This is an old, Jewish love story for Saint Valentine´s.
It is a Jewish love story. But unlike most old, Jewish love stories that I have read, its protagonists don´t live in the shtetl, and neither did their grandparents. No, our protagonists never even tasted gefilte fish, nor did they hear a word of Yiddish in their lives.
This is a love story. And like all love stories, this story starts with Hashem winking. The curtains lift and the spectators see a seemingly casual stage. The actor walks in, the intriguing décor just is, and suddenly the actress enters the scene. However, dear reader, bear in mind: in every performance, behind every seemingly casual stage, script and décor there is a Masterminder. The Director is always in charge. And He clearly was in charge on those days, just like today.
Our protagonists never heard a word of Yiddish. Yes, they were Jews. From a small part of the world where friends used to call each other mi rey and mi reina, where people had such sweet tongues that the sentence dulce lo vivas would always fly around, and where the curse que se te quiebre el mazal would send shivers down people’s spines. These people had greatgrandparents whose eyes would wet whenever they remembered Sefarad, who kept big, rusty keys well-wrapped in red scarves and who still referred to Spain as Castilla. These greatgrandparents would have never believed that their greatgrandchildren – among which, you guessed it, dear reader, are our protagonists –would ever return. Not to Toledo itself, but at least to the North of Africa, which believe it or not, now was Castilla too.
Besides similar greatgrandparents, our protagonists had certain things in common. They were young and healthy, and both were born in big families, with many brothers and sisters, where everyone feared Hashem.
Salomon was tall and robust. He had sharp, elegant features that were accentuated by the black fedora hat he used to wear. Salomon loved to travel and besides Hakadosh Baruchu he feared no one. If anything, the long journey that at the age of 9, encompassing desert and cities, took him from Marrakech to Melilla had served to cement his faith. Walking by night and hiding by day, his face painted in black and his book of tehillim were the only protection when fleeing those Arabs that without prior warning, went from friends to enemies.
Rachella was round and soft, her skin immaculate like melted vanilla ice cream. She was born in Ceuta, another Spanish enclave in North Africa with a considerable Moroccan Jewish community. Rachella was incapable of any evil thoughts, and for this her sisters adored her and used to lovingly tease her. Sheltered and protected, she was a hardworking and diligent daughter who always put others first. You would say that she lived through helping others, but as you will see, dear reader, that was about to change.
As soon as Salomon set foot in Melilla, he felt that there was no time to waste. He missed Morocco but now he was home, in Sefarad. There was a big Jewish community and his family soon found a tefilah where the rabbi meldaba like back in Marrakech. Besides Spanish, everyone spoke jaquetía, and being charismatic and hardworking, the family food business soon thrived.
Meanwhile, in Ceuta, how thrilled were Rachella and her sisters to receive a letter from Luisa! Their beloved oldest sister, qué dichosa, who after getting married had moved to Melilla, had just given birth. Luisa was very weak after such a complicated labour, salida del mal, and would like one of her sisters to come visit her and Alberto in Melilla to help her take care of the baby. The sisters were so excited – that meant a few weeks with their adored Luisa and quality time with their first nephew, not to mention a trip to another city!
We have already mentioned that one of Rachella’s midot – or weaknesses, depending on the point of view – was to put others first. So when Doña Alegría, the girls’ mother, noticed Rachella retreating while the rest of her daughters jumped and shouted arguing that each of them was the best suited to go, she came up with a fair, equal-opportunity method. Each girl would write their name on a piece of paper, and all of pieces of paper would be put inside a bag. Then, and without looking, Doña Alegría would pick one piece of paper. Whoever name would be written on it, that´s the daughter who would go help Luisa.
Salomon´s father was very proud of his son. A la Menasem Barujú the family business was thriving and it was in no small part due to Salomon’s inquisitive mind and ambition. This is why he enlisted Salomon to go on a business trip to Ceuta to find new products to buy from another Jew, David Benatar. Salomon was grateful that his father had put his trust in him and was delighted to go.
In spite of Rachella’s protests, she would have to go. Her name has been picked by Doña Alegría three times, no less. Rachella was saddened to see her sisters disappointed, but Doña Alegría could not stand her daughter´s selflessness. It was clear that Hashem wanted her to go, and it would do her good to be more independent – she better start packing. And thus, although at first she had been nervous at the prospect of travelling on her own, Rachella was soon happily settled in Luisa’s flat. She loved the baby and she was glad to spend time with her beloved Luisa. She had missed her. Luisa’s husband Alberto was very kind, too. Rachella loved staying with them in their spacious flat above David Benatar’s shop.
Salomon’s meeting did not go as planned. Yes, the discussion was fruitful and the deal was made, but it was only thanks to his experienced lips. For the truth, dear reader, is that his heart and mind were somewhere else. They had stayed outside David Benatar’s shop, which was the exact spot from which Salomon had seen a round, soft girl soothing a baby standing on a balcony. She smiled shyly and had skin like melted vanilla ice cream. He had seen her and had been unable to look away. She also stared at him but quickly blushed and left.
For the next two days, Salomon kept coming to Benatar’s shop. David took a like to him and they would engage in animated conversation. However, those visits were Salomon’s poor excuses to get a glance of the Jewish girl in the flat upstairs. He knew she was Jewish because he had seen her lighting Shabbat candles. He knew she was not the baby’s mother because he had met the baby’s father at shacharit. But besides looking at her and smiling, he had not been brave enough to do anything else.
His last three days in Ceuta he spent gathering courage. Smiling at her and feeling a powerful warmth inside everytime he felt her smiling back, from behind the sheer curtains.
On the sixth day of his trip he decided that he would speak to her.
He walked in long strides, reached his usual spot and looked up. He waited, but only saw another, older girl carrying the baby. Alberto Benzaquén, whom he saw every morning of his trip at shacharit, recognised him and waved. Salomon waved back and, ashamed, walked away. The next two days he spent looking at the balcony, but the girl he had fallen in love with had left.
After a few delightful weeks with Luisa and her nephew, Rachella was back home. She was picked up by her parents and had brought presents and filluelas for her sisters. She was impatient to tell them about the baby, about Luisa and Alberto, and about the elegant man who would come to Benatar’s shop. Not only had Rachella changed, but she felt that the air, the sun, the city had changed as well. A new shop had just opened below her parents’ flat, and the neighbourhood felt more buzzing and lively than ever.
Salomon came back to Melilla with the new products from Benatar’s shop. His father had just opened a new shop in another part of the city, and being the responsible and capable son that he was, he would be in charge of it.
Rachella peered out the balcony and saw her sisters Esther and Elisa walking home. Full of happiness and excitement, she took the box of filluelas and ran downstairs to surprise them on the street. Before Rachella finished jumping down the last flight of stairs she recognised the black hat, the long, pianist hands carefully opening the shop, the high cheeks, the dark eyes that turned to her and, for the first time without being separated by a sheer curtain, openly smiled. And up in shamayim, Hashem winked.