In search of shepharad

Armed with an ignorance of all things Sephardi, Matt Nesvisky scours Spain in search of Jews, traces of Jews and memorials to Jews.

Tourists visit Toledo’s Santa Maria La Blanca, a former synagogue dating back to the 12th century (photo credit: REUTERS)
Tourists visit Toledo’s Santa Maria La Blanca, a former synagogue dating back to the 12th century
(photo credit: REUTERS)
ITALIAN CULTURE and Tourism Minister Dario Franceschini recently announced a government grant of $29 million for the completion of a National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah in the medieval walled city of Ferrara. I was stunned. “It will, in fact,” the minister told JTA, “above all, be a place to recount Italian Judaism in all its richness and many facets ‒ its history, its traditions, its multi-millennium presence in this country.”
A national museum of Jewish history – in Italy? OK, Primo Levi. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Um, the Soncino family of 15th-century printers. And Ferrara? Well, the town had a Jewish ghetto and Giorgio Bassani, the author of Finzi-Continis, was from Ferrara.
But still.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m pleased that Italy will celebrate its Jewish history. Let a thousand museums bloom. Jewish constituency and contribution are archived and memorialized all over the world both in countries where Jewish presence remains robust and where Jews are virtually absent.
Warsaw and Berlin boast outstanding Jewish museums. Philadelphia houses a new multi-story National Museum of American Jewish History, an affiliate of Washington’s Smithsonian Institution. Harbin, China, has a quite amazing and elaborate museum of its once thriving, if short-lived, Jewish community. Dublin, Istanbul, Copenhagen, Paris, London, Tbilisi, Prague, Vilna, Bucharest, Moscow, Sao Paolo, Amsterdam, Vienna, Melbourne and many other cities have museums devoted to their nation’s Jews.
WITH ONE notable exception. Jews had had a presence on the Iberian Peninsula for more than 1,500 years, from the Roman era of about 200 BCE until the expulsion in 1492. The Hebrew name for Spain, Sepharad, even appears late in the Bible (Obadiah 1:20), although it’s uncertain exactly what the name refers to geographically. And, unlike most Diaspora communities, the Jews of Spain in roughly the 10th to 13th centuries had even enjoyed a “Golden Age.”
So why doesn’t Spain offer a National Museum of Jewish Spanish History? This question occurred to me during my preparation for a recent visit to the country.
Prior to this, my reading on the subject had largely been restricted to the great medieval Spanish-Jewish poets – Yehuda Halevi, Shmuel Hanagid, Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Moshe and Avraham Ibn Ezra, these and others who had revolutionized Jewish poetry and, in other ways, had contributed to that Golden Age. And this is without even considering Maimonides and the founding texts of Kabbalah, such as “The Zohar,” which was written in Castile by Rabbi Moses de León.
Indeed, my attraction to the subject was fundamentally based on my vast ignorance of all things Sephardi. This is the shameful truth despite the fact that about half of Israel’s population may claim a Sephardi background; that I served in an IDF reserve unit for two decades that was comprised almost exclusively of men of Sephardi background (North African, French, Egyptian, Bulgarian) and that I’m fond of Moroccan cuisine. Yet, here I was, an irredeemably Ashkenazi Jew who knew virtually nothing of the community that, according to several sources, once constituted 80 or 90 percent of the world’s Jewry. What connection, if any, had I with Sephardim?
So off I went to Spain in search of (a) Jews, (b) traces of Jews and (c) memorials to Jews. Of the first, the pickings are slim. Spain has a population of about 46 million, most of whom are Roman Catholics. Perhaps one or two million Muslims live in Spain, most of them recent immigrants (legal and illegal) from Africa and the Middle East. Jews supposedly number as many as 40,000, but some sources suggest a more accurate figure is about one-tenth that number. The country’s 1978 post-Franco constitution, for the first time, did away with the notion of a state religion and legitimized multi-confessionalism, and two years ago the Spanish government passed legislation that offered citizenship to Jews who could prove their descent from Spanish Jewry from before the expulsion of 1492. It is unclear how many Jews have taken up that offer.
In any event, with no central Jewish authority and with the current caretaker Spanish government busy with other concerns, numbers of live Spanish Jews are hard to come by.
Madrid apparently has between 1,000 and 2,000 Jews, but how many of these are permanent residents and how many are temporary (mainly business people and academics from South America, Mexico, Israel) no one seems to know. The capital has a few synagogues; two or three are Orthodox establishments serving chiefly former North African Jews; Comunidad Masoratí Bet-El is Conservative and egalitarian and has about 100 families.
Barcelona also has a few congregations, the largest of which, Comunidad Israelita de Barcelona, is modern Orthodox (women seated upstairs) and which serves a few dozen families. Barcelona also has the remains of what may be the oldest synagogue in Europe. Chabad, unsurprisingly, is present in both cities. The rest of Spain’s Jews are scattered in smaller locales.
As for traces of Jews, these are found throughout Iberia – no surprise with 1,500 years of Jewish history. The most abundant, if not necessarily self-evident, artifacts may well be in the Spanish population itself; vast numbers (no one can know for sure) are quite possibly descendants of Conversos ‒ Jews who over the ages converted to Christianity either by choice or under the threat of torture, deportation or death. Concrete emblems of such history are found in the numerous churches that were formerly synagogues; sometimes we even see Rubik’s cubes of synagogue-church edifices with Moorish architecture, as in the Santa Maria La Blanca church and the Sinagoga del Tránsito, both in Toledo.
Elsewhere, notably in Girona, Seville, Cordoba and Granada, visitors may see either preserved or reconstructed remains of medieval Jewish homes and houses of worship. Not long ago, a Jewish quarter with a 12th-century two-room synagogue and mikve were unearthed in the remote fortress town of Besalu, north of Girona, near the border with France and in the shadow of the Pyrenees. (The mikve was discovered during a construction job, and since Besalu has no Jews I wondered how anyone recognized what it was. But it did have fresh water in it on the day I visited.)
In terms of Jewish memorials or museums, the old Jewish Quarter of Cordoba has the privately run Casa de Sefarad, with rooms devoted to religious and cultural life, to the Inquisition and to native son Maimonides (1135-1204). Cordoba’s former Jewish quarter also features a statue of Maimonides and a square named for the poet and philosopher Yehuda Halevi (1075- 1141).
TOLEDO’S AFOREMENTIONED Sinagoga del Tránsito, likewise, serves as a museum, with several well-maintained rooms of documents and artifacts. In Toledo’s former Jewish quarter, small white tiles with blue menorahs are set between the cobblestones to denote one-time Jewish properties, calling to mind the thousands of Stolpersteinen, sculptor Gunter Demnig’s pavement plaques that dot the streets of Berlin commemorating deported Jews (“Hier Wohnte” – “Here lived…”).
So, yes, the Jewish element of Spain’s history is acknowledged in many sites throughout the country; adjacent shops offer the expected Jewish- themed tchotchkes; and the Tourism Ministry is no doubt happy if all this encourages Jewish tourism from abroad. Still, unlike so many other countries, Spain has no National Museum of Jewish History, and certainly nothing on the scale of such institutions in the US, Germany or Poland – and evidently no such museum has ever been proposed. All this despite the fact that Jews lived in Spain for a millennium and a half and for several hundred years enjoyed a Golden Age of literary, philosophical, religious, scientific, political and even military accomplishment that would not be rivaled until elsewhere in modern times.
I emailed Spain’s Industry, Energy and Tourism minister asking if such a museum had ever been considered, but got no reply. Mario Stofenmacher, the Argentinian-born founder and acting rabbi of Madrid’s 25-year-old Bet- El congregation, was surprised when I directed the question to him. “Hispanic Jewish history?” he chuckled. “Hey, we’ve just discovered the Holocaust and started teaching that. Still, a national museum might be a nice idea….”
An American archeologist I ran into, Dr. Richard Freund, director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford, Connecticut, for several years has been excavating evidence of Phoenician settlement in Spain and liked the idea.
“I never heard of such a proposal, but I certainly think it’s a valid idea. I’d start with the Phoenicians; I think it’s quite possible Hebrews were among those that came to Iberia ‒ maybe Cadiz in the 8th century BCE. There were Israelites in Tyre and Sidon, Jonah sailing on a Phoenician vessel….”
Beyond all this, the reasons for the absence of a national Sephardi museum are many and complex. For one thing, as Dr. Jonathan Ray, a leading scholar of Sephardi history told me, no National Museum of Spanish Jewish History exists probably because for the entirety of Jews’ presence on the Iberian peninsula, no Spanish nation existed.
“There were Catalonian Jews, Andalusian Jews, Castilian Jews and others,” he pointed out, “but there was no unified Spain until Ferdinand and Isabella, and that occurred just as the king and queen kicked out their Jews. And I don’t see how any of the semi-autonomous regions of Spain today could host a national museum.”
Ray, an associate professor of Jewish Studies in the Department of Theology at Georgetown University, added that such a museum would be problematic because the Jewish history was so distant and artifacts so scarce.
“There are no photographs, no film, no recent relevant objects to display, such as you can find in a Jewish museum in Berlin or Warsaw,” he said. “Sure, the Jewish presence in Spain was long. But it ended 500 years ago. That’s problematic for a museum.”
In addition, the Golden Age was largely a literary matter. “You can display books and manuscripts,” Ray added, “but that’s very static in terms of a museum.”
And, in fact, the very matter of the Golden Age is problematic. The notion of a Golden Age of Spanish Jewry is essentially a construct of 19th-century German scholars. Yes, we have all those great poets, and Jews served local kings as finance ministers and viziers. Shmuel Hanagid was even a military commander (though apparently never in the field). Yehuda Halevi produced “The Kuzari”; Maimonides his “Guide to the Perplexed”; and great numbers of Jews were instrumental as translators and interpreters, helping to reintroduce Greek philosophy, science and medicine into northern Europe via their intimate knowledge of Arab philosophers.
“But, look,” Ray said, “this was the medieval period, the so-called dark ages. In Europe’s middle ages, whether north or south, the average person was poor ‒ poor politically and economically, constrained by ignorance and superstition, and with virtually no chance of upward mobility. So, if there was a Golden Age for Spanish Jews, it was such for a very small number of extraordinary individuals who, by stint of talent and good fortune, fared reasonably well for a certain period. Beyond all that, how do you tell the story of Spain’s Jews without upsetting today’s Christians and Muslims?”
Fact is, for the bulk of their long history in Spain, Jews did not have an especially happy existence.
In her 2002 study, “The Ornament of the World,” Yale professor Maria Rosa Menocal argues that Christians, Muslims and Jews, as the book’s subtitle has it, “created a culture of tolerance in medieval Spain.” True – up to a point and in fits and starts. The broader picture is less cheery.
As early as 300 CE the Church Council of Elvira, near Granada, forbade intermarriage and placed other restrictions on Jews. In the early 7th century, Jews were subjected to slaughter and forced conversion by the ruling Visigoths. Those outsiders were eventually replaced by Muslim invaders from North Africa, under whose rule Jews often were tolerated but who just as often were oppressed by various waves of Islamic fundamentalists.
Christian rule, likewise, hardly proved salubrious for Sephardim. Jews were rarely allowed to own land and banned from the craft guilds. Jews who couldn’t manage to become merchants were customarily restricted to unsavory work like tanning, grave digging and garbage collecting. Local Christian kings – warlords really ‒ often made good use of Jews as tax collectors or money lenders, but these were hated professions. Above all, Hispanic Jews were essentially the property of the resident king or nobleman. Jews never prospered enough to erect anything like a grand synagogue. And while Crusades were launched to free the Holy Land from Muslim rule, Crusades also took place to purge Spain of Jews.
JEWS WERE also periodically required to wear distinctive clothing and badges, subjected to blood libels and blamed for the black plague. When not being tortured or burned alive, Jews were forced to convert, and those who did were soon enough subject to suspicion that they had not converted with sincerity.
Ultimately, in 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella gave Spain’s Jews three months to pack up and clear out – although without packing up any money or property.
The expulsion was horrific. According to Jane S. Gerber’s “The Jews of Spain” (1992), the flight from the Iberian Peninsula is all too reminiscent of today’s Middle Eastern- African-European refugee crisis. Jews fled to Portugal but were soon expelled from that country. Others scrabbled for transportation to North Africa, but were at the mercy of price-gouging brokers and ship captains, overcrowded and leaky vessels, pirates, kidnappers and slavers. Many drowned at sea, and those who reached the African shore were often as not unwelcome and forced to move on. Other lands, such as England and many Italian states, were shut to Jews.
Thus came the great Sephardi Diaspora, which would stretch from Brazil to America’s New Amsterdam, from the Netherlands to Turkey, from France to Iraq and to numerous points in between. Only a few trickled to Palestine, at that time a fairly desolate land racked by the clashing swords of Crusaders and Muslim warlords.
According to Gerber, refugees from Spain and their descendants often viewed their dispersion as a kind of Exodus in reverse, or perhaps as a scattering such as followed the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans. Many would remember their experience in Spain with nostalgic affection, and many took pride in being sons and daughters of “noble Spanish heritage.” After all, for all their troubles the Sephardim, for a long period, arguably had been the world’s largest and greatest Jewish community, and Spain was a beautiful, fertile and prosperous land.
But the dispersion inevitably weakened Sephardi ties. And with the bulk of Sephardi Jews eventually settled in Ottoman lands, when that empire began its slow decline, its Jews generally declined with it. By the 19th century, Ashkenazi Jews had come into their own and soon dominated Jewish history, whether in Europe, Israel or the US.
If today’s Sephardi Jews take pride in their geographic heritage, it is chiefly expressed as an attachment to their more recent homes, whether Morocco or Algeria or Salonika or Sarajevo.
The website of New York’s American Sephardi Federation, for example, appropriately features an abundance of articles on Sephardi American history (some Sephardi Jews fought in America’s War of Independence) and news and research related to Sephardi presence everywhere from Khartoum to Baghdad and from Casablanca to Kurdistan. Indeed, its mission statement says the organization is devoted to preserving and promoting “the rich mosaic culture of Jews from the Middle East and throughout the greater Sephardic Diaspora.” The Federation has little to say about Spain.
The bottom line on my imaginary National Museum of Spanish Jewish History may well be that it doesn’t exist and most likely never will because that history, Golden Age or no, is so unutterably tragic. Spain is a ravishing country ‒ I can’t get out of my mind the hundreds of miles of olive groves I drove through from Granada to Madrid – but Sepharad, like so much of Europe, simply saddens me.
Dennis Ross, the American diplomat, peace negotiator and author, most recently, of “Doomed to Succeed: The USIsrael Relationship from Truman to Obama,” seemed to be of a mind with me. I encountered Ross in Spain where he also was touring sites of Jewish history.
“The experience here in Spain,” he said, “simply shows once again that Jews are always vulnerable. It also illustrates the necessity of self-determination – and, in the case of the Jews, that means Zionism. Even today – look at the strict security measures outside the synagogues here.”
Much to my surprise, it was those few but active synagogues that most spoke to me during my visit to Spain. If this Ashkenazi Jew was asking what he had in common with all this Sephardi history and culture, here was the answer. I’m not exactly your most dedicated member of a minyan, but I found myself profoundly moved at the Shabbat service in Barcelona, with its lively participation, its lovely melodies and its clear-voiced and confident bar mitzva boy. And, on Saturday morning at Madrid’s Bet-El congregation, I found myself removing the Torah – a gift from a congregation in New Jersey ‒ from the ark, parading it around the pews and following the parasha alongside Mario Stofenmacher. In fact, what most affected me was learning from the rabbi that his congregation is in the process of having a new Torah scroll written, partly in Madrid and partly in Jerusalem.
“It will be the first Torah scroll written in Spain in 500 years!” the rabbi crowed.
Looking forward rather than backward. To me that sounds even better than a museum.