Rock of Ages

Once famous for its close relations with its neighbors, Gibraltar's shrinking Jewish community has become more insular.

mount 298 (photo credit: Hilary Leila Krieger)
mount 298
(photo credit: Hilary Leila Krieger)
Shavuot was mere days away and Benjamin Marrache had already cleared out the drawing room of his mother's stately colonial home to host the holiday's traditional all-night study session. He was importing a New York rabbi for the occasion, and dozens of guests would be hanging on his every word - or fighting off sleep - as the event wore into the wee hours. Either way, they would need chairs, and he didn't have any. He mentioned his seating quandary to his secretary, who picked up the phone and dialed her aunt. She figured that since her aunt "knows everybody" living in the close quarters of the Rock of Gibraltar, her circle of acquaintance would surely include somebody who could furnish a ballroom's worth of chairs in short order. But her aunt did one better; she provided the chairs herself. An assistant to a priest at the Shrine of Our Lady of Europe, she arranged for Marrache to borrow the chapel's chairs for the Jewish holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah. Such an act is still reflexive in this tiny British colony of some 28,000 that has always prided itself on coexistence. But it is telling that the cultural exchange came about in the context of the workplace. Not long ago, such interfaith fellowship would have been as common in the private sphere as the public sphere. A generation earlier, the intermingling was so successful that it pervaded the private sphere: intermarriage was rampant. In part from a fear that such mixing would mean the end of a centuries-old Jewish enclave that sees itself on some level as the true descendants of Spanish Jewry, the community took steps to preserve itself. The effort paid off, as intermarriage - and the threat of extinction - has been staved off. But ironically, those measures may be the same ones that jeopardize it as a cohesive community, and as a model for coexistence. GIBRALTAR'S GEOGRAPHY helps its Jewish community keep Shabbat. Most of the residential and commercial district is pedestrianized, leaving little choice but to walk to and from synagogue on the Sabbath. And walk to and fro they do - as the squat Disney-esque Main Street, complete with red telephone booths, pastel stone buildings, and pubs offering fish and chips, forces the occasional U-turn. Following services Saturday afternoon, the peninsula's five synagogues empty as Gibraltarian Jews fill the quaint lanes alongside tourists and locals, engaging in a pre-Sabbath meal ritual as integral as hand-washing or kiddush. "It's the Jewish community at its best," according to Dominique Searle, editor of the Gibraltar Chronicle, and as befits anyone who runs a small-town newspaper, part historian, sociologist and man-about-town. "They all gather in front of the cathedral," the non-Jewish Searle continues, without irony. The modest stone-slated Cathedral Square, with its flowering shade tree and wooden-slatted benches, happens to be one of the better spots along Main Street to assemble. It also happens to be within meters of Gibraltar's largest synagogue, a wood, brass and marble affair. The square has become a living testament to the easy coexistence that has characterized the place. "Until 20 years ago, I would think that Gibraltar would be completely unique as a truly multicultural society that was ancient," Searle says, explaining that there have never been any ghettos, only full residential integration over the hundreds of years of the colony's history. That's certainly been true for the Jews, in whose honor, after all, the Italian term ghetto took on its modern meaning. The Treaty of Utrecht, in which Spain ceded the strategically placed limestone outcropping to the British in 1713, did officially contain a remainder of the Inquisition forbidding Jews from inhabiting the rock. But essentially from day one of British control, the Jews? trading acumen and financial connections were needed and utilized. By 1749, when the prohibition was officially dropped, the Jews numbered about 600. They soon grew. "The Jews more or less led the commerce on the rock for hundreds of years," says Gibraltar Chief Rabbi Ron Hassid. "It's not a coincidence [that] the first chief minister was a Jew" - one Joshua Hassan, who served from 1964 to 1987. "Rightly or wrongly, the Jewish people don't feel it's somebody else's land," Hassid says. In fact, "because they've been here so long and are so established, they don't feel like they're in exile." Their sense is that "they are the aristocrats of Gibraltar," continues Hassid, a relative newcomer who moved from England 20 years ago. As such, he says, they "don't feel they have to make excuses to anybody for being Jewish." "The Jewish community has always been quite proud of itself ? with reason," Searle says. "It doesn't keep its nose down and hide. It's really a part of the community." The community pride is evident not just in how it interacts with the non-Jewish world, but how it acts internally. "You have very few places in the world where you have communities as opposed to congregations," says Haim Levy, the Jewish community's president of 13 years, as he sits in his law firm's conference room overlooking the azure sea of the Gibraltar marina, gateway to the Mediterranean and beyond. "We laugh together. We cry together - hopefully we laugh more than we cry. We're a family," says the avuncular and somewhat apologetic bespectacled attorney with a smile. Levy's community welcomes newcomers into its warm embrace, which may be one of the reasons it has so many visitors - including, in June, Israel's Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger. The services it offers are also particularly helpful on Shabbat. "From here to France this is the most organized community. We're even more organized than Madrid - I don't mean that badly," Levy says. "We have all the facilities of a large community for a small community. I don't think there's a community of 600 Jews anywhere that has the facilities we do, please God." In addition to the five synagogues - all Orthodox - Gibraltar has three kosher restaurants; a day school, separate high schools for boys and girls; a kollel; an old-age home; a mikve; and two Jewish cemeteries. One is ancient and affords the tzaddikim buried inside a dazzling view of the Mediterranean and wispy Spanish mountains from the top of the rock; the other, at sea level, is separated into male and female sections as opposed to family plots in order to make the most efficient use of space, which is quickly being filled up. In keeping with the community spirit, the less affluent families (of which there aren't that many) receive financial help burying their dead. Mike Aron, who brought his family with him from South Africa to spend a sabbatical in Gibraltar, has taken to sending e-mails to his friends abroad telling them how much people here help each other out. Aron says he chose Gibraltar because, "I was looking for the shtetl." In Gibraltar, he has most certainly found it. WHILE THE community has always enjoyed Shabbat promenades, now they do so dressed more often in black - and, for the women, in wigs, long sleeves and skirts. The comfortable coexistence had had a cost - an intermarriage rate of at least 40-50 percent. The Jewish community by 1800 numbered around 1,500, constituting just less than half of the whole population and comprising the largest religious denomination (counting Catholics and Protestants separately). Before World War II, the number was roughly the same -1,800 - while today Jews are now only two percent of the populace. During the war, the civilian population was evacuated from the key strategic target, and many of the Jews who went abroad never came back. Hassid cites a local historian who found that even with this wartime migration, the lack of substantial growth in numbers during the history of the relatively stable community can only be attributed to intermarriage. It's generally agreed that 20 years ago that situation started to change. For one thing, in 1985, Gibraltar's gates were flung open after 18 years of border closure by the Spanish. The view of Europe they saw on the other side wasn't necessarily to any religion's liking. "When you look at where Europe went morally... religion really dropped in status. The remaining bits of the religious community withdrew a bit and became more Orthodox," Searle says. That certainly applied to the Jewish community. "There's a general trend in the world to that, isn't there?" Levy asks rhetorically. But he also points to rabbis who have been "very successful." "They have influenced the young people," he explains. Those rabbis came in after some of the community leaders had been exposed to the ba'al tshuva, or return to religion, movement, and had studied in yeshivot in England and Israel. Immersion in Jewish values heightened the awareness of the risk intermarriage posed to the community. And their exposure to Ashkenazi perspectives intensified their interest in a strict adherence to Halacha and an insularity that had previously been less predominant in the traditional Sephardi environment. They set up the first kollel, or yeshiva for married men, and pressure mounted for Jewish boys' and girls' high schools to join the already established Jewish day school. The high schools' opening in 1994 was perhaps the most dramatic move toward separating Jews from gentiles, with whom they had traditionally formed close friendships in secondary school - though Hassid also remembers gang fights between Jewish and Catholic students breaking out on occasion, something which he says no longer happens. On the other hand, gone too are the positive relationships with the monks and nuns who ran the Christian school attended by some of the older Jewish generation. "If you talk to people in the Jewish community, you'll find they have massively fond memories of brother so and so," Searle says. Those memories, however, are getting hazier. "A lot of people would say to you that when the community was more Sephardi Jewry, it was more relaxed, and with the arrival of the Ashkenazi [influenced] rabbi at some point, there was a lot more pressure to be Orthodox," Searle observes. Those pressures changed the historic tenor of the population. "From being dressed in normal gear, the whole community started to wear the whole covered system, and this is what changed Gibraltar from being a normal traditional community to being an Orthodox community," says Joshua Marrache, Benjamin?s brother and a genealogy enthusiast who has traced his family from its arrival in Gibraltar in the late 1700s. Outward practices such as dressing modestly and covering one's hair were particularly important because of the close scrutiny that could be visited by the community. "The community has become much more observant in the last 20 years. They've moved much more to the Right, and because it's a small community, it's much more intense," Rabbi Hillel Benchimol says. "They don't want people to say, 'Oh look, he's open on the Sabbath.' So that's pushed Gibraltar in that direction more than other places." (Closing on Shabbat, at least, has long been the rule on the rock.) ONCE JEWS used to join in the gala New Year's Eve bashes held in swanky hotels and would show up to mark events such as baptisms. Now such socializing is extremely rare. "The community likes to keep itself pretty close-knit. Our parents don't feel comfortable with us hanging around with non-Jews at night," remarks 23-year-old Gideon Bentata as he and a group of (Jewish) friends sip beers at Casemates, the small collection of touristy pubs and yuppified caf s at the end of Main Street that forms the bulk of nightlife on the island. Eight kids cluster around an outdoor table out of earshot but within music range of the bars. "They feel it's a bad influence. They don't want the tension of their children going out with non-Jews and relationships [forming]. They don't want that chance at all," explains Bentata, who, like many of his friends, knows Hebrew from an extended visit to Israel. Most Jewish high school graduates now spend a year before university studying in Israel. Then again, he adds with a grin, "They're paranoid about us hanging out with Jews at night." As a result, a generation of Jews has grown up without friendships with people in the greater community. According to the girls hanging out with Bentata, it's worth it. "You have to set up boundaries because you want to bring up your kids in the right way or they're going to start intermarrying... At the end of the day we're Jews and you have to give a good example to your children," says Tamar Abudarham, whose last name, like those of many of her friends, shows up on the first census taken of the Jews in the 1700s. Abudarham doesn't plan on breaking that tradition. Now on her summer break from studying law in England, she intends to settle in Gibraltar when she finishes. "We feel strongly about our religion and it would be a shame to lose it," declares the tall, brown-ringleted, and skirted 21 year old. It isn't only the young guard that thinks so. Rebecca Marrache, 46, the only daughter among the seven grown Marrache children, feels that her community's way of life needs safeguarding. "It's so original in the world, we have to try to protect it," she says. Though she describes herself as "middle-of-the-road" when it comes to Jewish observance, she explains, "for a small case like Gibraltar, if we didn't have an Orthodox community, we would lose our roots." She knows of the struggle first-hand, having grown up at a time when intermarriage was rampant and the community's continuity seemed tenuous. People need to be able to continue to come to Gibraltar and get a "unique Shabbat experience," she says. For one thing, there are the table rituals. Gibraltarians put out as many types of food as possible in order to recite as many blessings as possible. They wait to recite the standard blessing over the bread until people have recited the various blessings for fruits, vegetables, and other foods. When the hamotzi over the halla is finally uttered, pieces of bread aren't so much distributed as lobbed at the diners. As the bread rains down on unsuspecting visitors, they are supposed to be reminded that bounty doesn't come from human hands, but from the heavens. Then, in the Marraches' case, there's the table itself, a long, regal affair which takes up the length of the dining room of Fortress House, a colonial mansion Rebecca's father purchased from the British authorities when they mistakenly put it up for auction. Her mother sits at the head. Any of her six brothers can occasionally be found along the oval circumference, as can various noisy combinations of nieces, nephews and family friends with their own broods. Relaxing at the table with her two daughters under a portrait of herself done years earlier, Rebecca considers how her community has become more religiously observant over the years. "It's better," she concludes, "because my daughters don't have to be faced with the situation I was." THOUGH IT'S true that intermarriage has essentially ended and the Jewish population's numbers have stabilized and are even increasing for the first time in recent memory, some argue those positive developments also have drawbacks. "It's ironic that something that's letting us survive is shooting us in the leg," says Benchimol, who recently returned to his hometown after 13 years in the United States. "It's making us stronger and that's good, but at the expense of losing a lot of people. And probably you couldn't [hold on] to everybody, but it's the spirit of the community, and its inclusivity" that's being diminished, he says. Before, he says, "there wasn't the separation between the more observant and the less observant. It was all the same thing. Now there are the non-observant who are being left out. There's no outreach. "The danger is that we lose all the other Jews. We lose them." He reflects on his own childhood, when Yom Kippur services would bring everyone - observant and non - to shul. "Now there are less and less," he says. "They feel alienated and they feel it's a different kind of religion than they've seen. They really are disappearing." Benchimol points to the kollel and the community leadership's emphasis on that type of Jewish experience. "The kollel has been good for the growth of that bubble, which is good. But for the money they're spending, they could bring rabbis who do outreach and involve everybody." Benchimol, who now runs a kosher deli-style restaurant, has tried to organize activities to attract new, younger participants, such as Carlebach-style Kabbalat Shabbat services which emphasize exuberant singing and joy in the arrival of Shabbat. He also praises the welcoming approach of the Marrache family, who opened their house to host Shavuot study for men and women - on separate sides of the salon - instead of holding it in the synagogue. The younger crowd was able to drift in and out of the rabbinical lecture and spread out on sofas or the front steps in small, casual circles of their own. "There's growth. It's stronger," Benchimol says of the changed community. "But you have to look at the whole picture. Is that all we want, or is the quality of the Judaism surviving? We're missing the bigger picture." Levy, however, thinks the bigger picture is fine. "A lot of my community, whether they look Orthodox or not, are extremely religious. We have a community that 100% believes, whatever they look like or practice. It's a wonderful community. There's a great deal of friendship between people," he says, pointing to himself in his lawyerly garb and uncovered hair as someone who doesn't necessarily look like he keeps Shabbat and studies every day. "Here we all live under one umbrella, happily together." He estimates that 70% of the community keeps Shabbat and kashrut. Hassid, whose beard is long, free-flowing and white in contrast to Benchimol's feel excluded with the increased Orthodoxy. But, he stresses, "We haven't seen anybody drop out of the community because of that. "I don't think it's a genuine feeling. They think that they think that way," he says, but in reality, he continues, the situation is only "encouraging everybody to raise their standards." Some women complained, for instance, when they saw friends starting to cover their hair. "The ones who haven't taken that step feel left out," he notes. "But the ones who made those statements have visibly improved." Hassid also isn't troubled by the growing disconnect with the non-Jewish community. "I don't see it as a concern," he says succinctly. "I don't sense any anti-Semitism." And Levy feels that the greater religiosity from all quarters has in some respects improved relations with other groups: "The increasing commitment in the Christian community has actually caused more community interaction to be identified. We're both religious. We both have the same moral ethos." BUT THERE are others who are concerned about the separation taking place between Jews and the rest of Gibraltar. "For many years, the Catholics and the Jews in Gibraltar were quite close, and now, more and more, they feel that the Jews have totally disassociated themselves from them," Benchimol says. "What bothers me is the projection that we give, the image that the Jews are elitist and we're separating ourselves from them... Whether it's being sent or they're just receiving it, it's what's happening." During our conversation, Benchimol gets up from the couch at the central Elliott Hotel ? whose restaurant provides a kosher breakfast and whose gentile staff are trained to put Jewish guests on the ground floor in case they don't ride the elevator on Shabbat ? to exchange greetings with Gibraltar's bishop when he walks in. Even such banal pleasantries have become, simply put, less banal. Joshua Marrache mentions that several non-Jews he's talked to have told him that they feel "really happy" when old Jewish friends still recognize them. He relates how one Christian man told him how much it strikes him that a Jewish guy he went to high school with always makes a point to come over and say hello whenever he passes by. "Twenty years ago," Marrache says, "it would have been a normal thing." More common, he continues, is something else: "When I sit down with non-Jews, they always ask me, 'What happened' Whose fault is it?" Solomon Levy, 69, Haim Levy's brother and the vice president of the community, remembers that earlier era well. In many ways, he is that earlier era. He calls himself the "doyen of the estate agency," and announces without prompting that, "I've been working here for 45 years as an estate agent and I have no intention of retiring." His office has enough military mementos and whimsical trinkets ? toy soldiers, medals, caricature drawings of himself ? to stock a modest museum and in the meantime serves as a living memorial to his allegiances to his Jewish heritage and British citizenship. A sign on his wall reads, "I was born British and I want to die British," and back in the day, he put his conviction into action, serving as "the only Jewish officer on the rock." He was in charge of the large guns on the heights. "I'm not happy," declares the chairman of the British Legion for Ex-Servicemen and past president of the Rotary Club. "Before we used to mix a lot with the non-Jewish community, and now they [the Jews] keep away, which is not right. In a small community you need to mix with everybody." He recalls a time when Jews would routinely go to church services to welcome new priests "to show our good faith" (no pun apparently intended.) Now he is clearly annoyed that the burden of representing the community always falls on him as one of the few people interested in such overtures, and who doesn't feel restricted by Jewish law from making them - though a suspicion does arise that someone with such an extensive glory wall doesn't mind being called on to attend official events, including a solidarity visit to the Vatican. He is concerned about the implications of such widespread disinterest. "If there's less [time] together, there's less understanding, and if there's less understanding, there won't be such cordial relations." Benchimol puts it more bluntly: "Antagonism could build up... It's not good." "It could get more distant," says Searle. But "Haim [Levy] has an enormous ability - even though he himself is quite religious ? to see that the needs of the community are much wider." Searle adds that when it comes to anti-Semitism, "The problems that occur are so small that I think if you looked anywhere else, it would be one of the most relaxed Jewish communities today." Haim Levy acknowledges "minor tension" with younger Moroccans but doesn't seem overly worried about them. "The size [means] that we really have to live together and people have to get on, and therefore they do get on," he says. Gibraltar's petite proportions (6.5 square kilometers, or 11 times the size of The Mall in Washington, DC, according to the CIA World Factbook), which have kept not only the Jewish community but the greater community close, reassure many that Gibraltar's tradition of tolerance will survive; on some level, there can't be a complete separation between public and private lives, and that crossover guarantees a certain amount of continued intimacy. Abudarham, for one, points out that no matter what, "because it's such a small place you see these people three times a day... it can't [get too bad] because we're constantly with one another." The nature of the place itself ? the size, but also the history and sense of shared destiny ? has, in any case, forged a national image that helps coherence. "People have come from different places to here," Levy notes. "They see themselves as Gibraltarian. Gibraltarian Jews, Gibraltarian Christians. The emphasis on togetherness of the Gibraltarians helps." According to Joshua Marrache, 48, the crucial point in that history is the way outside forces have operated. Or more precisely, one force. "Gibraltar has a common enemy, which is Spain. Here we have 3,000 Muslims, 600 Jews, another 3,000 Hindus, and we all live united by one enemy. That's the secret behind the unity of the community in Gibraltar: the enmity of Spain." That's been the case from the beginning of the existence of the colony, when Spanish sieges cut the rock off from the outside and crucial supplies. And it's been reinforced in recent history, when Franco shut the border. The closing forced Gibraltar to resort to its seaport and airstrip, the latter of which must still be bisected by car or on foot to reach central Gibraltar. In a way, therefore, opening the border has had a negative side effect. "Before the frontier was closed. There was more unity here. Now everyone's always going to Spain," Solomon Levy says. Now, "they'll still be friends, but there'll be less close relations between the religions," he concludes. "But there will always be one thing in Gibraltar: respect for all the religions. We'll always have that." And an adequate supply of chairs.