Finding Spain in Barcelona

So when I saw an advertisement by AACI for a four-day trip to Barcelona and Girona, I thought it a perfect opportunity to fulfill my travel goals in a short period of time.

A woman waves an Estelada (Catalan separatist flag) during a protest after Spain's Supreme Court jailed nine separatist leaders, triggering violent protests in the region, in Barcelona, Spain, October 17, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/RAFAEL MARCHANTE)
A woman waves an Estelada (Catalan separatist flag) during a protest after Spain's Supreme Court jailed nine separatist leaders, triggering violent protests in the region, in Barcelona, Spain, October 17, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS/RAFAEL MARCHANTE)
Many years ago, when I was growing up in the Bronx, New York, knowledge was purveyed by the small groups of children whose wisdom acquired by being a year or two older than ourselves was unquestioned. One of the bits of knowledge conveyed with proper solemnity was that Jews were forever forbidden from traveling to Spain, from which the Jews were expelled in 1492, and otherwise persecuted. We imbibed this into our psyches, although I doubt that any one of us ever had a notion of traveling anywhere further than to Manhattan on the elevated subway.
It came to my mind many years later in the 1990s when friends expressed their plans to visit Spain now that, in their words, 500 years since the expulsion had passed. I do not remember the source of this 500-year ban, but I did observe that it was quickly picked up by the travel agencies, which soon had a flourishing business of Jewish travelers to Spain.
It did not affect me at the time, although in the back of my mind I had an idea that someday I would also go.
So when I saw an advertisement by AACI for a four-day trip to Barcelona and Girona, I thought it a perfect opportunity to fulfill my travel goals in a short period of time.
I was soon disillusioned of this idea, when our excellent Barcelona guide, Ana, declared unequivocally that Barcelona was really Catalonia and not Spain, and indeed should not even be politically beholden to it. She explained that Barcelonan culture is much closer to that of neighboring France than to other parts of Spain, due to both geography and history, having been under Moorish rule for far less time than the rest of Spain. She did not hesitate to prove her point by showing us the relative prosperity of and elevation of art and culture in Barcelona.
Indeed, the beautiful architecture is immediately evident and the Antoni Gaudí influence is highlighted everywhere, especially now in the hoped-for completion of Familia Cathedral.
Artists have always flocked to the natural beauty of the city nestled between the mountains and the sea, and Picasso and Dali both made their homes here at different times and have magnificent museums dedicated to their works to prove it. A word of caution to the casual visitor, however: The concept of accessibility has yet to come to these museums, and the Dali Museum is especially a warren of staircases and courtyards.
The average income in Catalonia we were told is about 1,900 euros ($2,090) a month, compared to the 1,800-euro rent for a comfortable apartment. Nonetheless, the standard of living is relatively prosperous and comfortable compared to other areas of Spain, leading some Catalonians to seek to separate from the rest of Spain to enable them to develop their own area without the encumbrances of the rest of the country.

THIS IS clearly a matter of public discourse, as we saw many Catalonian flags on display bearing the additional single star on a blue background indicating the desire for independence. Some have gone further than the flag display, and at one point our tour bus was detoured due to a seemingly peaceful demonstration of mostly students sitting in tents.
Nonetheless, the motto boldly emblazoned on the facade of the city hall states: “Freedom of Opinion and Expression,” which our guide assured us reflects the mutual respect among all sides of the issue in Barcelona. That being said, multiple displays of yellow ribbons referred to the demand for the release of prisoners whose political opinions were apparently not free to be expressed, and who are currently serving 12-year prison terms, which according to our guide was far in excess of the norm for such offenses.
Our tour being a kosher Jewish tour, we were of course interested in the Jewish history of the region.
Sadly, since the expulsion of Jews in 1492, Spain has been pretty much empty of Jews. We were told that today there are some three to four thousand Jews living in Barcelona, and about 30,000 in all of Spain. However, our kosher restaurant was filled every evening we were there.
When we visited the Jewish quarters in Barcelona and Girona, we noticed that they were both built almost in the shadow of the major cathedrals of the cities. Incidentally, the cathedrals and religious symbolism dominate much of the landscape, despite the dwindling religious observance mentioned by our guide.
I wondered whether this proximity was for protection or surveillance when a review of the history of the area made the answer clear.
The exit of Jews from Barcelona actually predates the 1492 expulsion. Two hundred years earlier, the Catholic Church instituted a series of religious debates between Christian and Jewish scholars, most predestined to end badly for the Jewish debater. In 1263, Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, known as Nachmanides (the Ramban), the renowned rabbi and Jewish Talmudist from Girona, was forced to engage in a debate regarding the messiah, where his brilliant arguments outwitted his opponent. It was to no avail however, as the king purportedly commented that it was a pity that such a brilliant argument was used for the wrong cause. The Ramban apparently took the words at their face value and took his family and emigrated to Israel soon after
It was a good thing because in the next 100 years, possibly as a result of the debates, there were pogroms all over Spain. In Barcelona itself in 1391, Jews were massacred, and the Jewish quarter was burned down. The remaining Jews either fled or converted to Christianity, many still practicing their Judaism in secret until the Inquisition ferreted them out a century later and had them burned at the stake. At the partially restored synagogue we visited in Barcelona, we were told that after 1391, it was occupied as a residence by a Converso family until the late 1400s, when the family fled leaving the elderly mother-in-law behind, who was murdered by the Inquisition.
The synagogue has been undergoing restoration by Jewish organizations abroad, and today is used mainly for ceremonial purposes.
Another nugget of wisdom dispensed by my aforementioned childhood pundits, was that any nation that oppressed Jews would be doomed to a failed future. Modern history has pretty much dispelled that theory, and if we disregard Barcelona’s claims of separation from Spain, certainly it bespeaks a very lovely, artistic and welcoming place to visit. Joining the local populace strolling along the ramblas – the picturesque pedestrian walkway which forms the central island of the main thoroughfare – enjoying the gentle ambiance, one could almost forget that an entire Jewish population was evicted from these streets, never to return.