San Diego Jewish World says:
"Selz’s depiction of the home lives of the extended Crevago family are so evocative, at times I felt I was sitting down with the family at the main meal." Show more...
While the Basque people of Vitoria, Spain, were Christians, like the Jews, they were outsiders, not quite like the other Christians of Castile or other parts of newly united Spain. So, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella began issuing edicts against the Jews, the Basques were never particularly quick to enforce them. Besides, when illnesses had swept the region, their own Christian doctors had fled, but the Jewish doctors remained behind, saving many Basque families. This special bond could never be forgotten.
In Marcia Riman Selz’s historical novel, events unfold through the eyes of the Crevago family, whose members are shoemakers, doctors, and scholars. The Crevago brother who delivers elegant shoes to customers throughout Spain has the misfortune to witness a treasured friend and his wife burned at the stake for continuing to practice their Jewish religion after pretending to convert to Catholicism. It was a sight he never could forget, but nevertheless he could not persuade other members of his family to pull up stakes and leave Spain for safer countries, perhaps Holland. Those who have read Holocaust literature will be familiar with arguments made by this family in an even earlier era of hatred for remaining in a town where they had enjoyed business success and social ties. Add to those reasons the amity between the Basque and Jewish communities, and the Jews of Vitoria decided to stay put — at least while the choice was theirs.
Among the Basques, as with all peoples, there was a criminal element. The novel details two brutal instances of sexual violence perpetrated against female and male Crevago family members. Life in Vitoria, was by no means perfect, but compared to the scourge of religious hatred elsewhere in Spain, the risks seemed acceptable.
Eventually, however, Ferdinand and Isabella, at the urging of the Catholic Church and Torquemada, its Grand Inquisitor, ordered all Jews to convert, or die, or vacate every inch of Spanish soil. Against this edict even the Basques were powerless to intervene, and so the Jews of Vitoria had to pull up stakes and leave, but to where? Anyone who ever has seen the play or movie, Fiddler on the Roof, cannot help but be reminded of the Jews asking the same questions before they began pushing their carts loaded with their belongings from the mythical Russian empire town of Anatevka.
At Vitoria opens in Bayonne, France, which lies on the other side of the Pyrenees from Spain. It is here where most of the Crevago family settled because it too is a Basque town. The question before the Jewish community in Bayonne was whether to release the development-minded Basques of Vitoria from a pledge made in 1492, the year of the Expulsion, to maintain the Jewish cemetery. The question is controversial, not only for the Jews, who want to remember their past, but also for some Basques, who want to continue honoring the centuries-old pact.
I mentioned that besides doctors and shoemakers, the Crevago family had its scholars. One in particular decided to convert to Catholicism so that he could learn more about the world. In this fictional version of history, he changed his name to Luis de Torres and sailed west with Christopher Columbus.
While I am glad that I read this novel, and would recommend it to others, I have mixed feelings about it. I believe both the Holocaust and Fiddler on the Roof were likely 20th Century influences on author Selz’s telling of this 15th Century story, giving me—and possibly other readers—a sense of “seen that, read that.” Likewise, I felt that some of the Jewish prayers uttered by characters in this story were taken from modern siddurim, possibly Ashkenazic rather than Sephardic.
Moreover, there are many legends about Luis de Torres, who as Columbus’ translator was expecting to reach the Asian continent. According to one legend, he tried communicating unsuccessfully with the indigenous people of the Caribbean in Hebrew and in Arabic on the theory that they might have been descended from the Ten Lost Tribes. I have misgivings about Selz making the historical Torres a member of the fictional Crevago family, because this flight of imagination may, in time, find its way into the historical record, which I believe should remain sacrosanct. On the other hand, I liked the way Selz brought a woman’s voice to this era of world history, reflecting as she did upon the limited choices women faced in an era when they were neither permitted education nor given choices in whom they might marry. Nevertheless, they often held sway over domestic matters. Selz’s depiction of the home lives of the extended Crevago family are so evocative, at times I felt I was sitting down with the family at the main meal. Show less....
Kirkus Reviews says:
"A well-constructed, highly informative historical novel." Show more...
Debut author Selz offers a historical novel about a family of Sephardic Jews, starting in the years leading up to the Edict of Expulsion in the late 15th century.
The Crevagos, a family of shoemakers living in the city of Vitoria, Spain, have largely been spared the pogroms and anti-Semitic riots that have affected Jews in other parts of the country. They and other members of city’s Sephardic Jewish community live in a state of peace and mutual respect with their Basque neighbors, and it’s been that way since the days of the Roman Empire. However, a new regime has risen—one less sympathetic to the traditions of country’s Jews. “Pressure is building from the Church,” recounts family patriarch Vidal Crevago after one of his sales trips across the peninsula. “They want everyone to be Catholic. Our choice is to convert or die.” Even so, the other members of his family aren’t overly concerned—until Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella unleash the Spanish Inquisition on Jews and Muslims. What if the family’ only option is to give up the home they love? The Crevagos’ decision has an effect that extends all the way to 1950s France, when the threats to and options for their descendants take unexpected turns. Selz effectively summons the world of 15th-century Vitoria with great gusto and vibrant detail: “women threw the contents of mierda pots filled with human piss and waste from the upper windows onto the street. The stench would be called horrific by some; however, to Vidal it was the smell of home.” The apparent goal of the novel is to present the plain facts of the Edict of Expulsion, with little in the way of superfluous plot, and in this it succeeds; readers who are unfamiliar with this era will learn much. However, the members of the Crevago family are still believable and sympathetic enough that readers will become invested in their plights.
A well-constructed, highly informative historical novel. Show less....
Clarion Reviews says:
"Based on true events and real people, At Vitoria pays homage to a community with strong roots and family ties. The little-known historical details make this an eye-opening and satisfying read." Show more...
Based on true events and real people, At Vitoria pays homage to a community with strong roots and family ties.
“The world is small for Jews,” observes Vidal Crevago, a Jewish shoemaker living in fifteenth-century Spain. His hometown of Vitoria serves as the epicenter of Marcia Riman Selz’s historical novel At Vitoria, set during the Spanish Inquisition. It celebrates Jewish survival and encourages the preservation of a powerful history.
In 1453, tensions run high between Christians and Jews across Europe, with violence against Jews—as well as against those who have converted to Christianity—escalating from year to year. Segregation, discrimination, and even murder are common on the Iberian Peninsula. The Crevago family adores their home, however, having lived there since their migration from France a few generations earlier.
As the years go by, Vidal, who travels often for work, observes a pattern of increasing violence across the country, but the social tensions turn political once Isabella and Ferdinand become queen and king. Jewish elected officials are removed from office, families have their land and possessions confiscated, and many Jews turn to practicing their religion in secrecy. Soon, the violence encroaches on Vitoria, and Vidal must make terrible decisions to protect his family and his livelihood.
As the novel progresses, the plot shifts from descriptions of what Vidal sees in his travels around Spain—and his family’s reluctant receipt of this information—to the more personal experiences of the Vitoria community at the height of the Spanish Inquisition, culminating in an ultimatum from Isabella and Ferdinand: convert to Christianity, be expelled from the country, or die.
Accurate history and the lives of these characters are skillfully woven together, seamlessly and without awkward transitions between narrative and exposition. Even the fictional elements contain historical detail that is as educational as it is enjoyable to read; the dialogue, for instance, succeeds in revealing characters and propelling the story forward, but it also helps to depict the day-to-day lives of Jews in Spain nearly 600 years ago. Most of the characters exist to partake in this dialogue, without too much personality seeping through; Vidal, his brother Benjamin, and a handful of minor characters are the only multidimensional people populating the novel.
The story is framed by a twentieth-century meeting of community leaders, who discuss the future of a 1000-year-old cemetery site upon which the city would like to build condos. For a descendant of Vidal Crevago, the need for its preservation is obvious: it symbolizes a promise between those who left Vitoria all those years ago and those who stayed, for them to have some history to return to when Spain became safe again.
Based on true events and real people, At Vitoria pays homage to a community with strong roots and family ties. The little-known historical details make this an eye-opening and satisfying read. Show less....
Blueink Review says:
"... At Vitoria should hold strong appeal to students of Jewish history and tradition." Show more...
At Vitoria is a historical novel about the expulsion of Jewish families from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition and the Alhambra Decree with which Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain sought to make the country a purely Catholic nation.
A prologue, set in 1952, introduces a centuries-old promise made to Vitoria’s Jews to preserve their cemetery forever. The reason for this promise is revealed in the ensuing story, set in the 15th century and concerning the Crevago family, tight-knit Sephardic Jews that make luxury shoes. Vidal, the family salesman, travels the country selling shoes. When he sees the rising threat to Jews, he wants to move the family to Holland, but his brothers won’t agree, and the Crevagos endure tragedy, illness and emotional upheaval before facing up to the realities of the Inquisition.
The novel’s strength is in its descriptions of the traditions and daily living of a medieval Jewish family. Telling details bring the past to life: the water clock by which Vidal’s sister times the cooking of matzo; the cutting of convicts’ hair so strands won’t fly around the crowd when prisoners are burned at the stake, and so on. This realism, however, becomes problematic with two graphic rape scenes (one of a teenage girl, the other of a man), as it’s unclear what they add to the story’s narrative arc.
Additionally, Vidal appears to be the novel’s main character, but after the first five chapters, the point of view widens to feature others, including, on two occasions, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. The large cast diffuses the story’s emotional impact, as do varying leaps of time between chapters. (Two significant family members, for example, are active and alive at one chapter’s conclusion, but within a page of the next chapter, readers learn both have died.)
Such flaws lessen the narrative’s effectiveness. Nonetheless, At Vitoria should hold strong appeal to students of Jewish history and tradition. Show less....
How could a medieval Jewish cemetery in Vitoria, Spain be the cause of so much debate? At Vitoria transports the reader to the Iberian Peninsula at the end of the fifteenth century and weaves a story of success, downfall, love, terror, tragedy, shame, and honor. The historical and cultural details surrounding the story make for an evocative narrative that draws the reader in and provides an engaging sense of realism.
Marcia Riman Selz spent her business career as a marketing consultant to financial institutions. But after a vacation in Spain, the calling to write about Vitoria and its medieval Jewish community was overwhelming. So after several years of research, she wrote At Vitoria.
Dr. Selz earned her Ph.D. from the Peter F. Drucker Graduate School of Management at Claremont Graduate University, her MBA from Loyola-Marymount University and her Bachelors Degree from Indiana University.