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The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

April 13, 2020 by

Making Jewish Life in 15th Century Spain Come Alive for Kids

Loma—short for Paloma—is a Jewish girl living in 15th century Spain and the clear hero of this middle-grade historical novel, (A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, HarperCollins, $17.99).  Clever with words and even more clever with numbers, Loma captures the attention of Belo, her stern and commanding grandfather.  To her surprise, he decides that she will accompany him on his travels and she discovers she has an important role to play in determining the future of her people. Newberry award-winning author Gail Carson Levine talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about bringing significant episodes in Jewish history to life again. 

Yona Zeldis McDonough: What sparked your interest in this period in Jewish history and what kind of research did you do?

Gail Carson Levine: My father is the culprit! Soon after his death, because I missed him so much, I wrote my first and only other historical novel (so far), Dave at Night, which is loosely based on his childhood in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in New York City. A Ceiling Made of Eggshells comes indirectly from that orphanage experience, too, because it separated him from his Sephardic roots.

I knew that his ancestors had been thrown out of Spain and even that his first language had been Spanish—after his ancestors had been away for four hundred years—but he never talked about his childhood or family history. I was curious.

Most of my research involved reading. Early on, I discovered Jane S. Gerber’s The Jews of Spain, A History of the Sephardic Experience, engagingly written for a general audience. Nervously, I reached out to Jane herself, who is a professor emerita at the City University of New York. To my delight, she extended herself and became my mentor, guiding my reading and eventually reading and commenting on the manuscript. While writing, I read most of the foundational historical classics of the period about the expulsion and the events that led to it. I keep reading, too. Even though my book is finished, I’m still learning.

I reached out to other historians, as well, and I was always touched by their generosity. I came to understand what it means to be a historian of such a distant period. Records are scarce, and historians need to be sleuths and almost archeologists. Sometimes inference is all they have to go on.

Some of my reading wasn’t scholarly. A cousin pointed me to a cookbook of Sephardic recipes, A Drizzle of Honey, The Lives and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews, gleaned from the obsessive records of the Spanish Inquisition. Conversos—former Jews—were tried sometimes based on accusations about their dietary practices, and the priests wrote down ingredients and methods. If not for writing A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, I might never have cooked Sephardic eggs!

And I came across one of the first books of fashion, Authentic Everyday Dress of the Renaissance, All 154 Plates from the “Trachtenbuch.” My period was a little earlier, but the images were still useful, and most of the plates were based on clothing worn in Iberia.

One of the biggest challenges was finding the detail that would bring the world to life. The cookbook helped—somewhat—with smells. The costume book supported character descriptions. But I still had questions. What would it have been like to stand on a wharf? What did a warehouse, a street, a prison look like? How did people get around? For a long while I thought they rode camels until finally, I understood that, while camel transport had been common in Spain in earlier centuries, it no longer was.

I examined Google images of streets, towns, landscapes, and paintings of the period. I read Spanish Wikipedia entries, using Google translate (which was good enough) because the Spanish entries on towns and villages in Spain were longer and more detailed than the English ones. I begged for aid on Reddit’s Ask a Historian site and got help with my wharf problem. 

However, for a while, I was too timid, and my setting was vague until a former editor I turned to for a critique issued an order: “Be a novelist.” So, occasionally, cautiously, as little as possible, I made things up.

 YZM: Are there any Jews in Spain today or were they all driven out in the 15th century?

GCL: Yes, and yes. The current Jewish population of Spain (says Google) is about 45,000, compared with a total population of about 46,660,000. The Jews all came in the modern era, beginning with a trickle in the mid-nineteenth century because Spain’s doors had been shut against Jews for hundreds of years.

All were expelled in 1492, unless they converted, as roughly half did, either immediately or by returning and accepting baptism. The people who returned generally did so because the rest of the world, with few exceptions, was hostile. The Expulsion 1492 Chronicles, selected and edited by David Raphael, is an anthology of contemporary accounts of the sufferings of the fleeing Jews. The only welcoming place was the Ottoman Empire, where my ancestors wound up after a sojourn in the kingdom of Naples.

 YZM: Let’s talk about the history of the conversos; what became of them? 

GCL: The conversos weren’t the focus of my research, but I know a little. Conversos were the targets of the Spanish Inquisition, which was always on the lookout for Judaizers, new Christians who practiced Judaism in secret. Before the expulsion, Jews were told by their rabbis—who were forced by the Church to convey the message—that they had to inform against the Judaizers. Informing drew Jews into the Inquisition’s net, too. People who were judged to have informed falsely were executed. And all their possessions and property were taken and divided between the Church and the Crown.

Eventually, hastened by the expulsion, most conversos became sincere Catholics. Though some continued to practice Judaism privately, deprived of books and religious instruction, their knowledge dwindled. Here’s a bit of irony: When the Inquisition came to a town, it issued Edicts of Grace, which listed Jewish practices so that the faithful could base their accusations on observation. Conversos, who were losing touch with their roots, would study these lists to find out what they were supposed to do. If they weren’t Judaizing before, they were after!

The Jews who fled to Portugal and didn’t get out quickly were all forcibly converted. The Jews who went to landlocked Navarre were also made to convert after a few years of safety. Most of them completely adopted their new religion. But those who remained connected to Judaism often returned to it when, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they were allowed to travel. The Netherlands and the Ottoman Empire most often provided refuge. 

YZM: Loma is always at odds with her brother Yuda; can you comment on the way you have chosen to portray their relationship? 

GCL: It’s my job to make trouble for my characters, and I didn’t want all the Christians to be villains and all the Jews to be paragons. So I gave Loma a flawed brother and a pretty awful mother. Yuda, who resents everyone, becomes a compulsive gambler, even though gambling was regarded back then by both Christians and Jews as a serious crime. His gambling causes him to convert to get out of his debts and even leads to his imprisonment and torture by the Inquisition. He has to be saved by his family, because otherwise he will accuse them of encouraging conversos to Judaize, and the consequences of that would be disastrous. Yuda moves the plot along and reveals aspects of medieval Spain that I wanted to highlight.

He uses Loma to get what he wants, but she chooses how to help him. The problems he creates pushes her to action. She has to be ingenious and effective in order to save her family, while they don’t even know they’re in danger. Yuda forces growth on her.

For me, just saying, villains are fascinating to write!

YZM: There are scenes in which priests come into synagogues and excoriate Jews; is this historically accurate?  How about the audience with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella?

Yes, I had a hard time believing this, too, but priests and friars did invade synagogues and harangue congregations about hellfire. Not one priest or friar, either, bunches of them!

Jewish courtiers throughout the Middle Ages served the monarchs. Queen Isabella’s physician was a Jew, even though ordinary Christians weren’t allowed to consult Jewish doctors. And Jewish financiers extended loans to the monarchs and collected taxes for them. Loma’s grandfather, who is a financier, would naturally meet with them, but I don’t know if any courtier, Jewish or Christian, ever brought his granddaughter to an audience.

As for the audiences themselves, I never discovered where they took place or how formal they were. (I mean, I did unearth the cities and towns and even the dates, but not the buildings, the chambers, or whether food was served.) These were among the times when I had to be a novelist.

YZM: A Ceiling Made of Eggshells is an unusual phrase; can you talk about where it came from and why you chose it as the title? 

 GCL: I read the phrase in a myth about King Solomon, who wanted to marry a certain young lady, but she would say yes only if he built her such a ceiling. I was charmed and put the story in the book. When I was casting about for a title, I thought of it. My editor loved it but asked me to punch up its significance, which I did. It’s different from all my other titles, and it’s my favorite.