How to Charm a Bull
(originally published in HaLapid, the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies)
First of all, you must be able to sing in Spanish. Then, you must be able to sing as if all you had ever known was Love. Then the bull will hear you. Then the bull will respect you, will come running to you.
The Rio Grande Valley was home to my parents, home to their ancestors. My parents were born here. The six-acre parcel I was on was purchased in recent times by my aunt and uncle, Tia Pila and Tio Fino. Pila is my mother’s oldest sister. She and Fino, along with my mother and father, left the world of farming to move to Illinois to work in factories and raise families. My aunt and uncle raised their large family down the block from us. When my mother died, my aunt, uncle and father moved back to the place where they had grown up.
This land holds history for my family. Ancestors who lived in the Valley probably since it was New Spain owned land here. The dirt I was standing on may have been home to me if it hadn’t been stolen away. Native Americans believe land can never be owned. It belongs to Mother Earth.
I wonder what life would have been like growing up here. Would I have traveled so much? Would I have gotten an education? Or would I be a singer in a mariachi band singing “cu-cu-ru-cu-cu cantaba” instead of “this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine” in New Thought churches?
Maybe if I had felt this attached to the land growing up, I wouldn’t have been so restless. The Midwest gifted me with mulberries, apples, sour rhubarb, wild grapes and corn fields in the summer. And oh how I loved rolling in the autumn leaves. And the spring. Somehow I was always becoming one with the mud in the springtime. That’s a different story. But the winters were so harsh. There were too many layers between the ground and me.
I looked like Snow White in the winter with my black hair and light skin. In fact, that was my first nickname when I moved to Israel. It was in the holy land that I realized I preferred being sun kissed to my original pale color.
The July heat was oppressive, even for the south of Texas so close to the border. Tia, Tio and I were outside in the shade, catching the breeze and enjoying time together. We had nowhere to go, nothing to do. It was one of those rare moments when you really get to savor time together. How many times can we say that happens in our harried, hectic modern lives?
It was a beautiful sunny day, with few clouds in the sky. There was no one around for miles. All the other houses were too far in the distance to be seen. It occurred to me that this could have been any century. There was no humming of modern appliances, no planes overhead, not even one car on the rural road at that moment and from our vantage point, not even a road in sight. We could have been living in another period. It was one of those instances where time seems to stand still. My heart was overflowing with gratitude for the moment, for the quiet time with my favorite aunt and uncle and for the beautiful voice with which I was gifted. All I could do was sing.
I began to sing a gorgeous 15th century Spanish song I knew. Los Pelegrinitos is a song about two pilgrims who are cousins who wish to marry, but have to travel to the pope to ask permission to do so. It is told in story form from a mother to her daughter. It is a dear song to me because it illustrates the complexities of the period, which happen to be an integral part of my family’s heritage.
At that time, in the 1400’s, the Jews were kicked out of Spain or forced to convert. Many Spanish Jews kept their practices in secret. Often they married within the family to keep the faith. In Judaism, it is allowed for first cousins to marry. So I have always conjectured this story to be about Jewish cousins trying to marry.
The contents of the song are not that important. What was more significant was the intention behind the singing. In that moment, I was singing from an open heart with pure love for my family, my surroundings, for the moment and for the gratitude of my God given instrument.
As I sang, “Sombrerito de hule lleva el mozuelo,” I heard my aunt and uncle conversing among themselves in Spanish, “What are they doing coming now? They never come now.” I continued “y la pelegrinita, Mamita, de terciopelo, nina bonita, de terciopelo, nina.” I opened my eyes to see some brown specks coming towards us. Tia and Tio were speaking in surprised tones, but I was too busy feeling the song and the love to hear all they were saying. I kept my eyes on the brown specks as they quickly came our way.
“Al pasar por el Puente de la Victoria…tropezo la madrina, Mamita,” I began to realize the brown specks were cows, all except for one. “Callo la novia, nina bonita, callo la novia, nina.”
The cows were led by a bull. George was a full grown, huge picture of potent power. He was a beautiful chocolate brown with hints of Indian red. He was so massive all his parts dragged on the ground, his cojones, his polla, all of it. It was a wonder he could move so quickly. I continued singing while being in awe of this gorgeous symbol of earthiness and masculinity. “Le ha preguntado el Papa que se han pecado…”
Tia and Tio were still wondering what George was up to. George came as closely as he could to me. “El le dice que un beso mamita.” At this point I was very grateful for the thin barbed wire fence between us, which, I hadn’t noticed before. “Que le habia dado, nina bonita, que la habia dado, nina.”
George came all the way up to the fence, not more than 15 feet directly in front of me. “Las campanas de Roma ya repicaron…” He tilted his head and lifted his left ear up as high as it could go, then his face melted. I swear I could hear him sigh. “Porque los pelegrinos, Mamita, ya se casaron, nina bonita.”
I’ve seen very few bulls in my life and never before and never since have I seen one this size, but I have never heard of a bull swooning. That is what George did. He swooned just as I finished singing the last verse, “Ya se casaron, nina.”
My aunt and uncle were chuckling to realize that George had run all this way with the cows behind him so he could hear my voice and be near me.
I have experienced many instances of charming animals since, but my first time was with George and he will always hold a special place in my heart. I felt extremely honored that such a powerful magnificent creature would pay me such a compliment as George did that day.
The symbol of the bull represents power, being grounded, fertility, the virile masculine that gets things done. It is a wonderful reminder of who I am. On days when I start to feel or say, “I can’t,” I remember George’s response to me. Then I remember my true power. I have the ability to charm bulls. There is nothing I cannot do.
Los Pelegrinitos (The Young Pilgrims)
Following is an English translation of Elisheva’s song to the bull as arranged by the poet Federico Garcia Lorca
To Rome they’re walking two pilgrims
for the Pope to wed them mamma
’cause they’re cousins pretty baby, ’cause they’re cousins baby
A little felt hat, he’s wearing the lad
and the pilgrim girl mamma,
a velvet one pretty baby, a velvet one baby
When they were crossing the bridge of Victoria
the bridesmaid stumbled mamma
the bride fell down pretty baby, the bride fell down baby
They arrived in the Palace,walked upstairs
and in the Pope’s hall mamma
they were brought down pretty baby, they were brought down baby
The Pope asked them, what are their names
he says it’s Pedro mamma
and she says it’s Ana pretty baby, and she says it’s Ana baby
The Pope asked them, what is their age
she says it’s fifteen mamma
and he seventeen baby
The Pope asks them where do they come from
she says from Cabra mamma
and he from Antequera pretty baby, and he from Antequera baby
The Pope asks them whether they have sinned
he says just one kiss mamma
that he had given her pretty baby, that he had given her baby
And the pilgrim girl who is shy
her face has turned mamma
into a rose pretty baby, into a rose baby
And the Pope responded from his quarters:
I wish I was pilgrim mamma
to do the same! pretty baby, to do the same! baby
The bells of Rome are pealing now
because the pilgrims mamma
are married now pretty baby, are married now baby