On the road to recovering Spain’s Jewish roots

Local projects look to rejuvenate the country’s Sephardi culture.

June 19, 2013 02:20
DOREEN CARVAJAL explores the Sephardi origins of her ancestors (above) in her book

DOREEN CARVAJAL 370. (photo credit: Courtesy of DOREEN CARVAJAL)

Five hundred and twenty-one years after 1492, Spain is well on its way toward reclaiming its Sephardi heritage.

Jewish barrios (neighborhoods), which had all but disappeared and been reduced to redeployed buildings and ancient street signs, have begun to see serious evidence of Jewish presence thanks to a project called the Red de Juderías, or the Network of Spanish Jewish Quarters. Old synagogues are being reclaimed and filled with displays of Jewish artifacts and explanations of Jewish customs, and there are lectures offered at venues in streets that were once devoid of Judaism.

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It is as though the Jewish presence had been wiped clean but is now beginning to regenerate.

Spaniards take increasing pride in their Sephardi heritage, even if many of them still do not know any Jews, or know that they personally may come from an unbroken line of Jewish mothers that can be traced back to 1492.

In 1992, King Juan Carlos apologized for the Spanish Inquisition and said that the expulsion of the Jews was the worst mistake Spain had ever made, as it had deprived the country of many talented, cultured, hardworking citizens.

Yet despite the apology, many Jews have remained wary of Spain, noticing few innovations from a country that until the mid-19th century still demanded documents proving pureza de sangre (“purity of blood”) for many important positions.

Nevertheless, an amendment – passed at the end of last year – to the law granting Spanish nationality to citizens of any country who could prove their Sephardi heritage, dispensed with a waiting period and removed the necessity for Spanish residence. There is speculation that Spain wants its Jews back because of its economic situation.

The country established diplomatic relations with Israel five years before the king’s apology, thanks in great part to the late Camilo José Cela – winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, member of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, and senator by royal appointment in the constituent assembly (1977-1978), who for years presided over the Cultural Institute of Israel, Ibero-America, Spain and Portugal.

In recent years, the pace has begun to pick up. In 2004, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain introduced a Sephardi Internet radio, radiosefarad.com, and in 2006, the Spanish Foreign Ministry opened Centro Sefarad-Israel, which aimed to improve ties between Spain and Israel and educate the locals about their Jewish heritage.

“To defend Israel is to defend human rights. The enemies of Israel are the enemies of Spain.

The fight of the Maccabees continues today,” Community of Madrid president Esperanza Aguirre told the local Jewish community in 2011.

Meanwhile, left-wing politician and journalist Pilar Rahola has denounced Judeophobia within her political milieu and speaks often about the importance of the Jewish role in world history. When the Palestinians put in their bid at the United Nations for non-member observer status on November 29, 2012, the right-wing Popular Party opposed the bid, despite the official Spanish position at the time.

Right-wing former Spanish president Jose Maria Aznar founded and heads the international organization Friends of Israel, and is known as a speaker for Jewish causes. Another former Spanish president, socialist Felipe Gonzalez, headed the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 and its follow-up, Madrid+15, in 2006.

Centro Sefarad-Israel’s initiative “Sefarad Convivencia” (Sepharad Coexistence) uses culture and education to promote respect and tolerance toward Jews and Israel among the Spanish public. It puts out an increasing barrage of events, including film screenings, concerts, workshops and roundtable discussions.

A recent event showcased Christian Protestant César Vidal, a historian, writer, journalist, defender of human rights and enemy of anti-Semitism.

Another presented an explanation of kosher wine, featuring vintner Jose Maria Escudero and Chief Rabbi Moshe Bendahan.

On Wednesday, reporter Doreen Carvajal of The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune will give a talk on her Sephardi heritage at Centro Sefarad-Israel, the center’s spokesman Fernando Vara de Rey told The Jerusalem Post.

Carvajal grew up as a Catholic in California, aware of some mystery surrounding her family roots. In 2003, she traveled to Andalusia and uncovered a long story of confused identity, inquisitorial threats and Crypto-Jewish traditions.

The result of this journey was her book The Forgetting River.

Many Spanish cities, including Sevilla, Cordoba and Toledo, today belong to the Network of Spanish Jewish Quarters, which offers tours focusing on the Jewish history of many of the locales. Virtual tours are also available, since the network partnered with Google in December of last year.

However, the northern city of Zamora, on the border with Portugal, has so far been missing from the list, even though it appears to have been an important center of Jewish learning in the 14th and 15th centuries.

A conference titled “Zamora Jewish Life: History and Re-encounters,” will take place in early July, organized by Jesus Jambrina of Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Jambrina, who created the documentary Zamora Sefardi, believes the city may have been the greatest center of Jewish learning in Spain as the time of the expulsion decree drew near.

Ben-Gurion University Prof. Avraham Gross will be among the speakers at that event. He has researched Talmudic scholar and kabbalist Avraham Saba, who lived in Zamora in the 15th century and whose ketuba (marriage certificate), now housed in the Israel National Library, was the first clue to Zamora’s important Jewish past.

Earlier this month, for the second year, the Erensya Summit on the subject of Sephardi heritage took place in Turkey, with the participation of representatives from 60 Sephardi communities – including Buenos Aires, Caracas, Brazil, Sarajevo, Belgrade, Sofia, Salonika and several parts of Mexico, Vara de Rey told the Post.

Mayors and municipal leaders from the Network of Spanish Jewish Quarters were also in attendance, as were representatives of the Jewish Museum of Amsterdam, Bar- Ilan University, the Latin- American Sephardi Federation, Centro Sefarad-Israel and others.

The five-day program, held in Istanbul and Smyrna, included working sessions aimed at strengthening links between Spain and the world’s Sephardi communities.

Subjects examined included communication, memory and identity, tradition and culture, technology, education and youth, said Vara de Rey.

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