In the eleventh century, converting from Christianity to Judaism was as seismic as learning “to live on a different planet, in a different calendar,” writes Stefan Hertmans in The Convert.
The book explores one such extraordinary conversion. In medieval Normandy, teenaged Vigdis Adelaïs left her faith behind when she married a yeshiva student, David Todros. Immediately, the safe, settled life she had taken for granted also vanished. Constantly on the move to evade antisemitic violence and her vengeful family, Vigdis eventually traveled as far as Egypt — where manuscript fragments attesting to her life were discovered in the Cairo Geniza centuries later.
In alternating passages, Hertmans vividly depicts Vigdis’s world and chronicles his own present-day quest to follow her path. By also reminding us of the limits of his fictional portrayals, the author asks us to contemplate the challenges of understanding the past — and the wonder of those moments when we succeed.
This excerpt describes the arrival of Vigdis — who has taken on the Hebrew name Hamoutal — and her husband in the village in the south of France where Hertmans himself now lives.
In truth, it’s the village rabbi, Joshuah Obadiah, standing by the synagogue early one morning, who watches the refugees come down the hill, there in the spring of the year 1091. A mounted messenger must have told him a few days earlier that they were coming. He is worried about these young people — not only because they need protection, as a mixed couple, but also because he knows the woman will give birth to her child in a matter of days, and it’ll be weeks before he can find a suitable house for them. Until then, they’ll have to be his guests. Why aren’t they arriving on horseback? He can only guess. Maybe they were waylaid by bandits or horse thieves. Maybe they disguised themselves as commoners to escape notice by their pursuers. He waits impatiently until they’re inside the walls and sends his wife to welcome them at the southern gate, still known today as the Portail Meunier. They wind a faltering path to his house — close to the spot where a thousand years later I will spend summer after summer blithely reading, as happy as I’ve ever been anywhere in this mundane world.
Hamoutal has a nasty scrape on her right foot, and she twisted her ankle so severely that the ligaments have torn. The foot is swollen and red, blood has gathered in black patches under the skin, and her ankle is at risk of infection. The rabbi’s wife cleans the wound with a mixture of lavender oil, nettles, and lukewarm water. Hamoutal’s husband, David Todros of Narbonne, informs Joshuah Obadiah of the latest developments.
The rabbi nods pensively and tugs at his beard; his wife dabs the young woman’s delicate, injured foot.
What’s your real name? the rabbi says.
She hesitates; is he asking for her old Christian name?
David breaks in. Sarah, he says. My wife’s name is Sarah. Hamoutal is a pet name.
He lays his hand on hers.
The four of them sit together in silence.
The times are troubled. The religious peace once established by Charlemagne has been eroded over the years by political instability. Feudal warlords have seized control everywhere and rule their territories autonomously; the central authorities are losing their grip; there are tales of misrule; the law is often no more than an instrument of power. After centuries in which Jews and Christians lived side by side in relative calm, there is ever more frequent news of savage attacks on Jewish communities. In recent months, many Spanish Jews have fled to the south of Provence. Most have gone to Narbonne, the town near the coast now thronged with vagrants seeking their fortune or searching for refuge. David’s father, the great Rabbi of Narbonne — known far and wide as the King of the Jews, because he’s said to descend directly from King David — is getting old. He can hardly take care of his duties anymore; exhausted, he passes sleepless nights worrying about his eldest son and his daughter-in-law.
He sent the two refugees to that far-off corner of the Vaucluse region to keep them out of the grasp of the Christian knights dispatched from Rouen by the girl’s Norman father to bring her home. Heading toward Spain would have been too dangerous; the road to Santiago de Compostela is teeming with Christian pilgrims. The area around Toulouse and Albi was roiled by the struggle against the Manichees and the rise of heretical movements, with constant violent clashes and executions. Nor could they flee to a city; press gangs were rounding up men left and right for expeditions to the Middle East, and bands of irregular soldiers made the roads unsafe, picking fights with passing travelers.
Rabbi Todros sent the young couple by a route that would never occur to Hamoutal’s enraged father: past Arles, along the Rhône, beyond the small garrison town of Avignon — which didn’t even have its famous bridge yet — on toward Carpentras, and from there into the largely unin- habited Alpine foothills, further onward in the direction of Sisteron, to the southeast side of Mons Ventosus, where he knew of a small Jewish community in the remote mountain village of Moniou — a corruption of Mons Jovis. The village rabbi, Obadiah, would offer the young couple protection and a roof over their heads. Joshuah Obadiah, from Burgos, Spain, had been friends with Rabbi Todros back when they were young Torah students in Narbonne’s Jewish school. The deserted mountain region around Moniou had been part of the Holy Roman Empire since 1032; in other words, it was a foreign land to the Gallic knights who were searching for the woman. Besides, the region had a record of peaceful coexistence between Jews and Christians. Obadiah gave the young Todros an approving nod and told him his father had made a wise choice.
Most afternoons I wander around the ruins of the medieval village. The present mayor recently dubbed these remains Le Jardin de Saint-André, after the ruined chapel high above the village at the very edge of the ravine. Here and there, half a Romanesque arch protrudes from the wild grass. I walk up the steep road. Efforts are being made to restore old walls, romantic attempts at reconstruction; most of the stacking is done by a small group of young volunteers who come here for days at a time to drag around stones and pickaxes before returning to their summer camp. They erect little structures that look deceptively ancient, and, without any system, they level and weed patches of land where ruins lie buried, with young elms and oaks growing on them. No one shows the least concern about the fragility of this historical site. It looks like a green oasis these days, a terraced slope of wildflowers, a garden with successive rows of low walls made of medieval rubble. Everything seems to have been here for ages. But this peaceful garden was once the most crowded part of the village, with narrow streets and rows of tall, gloomy houses packed together, full of the noise, stench, and riotous color of everyday medieval life with its tight social control and teeming energy. People lived and died here; slept, worked and cursed here; made love here and brought children into the world under the most rudimentary conditions. Now a brightly colored snake winds its way under a heap of dry branches, fleeing my footstep. A few goats have broken free of their rickety enclosure and now occupy a crag above me, bounding and chewing, staring out of their demonic yellow eyes as if in ecstasy, and disappearing up over the ridge. Above the tall cliff, a buzzard slowly circles. The silence seems ominous, as if deep in the earth I can hear time rumbling.
The synagogue and the home of David Todros must have been close together, at most two hundred meters from the site of the old house where I am writing this.
This peaceful garden was once the most crowded part of the village, with narrow streets and rows of tall, gloomy houses packed together, full of the noise, stench, and riotous color of everyday medieval life with its tight social control and teeming energy.
They couldn’t have been any farther away, because that would have placed them outside the ramparts. The houses on the south side were on such small plots of land that it seems likely that was the Jewish quarter. Jews were always allotted small parcels for building their homes, a way of limiting their wealth and influence. Because those tapering plots, one of which I live on myself, can be found on Napoleonic copies of the medieval maps, I know the village already had buildings like these back then. The two refugees must have passed through this narrow street often. I can still sense their nearness in the vast silence over the land. I make my way back down to the modern village — as if it were nothing at all to step out of a long-lost age, back into the present.
The rabbi wonders how he will explain to the distrustful priest at the small church of Saint-Pierre, on the other side of Moniou, that this new arrival, a golden-haired woman with blue eyes, is a Sephardic Jew.
I sit down at my desk and start browsing again through a historical article sent to me some ten summers ago by a retired neighbor from southern Germany who has lived in an idyllic old house here for decades. You should read this when you have the time, he told me. I made a copy and placed it in the drawer of my grandfather’s writing desk, next to the notebooks he once gave me. The article, as I later saw, is simply called “Monieux.” It was published in 1969 by Norman Golb, a renowned expert on Jewish history.
Only now, as the young woman soaks her sprained foot in a basin of warm water with lavender oil, does her husband realize how exhausted she is. The swelling won’t subside, and her foot is covered with ugly yellow and black bruises. The child tosses and turns in her womb; the rabbi fears she’s about to go into labor. She is shown to a short oak bed where she can rest. Because she can’t stop shaking, they build a fire. As soon as the warmth reaches her, she falls asleep. Patches of sun slide across the old tiles.
The day is mild and peaceful. A buzzard hovers over the cliff, near the towers under construction at the top; the vague clink of hammers on stone comes drifting down. The rabbi wonders how he will explain to the distrustful priest at the small church of Saint-Pierre, on the other side of Moniou, that this new arrival, a golden-haired woman with blue eyes, is a Sephardic Jew.
Around six o’clock, the sun sinks below the high cliff. From one moment to the next, the light turns thin and bluish; the woods across the valley glimmer a deepening red. A gust of wind passes over the plain; for a few breaths, the trees and bushes by the riverbank make a loud rustle. Then the never-ending silence returns to this deserted highland.
The young woman wakes with a start to find darkness has fallen. She has no idea where she is — a brief surge of panic, and then bit by bit she can make out the contours of a wardrobe, a dark chest, a chair. A sharp pain shoots through her lower back, taking her breath away. She lets out a muffled cry. Right away, the door opens; the faint glow of a flickering flame lights up the walls. It’s an old woman, bringing a basin of water and a stack of towels. She sits down in silence to keep watch, head bowed and hands folded, beside the sweating, thrashing woman in the bed. She murmurs ancient, indistinct prayers. After an hour in which the con- tractions grow stronger, the young woman falls back into deep sleep. In the middle of the night, she shoots awake with a pounding heart, gagging with pain. The woman is no longer watching over her. An improbably large moon is rising over the hill to the east. The light glints and shimmers its way inside through the small glassless window like a living creature. Feeling an urgent need to urinate, she stumbles out of bed half asleep, gropes for the travelworn shoes by the bedside, and staggers outside. A contraction spears through her body. Now panting and savage, she stares down the unfamiliar alley, staggers on, and finds herself ringed by rocks and low bushes. There she squats, dizzy with pain. She thinks she’s passing urine, but it’s her water breaking. Her squatting brings on labor, sudden and strong. In a haze of pain, she feels herself tearing open down below. She groans like a dying animal, howls and sobs, and falls backward between two stones, hurting her lower back. From under her belly, a little head emerges. Panting like a woman possessed, she pushes and moans, digs her fingers into the dry earth, presses her loins helplessly, reaches between her legs, feels the blood running, and shivers with fear and pain. The moon seems to shine still brighter; the night air chills the wet skin of her legs and hips. As the thing glides motionless through her legs into the dust and gravel, she blacks out for an instant. Then all at once the narrow alley fills with cries, footfalls, slamming doors. She is borne up; the afterbirth gushes out of her, along with a thick stream of blood. The ruthless moon glares into her eyes. She weeps, lets out shrill cries, calls her mother’s name. The old woman severs the umbilical cord with a dull knife, splashes water over the delirious woman’s lower body, grabs the pallid newborn by the feet, shakes him back and forth, and smacks him till she can hear the faint start of his cry, a sob that turns into bawling and howling. As the young woman is carried unconscious into the house by three women, the baker points to something that was lying next to the newborn child: a large snake, almost too sluggish to move in the cold night air, creeping away between the rocks, as slow as a serpent in a dream. By the childbed at the first hint of dawn, young David mumbles the old words: Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam …
For the first few days after the birth, their fear runs deep. They remember the shadows of men on horseback in an alley in Narbonne and still feel the threat every day. Yet because nothing happens, because the unchanging hills offer rest and the day-today life of this remote village seems to shield them, they gradually find a new calm. David Todros spends the evenings beside his wife’s bed. In the daylight hours, he assists Rabbi Obadiah in the little synagogue school.
On the eighth day after the boy’s birth, he is circumcised. As the historical record tells us, he is named Yaakov. Hamoutal stays in bed but can hear, through the rumble of prayer, the shrieks and sobs of the child below. Then conversations, laughter, drinking. She falls asleep with an ache in her swollen young breasts.
The firstborn son is ransomed, as tradition demands. The baby is brought in on a platter ringed by cloves of garlic. The men in the room each nibble at a clove to drive off evil demons. David gives his son to Rabbi Obadiah, who is acting as kohen. After handing over the ritual payment, he takes his son back into his arms. They sit down to a simple meal. It’s a hot day; the sun blazes high over the valley, and the riverbed is almost dry. Lizards dart through the ivy and grapevines across the old stones of the house. Wild spelt and poppies sway in the warm wind. In the cool depths of the gorge a kilometer away, at a little church beneath an overhang, a hermit in prayer to the Lord of the Christians is attacked by a bear, which breaks his neck with a casual flick of its left paw.
That evening, a group of knights rides across the grassy plain by the river, led by the notorious Raymond of Toulouse, an ambitious nobleman of almost fifty, whose gaze is drawn to the village. He turns on his caparisoned steed and calls out to one of the men, What’s the name of that eyrie over there, up against the mountainside? The knight shrugs. They are headed east on a year-long pilgrimage, from which Raymond of Toulouse, the fearsome warrior celebrated in later years as a heroic crusader, will return with one eye gouged out. He is aware of the search for the high-born fugitive and even knows how much her father has promised the finder; Norman knights on the way to their captured territories in Sicily often pass through Provence, staying with prominent country gentlemen. The thought of looking for her in this village never enters his mind. The new mother, now twenty years old, has no idea how close danger has come. But David sees the knights down on the plain. His heart races; a dark premonition seizes him. He goes inside, consumed with anxiety, to find his wife kneeling by her bed. What are you doing? he asks in dismay. You promised never to say Christian prayers again, remember? She rises, stiff-jointed, to her feet with a guilty look, one hand on her side. I’m not sure anymore, she says.
She lies down again and shuts her eyes. In her memory, she sees incense swirling up past a window in a church by the sea.
Now the lime trees and elms are turning yellow and red; the mornings are cold and clear. The young mother sees the men bringing home boar, deer, and hares to the village. The charred boar hide gives off an acrid smoke that makes her queasy. Oakwood smoke circles over the low roofs. Rainy days are ahead. The fertile plateau is changing into a dreary grey bowl through which the west wind scours a path.
It’s hard for her to adjust to the simple, hard life of the village, unlike anything she’s known. The drab cliffs and slopes sometimes seem unreal, as if it’s all a dream. One rainy night, she is struck by the quiet presence of the many snails and toads. The toads chirp— like an owl’s hoot, but thinner and finer. The lethargic creatures leap up against the house fronts as she passes. Helpless, almost human, they stand there with their front legs outstretched against the wall, as if praying to heaven for aid. Once her footsteps have died away, they sink back into apathy.
The snails are different. They come out after every evening shower, without any sense of danger, onto the small rounded cobbles of the old streets, creeping together to mate. They often die under the feet of late passers-by, their fine shells cracked and the slime oozing out. Beings that had form and substance become mere matter again, dead and denuded of their delicate structure. Some villagers snatch up the snails from the stones in the middle of their lovemaking, and toss them into a brass pot to be cooked alive and eaten right away.
These things trouble Hamoutal.
She grew up with stories of a natural world ruled by God. The Jewish God, whose name she must not utter, is not very different, but she still isn’t always sure where the differences lie. The mere sight of a wasp in a honey jar, stuck fast and dying in loud, buzzing alarm, or of a small black scorpion crushed underfoot, is enough to make her turn away her eyes, tormenting herself with the question of which God is answerable for this. When she takes little Yaakov, not yet one year old, to her breast, she is sometimes overwhelmed by a tightness in her chest and a formless fear. Is nothing left, then, of her sheltered childhood in that grand house in the north? What is the point of this raw life all around her, absorbed in an anguishing cycle of life and death? The theologians spare no thought for questions like these, as if everything they see around them has a purpose. She sometimes feels that by renouncing her parents’ religion, she has flung herself into a vacuum. No matter how much David teaches her about the Torah and the ancient history of the Jewish people, an abyss has opened under her old certainties, and there’s no one she can speak to about that. Christians would brand her a witch for burning, and Jews would point out that her doubts are unworthy of a proselyte and refuse to accept her into their community. So she does what well-bred women had to do back then, in all places and at all times: she keeps her mouth shut, bows her head, and prays in silence. Sometimes she doesn’t know who she’s praying to — perhaps to that voice inside her, a lost angel that sometimes seems to land on her shoulder, sending her into violent trembling until she pulls herself together with mumbled incantations.
Although she does her best to find a place for herself in the small community, greeting everyone she passes in the streets, most villagers walk on without responding, indifferent. She is unaccustomed to such treatment whether as a respected Norman woman or as the privileged proselyte she was in Narbonne.
As it becomes clear to her that she will never fully belong here, she gives up her attempts to be sociable. From that moment on, she is granted a kind of tacit acceptance, because she has resigned herself to the role of outsider. After a while, the Christian worthies give her a gracious nod in passing. The inquisitive gleam in their eyes is not quite friendly, but close enough — given that she’s safe here and her husband is a close friend of Rabbi Obadiah. What business brought her here? No one asks. But the silence around her, when she joins the other villagers in the small square, says more than enough. A blonde Jew with ice-blue eyes — there’s something wrong here, you can see them think it, though no one moves a muscle. One day a few children throw stones at her, chanting Mouri, Jusiou, mouri—die, Jew, die.
She ponders all this as she limps back home in the dusk on her sore, swollen foot that won’t heal properly, along the rough, uneven stones of the Grande Rue, no more than a wide alley — which today is part of a walking path. She tries not to crush any snails, or in any case, not the spectacular clumps of intertwined snail flesh, those squishy, mobile masses of undisguised instinct, bulging out of their shells, obscene and overwhelming, in slow, dreamlike intercourse.
Stefan Hertmans is an internationally acclaimed Flemish author. For more than twenty years he was a professor at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Ghent, where he wrote novels, poems, essays, and plays. His previous book, War and Turpentine, was awarded the prestigious AKO Literature Prize in 2014.