Barcelona’s Jewish history; hidden in plain sight

The cities of Girona and Barcelona evolved into the most famous centers of Jewish learning under the guidance of the Chachmei Sepharad.

May 31, 2019 09:13
Barcelona’s Jewish history; hidden in plain sight

A view of Barcelona’s port. (photo credit: ROBERT HERSOWITZ)

The city of Barcelona is fast becoming the international traveler’s European destination of choice – in 2017, an estimated 32 million tourists visited the city, far outnumbering its 1.6 million residents.

The BBC recently featured the city in its Art Lovers Guide series, with the hosts waxing lyrical about Barcelona’s stunning cultural heritage. Unlike their program on Amsterdam, little mention was made of Barcelona’s rich Jewish heritage. This is not so surprising.

As Jewish tourists make their way to Barcelona, they will have great difficulty in finding any references or signs that point out the city’s Jewish sites unless they research it themselves or sign up for a specialized tour.

The Jews of Catalonia trace their history back to the time of the Romans. From the ninth century until the Expulsion in 1492, they flourished spiritually and intellectually. Despite Barcelona never becoming the major center of Jewish life in Spain, it featured prominently in the country’s Jewish history. Many Jews were attracted to the port city because it was at the crossroads of trade in the western Mediterranean. Not many Jewish visitors would know that the towering rocky cliffs that look down upon the city were once the site of a major Jewish cemetery. It is still known by its original name Montjuïc (Mountain of the Jews), and was later developed into the site of the 1992 Olympic Games.

Catalonian Jews cultivated their own unique identity and language, which was known as Judaeo-Catalan, or Qatalanit. Towns and villages in the surrounding rural areas became home to many Jewish communities throughout the centuries. The cities of Girona and Barcelona evolved into the most famous centers of Jewish learning under the guidance of the Chachmei Sepharad. Jews became influential as doctors, philosophers, merchants, moneylenders and craftsmen.

Last summer my wife and I stumbled on what turned out to be a treasure trove of concealed Jewish history and archaeology in Barcelona. It was our last day in the city after a seven-night Western Mediterranean Cruise. We’d been there before without Google and had been unsuccessful in finding any Jewish sites. This time we were directed by our Google search to the Chabad office at Carrer de Sant Honorat 9 in the heart of the Gothic quarter, where some 5,000 Jews once lived.

We were amazed to discover ancient buildings that had once been part of the Jewish Quarter in the 14th century, including the building that housed the recently refurbished Chabad office. The property, originally owned by a medieval Jewish family, has now been turned into a Jewish cultural center.

We were greeted by a kippa-wearing Spanish Jew who seemed to run the place, and he invited us in to view the 3D virtual reality experience about El Call, the Catalonian name for Barcelona’s Jewish quarter. We were escorted to an alcove where five or six padded cream leather recliners beckoned. After a good few hours of walking the city’s streets, we were only too delighted to pay the five Euros, stretch out, don the virtual reality glasses, and begin watching the English-language presentation.

Magically, we were spirited back 600 years to medieval Barcelona where we were introduced to our guide, an Avatar in the guise of a medieval Spanish Jew. We listened and watched, mesmerized as the fellow guided us through the narrow streets of the Call telling us his story.

A Torah scroll in the ancient synagogue (Left), Inside the synagogue (Center), A sign outside the ancient synagogue (Right) (Robert Hersowitz)

The presentation is an outstanding joint project put together by Chabad and the Jewish community of Barcelona. Their researchers succeeded in gaining access to thousands of documents that were stored in the dungeons of the Spanish Inquisition. Through painstaking examination and hundreds of hours of archival research, they were able to piece together the stories and testimonies of the city’s Jews. The result was a 20-minute odyssey of local Jewish history that left us reeling and curious to learn more. At the end of the experience our host handed us a map written in Hebrew that marked out the places that we had just visited in virtual reality.

“Now you can go outside and see almost all of those places with your own eyes,” he told us. “Many of these buildings still exist and are marked on the map.”

My wife, being an Israel Museum tour guide and amateur archaeologist, was raring to go. “Thank heavens for the map!” she exclaimed.

We stepped outside into the sunshine and into Barcelona’s hidden Jewish Quarter. Walking through the exceptionally narrow streets, we stopped outside a house which was purportedly where Rabbi Shlomo Ben Avraham ibn Aderet had lived. Known as the Rashba, he was born in 1235 in Barcelona, where he grew up and became a successful banker and leader of Spanish Jewry. As a scholar and rabbinical authority, his fame spread throughout the country until he was designated as El Rab d’España – the medieval version of chief rabbi of Spain. He served as rabbi of the Main Synagogue of Barcelona for 50 years, and died in 1310.

From there we followed the map to the ancient synagogue at No. 7 Calle de Sant Domenec del Call, and waited for the English tour to begin. The synagogue is considered one of the oldest in Europe and was built in the third or fourth centuries on the ruins of an ancient Roman structure whose walls can still be seen beneath a section of the glass flooring. The building itself is very small, measuring only 60 square meters, and the guide explained how in Medieval Spain a synagogue was never allowed to be taller or bigger than the smallest church in the city.

As we continued along the mapped-out route, we approached the city’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross and St. Eulalia. Along the walls we noticed the first signs in the neighborhood of a vanished Jewish presence. Long before the Inquisition and the expulsion, Jews were subjected to pogroms, the most brutal of which took place in 1391 when almost 3,000 Jews were murdered. Jewish cemeteries were vandalized, and some of the gravestones were plastered into the Cathedral walls. There hidden in plain sight were some of the tombstones embedded in the walls.

Rashba's House in the Jewish Quarter (Robert Hersowitz)

Not far from this site was the famous Palau Reial Major, where the Disputation took place in front of the Spanish King James I between Nachmanides (the Ramban – Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman) and Pablo Cristiani, a Jewish convert who had been trying to force other Jews to convert to Christianity.

Nachmanides was initially the rabbi of Girona, and later became the chief rabbi of Catalonia. Historians suggest that he led a predominantly untroubled existence until his life was thrown into turmoil when he was forced to defend his faith in the religious disputation of 1263.

Expecting his adversary to be fearful of offending the Spanish Christians, Pablo assured the king that he would prove the truth of Christianity from the Talmud and other rabbinical writings. The Ramban obeyed the order of the king, but asked to be allowed full freedom of expression.

After four arduous days of debating Pablo Christiani in front of the king and men of the church (July 20-24), Nachmanides was declared the victor by the Spanish monarch. The Christian authorities reacted very negatively and Nachmanides feared for his safety, so he decided to flee the country leaving his family behind. He made his way to Jerusalem, where he established the Ramban Synagogue in the Old City, which still exists to this day.

While Nachmanides managed to flee Spain and persecution, the majority of his co-religionists did not. Their travails formed part of the next stages of the walking tour, as we were brought face to face with the building where Jews were brought to be interrogated and tortured by the Inquisitors before enduring the horrors of the Auto-da-fé. Today this building houses the Museum of the Barcelona Diocese. The curiously decorated building stands in the shadow of the Cathedral’s Gothic walls.
There are no signs to explain what the building was once used for, and we were only made aware of its grisly provenance by reading through the notes that accompanied the map.

Next we were directed to the Placa del Rei, or Square of the King. The large space is surrounded by a sinister-looking building with archways and cell-like structures that made it look like a prison. What was its Jewish significance?

“This was the square where the Inquisition did its work, and Jews who refused to convert or were caught practicing their true faith were burned at the stake,” my wife read from the map. “There are records of at least 13 Jews being burned here.”

It reminded me of the much larger Plaza Mayor in Madrid, one of the city’s main public squares where a similar fate was meted out to the Jews. The widespread persecution of Spanish Jewry culminated in the expulsion in 1492, when as many as 200,000 Jews left the country. Parents were forced to hand their children over to the Church, and many converted to Catholicism or became Conversos known in Spanish by the derogatory term of Marranos.

Only a few weeks ago, a ceremony was held in Buenos Aires, where the Latin American Jewish Congress presented King Felipe VI with its Shalom Prize in recognition of the Citizenship Law passed in 2015 allowing all Sephardi Jews and their descendants around the world to reclaim their Spanish citizenship. In all, 20,000 individuals are expected to be given Spanish citizenship before the law expires in October.

Two years ago in Barcelona, Chief Rabbi Meir Bar-Hen stirred up controversy by issuing a plea to those Jews now living in Spain.

“There is no future for Jews in Spain,” he said, urging his fellow Jews to buy property in Israel. “Europe is lost to radical Islam.”

Ironically, he was not alluding to the smoldering Catalan separatist unrest taking place in the capital but rather to a Muslim terrorist attack in which five people were killed on the Ramblas in the summer of 2017.

Despite these warnings, Jewish life in Barcelona continues. The first Jewish wedding in over 500 years took place in the ancient synagogue in 2010, and today the city attracts many Jewish tourists who have access to an outstanding Israeli-style kosher restaurant on the Ramblas as well as Shabbat synagogue services and meals arranged by the local Chabad community in the suburbs. In addition, the Chabad office in the Gothic Quarter runs a Judaica store and a well-stocked section of kosher and dairy products for those who are able to find it.

El Call, despite its labyrinthine, almost camouflaged presence, is definitely a jewel in the crown of Spanish Jewish history and should be visited.

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