“Teacher, you are this, no?” Alberto has shimmied his way up to my desk to talk to me. Class finished moments before and the organized chaos of changing to the next subject rings around me in a gentle hum. He has taken my hand – because in Spain there is no such thing as personal space – and faced it palm up. With his right index finger, he starts drawing a Star of David.
His finger lightly touches my skin. I look at him, smile, and reply, “Sí.” Once one person found out I was Jewish, everybody soon knew it. I couldn’t quite pinpoint Person Zero, and soon tired of trying to remember one out of hundreds of confusing conversations I had been a part of since I arrived a few months ago.
He smiles back at me. I move to take my hand out of his grip but am stopped. He repositions my right-hand palm up in his left hand and starts in on his next thought. “Well, then I am this.” His right index finger presses lightly in the top right of my palm. He makes a quick line to the left and then goes down, down all the way down to my wrist, then another quick dart to the left.
He then places his finger near my thumb and juts up a centimeter before going across my palm. To end it all, he moves his finger up to my pinky. I knew what it was halfway through. I had seen these every year at Hebrew School. Once, we even found it graffitied on a wall at my elementary school. Though you don’t have to be Jewish or grow up in a Jewish neighborhood to recognize a swastika.
Until I went to Spain, on the off chance someone asked me about my religious identity, the answer was simple: I didn’t have a religious identity. Attending Shabbat services on Saturday mornings or Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur was an obligation I did, begrudgingly and with no small amount of attitude, to make Dad happy. When I went away to college, it never would have occurred to me to connect with the Jewish community in Washington D.C. or find the Hillel on campus. I have
friends who did this and they tell me that the connection they forged with their Jewish brothers and sisters sustained them through the hard, initial weeks of being far away at college. During my six-month study abroad time in Argentina, I was flattered to be the first Jewish person the majority of my Argentine classmates had met. I was exotic. People were interested in me, though not enough to ask deep questions about the Jewish religion, my family’s traditions, or – heaven forfend the ultimate question – my thoughts on Israel. Buenos Aires has a vibrant Jewish community, which took the pressure off of me to explain anything. Nobody really wanted an introductory lesson to Judaism anyway, so we just left it as I am what I am and you are what you are. No hostility; just apathy.
But this was Úbeda. This was a place where there was no frame of reference for anything other than Catholicism. There were no other religious buildings or symbols besides Catholicism. Kids received no other religious education besides Catechism through the mandatory Confirmation classes. The public high schools had a religion class where you might think students could learn about world religions, when in reality the curriculum reaffirmed and strengthened baseline beliefs in and understanding of Catholicism. The idea that Christ wouldn’t be the son of God doesn’t enter their mind. The notion that I didn’t celebrate Christmas, and that I didn’t have a Saint’s day, it was all incomprehensible.
It was as if, a lot time ago, the church etched together a warm blanket during a winter storm, and being generous, threw it over everything and everybody. People wanted to be warm, wanted to be protected. When the winter storm had passed, Úbeda didn’t want to feel the release of it, and just grabbed it tighter. If ever this delicate blanket was targeted, it was re-weaved, gently pushed back into every crease and crevice of the country. This blanket kept many towns like Úbeda warm and secure during uncertain times. It suffocated others with its restrictions, its exclusions. When I arrived in Úbeda, the blanket was still snuggly woven around the people, the buildings, the life. It might have been wearing thin in some small pockets; but the threads that bound it together were there. They would always be there.
Later, I learned that Spaniards throughout the country are religious despite fervently denying such claims. All babies are baptized; all ten-year-olds are given First Communion; most teenagers go through Confirmation; almost all couples are married in a church officiated by a priest. During Semana Santa – the Holy Week before Easter Sunday – Spain erupts in processions as each town reenacts their version of the Passion of the Christ. The idea that I wouldn’t feel any connection with this week-long orgy of penitence and partying puzzled even the most secular of families. They said that Semana Santa was time for kids to create memories with friends and family. What I saw were memories made around the Cross, parties held in front of church, traditions cloaked in centuries of religious tradition, all passing onto the next generation of Úbeda. People in Úbeda think of this celebration as folklore, though funnily enough they won’t go so far as to say it is Catholic folklore. I mean, of course, why would anybody associate a parade of hundreds of people dressed in penitence to Christ, holding rosaries, marching to beating drums behind one throne of Christ and another of the weeping Mary Magdalene as anything to do with the Catholic religion? I tried to reconcile this celebration with the fervent secular feelings of my friends and colleagues. I’d think about everything I learned in Hebrew school and from my Christian friends, trying to craft the right response to their now predictable line of questioning:
Why don’t you celebrate Christmas? I’m Jewish and we don’t celebrate this holiday. But what’s the harm? …It’s not about harm, it’s just not my religion. Lindsay, you have this all wrong, it’s not about religion. …umm [Interrupting] Fine, at least then come celebrate Semana Santa. You can be part of my family’s club; we represent Christ in the Orchard and wear white and green robes. Marching in a parade isn’t against your religion, is it? Thank you for the offer, but I don’t march in parades to celebrate the Christian faith. I don’t celebrate Easter nor the Passion of Christ.
[Interrupting] Ayy, you just don’t understand.
When Alberto drew a Swastika on my palm, I didn’t know how to react. In that moment, I was under the impression that I could make a difference in the town, that I could teach these kids something other than the English language. Perhaps Alberto was being anti-Semitic? Or, was he
simply ignorant of what that symbol meant? On the one hand, everybody knows that Swastikas are associated with Nazis, a group of people whose purpose was to systematically exterminate the Jews. On the other hand, maybe people in Úbeda don’t? I must have stared blankly at Alberto long enough for him to lose interest in our exchange and walk away. The Geography teacher was making his way to the front of the room, my cue to leave. I walked out into the deserted hallway in a daze. Sometimes I would walk the hallways in between classes, just because I could. I would peel off my twenty-two-year-old teacher self and put on the sixteen-year-old high school Lindsay. That Lindsay liked strolling up and down the hallways while other students are in class. She enjoyed hearing the clinking of her heels on the floor as she walks, left right left right, slowly, methodically, from one side of the building to another. Today the sixteen-year-old Lindsay felt ashamed of what just happened and decided to hide away. The twenty-two-year-old teacher Lindsay walked slowly to the English department. I was startled to see Manual, the chair of the high school’s English department, sitting in the room. Manual is a large man, even by American girth standards. With him in this broom closet sized room that housed English and French department materials and sometimes staff, there isn’t much space for me. I don’t greet Manual with my normal smile and “HELLO”, said at the respectable 10 decibel volume. He eyes me for a minute and swivels slowly around in the chair to look at me head on. “Todo bien, chiquilla?” Manual might be head of the department, but he is decidedly not interested in speaking English with me.
“Sí, sí. Pero…” Yes, I’m fine but… I decide to tell Manual what just happened. He scratches his grey stubble for a minute. “And you say this is Alberto?” “Yes, Manual. The fifteen-year-old, he’s in Jose Javier’s Geography class right now, in room 103.” “Oh well, Lindsay, you don’t have anything to worry about.” He smiles broadly, as he has the answer to solve my feelings of uneasiness. “él es sencillo.” Three words. He is sencillo, simple. “Do you mean he has a learning disability?” I prompt. “Oh no, Lindsay,” my name coming out somewhere between Lizzy and Lean-sy, “he is just simple minded. He’s like a child.” Manual keeps smiling as he talks, an effort that’s meant to put me at ease. After a few more moments, he pats my hand gently. “Just don’t worry, ok? He’s a good boy.” He swivels his wide girth slowly back towards the computer. That was it. No more was said.
What has stayed with me and continued to shock me, even years later and several thousand kilometers away, was not the actual action of drawing the swastika. What haunts me is that it was acceptable for Alberto to not know what he was doing, that it was okay not to understand the meaning behind a Swastika because there was no reason to think that anybody in that class
would ever have the occasion to offend someone with its use. In that moment, Alberto wasn’t the simple one; I was. I was the one who wouldn’t bend my understanding of the world to fit this context. I was the one in need of a lesson.
It took two years. Two years to understand what they were really asking me, what they truly wanted to know. Their question became obvious after the seven hundredth time I went through it. They were asking me: why are you debating the basic fabric of our town?
When the conversation presented itself for the seven hundred and first time, I knew my response: stay silent. The conversation inevitably ended with people claiming I just didn’t, could never, understand. After all, I was different; I was Jewish. By the eight hundredth time, I was a master of silence, the gently woven blanket had finally tucked itself across my mouth.