A Jewish path in Zamora

A Cuban-American academic with Spanish roots reveals the story behind annual events in Spain’s northwest.

Prof. Jesus Jambrina (left) gives a presentation on uncovering Zamora’s Jewish past at the La Crosse Synagogue, Wisconsin, on March 6 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Prof. Jesus Jambrina (left) gives a presentation on uncovering Zamora’s Jewish past at the La Crosse Synagogue, Wisconsin, on March 6
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On March 6, I gave a presentation titled “Uncovering Jewish Zamora” at the La Crosse Synagogue in Wisconsin.
When, in 2010, I began to look into the subject of a Jewish presence in the province of Zamora, and its capital city of the same name – crossed by the Duero River and close to the border with Portugal – I never dreamed where my curiosity would lead.
I have always been interested in Jewish history and culture, specifically in readings of the Zohar, due to their mention in literary and philosophical pieces. During my college years I was introduced to authors like Viktor Frankl and Eric Fromm, and later I began to do some research of my own on Jews of Spain.
On my father’s side, my family hails from Gema del Vino, a small town in the Spanish province of Zamora, in Spain’s rocky northwest. I grew up listening to stories from “back home,” and always wanted to visit the land of my grandparents who immigrated to Cuba many years ago, and never went back.
MY FIRST Google search on the subject of the Jewish legacy of Zamora turned up only two results. One was a reference to the well-known Concilio de Zamora of 1313, in which many of the prohibitions regarding the Jews that had already been stipulated at the Council of Elvira at the beginning of the fourth century were repeated.
The other search result turned up the case of the “Niño de la Guardia,” a 1491 blood libel set in Toledo, in which a Zamoran Jew named Abenamías had allegedly participated. This accusation was disproved over half a century ago by historian Yitzhak Baer, and shown to be one of many anti-Semitic fictions created by members of the infamous “Santa Inquisition” of the 15th century.
Apart from these two references – found in most medieval history books that mention the Jews – there was not much more available at first glance on the Internet. This lack of information surprised me, as I already knew of at least one essay – dated 1992 – signed by the then-director of the Provincial Archive of Zamora, Florián Ferrero Ferrero, in which a bibliography related to the Jews of Zamora was mentioned.
A few weeks later I read two of the books that I consider to be classics on the subject: Juderías de Castilla y León, 1988 (“Jewish Quarters in Castile and Leon”), by Guadalupe Ramos de Castro – which has a section dedicated to the city – and El pasado judío de Zamora, 1992 (“Zamora’s Jewish Past”), by Prof.María Fuencisla García Casar – a historical chronicle of the Jewish presence in the provincial capital. It was through these works – which from my present vantage point I consider to be in need of editing to update the information and perspectives on the subject – that a picture began to emerge.
There are other authors who also lent substance to my research: the studies of the late Prof. Carlos Carrete Parrondo of Salamanca University, and of Julio Valdeón Baruque of Valladolid University.
In his book, Judíos y Conversos en la Castilla Medieval (“Jews and Converts in Medieval Castile”) Valdeón Baruque presents an excellent study of Castilian and Leonese Jews (Zamora is situated in the area of Spain known as Castilla y Leon).
To this Spanish bibliography one would also have to add medievalist Manuel Fernández Ladero, who has published several notable articles about Zamora and the subject of Conversos, as well Prof. Yolanda Moreno Koch and Prof. Ricardo Izquierdo Benito who have published information from earlier conferences on the subject of Jews in Spain.
A wider bibliography would be incomplete without authors like the late Benzion Netanyahu (father of the prime minister), the late Haim Beinart and Prof. Abraham Gross of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, whose book on Abraham Saba is indispensable.
Saba left Zamora for Portugal in 1492, first arriving in Guimaraes, then moving on to Lisbon, where his children were forcibly converted to Christianity in 1496. Saba’s is a tragic story and he chose to bury all the books he had written under a tree so as not to have to turn them in to the authorities. He rewrote all his books in Fez over the following 10 years and died in Verona, Italy.
UPON VISITING Zamora for the first time in 2010, I was shocked by the absence of references to anything Jewish.
Since by then I knew of something of Zamora’s prestigious position during medieval times, I was curious as to why this was the case. I asked a couple of colleagues and friends in the city, including a relative of mine, and some information immediately surfaced, along with various books and articles.
Following a fruitful conversation with Ferrero Ferrero, I decided to write a paper on the subject. When I returned to the United States, I started to research further and realized that I had stumbled upon something more complex, and that I wanted to devote more time to delve into it. Additionally, the project was a good reason for me to return to Zamora, the birthplace of my paternal grandparents.
On that first trip I also met with Mario Saban, president of the Jewish organization Tarbut Sefarad in Barcelona, as well as the organization’s representatives in Madrid: José Manuel Laureiro and Anun Barriuso (descendants of Crypto Jews) and co-authors of El Norte de Castilla, who encouraged me to continue with the project and offered their help. These three friends were originally skeptical about Zamora having a significant Jewish history.
Located at the heart of old Castile, Zamora is a city known for its strong Catholic culture. Celebrations revolving around saints’ days and the Virgin Mary are common and dominate popular festivities all year long, particularly during Semana Santa (Easter, known as “holy week.”) More importantly, its 24 Romanesque churches (the largest number of any city in Europe) drive national and international tourism.
However, in 2013, together with Genie Milgrom (author of My 15 Grandmothers and How I Found My 15 Grandmothers) and other friends and colleagues, I organized the first international congress on “Zamora Jewish Life: History and Re-encounters,” which was covered by The Jerusalem Post and local media, and caused ripples in Zamoran society.
The result of the congress was a promise by then-mayor Rosa Maria Valdeon Santiago, to signpost several areas of Jewish interest in the city. This promise was kept at the end of the 2014 congress.
Five locations crucial to the Jewish history of a city that until 2013 barely appeared to have any such history at all are now marked by metal pillars erected by the Zamora Municipality as a direct result of the interest evidenced through the presence of these congresses in Zamora.
I LITTLE imagined when I began my research six years ago that my efforts would bear fruit to the point of bringing together increased numbers of local and international students of and experts in Sephardi culture and history every year since.
Among the esteemed colleagues who have taken part in our congresses are the aforementioned Gross, New York University professor Jane Gerber, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor professor Ruth Behar, Universidad de Lisboa professor Jorge Martins, and many other experts on the subject of Jews and Sephardim from Spain, Portugal, the United States and Israel.
Looking toward our fourth annual event this summer, I am pleased to note that Gregorio G. Olmos, author of Yucé, el sefardí, 2016 – winner of the XXXIV Novela Felipe Trigo prize – has agreed to be our keynote speaker. We also hope to see the author of the prologues of Olmos’s book: José Jiménez Lozano – who received the renowned Cervantes Prize in 2002 – at this year’s congress.
Toward the end of 2013, following the tremendous success of the first congress, the Isaac Campantón Center was created as a Jewish research center for Zamora, named after the sage Isaac Campantón (1360-1463), known as “the Gaon of Castile.” The center was named after him because Campantón, as author of Darche ha-Gemara, or Darche ha-Talmud (“A Methodology of the Talmud”) represents the flowering of the Zamoran Jewish Community in which he carried out his educational efforts during the last century before the exile of the Jews from Spain.
Campantón’s book was published in Constantinople (ca. 1520), Venice (1565), Mantua (1593), Amsterdam (1706, 1711 and 1754) Vienna (1891) and Jerusalem (1981). And yet, the present residents of Zamora had never heard about him until our first congress, so far-reaching was the ethnic and cultural cleansing that occurred in Spain following 1492.
Throughout the 15th century, Zamora had attracted the most brilliant thinkers in Spain and Portugal, with Campantón being the guide of a generation and clearly responsible for the later transmission of Jewish tradition to the Sephardi Diaspora.
Among his students were Samuel Valensí, Isaac Abroab II, Isaac de León, Jacob Habid and his son Leví, Moshe Alaskhar, Isaac Arama, Joseph Hayyum, Abraham Saba and the well-known converso Hebraist Alfonso de Zamora.
The influence of these Jewish personalities can be found from Amsterdam to Safed and to Istanbul, and from Portugal to as far away as the Americas. Additionally, a large number of the visits we get on the Campantón Center webpage are from Lithuania and parts of Russia, where the work of the Zamoran sage is well-known.
All of these subjects are discussed at our congresses, which have now become real “Sephardi days.” In addition to the academic presentations, we offer concerts, exhibitions and guided tours of the Jewish quarters, along with Shabbat dinners open not only to all participants in the congress, but also to residents of Zamora who are interested in knowing more about this celebration so central to Judaism.
These meals, as well as others that we organize to introduce various Jewish holidays, are directed by Abraham Haim, president of the Sephardi and Oriental Communities of Jerusalem, a regular visitor to Zamora. Other frequent visitors to the area include Canadian ethnomusicologist Judith Cohen, who has given concerts in the city. She studies the Sephardi musical tradition in the Mediterranean Basin, including the Zamoran-Portuguese region of Tras Os Montes, especially the area of La Raya (“the line”), as the border with Portugal is known.
The second congress, in 2014, was dedicated to this region in particular, where Crypto-Judaism is second nature in various rural communities, among them Carçao, Vimioso and Braganza (in Portugal), where thousands of Castilian and Leonese Jews took refuge in 1492.
This year, in addition to the July congress – titled “The North of Sepharad: Perspectives and Definitions” – that will take place at Palacio de La Alhóndiga, in Zamora city, we will once again have a pre-conference panel discussion at Centro Sefarad-Israel, in Madrid on June 27, at which experts scheduled to speak at the Congress will preview their subjects and answer questions.
On June 29, there will be a guided tour of the Tierra del Vino (Land of Wine) area, where, according to historic documents, the Zamoran Jews had their vineyards, and which today produces Protected Designation of Origin quality wines.
On June 30, there will be a tour of the medieval Old and New Jewish quarters, another annual activity that attracts many locals and each year uncovers more information.
The congress will be held July 1-4.
Preliminary events will conclude with a Shabbat dinner at the Trefacio Hotel, where, as in earlier years, we hope to reaffirm the commitment to continue working for the recovery and value of the Jewish legacy of the city of Zamora.
I am now researching my family tree on my father’s side and have discovered that most of the last names are considered converso names: Fernandez, Lopez, Rodriguez, Salazar, Zuñiga and Zamora. I have also learned that there was endogamy (marrying within a specific ethnic group) among very specific families.
Additionally, a recently DNA analysis resulted in the description of some Sephardic markers, so now I am more curious than ever about the topic.
The Isaac Campantón Center, which organizes international presentations and is a repository of all my investigation thus far – and that of my colleagues Laureiro, Barriuso and Tarbut Sefarad Zamora president María Antonia Muriel Sastre – can be found online at www.campanton.com. 
The writer is a professor of Spanish language and Latin American and Latino Studies at Viterbo University, La Crosse, Wisconsin. In 2014 he was presented with Medal of the Four Sephardi Synagogues by the board of the Sephardi and Oriental Communities of Jerusalem for researching and publicizing Zamora’s Jewish past. His book The Jews of Zamora, An Annotated Chronology is scheduled to be published by Verbum Editorial in Madrid this year under the Hebrew Letters Collection curated by Sephardi poet Margalit Matitiahu. The writer can be contacted at [email protected]