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The name of the man who came to the Beth Jacob synagogue that morning carrying his son — born eight days earlier — was Michael Spinoza. Michael himself was born forty-five years earlier as Miguel Despinosa in Vidigere, Portugal, where his father, Isaac, had settled, moving from Lisbon and hoping that in the small town he would be able to observe the law of Moses with no fear of the Inquisition. He came into this world in 1587, exactly forty years after the establishment of the Inquisition Tribunal in the kingdom, whose principal goals were the forceful conversion of Jews and the prevention of converted Jews from going back to their original faith. He remembered a single event from his childhood: one hot summer night when he was nine he dreamt of huge fish flying in the sky with blood dripping from their mouths. It was then, in this dream, that he heard the voice of his mother, Mor Alvares, crying out to him from this side of reality. When he opened his eyes he saw his mother and father hastily grabbing a few essentials: two loaves of bread, three handfuls of salt, a knife, a few tablespoons, a needle and yarn, and some clothing. While he was stepping over the threshold of his home for the last time together with his mother and brother and sister he saw how his father Isaac kneeled in the room, pulled a plank up from the floor, took several books out and put them under his arm. Later, when recollecting their flight, he would often take out one of those books, the Torah, and read Exodus again and again. At these times, he remembered again and again the tearful eyes of Mor Alvares staring at their little house which grew ever smaller and smaller, vanishing into the distance, while no one travelling in the wagon drawn by two horses had any idea of where they were going. For a long time, from every town in which they found shelter, Mor Alvares would send a letter, which she had previously dictated to Isaac, to her brothers, not knowing whether her brothers were aware that they had been indicted by the Inquisition for professing the Jewish religion. The Alvares family always sent their letters on the day they set off for another town, in case they were caught by the Inquisitors: the letters contained only the name of the town which they had just left, the name of a place in that town, a date, and a signal. Mor Alvares believed that her brothers would understand her messages. If the letter said, “Ponte de Lima, marketplace near the courthouse, 14th August, picking your right nostril with the little finger of your left hand,” it meant that she expected her brothers to appear on 14th August on the square near the courthouse in the town of Ponte de Lima, looking for a man who picked his right nostril with the little finger of his left hand, and that they were to give the same signal. In each of the towns in which they stayed for a few months, Mor Alvares and Isaac found a discreet Jew to whom they revealed the secret sign and the date on which he was supposed to appear in a particular place. They also mentioned to him the name of the town to which they were going so that the brothers would be able to find their sister. In all of the towns they passed through, Isaac and Mor Alvares left people jumping on one leg in the square, crouching and standing up near the harbour, or clapping their hands in front of the cathedral, but Mor Alvares’s brothers never appeared. She often dreamt of a large piece of paper and the hands of her brothers writing something, but as she was illiterate, it was difficult for her to recognize the unfamiliar symbols, and also to remember them so that her husband could interpret them all after she woke up. So she decided to learn how to read and write to be able to interpret her dreams. In every town they stayed in she learnt three letters, and when she learnt all the letters of the alphabet, she managed to read the following text in her dream: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.” When she woke up, Mor Alvares spoke of her dream to her husband, but since she had already forgotten much, what she remembered was as scrappy as a dead body devoured by vultures: “To every thing there is a season: a time to die; a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill; a time to break down; a time to weep; a time to mourn; a time to cast away stones; a time to refrain from embracing; a time to lose; a time to cast away; a time to rend; a time to keep silence; a time to hate; a time of war.” The words sounded familiar to Isaac, but he could not remember where he had heard or read them. From that day on Mor Alvares had no more dreams and sent no more letters. She only hoped that one day she would find a comfortable home for all of them: for her children, Fernando, Miguel, Maria Clara, for her husband, Isaac, and for herself. The reply to all her letters arrived a month after she died in Nantes, France, in 1616. The reply came in the form of Sara, her brother Gabriel’s daughter. While Sara was explaining that her father and the other two Alvares brothers had died having been tortured at the hands of the Inquisitors, Miguel Despinosa, recently renamed Michel D’Espinoza, stared at the missing fingers of his cousin’s left hand. Noticing his bewilderment, Sara put her fingerless hand close to his face and said: “They cut them off so that I cannot turn the pages of the Talmud they found under my pillow.” A few days later, while sailing away from Nantes, leaving it for good, Michel D’Espinoza continued to gaze into the harbour until Sara’s fingerless hand waving him goodbye disappeared into the distance. In Rotterdam he received his third name, Michael Spinoza, which he bore until his death. It was in this city that he had a premonition that the Dutch Republic would remain his home until his stay on earth came to an end. One day in November 1622 he moved to Amsterdam and married Rachel, the daughter of his uncle, Abraham. Towards the end of the following year their first child died before it could even have been named on the eighth day after its birth, and in the Spring of 1624 their second child died at birth. Rachel fell gravely ill and became weaker and weaker. Soon, whilst sitting in front of her front door, she would have to put stones in her pockets so that the wind would not blow her away. She died one morning in February 1627, and the people who bathed her body said it was lighter than a seagull’s wing. As soon as he arrived in Amsterdam, Michael had become active in commerce with the support of his uncle, Abraham Spinoza. A year after the death of Rachel, Michael Spinoza married Hanna Deborah Senior, the daughter of Baruch Senior and Maria Nunes. Their daughter, Miriam, was born in 1629. A year later, Maria gave birth to their son, Isaac, and on 24th November 1632, they had another son.
The man who came to the Beth Jacob synagogue that morning in December 1632 was Michael Spinoza, and the eight-day old child he brought to the shrine to be circumcised and given a name was myself. The name they entered in the synagogue register was Bento Spinoza; they called me that at home and it was with that name that I became a merchant. I was registered as Baruch in the Talmud Torah school, and it was this name they used in the cherem through which my excommunication from the Jewish community was proclaimed. Following the cherem, the people called me Benedictus. All three names had the same meaning — the blessed one — the first in Portuguese, the second in Hebrew, and the third in Latin.