Nokhn got fun midber[After the Desert God]
Prologue. A Passover Seder in the Mendes-Nasi household. The stage is dark, but a single light throws off shadows of several figures at a table, and we hear men’s voices reciting from the Haggadah. Some at the table worry about being discovered, but Doña Gracia insists that no one will dare to bother them where they are. Her nephew Shmuel enters (after giving the secret knock), dressed as a priest, and announces that King Carlos has sent off a secret letter calling for a census of New Christians in Antwerp. This renews anxieties about the Seder, sparking a quarrel between Doña Gracia and her sister, Doña Brianda. Brianda chides Gracia for holding a Seder in the first place, calling it “mortally dangerous.” But Gracia replies, “The greatest danger, Brianda, is of distancing ourselves from our Father in Heaven." The Seder is cut short. Gracia prays for the angels to finish saying the unsaid prayers, and asks God to bring the Jews to a place where they can praise Him in peace.
Act I. Scene 1. A hall in the Mendes palace in Antwerp. Mother Eliza piously tutors Brianda’s daughter Greta, and exits. Azar, a blind man who suffered under the Inquisition, enters, and asks Greta to lead him to the sunshine. Brianda mutters about all the charity her sister does, and is not cheered by Greta’s reminder that her father was just as generous. Gracia enters and tells Greta to go to her writing lesson, causing another argument with Brianda, who grows even more bitter when she learns that the latest visitor is a messenger from Naples, who has come to collect on her late husband’s pledge to the community there. Brianda chides Gracia for drawing extra attention to the family with all of this charitable work, but Gracia is fatalistic: “When you’re in perpetual danger, you can’t guard against all dangers.”
Reina, Gracia’s daughter, enters a moment later, excited after having run into the Count of Aragon while she was out on her walk and he was hunting. She has agreed to join him for a walk the next day. Gracia is displeased, and won’t let her go. Brianda lays into her sister once again: a marriage to an Aragon would be just the think to help erase the stain on the family by her husband having been executed by the Inquisition. But Gracia insists that no Nasi will ever marry a Christian. When Reina returns, Gracia tells her, “You can’t stand to see blood, Reina, and the Counts of Aragon know how to spill blood.” Reina is in tears as she exits, and runs into her cousin Don Miquez, who is jovial with her. He tells Gracia he’s going to see Prince Maximilian about the new decree. Gracia suggests a political maneuver: support the regent, Mary, with lots of money in order to undermine Charles. Though Miquez notes that Charles is in control and Mary is only the regent, Gracia suggests that realpolitik might work in their favor.
Don Marco, Gracia’s manager, enters with Ovadiah, an emissary from Naples. Marco gives Gracia the written agreement with the Jews of Naples for her to review; she makes changes and returns it to Marco to write them in. Ovadiah describes the horrors being inflicted on the Jews of Naples; Marco says he’s seen Jewish slaves in Malta from Lisbon, Navarre, Milan, and Tunis. When the time comes to sign the agreement, Ovadiah asks that the next generation sign too. Gracia has the girls sign as well.
Scene 2. The next scene takes place one year later, during a ball in the palace of Count Westphal in Antwerp. A side room where guests rest and get refreshments, music heard offstage. Westphal expresses his satisfaction to another nobleman that Mary supported the New Christians; otherwise, the kingdom would lose loans from people like Gracia, who is single-handedly supporting the building of a new monastery. The Marquise of Chamont gossips to Westphal about Gracia’s popularity, but guesses that he might be taken with her as well. Gracia, Brianda, Reina, and Miquez arrive, followed a moment later by the Count of Aragon, who takes Reina dancing, much to Gracia’s chagrin. Again, she argues with Brianda, who storms off. Herr Wintertal praises Gracia for building the new monastery, and exits. Baron de Rennes enters and flirts with Gracia, but is interrupted by the entrance of the Queen. The servants marvel at Gracia’s beauty, and gossip about the Baron’s love for her. A moment later the Marquise complains to Wintertal about Gracia having an audience with the Queen even though she doesn’t have a title. Aragon tells Gracia how much he admires her daughter; she receives the news coldly. He then snaps at Miquez for eavesdropping, and draws his sword; Miquez easily disarms him. The Queen enters, takes Gracia aside, and tells her that Aragon paid Charles a large sum of money to help him get Reina’s hand in marriage, but the Queen refused to take part in the deal. The Queen leaves; Gracia begs God for help.
Act II. Scene 1. The same hall in the Mendes palace as in Act I, Scene 1. Brianda bursts in excitedly to tell Reina that she’ll be marrying Aragon, but Reina says her mother won’t allow it to happen. She is right; Gracia hatches a scheme to get Reina out of Antwerp before the wedding can be forced on her. She immediately has Reina get her things together, and Don Miquez will go with her. Reina initially wants to stay for one more day, but when Don Miquez shows her the letter saying that Aragon has paid Charles to force Reina to marry Aragon, she wants to get away quickly. Gracia and Reina say good-bye. A messenger comes from Charles. Brianda, left alone, is terrified.
Scene 2. The Mendes palace in Lyons, one year later. Don Miquez tells Gracia that all the family’s assets in Belgium and Germany have been frozen, and Brianda and Gracia have been summoned to a hearing in Brabant. Gracia suspects the involvement of Mary, who she knows is eager to get her hands on the Mendes fortune, but Miquez insists that the Church is behind it. Meanwhile, Charles is taking hold of Venice—where Reina is at the moment. Greta enters, extremely anxious because she thinks her mother is planning to put her in a monastery. Brianda has become more and more zealous, and spends lots of time praying with Mother Eliza. Gracia concludes that Europe is becoming increasingly hostile territory, and suggests that they may need to leave for Turkey soon.
Baron de Rennes enters, and asks Gracia to marry him; she’ll have her freedom, but the move would take the suspicion of the Inquisition off of her. She cryptically suggests that she cannot accept his proposal because of demands unconnected to her feelings for him; though he doesn’t understand, he gives her the keys to his palace in Paris, and says she can go there whenever she wants. Brianda enters, wanting to see Reina, but Gracia and Miquez stop her. A Knight of the Golden Horn enters, having been invited by Brianda. He tells Gracia she can join this exclusive society for the sum of 100,000 ducats. Gracia graciously declines, and fights with Brianda again, who says she wants to break away from the family.
Act III. Scene 1. Venice, in another Mendes palace. Don Marco reports that the ship they’re waiting for is stuck in Marseille. Meanwhile, Gracia has written to the Sultan of Turkey, and they are planning to set sail soon. In the letter, she asked permission to bring 300 craftsmen with her. Reina enters, worried about what Brianda might be up to, since her aunt has been in the monastery with Greta for three days. A delegation of Jews from the ghetto arrives, and Gracia assures them that she will take as many of them with her to Turkey as she can. Don Miquez comes with news that Brianda has joined the order of the Golden Horn, and suggests that she and Reina leave the house immediately, since he fears worse things still from Brianda. Gracia, however, refuses to believe such ill of her sister, and says she’ll stay. The Baron comes, having rushed to Venice from France because he heard that the Inquisition is interested in Gracia. He again suggests she go to Paris, but she says Brianda knows about his palace too. Candles appear at the windows, and the Baron exits through a secret door. Gracia is arrested in the name of the Inquisition, and confronts Brianda, who staggers as her sister curses her.
Scene 2. Ferrara. The Sultan has saved Gracia from the Inquisition, and she has permission to go to Turkey. For the time being, though, she is staying to oversee the publication of a volume of the Khumash (Pentateuch) that she is underwriting, and which the Duke of Ferrara is allowing to be published, under the editorship of Avraham Usque. Gracia tells an impatient ghetto delegation that this must be done before they can go (it turns out she has permission to bring 500 people with her).
After the delegation leaves, Greta complains to Reina that Gracia hasn’t forgiven Brianda, who has been penitent for some time. The two girls nearly come to blows, interrupted by Gracia. Miquez arrives from Turkey, and urges Gracia to forgive her sister for the sake of family unity. She replies that she can forgive anything but the treachery of reporting her to the Inquisition. Avraham Usque arrives, ecstatic at having completed his Khumash. Celebrations are interrupted by Brianda’s entrance. She again petitions for forgiveness, and Gracia rejects her, but Usque points out that she has no choice but to forgive, so she does. Singing is heard in the palace, and the Baron arrives. Gracia emerges, and she and Baron say a touching farewell. She invites him to come in and see the family, but he says he’s superfluous there, and bids her farewell. Brianda and the daughters emerge, and Brianda takes her sisters hand as they go to meet the Duke’s procession.