When I attended a conference on the Jewish history of Zamora this past July, I never imagined that six months later I would find myself in the city’s famous La Alhondiga conference hall reading out in Ladino (or Djudezmo) the questions that Alexander the Great posed to Jewish sages of yore.
Yet there I was on the last day of Hanukka – December 5 – which the National Ladino Authority has established as the first International Ladino Day. In addition to the reading, I was privileged to explain the holiday of Hanukka and its customs.
Following the talk, some 60 gourmets from across the country enjoyed a Hanukka dinner at the luxurious La Oronda restaurant – originally the city’s casino – organized by Zamora Gastronomic Society president Concha Jambrina Leal and her board of directors.
The fare was a work of culinary archeology by chef Ricardo Palero, who dug into medieval Sephardi recipes to present six entrées and four desserts. The mood was joyful, with the Zamorans keenly aware that they were celebrating the Festival of Lights for the first time in public after over half a millennium. By the time we sat down, the sun had set and the holiday had officially ended, so a hanukkia – crafted by Madrid-based, Spanish-Israeli artisan Miguel de la Rocha – was lit only symbolically to decorate the table.
As Zamora News CEO and brand manager Francisco Colmenero reported the next day, “Five hundred and twenty-two years after the Spanish Expulsion Edict, Zamora well deserved a celebration such as this one.”
For Colmenero, whose website organized and promoted the talk, such involvement is the result of “a desire to maintain the Jewish-Sephardi spirit of our beloved Zamora and to make amends to our ancestors for the lack of ethical behavior typified by the Catholic queen [Isabela] in expelling the Jews from our land.”
Zamora News, he said, has a “strong interest in culture and wishes to protect the heritage of our city and continue to attract tourism to share its beauty and history.”
AT THE conference last summer, Zamora’s surprised inhabitants discovered that their city had been equal to Toledo in Torah learning, and the greatest center of intellectual pursuit in Spain and Portugal in the last century before the Expulsion. The head of the academy of Zamora in the 15th century, Rabbi Isaac Campanton, was author of Darkei Hatalmud – and a direct influence on all Sephardi learning in the Diaspora to this day, according to Prof. Avi Gross of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Gross, the key-note speaker, said Campanton was known as the “Light of the Exile” – a term that, until his time, had been used only in reference to the 11th-century Talmudist and halachic authority Rabbeinu Gershom Me’or Hagola (“Our teacher Gershom, the light of the exile”).
The creation of an online site for the Isaac Campanton Research Center was one of the outcomes of the conference, created by the event’s coordinator, Prof. Jesus Jambrina Perez of Viterbo University, Wisconsin. He hopes that the municipality – which has promised to publish the text of the speeches and to mark sites of Jewish interest – will make a physical space available for the center.
The project has already begun receiving donations – including the hanukkia lit at the dinner created by de La Rocha, inspired by the design of such artifacts in medieval Spain and Portugal.
Not only have two medieval Jewish quarters been identified in Zamora, the juderia vieja (old Jewish quarter) and the juderia nueva (the new one) – but until last summer, information about them was scarce and had not been publicized. There were too few obvious physical remains to draw anyone’s attention. The most notable find was a hanukkia discovered in 2008, carved out on a mason’s stone at the entrance to the church of San Idelfonso. It now seems that the Jewish quarters are in fact the oldest parts of the city.
At FITUR 2014 – Spain’s annual international tourism conference, which this year took place January 22 to 26 – Zamora’s Sephardi heritage was finally touted as one of its touristic highlights.
MY APPEARANCE at La Alhondiga conference hall was the unexpected result of a comment I had made to Jambrina Perez a few weeks earlier. While in Madrid working on a documentary film about Zamora in November and December, I discovered that the first-ever International Ladino Day was set to be celebrated at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and in various parts of the United States and in Murcia, Spain. I emailed Jambrina Perez, telling him I was planning on visiting the northern city and would doubtless raise a glass with some of my new friends from the summer to toast the occasion. He suggested I do so officially, on behalf of the Isaac Campanton Center.
Before I knew it, I was reading on Facebook that I would be giving a talk in Zamora about my experiences as a Jew in Spain. That’s doable, I thought; no need to get nervous. But the next thing was that I would be reading something in Ladino. That started getting me worried. How was I going to read a piece in Ladino, in Latin characters, to native Spaniards whose own speech owes a lot to medieval Castilian and who could doubtless pronounce it better than I?
Thankfully, my thoughts drifted to my favorite Torah resource, Rabbi Yaakov Culi, and the encyclopedic work he began in Turkey, the Me’am Lo’ez. Culi wrote Ladino in Rashi script (since the language was originally written in Hebrew characters), so I was faced with the challenge of polishing up my Rashi and deciphering words. Most were simple, easy to recognize and pronounce as Spanish; others were much more complicated and seemingly in Portuguese, as well as Hebrew.
Amazingly, as Jambrina Perez subsequently pointed out, Culi was the perfect choice, because his grandfather had been Moshe Habib, a son of Zamora.
Jambrina Leal (whose family hails from Gema del Vino in Zamora province, the same village as that of Cuban-American Jambrina Perez) met me at the bus station upon my arrival from Madrid and rushed me off to the restaurant, where there was a flurry of activity. The chef barely allowed himself to be photographed as he was intently working on frying delicacies for the Hanukka dinner that night. Jambrina Leal herself was concerned that all the places be properly set and the menus placed at each seat. She’d had them translated from Spanish into Ladino by Charly Zarur of Sao Paolo University – and a marvelous job he did of it – along with a few lines of introduction from her, chef Palero, Jambrina Perez, Zarur, and myself.
Meanwhile, I kept reading and rereading the text I had prepared. When the time came – ready or not – we adjourned to the hall where Zamora news content manager Ana Pedrero presented the conference and eased me into addressing the crowd, which listened intently to my Ladino reading and then raised a large number of questions about Hanukka.
On a personal level, I was honored and slightly in awe of what I considered the great privilege of speaking to this group of people – many of whom had Jewish origins, crypto-Jewish customs, or converso surnames, but who were after all Spanish, and were reaching out to a Jew representing Israel and Spain’s Jewish past with much affection and curiosity. Conversos were Jews in medieval Spain who converted to Christianity or who professed conversion in order to avoid persecution, but continued to practice their religion secretly.
EVER SINCE I had spent a summer in a village in the Zamora province in 1979, I had been fascinated with the area. Over time, I developed theories about what had happened to its Jews after the 1492 Expulsion Edict, such as that they had smuggled themselves back into Spain from Portugal and hidden out in villages in the area.
After moving to back to Spain for a few years in 2006, I appeared to see Jewish faces and hear Sephardi or converso-sounding surnames daily. It seemed that there was a lot more Jewish influence in Spanish culture and lifestyle than anyone was admitting – including the use of prominently displayed legs of pork, which conversos adopted to prove their fidelity to the church. I was interested in the countrywide phenomenon, but zoned in on Zamora.
I began to Google “Zamora” and “judios” routinely until, in the spring of 2013, back in Jerusalem, I found the announcement for the three-day July conference. I decided to attend and report on it for The Jerusalem Post, as well as to make a documentary film about it. I found myself in a Disneyland of experts in the subjects that had caught my imagination – Spanish Jewish history and crypto-Judaism – and what I learned from them confirmed many of my outrageous theories.
Among the many experts I met were Abraham Haim, president of the Council of Sephardi and Oriental Communities of Jerusalem; Ben-Gurion University’s Gross; Genie Milgrom, author of My 15 Grandmothers; crypto-Jewish researchers Anun Barriuso and Jose Manuel Laureiro (authors of The North of Sefarad); University of Lausanne Prof. Leandro Rodriguez and author Santiago Trancon (Memories of a Sephardi Jew), both Cervantes experts; Tarbut Sefarad president Mario Saban (The Jewish Roots of Christianity) and ethnomusicologist and performer Dr. Judith Cohen of York University. A follow-up conference is being planned for July 1 to 4, 2014 in Carcao, Portugal, and in Zamora city, as well as in Fermoselle village, home to Milgrom’s saga. The key-note speaker will be Prof. Jane Gerber, head of the Center for Sephardi Studies at New York University. Gerber holds a doctorate from Columbia and has taught at Harvard, Yale, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
In Zamora last month there were surprises toward the end of the evening. The gastronomic society awarded chef Palero, news manager Pedrero, and myself replicas of carvings from some of the city’s most ancient buildings. I am delighted to say that mine – immortalizing a detail from San Pedro de la Nave, a 7th-century local church holding who-knows-what-secrets – and dedicated also to The Jerusalem Post, now hangs in the conference room at the Post’s Jerusalem offices.
The writer is an editor at The Jerusalem Post.