Monday, October 26, 2009

Don Vital Haim - from Nebela to De Menubal..making a mint the old fashioned way - part 1


Certainly, the most distinguished ancestor in the Schmoigerman-Nebela-de Menubal family tree was Don Vital Haim de Menubal. Born Hymie Nebela in Montres, Vital Haim de Menubal would actually become the proprietor of a mint of his very own.

Having been banished from Montres at the age of 12 when the area came under the rule of a nobleman who was determined to remove the "pestilence known as the Nebela family" from his fiefdom, de Menubal found himself in a rather sleazy part of the great city of Seville, where his father quickly established himself as a purveyor of many illicit pleasures of the flesh. Young Hymie was of course enlisted to help his distinguished parents, usually as a tout in the now famous "Tres Cartas de Monte" card games, but also as a runner for illicit cash and as a carver of forged wooden alms cards.

But Hymie knew that he could do far more with his inherited penchant for fraud and deceit. So, using the phony alms cards which were given to him as bar mitzvah presents, he obtained bug and excrement infested flour, offal, and rotten or overly dried carobs. With that, he began to bake and sell a product which his ancestor Todros had sold in his take out store in pre churban Yerushalayim, namely pat d'kokosh. Pat d'kokosh was indeed the ancestor of today's kokosh cake, but unlike today's version, which was actually based on an updated and sanitized recipe used by Atilla the Hun who in turn copied it from a de Menubal who supplied him with weaponry for his army, it was a rather disgusting concoction, which included not cocoa, but kokosh, an obscure Aramaic word referring to what is today known in any mikveh dressing room as "dreck". (Apparently the Huns, ancestors of the Hungarian Magyars, saw the similarity in appearance between dreck and cocoa and adapted the word kokosh to mean the cocoa used in the sanitized version of kokosh cake.)

At this time, Jewish families began to mark their homes with carvings of noble animals - for instance an Aryeh Yehuda would mark his home with a lion, or a Binyamin Zeev with a wolf. In due time these animals would become part of the family names taken by Jews to avoid being known as Jews during the Inquisition; Lopez from Lobo, meaning a wolf, or de Leon from leon, which even a graduate of Toire veKanois should recognize as the Spanish word for lion.

And young Hymie often found his way to a home situated far from the rest of the stately homes of the "juderia", or Jewish quarter, and marked with that most ignoble of animals, the lowly rat.

This was the abode of Solomon Du'ecq, "La Rata de la Juderia," a miserable little rodent of a man who made his rather prosperous living not only as a swindler who claimed he needed investment to build palaces for some noble or another, but also as a moser who would report Jews for violations of unenforced rules, such as those pertaning to manufacture of wine for Kiddush. This was because Du'ecq, in some dialects pronounced with a soft R, similar to the Arabic 'ghayin, in place of the u, had yet another enterprise; relabeling vinegar as wine and selling it as "wine of the Cohen Gadol*," which he had ostensibly had in his family's possession since the dispersal of Jews to Spain after the churban. His wine was also known as "La Barata" as it was less expensive than proper wine, and soon, cleaning ladies from the Latin American colonies who cleaned homes in the Juderia would learn that "La Barata" was actually not bad for washing floors.

But the Jewish matrons, who were familiar with Greek words from their husbands' commercial travels, referred to it as "La Economicqa," also meaning "the cheap stuff". And they would also find out fast enough that they did not need to buy "La Economicqa" from the reprehensible Du'ecq, but that they could find a similar product, namely simple diluted vinegar, in any marketplace throughout the Spanish Empire. (Years later, another renegade, perhaps a Du'ecq descendant, would migrate from Aleppo to Ottoman Palestine and begin selling liquid chlorine to his fellow Sefardim who searched for "la economicqa" in then vinegar starved Eretz Yisroel. His fraud backfired as the chlorine proved even more efficient for cleaning floors, and thus was born ekonomika, the national cleaning product and kiddush staple of Eretz Yisroel).

Of course Du'ecq needed to put an end to that, and Hymie de Menubal would be the one who showed him how, to the great benefit of both and to the detriment of every Jewish balabuste in the Spanish Empire.

*(It is indeed believed that Du'ecq was the ancestor of the noted Pedro Domecq, a very legitimate vintner and distiller who founded the House of Pedro Domecq, now part of global giant Pernod Ricard. Apparently, a renegade member of the clan, forced to live as a Catholic after the Inquisition, actually engaged in legitimate commerce (an anathema for the Du'ecq clan) and began selling proper wine and brandy while changing his name to avoid both persecution and association with the Du'ecq clan. This is quite plausible as the main product of Pernod Ricard is pastis, known in the Jewish world as arak. It is known that Solomon Du'ecq's grandson, also named Solomon, began selling arak distilled from worn out wooden alms cards, moldy pat d'kokosh, and various and sundry other forms of detritus and ordure. Moreover, arak is often referred to as dreck especially by unwitting yeshiva bochurim who taste it for the first time on Purim and find themselves suffering from headaches and gastric distress for several days.)

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