A visit back in history to Jewish Barcelona

The Spanish city has a rich Judaic tradition, and may be home to the oldest synagogue in Europe.

Barcelona 311 (photo credit: Arthur Wolak)
Barcelona 311
(photo credit: Arthur Wolak)
BARCELONA – Known for its cosmopolitan restaurants, modernist architecture and pleasant Mediterranean climate, Barcelona – the second largest city in Spain (after Madrid), and capital of the province of Catalonia – also has a rich Jewish history that deserves to be explored by all interested tourists.
Long before the tumultuous expulsion of the Jews in 1492, Jewish culture thrived throughout the Iberian Peninsula. Indeed, during an era justifiably known as the Golden Age, Spain’s large, influential, and prolific Jewish community produced many luminaries. Through their great works of poetic, biblical and kabbalistic writings, these poets and rabbinic scholars exercised a profound influence on the development of Jewish philosophical thought, and halachic and liturgical practice. Their insights later spread throughout the Sephardi and Ashkenazi worlds. Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Judah Halevi, Abraham Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, and Nachmanides are just a few eminent names. In one way or another, each remains inextricably – and simultaneously – linked with the heritage of Spanish Jewry and the practice of contemporary Judaism.
While Barcelona was never the largest Jewish center in Spain, it figured prominently in Spanish Jewish history. In 1263, Barcelona was the site of a famous disputation presided over by King James I of Aragon. Nachmanides, whose familial link to Barcelona, Catalonia’s largest city, traced back to his grandfather, Isaac ben Reuben, was called to defend Judaism against Pablo Christiani, an apostate, who had worked vigorously to force the Jews to convert to Christianity. Although the Spanish monarch declared him the victor of the debate, the negative reaction of the Christian authorities ultimately led Nachmanides, the leading rabbi of Catalonia, to leave Spain for Jerusalem during the height of the Crusades.
This medieval Jewish legacy is not lost in contemporary Barcelona. Montjuïc (Catalan for “mountain of the Jews”) remains a towering presence over the city. It is home to the 1992 Olympic stadium and the National Museum of Art of Catalonia, among other important Spanish cultural sites. However, in the high middle ages, Montjuïc was the site of a Jewish cemetery, after which the mountain was named.
Recently discovered tombstones are now stored in the Provincial Archeological Museum.
Montjuïc overlooks Barcelona’s harbor where, standing prominently at the center of the Plaça de la Porta de Pau (Square of the Gate of Peace), a tall monumental column is topped with a statue of Christopher Columbus.. The monument marks the spot where Columbus returned after his first voyage to the Americas. Whether this statue can be deemed a Jewish site depends on whether one accepts the popular and compelling legend that Columbus, who set sail on August 3, 1492, just days after the expulsion began, was a converso, whose ancestors were among the Spanish Jews forced to convert to Christianity to save their lives, but who secretly maintained traditional Jewish practices.
That fateful year not only marks Columbus’s arrival to the Americas but also the tragic expulsion from Spain of perhaps as many as 200,000 Jews.
Their absence lasted for centuries, until a modest number began returning in the mid-19th century.
SOME 4,000 Jews who reside in Barcelona today are served by several synagogues, including Chabad, Comunidad Israelita de Barcelona (Orthodox) and Comunitat Jueva Atid de Catalunya (Reform). A site of unique importance to any Jewish tourist, only opened to the public in 2002, is not only the oldest synagogue in Spain but is considered – alongside the synagogue of Rome’s ancient port of Ostia – to be the oldest in Europe.
In the heart of Barcelona’s medieval Gothic area, not far from the popular pedestrian promenade of La Rambla, is the ancient Jewish quarter known as the Call (likely from kahal or kehilla, Hebrew for community).
The main street of the Call was Carrer de Sant Domènec, where kosher butchers worked and leading members of the community resided. It was also the location of the historic Sinagoga Mayor de Barcelona, the city’s former great synagogue, believed to date back to Roman times. Surviving documents from the synagogue include a record from 1267, when King James I authorized the raising of the building’s height.
Other records indicate that four synagogues existed in Barcelona in the 14th century. Of these, only the Sinagoga Mayor has been found, reclaimed, and restored. For years, the building served many functions, except that of a synagogue. In the late 17th century, apartments were built on top of the structure.
In the late 20th century, a study on the Call area led to the rediscovery of the synagogue, its subsequent purchase, its management by the Call Association of Barcelona (founded in 1997 to support the synagogue recovery project) and its careful restoration.
Excavations during this time revealed a foundation and Roman wall structure dating back to the reign of Emperor Caracalla, who, in 212 had granted full Roman citizenship to the Jews of the empire.
These early ruins are now visible to visitors through a glass floor.
In 1263, following Nachmanides’ distinguished participation at the Barcelona disputation, King James I reputedly visited this synagogue. Indeed, one of Barcelona’s – and the synagogue’s – longest-serving leaders was Rabbi Shlomo ben Adret (the Rashba), a former student of Nachmanides whom he succeeded as rabbinical authority over the Jews of Catalonia.
Among the most prolific writers of Jewish legal opinions, the Rashba, born in Barcelona in 1235, earned a reputation as one of the greatest Torah scholars of the Middle Ages. He served as rabbi of Sinagoga Mayor de Barcelona for more than 50 years.
Documents recounting the synagogue’s history indicate that it functioned until 1391. That ominous year, the unofficial start of the Spanish Inquisition, which became official in 1481, saw fierce anti-Jewish riots throughout Spain. On August 5, 1391, many Jews of Barcelona were massacred, leaving those who survived no recourse but to flee, convert and practice their faith in secret. The tragic events of 1391 also meant the effective, centuries-long end of public Jewish life in Barcelona. Although most Jewish buildings remained standing the community’s surviving Jews had dispersed. Today, however, Barcelona‚s modest-sized Jewish community thrives, and the Sinagoga Mayor is again open to the public as the Shlomo Ben Adret Synagogue.
Guided tours of the synagogue are available in English and Hebrew. Two rooms are open to tourists. To visit this remarkable synagogue – at Carrer de Marlet 5, just off Carrer de Sant Domènec – descend down six feet of stairs (the street-level of Roman times), and enter through the small door. On the right side is the foyer of the synagogue, designed according to the building style of ancient Rome upon which the medieval walls were constructed.
The room to the left is the heart of the medieval synagogue. There, one can see two large windows aimed in an easterly direction towards Jerusalem.
The holy ark, in which the Torah scrolls were kept, has now been placed between the windows to show where the original once stood. A large, iron menora now stands toward the south of the room. It was donated by artist Ferrá Aguiló in memory of his Spanish Jewish ancestors.
The historic synagogue is also available for bar/bat mitzvas and other special occasions. On August 10, 2003, a Montreal couple became the first to celebrate their wedding there after more than six centuries (just five days after the 612th anniversary of the 1391 massacre).
The writer is a freelancer in Vancouver. This article first appeared in the Jewish Independent.