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(photo credit: Courtesy)
There is no way to determine how or when inspiration will strike, although being in a picturesque part of the world never hurts. It comes as no surprise, then, that the birthplace and home to one of Judaism's most famed scholars, Moses ben Nahman (Nahmanides or Ramban), is straddled between the lush Andorra Mountains and the azure Mediterranean Sea - the medieval city of Girona.
While no Jews currently live in the small coastal town, there is a tremendous revival of its glorious past, making this one of Europe's most desirable Jewish vacation spots. Located just one hour north of Barcelona, Girona's Jewish revival is the most sophisticated and elaborate in the northern Spanish Catalonian region.
Girona's Jewish population swelled around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, although literary references to their presence do not appear till 890, when it was recorded that 25 families resided next to the town's cathedral. The Jewish quarter was situated in the city's Call, also known as Juderia.
Over time the Jewish population, also referred to as the Aljama, grew. Jews were safe under the king of Catalonia's protection in exchange for a fee. Under the auspices of the king, the Jewish community had its own complex network of laws and organizations which separated them from the rest of the town's population.
Ramban had become the rabbi of Girona before obtaining the role of the chief rabbi of Catalonia. From the Jewish quarter of Girona, the Ramban practiced Kabbala and wrote much of his famed poetry. His home in the Call was legendary as a bastion of theology, imagination and philosophy.
While many aspects of Jewish Catalonian life flourished, there were still many conflicts that eventually resulted in the community's demise. Protection under the king vanished when Ferdinand married Isabella. This union resulted in the unification of Spain and the forced conversion of its population to Catholicism in 1492. As a result, most of the Jewish population of Girona fled, leaving behind the Jewish cemetery of Montju c and many religious artifacts .
Today in the Call, among narrow cobblestone streets sheltered by ancient trees, is the Museum of History of the Jews (www.ajuntament.gi/call/eng/). The museum is devoted to educating visitors on the history of medieval Jewish Catalonian life, with an emphasis on archeological and document findings in Catalonia and throughout Europe. Since it opened, the Girona museum has become the Spanish epicenter for medieval Jewish history and culture.
The permanent exhibition at the museum seeks to highlight daily and familial life of the Jews as well as how the communities were structured, both religiously and bureaucratically. Sephardic customs are also featured alongside the history of the Jewish districts in Catalonia. Details of the role of the Centre Bonastruc ca Porta, the final synagogue built during the 15th century, are scattered throughout the exhibit.
The contents of the museum's final room are most impressive. Set among illuminated floors coated with images of flowers is a recreation of the Montju c cemetery with the original Hebrew-inscribed tombstones. The Museum of the History of Jews also houses the Nahmanides Foundation, which is devoted to Jewish studies in addition to its role as a document and research facility.
ALTERNATIVELY, you can begin your Jewish Catalonian tour in Barcelona, another important landmark in Spain's Jewish history. While the sites here are much less developed, Barcelona is the only city in the Catalonian Jewish network that has an active Jewish congregation of 4,000. One of the congregation's founding members, Dominique Tomasov Blinder, provides an inspirational tour (www.urbancultours.com) of Barcelona's Jewish past while connecting it to the city's present congregation and status of world Jewry.
Barcelona's Call (www.calldebarcelona.org), located in the Gothic District, is quickly turning into one of the hippest destinations in the city. Hotels and trendy cafes are sandwiched next to wholesale jewelry stores and traditional tapas restaurants. Because landmarks from Barcelona's Jewish past are in the process of being rehabilitated, using a tour is the ideal method to understanding the city's rich Jewish past. Dominique emphasizes that most tours sponsored by the government are not run by Jews, but by scholars.
"Jewish voices were not being heard on these streets before my tour began," said Dominique. "I thought as a Jew I could speak in a living Jewish voice rather than someone who has only studied it."
The result is a thoughtful examination of the state of Barcelona's historical past with an almost critical eye toward the future. As we tour the city's ancient synagogue, Sinagoga Mayor (Major Synagogue), which is not only the oldest in Spain but the oldest in Europe, Dominique helps to point out the steps taken to resuscitate the structure which is thought to be from the 12th century. For years the synagogue's whereabouts were unknown, until a medievalist named Jaume Riera y Sans tried to determine its exact location. This then caught the eye of Spanish Jew Miguel Iaffa, who was determined to acquire the property. In 1995, the owner of the property put it up for sale and Iaffa purchased it.
Today, the synagogue is one of the main destinations for tourists seeking to acquaint themselves with the city's Jewish history. During the 13th century, Jews numbered 15 percent of the population of Barcelona. Dominique refers to this period as the "Time of Splendor."
"Versed in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, Spanish, Catalan or Arabic - depending where they lived," she explains, "Jews acted as cultural liaisons between Eastern and Western civilizations, and helped transmit the latest advances in science and the most recent works by Arab philosophers."
What differentiates the Barcelona experience from Girona is the city's active Jewish community. Although small in number, this community has put much effort into opening the city to distinctly Jewish cultural experiences, like the spring International Jewish Film Festival.
Iberia Airlines runs daily flights to Barcelona from Tel Aviv. There are plenty of places to stay in Barcelona, but two particular hotels are guaranteed to make your trip a splendid occasion. Check out the Hotel Neri, located steps away from the Sinagoga Mayor. Situated in a former 18th-century palace, this exquisite hotel transports you back in time with its d cor. Be sure to eat in the hotel's restaurant, and take a coffee in the medieval courtyard just out back. For a more modern experience, consider a stay at the Hotel Omm (www.hotelomm.es). Only a 15-minute walk from the Call, this hotel is equipped with a first-rate spa and one of the best restaurants in the city. Inspiration guaranteed.