When I lived in Barcelona I used to run into my neighbor in the elevator quite often. He was a middle-aged man, chubby and always grumpy. Late one night, however, he was suddenly acting jovial, sympathetic and talkative; and because he was a little drunk he shared with me the cause of his joy: business was doing well. "What business?" I asked, feigning interest. He sells gift items to small shops geared toward tourists and - he explained boastfully - since the ‘Red de Juderías’ (Network of Jewish Quarters) association was created, groups of Jewish Americans began to invade Girona. He subsequently began to offer items such as clocks with Hebrew numbers, coasters depicting the Jewish quarter of Girona, magnets with Kabbalist Isaac el Cec... and the business began to prosper. "You know how Jews are..." he said smirking. “Not really. How are they?” I asked. He must have felt something behind my curiosity, because he was put on alert and carefully answered, "well, they buy everything Jewish ... "
Twenty-four Spanish cities are part of the Red de Juderías de España, a public non-profit association that aims to preserve urban, architectural, historical, artistic and cultural Sephardic heritage in Spain, in addition to helping boost tourism in those villages.
But it is not surprising that five hundred years after the Jewish expulsion and systematic anti-Semitism, little remains of that glorious past. There are, however, increasingly more ways to access it and to discover the Sephardic legacy by following the routes offered by the Red de Juderías en España.
There are three types of Sephardic historical tours, each organized geographically: Catalonia, Castile and Andalusia. This logistic division corresponds to three historical realities of a magnificent Jewish past that lasted many centuries, ending in 1492 with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.
In the Andalusian zone, the Jewish community lived and sometimes flourished under Muslim rule, which began in the year 711 with the conquest of Al - Andalus, the Arabic name for the Iberian peninsula. The route of Madrid and Castilla represents the territory of the Christian kingdoms, which from the focus of resistance to the Muslim invasion in Asturias, the Northwest of Spain, took them nearly 800 years to retake the country. The Christian area also had an important Jewish community, and although it did not flourish, it created an essential heritage for Spanish and Jewish history. The third area is Catalonia, which was released/conquered by the Carolingians francs less than a hundred years after the Arab conquest, and where the Jews were forced to begin a new chapter.
When the best option for a Jew was to live with Muslims
The history of the Jews does not begin with the Arab invasion, not in Spain nor in the rest of Europe. In Spain the Jews were there before the country had its current name and even before the nation that formed the country existed. Most studies indicate that there were already Jews in the Iberian peninsula in the times of King Solomon, during the Greek and Phoenician colonies, the domain of Rome and, of course, under the Christianized Visigoths that persecuted them in the name of the religion of love.
However, the Golden Age of the Jews of Spain started with the Arab invasion of the Visigothic domain. The Golden Age of Jewish culture lasted from the 10th century to the 12th century, featuring personalities such as Hasdai Ibn Shaprut (910-975), a physician and leading diplomat of two Caliphs who helped solve complicated conflicts within Christian communities.
Jews were also active in Toledo's school of translators, and had a transcendent role in European culture when they rediscovered --with their translations of Hebrew and Arabic texts into Latin and Spanish - the works of Greek philosophers and Jewish and Muslim thinkers.
Aristotle’s philosophy came to Europe via Hebrew and Arabic
The Jewish cultural boom in the Christian kingdoms of Castile and its allies coincides with its decline in Muslim territories, but the latter still remained the most important Jewish community of the time. In 1148, Al-Andalus was conquered by a group of Berber religious fundamentalists called Almohades who had a hostile attitude towards the Jews, of whom some 40,000 emigrated to Toledo, a Spanish city reconquered in 1085.
Religious tolerance in Christian kingdoms was based on their need to have the know-how, economical benefits and political weight of the Jewish and Muslim communities, rather than on the Spanish King’s political views. Once the Spanish king lost interest, he decided to get rid of the infidels. Meanwhile, the Jews managed to occupy important positions in medicine, finance, trade and diplomacy.
The best of Catalonia after the Barça
The third area corresponds to Catalonia, where Barcelona and Girona, city of the Kabbalist Isaac el Sec and Mose ben Nahman or Nahmanides, are the most relevant places along with the picturesque village Besalú, near Girona.
In any of these three routes the visitor can see the traces of a fascinating Jewish past: medieval synagogues, old Jewish quarters, mikves of the 11th or 12th centuries, newly resurrected cemeteries etc.
According to genetic research, no less than 20% of the current Iberian population descended from Sephardic Jews, but most Spaniards are not aware of that they may have Sephardic origins. Fuen Alcala is an example of this: born in Jaén, Andalusia, she discovered her Jewish origins when a Jesuit priest from her family decided to investigate their roots. The family,was forced to convert to Christianity shortly after the Statute of ethnic cleansing of Toledo in 1449. Despite everything, Alcala informed me that there are traditions that the family kept and which she did not relate to Judaism until she fully understood where she came from: 'we always cleaned and decorated the house it a special way on Saturday, and my mother called it to do Saturday'.
The routes of Spain offer history, culture and self-knowledge. If Paris was worth a mass to a French prince (Henry IV) who abandoned his religion in order to be crowned, Spain is worth a trip for all Jews who want to regain to their lost kingdom.
Gisela Dés is an intern at The Jerusalem Post.