The first hint I got that this novel held any great significance was several years ago. I received an email from a gentleman who was searching through LibraryThing and saw that I owned a copy. He said he’d been trying to find it for years, and would I like to sell it? I did not, and thought it nervy of him to ask! Then, in the comments on one of my blog posts from December 2006, Elena Maria Vidal mentioned she’d read Raquel: The Jewess of Toledo in college. She called it “a great love story between Alfonso King of Castile, who was married to Eleanor of Aquitaine’s daughter, and his Jewish mistress. It was a fascinating look at the Jews in Spain... a tremendous book."
Given the author’s stature and popularity during his lifetime, it’s perhaps surprising that his novels, at least in English, have fallen into obscurity today. Lion Feuchtwanger (1884-1958) was a German Jew whose religion, Jewish literary themes, and outspoken anti-Nazi sentiments led to his persecution at home. Through the efforts of the Emergency Rescue Committee (an activist group dedicated to providing exit visas to high-profile political refugees in occupied France), Feuchtwanger was rescued from a French concentration camp, disguised in women’s clothing, and brought to the United States with his wife. They settled in southern California, where he continued his literary career. Raquel is one of his later works. While his historical novels have been out of print and hard to find in the United States and Great Britain for decades, they’re still in print in Germany. See the German cover of Raquel at right.
Raquel: The Jewess of Toledo opens in the year 1187 or thereabouts. Alfonso VIII, the very Christian king of Castile, has just failed in his attempt to conquer Seville, in the Muslim-controlled southern half of Spain. His coffers are near bankrupt, and he needs to restore prosperity to his suffering realm. To this end he selects a wealthy merchant, Ibrahim of Seville, as his new Minister of Finance. Although Ibrahim was forced to convert to Islam as a young man and has many connections among high-ranking Muslims in Andalús, he was born a Jew and has never forgotten his origins. When he relocates to Toledo, he reverts to his birth name of Yehuda Ibn Esra and re-establishes himself in his family’s hereditary castillo. He makes it his mission not only to collect taxes for King Alfonso and manage his finances but also to serve as a protector of his fellow Jews in the likely case of another Holy War. With Don Yehuda comes his family friend Musa Ibn Da’ud, a Muslim physician who’s part of his household; his fourteen-year-old son, Alazar; and his seventeen-year-old daughter, Rechya, who adopts the Castilian name of Raquel.
Although Alfonso lives in relative contentment with his wife Doña Leonor, daughter of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, beautiful Raquel quickly attracts his attention. She intrigues him when she forthrightly states she prefers the comfort and Andalusian-influenced décor of her father’s castillo to Alfonso’s cold stone fortress at Burgos. Raquel is presented an intelligent and clever young woman, literate in Arabic and Hebrew yet unused to proclaiming her Jewish faith so openly. When Alfonso asks Yehuda if Raquel will become his mistress, Yehuda faces a tough decision. He knows he must leave Castile for good if he doesn’t agree. Despite the disgrace to her family’s name, Raquel consents. Thus begins a seven-year affair in which King Alfonso, enraptured by Raquel’s charms, neglects his wife and the greater workings of his kingdom, leaving Yehuda to gain influence at court – as well as many enemies.
Despite being the title character, Raquel can’t really be called the protagonist, as we rarely see anything through her eyes. The novel is no feminist re-imaging of historical events. Raquel comes to view Alfonso as her chivalrous knight in shining armor and endeavors to see the best in him, despite his restless nature and occasional anti-Jewish prejudices. Throughout the novel, the point of view shifts between Yehuda, Alfonso, and some of the secondary characters, such as Don Rodrigue, secretary to Toledo’s archbishop and one of Alfonso's privy councillors; Doña Leonor; and Don Ephraim Bar Abba, head of the Aljama, Toledo’s Jewish community. For readers who can’t get enough of Eleanor of Aquitaine, you’ll be pleased to see she makes her appearance three-quarters of the way through. Eleanor steals every scene she’s in, though the advice she gives her jealous daughter feels petty and beneath her.
For the greater part of the novel, as Alfonso grows ever more tempted by the possibility of dissolving Castile’s neutrality -- which would let its men participate in the Pope’s new Crusade -- Yehuda continues urging him towards peace. Unsurprisingly, given the author's background, religious tolerance and mutual understanding is the novel’s strongest theme, best personified by Yehuda, Musa Ibn Da’ud, and Don Rodrigue, who become close friends. In this sense, the novel can be read as a morality tale.
Despite the 50+ years since it was published, the translation still reads smoothly, aside from the occasional distractions of having multiple exchanges of dialog within the same paragraph. This is a novel that demands concentration, especially if you’re unfamiliar with 12th-century Spain. Feuchtwanger throws a lot of historical detail into the first chapter, and there are many characters to track. On the plus side, it rewards readers’ efforts. It’s a worthwhile introduction to the politics and religions of the period, particularly if you appreciate medieval characters whose faith shapes their worldview.
From what I’ve been able to determine, the truth behind Raquel: The Jewess of Toledo fits somewhere in the intersection between history and legend. (Note: clicking on the following link reveals major spoilers!) The Jewish Encyclopedia reports that Alfonso X, in his writings, related his grandfather’s love for a Jewess known as “la Fermosa” (the beautiful) as fact. Another article in Medieval Iberia: An Encyclopedia relegates the tale to legend and traces occurrences of it over the centuries. I wasn’t able to find any historical data on Yehuda Ibn Esra, which leads me to believe he may be fictional. This isn’t my area of expertise, but I did find what might be a historical error relating to Alfonso and Leonor’s daughter, Berengaria (Berenguela), and who she ends up marrying.
If you'd like to get hold of a copy (and don't read German), you might try interlibrary loan, as the prices for used copies in English can be ridiculous. (I bought my copy at a used book sale at least a decade ago.) Raquel: The Jewess of Toledo is well worth reading, and on a timely subject to boot. Maybe if we’re lucky it will be reprinted one day.