(photo credit: Ohad Kaner)
GIRONA, Spain - Hidden among the maze of alleyways east of the Onyar River, the Museum of Jewish History stands as testament - if an inadvertent one - to the completeness of Spain's destruction of its once-thriving Jewish population.
Inside the museum, set in what is said to be Girona's last known synagogue, designers have layered the ancient architecture with all the flourishes of a contemporary museum, complete with glass-lit cases, multimedia displays and an audio tour in several languages.
In one case sits the signet ring belonging to Girona's most famous Jewish son, Rabbi Moses Ben Nahman Girondi, the legendary Judaic scholar known as the Ramban or Nahmanides.
The sight of the ring inspires the kind of spine-tingling intimacy with history that museums like this aim to evoke - that is, until the voice on the audio guide announces that the ring is a fake, a copy of the original that sits in a museum in Jerusalem.
In fact, most of the artifacts in Girona are copies. Virtually nothing is left from the community that once lived here, save for the tombstones excavated from the nearby Jewish cemetery. The few artifacts from the period that have survived are generally beyond the museum's financial ability to acquire.
“Once in a while we can buy something, but it's not as often as we would like,” said Assumpcio Hosta, the director of Patronat Call de Girona, the municipal body responsible for the preservation of Girona's Jewish heritage. “It costs a lot of money.”
That difficulty hasn't stopped nearly two dozen cities and towns throughout Spain from trying to capitalize on their Jewish history, building monuments and hosting concerts, lectures and other cultural activities inspired by one of the most productive and accomplished Jewish communities in history.
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The effort has left some Jews feeling that Spain is exploiting a history
that rightfully belongs to contemporary Spanish Jews, and in the
process is relegating a living culture to a museum piece by portraying
Judaism as little more than a historic curiosity.
The primary purpose of establishing the Spanish Jewish heritage sites is
to attract tourism to areas that otherwise have little to recommend
them as holiday destinations.
“The government is using the Jewish patrimony for a purpose, and the
only real purpose is to bring tourism to Spain,” said Rabbi Dovid
Libersohn, the Argentina-born Chabad rabbi in Barcelona. “Some
politicians, they like Judaism without Jews.”
But Spanish officials involved in the effort to highlight Jewish
heritage say it’s not a fair or apt analysis. They note that the Spanish
government has devoted resources to rebuilding its ties with Israel and
with Jewish communities, in Spain and beyond. In 2006, Spain
established Casa Sefarad-Israel, an agency of the Ministry of Foreign
Affairs charged with promoting good relations with Spanish Jewry, the
global Jewish Diaspora and the State of Israel.
Within Spain there is Red de Juderias, a network of nearly two dozen
Spanish cities and towns whose official purpose is to preserve the
cultural legacy of Jewish Spain but whose main aim is to promote tourist
The development of Jewish heritage sites in Spain is part of a wider
explosion of interest in the culture of Europe's lost Jewish
Institutions such as the European Association for the Preservation and
Promotion of Jewish Culture and Heritage and Warsaw's Museum of the
History of the Polish Jews, and annual events like the European Day of
Jewish Culture and the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, work to
restore the Jewish place in the pantheon of European minorities. Most of
these efforts are intended mostly for non-Jews, who often are the
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