Inspired by a visionary encounter with the goddess Elen of the Ways, author Elyn Aviva and her husband set off on a spiritual trek across Wales with little more than synchronicity, symbols, and signs to guide their way.
by Elyn Aviva
My husband, Gary, and I decided to visit some friends in Tortosa, a small Spanish city in southern Catalonia at the mouth of the Ebro River. I knew nothing about Tortosa, but when I searched for accommodations, I discovered there was a government-run hotel, a parador, perched on top of a promontory overlooking the river at the edge of town. The “Zuda Castle” parador began as a tenth-century Moorish citadel, was conquered by Christian soldiers, given to the Templar Knights in 1182, later became a palace, a prison, an abandoned fortress—and finally, in 1976, was converted into a luxury hotel. I pulled out my “Amigos de Paradores” membership card to make sure I got the best deal and booked us a room for two nights.
Tortosa was only a few hours by train from our Girona home. The taxi ride from the train station to the parador included a drive along the Ebro River, during which we drove past an immense metal sculpture rising out of the waters. It included an eagle with wings spread, a cross, and a man with one arm raised, reaching up to a star-shaped object above his head.
“What’s that?” I asked Jorge, the taxi driver.
“A vergüenza.” (A disgrace.)
“Why is that?”
Jorge told us that the dictator Generalissimo Franco erected the statue in 1966. “It commemorates ‘those who found glory in the war.’ That means the Nationalist soldiers, not the Republicans. The Battle of the Ebro was the longest and bloodiest battle of the war. 30,000 people died. And it was fought here, along the river.”
I was shocked. “And they still have a monument commemorating only one side—Franco’s side—the winners?”
Jorge nodded. “Well, some say that now it stands for everybody who died in the battle. Or that it’s a symbol of the city and nothing more. There was an attempt to get it removed a few years ago without success. There’ll be another referendum next year.”
“How will you vote?” I asked.
He paused. “It depends on the choices.”
My knowledge of the Spanish Civil War is sketchy, but I know there were basically two sides: the Republicans, who won the elections in 1931, and the (fascist) Nationalists under Franco, who started a terribly bloody civil war that lasted from 1936-1939. Franco won and was dictator of Spain until he died in 1975. Judging by the monument in the river, memories in Tortosa run deep and long, and the horrors of that time have not been healed—or forgotten.
We drove up a steep, winding road at the edge of town, and our driver pulled up in front of the parador. It was impressive: a huge, golden stone edifice, a stunning medieval fortification, even though most of it is in fact a modern construction.
We checked in, and while Gary relaxed on the faux-antique four-poster bed, I checked online to learn more about Tortosa. According to the Caminos de Sefarad [Sefarad is the name for Spanish Jews] website, there had been a large and important Jewish community in Tortosa since Roman times. Jews, Moors, and Christians had lived in harmony in the city in the Middle Ages. Over the centuries, Jews had been in charge of international trading negotiations and had been appointed bailiffs of the city. However, this convivial situation didn’t last; all Jews (and Moors) were expelled from Spain in 1492.
I woke up early, eager to explore Tortosa and learn more about its multi-cultural history. The sunrise over the hills was beautiful, casting a gentle pastel glow over the tile rooftops and stone houses that spread out below the castle like a view on Google Earth.
We started our explorations at the Tourist Office. Expansive pavilions, blue and white tiles, glazed ceramic roofs, blue stucco walls, and shade trees make a delightful setting for the Tourist Office and Museum of Tortosa, opened in 2012. It was hard to imagine that these stunning buildings, inspired by Moorish architecture, had originally been built 100 years ago as the city slaughterhouse. It was located next to the river so the offal and blood could be more easily disposed of.
I asked the clerk, “Do you have any information about the Jews in Tortosa?” She handed me a brochure that included a map of a walking route through the medieval judería (Jewish neighborhood) and mentioned several important medieval Tortosan Jews. I noticed a flyer describing “La Jueva de Tortosa,” a woman who sings Sephardic songs and re-enacts Jewish life in the judería.
Pointing to the flyer, I asked, “So, there must be Jews in Tortosa?”
The clerk looked surprised. “No, there aren’t any Jews here. They were all expelled.”
“What about this woman?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know anything about her. She’s a performer of some kind, I think.”
Puzzling over the clerk’s ignorance (or denial), we walked across the garden to the museum.
Carlos, the museum clerk, offered to show us around. He pointed to a large graphic chart on one wall, showing the inhabitants of Tortosa: First, the Iberians, then the Romans, then the Visigoths, then the Moors, then the Christians….
“Uh—what about the Jewish population?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Well, they were expelled, you know.”
“So were the Moors, and they’re mentioned. And the museum has displays of Moorish pots and ceramics….”
“I guess it must have been an oversight.”
“An oversight? No mention of a community that lived here for more than 1000 years and was important in the city’s trade and government?”
He looked uncomfortable. “Now that you mention it, there are a few things upstairs….”
Upstairs there were, indeed, “a few things.” A piece of a broken pottery candlestick in a case beneath a plaque describing the two “small” minority groups (Muslim and Jew) that made up 20% of the population in the 13th and 14th centuries; a parchment copy of the 1492 Edict of Expulsion of the Jews; and a plaque describing the 1413-1414 Tortosa Dispute, in which rabbis were forced to argue with Christian missionary zealots in order to prove that Jews were wrong to deny that Christ was the Messiah. By the end of the grueling and unfair “debate,” many Jews and rabbis had converted. They could see the handwriting on the wall. The recorded disputation was used to legitimize forced conversions and persecution of Jews throughout Spain.
I stormed back downstairs. “I can’t believe that’s all there is about the Jews!”
Carlos had clearly been thinking about our conversation. “There was a conference at the museum a few years ago about Jews in Tortosa.”
“A conference? That’s nice, but there is almost nothing in the museum. It’s as if you want to wipe out their memory, pretend they were never here—just like people want to pretend the monument in the river stands for all those who died in the war!”
“The monument?” Carlos said in disgust. “That’s such a disgrace. On the side it says, ‘Dedicated to those who found glory in the war.’ Obviously, that only refers to the winners. It is very offensive. They’ve removed most of the fascist symbols, but they need to get rid of it.”
Suddenly I wondered whether somehow the erasure of the history of the Jews in Tortosa was similar to this monument of Franco’s. We often say history is written by the victors, and that’s certainly the case in Tortosa—both by the Christians, who pretend that Jews were a trivial, incidental part of Tortosa’s history, and by the followers of Franco, who pretend the monument represents all who died.
Victors not only write history, they also re-write it—and they don’t write about certain things. This silence erases events and people from memory, as if they never happened or never lived. I began to wonder: maybe it would be a mistake to remove the monument in the river. While it exists, people can’t pretend there wasn’t a civil war.
Elyn Aviva is a transformational traveler, writer, and fiber artist who lives in Girona, Spain. She is co-author with her husband, Gary White, of “Powerful Places Guidebooks.” To learn more about her publications, go to www.powerfulplaces.com and www.pilgrimsprocess.com. To learn about Elyn’s fiber art, go to www.fiberalchemy.com. Gary’s blog about their expat life is www.fandangolife.com.
by Elyn Aviva
It took nearly 11 years and three attempts for my husband, Gary, and me to complete the 12-mile-long St Michael’s Way across the southern tip of Cornwall. That’s a rather long time for a short walk—probably a record of some sort. And even though we ended up hiking more than 12 miles, we never did manage to walk the middle five.
But we persevered, although we were misled every step of the way.
by Judith Fein
Around the world, viewers and readers are transfixed by the racism dialogue that has transformed from a whisper to a scream in America. It took atrocities, murders, abuse to reach the point where black Americans are being heard. They are refusing to take it any more.
And in my heart, I think the roots of this racism are in slavery. I thought I had a basic grasp of the subject until I went to Louisiana and discovered 12 surprising—sometimes shocking--things I learned that I wanted to share with you.
I had to step back a few feet to get a glance of the Scott Monument from the ground up to the spire. It was terrifying and made me rather dizzy. (It reminded me of the time back in junior high when I froze at the top of a five-tier bleacher and it took a couple of teachers at least an hour to get me down.)
I was in my last full day of strolling around the streets of Edinburgh, taking in the remaining major attractions I wanted to see before leaving. For several days since my arrival, I had walked past the awe-inspiring gothic tribute to the famous Scottish author Sir Walter Scott. Located in the Princes Street Gardens, the monument, a cathedral-like structure, towers well above the other buildings on Princes Street and the surrounding area. This stunning piece of art, made from Binny sandstone, stands two hundred feet six inches tall, with a spiral staircase of 287 steps.
Growing up in a suburb of Washington, D.C., I knew only bits and pieces of my dad’s life in the years before he became my dad.
I knew that both sides of our family came from an orthodox Jewish community in Syria (we ate delicacies like fried kibbehs, stuffed grape leaves and baba ghanoush, long before these foods hit the mainstream, and men sang Arabic songs at the Passover seder).
The year is 1645. The most virulent strain of the Bubonic Plague has immobilized Edinburgh, Scotland, claiming the lives of more than half the city’s population. The area hardest hit: Mary King’s Close on High Street, a busy thoroughfare and lively 17th century street of pubs, shops and residences. Cries of suffering have replaced the friendly chatter, and the stench of death, the pungent aroma of tea and scones.
The place, the time, the horror have been resurrected as one of Edinburgh's most unusual attractions. Archaeologically and historically accurate, the alleys you walk upon, the rooms you visit, the stories you hear are real. This is not a recreation; it is a resurrection of what already existed so many centuries ago.
Beneath the City Chambers on Edinburgh’s famous Royal Mile, lies Mary King’s Close, a series of narrow, winding side streets with multi-level apartment houses looming on either side, which has been hidden for many years. In 1753, the houses at the top of the buildings were knocked down to make way for the then-new building. Parts of the lower sections were used as the foundation, leaving below a number of dark and mysterious underground alleyways steeped in mystery -- and misery.
Musing at Scorhill Stone Circle, England
We trudged up the bleak hill, brown and barren. My husband, Gary, and I were hiking with a small group in desolate, wild Dartmoor National Park to a place we’d never been, following a faint path through the moor, a track barely visible in the water-logged, peaty soil. Our guide informed us that people can easily lose their way on the moors—experienced hikers, skilled in reading maps, disappear, their bodies found years later.
by Elyn Aviva
Join me on a journey into the unknown, where what you think you know melts away and is replaced by something something bigger.
For decades I have been drawn to sacred sites and powerful places, drawn to go on pilgrimage across France and Spain, drawn to place my feet in the footsteps of if not my ancestors then of the ancestors of spirit who have traveled these paths before me. Like iron pulled toward a magnet, I have sought out well- and little-known places of power ancient stone circles, half-buried dolmens, ruined Romanesque chapels, spire-topped inspiring cathedrals, thick forests, hidden holy wells, dark sacred caves. Seeking I knew not what, going I knew not why, except that I was driven by a simple but all-consuming question: What are these places? I think I hoped that, by going to enough of them, I would find the answer.
The first time I knew I was in a very powerful place was when I saw the alignments at Carnac in Brittany, France. My husband, Gary, and I had driven through the flat Breton maritime pine forest toward the coast. The nearly straight road reached a crossroad and there, behind green metal fencing, were rows of large, upright stones, some as tall as a person, stretching in rows as far as the eye can see. Brakes screeching, we pulled over. I jumped out and ran across the lane, twining my fingers through the barrier to get as close as I could. What were they? Who put them here? What purpose did they serve?
by Elyn Aviva
Join me on a journey into the unknown, where what you think you know melts away and is replaced by something—something “bigger.”
For decades I have been drawn to sacred sites and powerful places, drawn to go on pilgrimage across France and Spain, drawn to place my feet in the footsteps of if not my ancestors then of the ancestors of spirit who have traveled these paths before me. Like iron pulled toward a magnet, I have sought out well- and little-known places of power—ancient stone circles, half-buried dolmens, ruined Romanesque chapels, spire-topped inspiring cathedrals, thick forests, hidden holy wells, dark sacred caves. Seeking I knew not what, going I knew not why, except that I was driven by a simple but all-consuming question: “What are these places?” I think I hoped that, by going to enough of them, I would find the answer.
The first time I knew I was in a very powerful place was when I saw the alignments at Carnac in Brittany, France. My husband, Gary, and I had driven through the flat Breton maritime pine forest toward the coast. The nearly straight road reached a crossroad—and there, behind green metal fencing, were rows of large, upright stones, some as tall as a person, stretching in rows as far as the eye can see. Brakes screeching, we pulled over. I jumped out and ran across the lane, twining my fingers through the barrier to get as close as I could. What were they? Who put them here? What purpose did they serve?
This week, our executive editor, Judith Fein, published a book that has already garnered great reviews and word-of-mouth referrals—THE SPOON FROM MINKOWITZ: A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands. Writer Caren Osten Gerszberg interviewed Fein in the Q&A below for a YourLifeIsATrip.com exclusive. Read on to discover the story behind the story.
Q: In your book, you recount your lifelong quest--since learning six facts about your grandmother's life in Russia--to return to her village. Why do you think you were interested to learn of your family roots at such a young age?
JF: I think that some of us were born to be musicians, teachers, writers, social workers, or mathematicians. I was fingered by fate to find out the truth about my ancestors, and to honor all of those who came before me. My grandmother spoke with an accent, believed in unseen forces, and came from an exotic country. She didn’t want to talk about her past life. My mother refused to tell me about the village her mother came from. And the more they stonewalled me, the more I wanted to know. I was a little kid, but I followed the six paltry clues I had like a sleuth. In fact, I can honestly say that I was living in a detective story.
Q: Throughout your journey, you were repeatedly "hitting walls" when it came to learning about Minkowitz--such as with your mother and the man on the train in Paris. What provoked your will to continue the search?
JF: I was obsessed. No matter what anyone said or did, I was undaunted. I loved my grandmother. I was on the phone with her right before she died. It was my secret mission to get to her village and find out what no one would tell me. I wanted to know who she was before she was my grandmother. And when I grew up, I discovered that a lot of people were just like me. No one in their families spoke about what happened before they came to America. I was absolutely determined to find out, for myself and for others who had never asked the questions, but who cared, who were curious, who wanted or needed to know.
Q: When you first arrived in the Ukraine, you made connections with older women. How did that bring you closer to your grandmother and your plight to visit Minkowitz?
Climbing up the wide circular stone staircase to our hotel room in the Chateau des Ducs de Joyeuse on the first night, I knew this would be a very different trip. I could just as easily be entering a medieval castle as a lodging facility -- and then I found out I was, though I suspect our modernized room was a lot less drafty than those of the lords and ladies who preceded us.
The experience, near Les Oliviers south of Toulouse, certainly set the tone for our Southern France Walking Through History tour—conducted, ironically, by a company called New England Hiking. As we hiked through, around, up and over one medieval village after another, traversing castles and countryside and learning about the Middle Ages of the 11th-14th centuries, we were immersed in history.
story and photos by Richard Rossner
Life is slippery. Just when I think have it in my grasp, it slithers away like an eel. It twists, writhes and slips from my grip, leaving me empty-handed. And feeling empty in many ways.
That’s when I ache for some place of intense safety and familiarity to regroup.
Johnny Mercer wrote, “Any place I hang my hat is home.” I wonder about people who are that comfortable. Frank Sinatra…George Clooney…the Dalai Lama (if he had a hat). They exude such ease with everything.
I’m not on that list. I’m on the list of people who never feel at home. And I’m not talking about a geographical place. I’m talking about feeling at home in life.
Sure, I’ve accomplished some wonderful things, but it’s all been hit or miss with no mastery. In quiet moments I’m haunted by my sense of ineptitude at navigating something that seems so simple for others.
I recently had the chance to return to my state of origin. No, not the womb as a zygote. New Jersey.
First, I went to the town where I was born. It’s been in an economic slide for decades. Sweet memories I knew of bright Christmas lights gaily strung down the main thoroughfare; the heady smell of popcorn and candy wafting through the glorious department store; summers of big-leafed trees and fat, fuzzy caterpillars; the sweet breezes off the Raritan Bay – they’re gone. Downtown is all bargain discount stores now. The place looks like a dump.
Descending the steep, narrow plank, inch by inch, hand over hand along the long pole, I thought: “This better be one hell of a cave!” Exploring the other-worldly interior of Hang Trong Cave was to be one of many surreal experiences I was to have traveling along Ha Long Bay in northeast Vietnam.
In the 1992 movie Indochine, credited with putting Ha Long Bay on the map, Catherine Deneuve describes it as “the most remote outpost of Indochina.” Today, the bay still retains that end-of-the-Earth, Lord-of-the-Rings-on–water quality.
The almost 600 square miles comprised of thousands of karst islands, caves and inlets, which we visited as part of a trip with Myths and Mountains tour company, create a solitary natural environment that belies description and inspires awe. I kept thinking how many times can I use the word surreal in one travel article?
The boat we called home, replicating an old Chinese Junk, was basic, but we dined well and huddled about the crew as they studied tidal charts to determine our daily itinerary. Inflatable canoes, powered by guides, were our vehicle of choice for purposes of exploration. Cave opening too small to navigate? No problem –- just let some air out of the canoe. Very versatile.
She was so vivacious and charismatic that I went up and introduced myself after the talk she gave. When I told her I was from St. Louis, she immediately asked, “Have you ever been to Cahokia Mounds?” “Well, my kids went on school trips... I’ve been meaning to go since they built the new visitor’s center...,” I muttered my reply. “You have to go,” she urged. “It’s one of the most wonderful, inspiring Native American sites in all of North America. Promise me you’ll go.” “Sure,” I said.
I met Judie in October 2009 when she spoke at a retreat for the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College at the lovely Tamaya Resort north of Albuquerque. Judie and I had an instant rapport, and, when we met for lunch in Santa Fe a week or so later, she again pressed us to go to Cahokia Mounds. Again we promised. But life intervenes, and by the time we returned to Santa Fe the following summer and called Judie to get together, we still hadn’t gone.