Tracing My Ancestry Through Poetry
A few years after my grandfather passed away, my mother mentioned that for years he had refused to eat Spanish olives. I asked her why, and she said that he could trace his family history back to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and that this was his form of protest.
This small revelation changed the way I saw myself: I recognized myself as part of a chain predating my family’s migration to Eastern Europe and became fascinated with a piece of history that had once felt distant to me. I devoured as much as I could about the Jewish experience after the Expulsion and during the Inquisition.
This poem is part of a sequence of ten sonnets that explore different voices from that time and place.
The speaker here is a mother who is among the group of Jews who fled to Portugal after 1492. In 1496, King Manuel of Portugal brutally punished all Jews who were unable to pay an exorbitant tax he levied upon them. Their children were then sent to the wild and uninhabited islands of São Tomé and Príncipe and left to the elements. A small fraction of those children survived and created a community that exists to the present day.
This Ship Sails Soon
She is only a child. I will
not let them carry you,
swaddled to São Tomé
where the cries of the jackals wail
at twilight, lips bulging blood.
My arms are full with you,
so light you are,
like grains of sand on ocean
breeze—but the sea is calm
today. See how the prow
of the ship dips into its
sweet salt waves. Cling
closer to me, suckle now
at my breast. Today,
the water is warm.