When I was in grade school, teachers always advised students to “Write what you know.” But what interested me the most was what I didn’t know. The books I most enjoyed reading were about past times and unfamiliar places. That was what I wanted to write about. I thought I’d never be a good writer, though, since nothing interesting had ever happened to me.
It took a job as a news reporter and a personal interest in researching my family’s Sephardic background before I discovered that I could learn about anything—through books, archives, museums, pictures, and experts—and then I truly could write about what I knew. More importantly, I could go on to create a fictional world that was true to history, and draw a reader into that world until they, too, felt they knew it.
Reading historical records sparks most of my book ideas. My historical novels are set in such disparate times and places as Colonial Massachusetts, New Amsterdam in 1654, and Rembrandt’s home in the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam. My picture books are set in Spain during the 1100s, or places like Ukraine in the 1800s when the Jewish folk character Herschel tricked and teased his neighbors.
So it was with great anticipation that I agreed to research a story about the secret Jews of Barcelona that was mentioned in several Rosh Hashanah sermons a few years ago. The editors at Kar-Ben related the basic tale of a converso named Don Fernando Aguilar who was said to have been the conductor of the Royal Orchestra of Barcelona. Supposedly, he had played the shofar during a concert, right under the noses of members of the dreaded Inquisition.
I began sleuthing the origins of the story. I tried Internet searches, worked with research librarians, and read books on Spanish history, early Spanish music, and life under the Inquisition. I pored through Sephardic and Spanish folk tales, but there was no story of Don Fernando and his shofar.
During a trip to Barcelona, I spoke with members of the historic synagogue tucked into an isolated corner of the old Jewish Quarter. No one there had heard of the story of Don Fernando, but they were excited about it. One member said she hoped that if I wrote the story, a bit of Barcelona’s Sephardic past would be brought to light. I wandered the narrow roads and alleys rummaging through used bookstores, but found nothing to support any historical basis to the tale. Clearly, there was no Don Fernando, no Royal Orchestra of Barcelona, and not a single historical record of the tale.
Far from being discouraged, however, I relished the idea that I could use some elements of the legend while creating my own original twist. Because I planned to write a picture book for children, I wanted a young character to become the story’s hero. Before I sat down to write a word, I decided that my fictional Don Fernando would have a son, Rafael, and he would be determined to sound the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.
The next element I needed was an intriguing way for Don Fernando and Rafael to include the shofar in the community’s secret observance of the holiday. As I read about life in the middle and late 1500s, I learned that Spanish explorers had established a strong foothold in Mexico (New Spain). They converted the native people to Christianity and introduced them to European music. They encouraged the people to play liturgical music on their folk instruments. An eclectic mix of native and European instruments created music for the church.
I also read that whenever there was the slightest excuse, from the birth of a noble child to the celebration of a new saint, the Spanish nobility planned a festival. People traveled long distances on foot, by mule, or wagon. They camped in the fields, set up markets, and sang and danced long into the night. When the festival day arrived, music was a major part of the celebration. Most noblemen kept small musical groups in their employ, and they offered public concerts. They attended dressed in their finery, and peasants were allowed to stand in the back and listen. Often the concerts concluded with celebratory fireworks.
I incorporated these historical facts of life in early Barcelona to write the tale. In my version, Don Fernando composes a musical piece celebrating native instruments from the New World. He chooses a performance date that secretly coincides with Rosh Hashanah, and the Duke unwittingly declares a festival day.
Don Fernando’s son, Rafael, vows to learn to play the shofar that his father has hidden away, and to sound it during the concert so that all the secret Jews can hear it for the first time. He hopes the Duke and his entourage will think the ram’s horn is just another strange folk instrument. Rafael rises above his own fears and bravely sounds the shofar right under the noses of the nobility and members of the dreaded Inquisition.
Writing the story brought memories of the ancient streets of Barcelona back to my mind. It conjured up images of the secret Jews who once lived behind the heavy wooden doors in fear of having their religious beliefs discovered by the Inquisition. It made me feel closer to my Spanish ancestors who probably had been expelled from their homes before they ever heard the shofar’s call. And it made me hope that perhaps, through my fictional story, I might introduce a young reader to a piece of Jewish history from a world they never knew about before—all through the pages of an imaginative story.
Illustrations by Doug Chayka