View of Saint-Valéry-sur-Somme by Edgar Degas, The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art

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.