to sell me my white dress. “Shukran,” I said.
He looked astonished, a smile widening on his face. “You speak Arabic?” he asked, elated.
“No,” I said, “but my daughter studied it in college.”
“College,” he said admiringly, as distant a possibility for him as a festival of three cultures would be in my United States.
I paid him 15 euros. Beaming, a bit reluctant to break our mutual gaze, he warmly bid good-bye with a final “Shukran.”
We’d both had ancestors who’d been hated, killed, expelled. The prejudice continues. Even in my sanctuary city, swastikas have appeared in surprising places, including a dorm where I teach, a college founded to provide free expression to scholars escaping Nazi Germany and other regimes. The President of the United States tried to push forward a travel ban targeting six Muslim-majority countries. Instead of peacefully coexisting, we are being driven farther apart.
Yet in southern Spain, in spite of its dark past, I began to feel connected to strangers from vastly disparate backgrounds. A Spaniard taught me to say “muy bonito” and I made the effort to verbalize “shukran” to the Moroccan salesman. For one small moment, our differences disappeared.
I lapsed into a fantasy of living here one day, an inexpensive and bucolic place for expats to retire. Yet I would never feel truly at home here. Frigiliana embraces multiculturalism with an annual celebration, but I live it every day in New York City just by going to the supermarket or waiting at the bus stop. Often I don’t even notice diversity anymore, as it is organically woven into the fabric of the energetic, frenetic, congested, noisy grid of a city I navigate without a roadmap.
I always marvel at my brave college students who, like Didion, have migrated to New York City. Artists, multi-racial, straight, gay, transgender, searching for a place to live where they are accepted for who they are. Often they arrive alone, with no jobs and little money — a modern day version of my ancestors who came through Ellis Island. Many of my students fall in love with this complicated place where even the biggest fans confess a love-hate relationship with our city. They pride themselves on finally passing humorous online quizzes to ascertain if you’re a “real New Yorker,” as if an immigrant passing a U.S. Citizen’s exam. Others flee back to their roots, the way I ran away from Ohio.
I can’t imagine permanently leaving New York, where I don’t stand out as a Jew, the one place I feel completely at home. In Louis Malle’s 1981 film My Dinner with André, André poses a philosophical question: “Do you know a lot of New Yorkers who keep talking about the fact that they want to leave, but never do?” He likens New York City to “the new model for a concentration camp, where the camp has been built by the inmates themselves, and the inmates are the guards.” Because of their pride in building their own prison, they no longer have “the capacity to leave the prison they’ve made or even see it as a prison.”
It’s not necessarily a flippant joke when I quip about “never leaving the island.” Upon returning from brief forays, I proclaim I’m back in “the city,” as if it’s the only one.
After the 2016 election, one of my students objected to how we’re often accused of living in a bubble. She said her phone calls were being monitored by the U.S. Government when she called her mother in Israel, and she suspected it was because she’d traveled, on business, close to the Syrian border. Born in Israel, she was now an American citizen. “New York City is not the bubble,” she claimed. “Where else does such a diverse population coexist? The bubble is out there.”
Whether I’m in or out of the bubble, I am home. Not in prison. But also not quite free to leave.
* * *
Candy Schulman’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, The Rumpus Funny Women, and elsewhere, including anthologies. She is working on a memoir and is a creative writing professor at The New School in Greenwich Village.
Editor: Sari Botton