Spain's Catalonia region reviving its Jewish past

On January 22, Barcelona's oldest synagogue received a gift of a medieval Torah scroll.

Spain's Catalonia region suffered some of the most virulent anti-Semitism of the Middle Ages, and most Jews were driven out nearly a century before all Jews were expelled from the rest of the country in 1492. For centuries since those times, Catalan Jews were a forgotten people - but recently there has been a revival of interest in Catalonia's Jewish past. Barcelona's oldest synagogue, dating from the 9th century, has been restored and on Jan. 22 it received a gift of a medieval Torah scroll. With the 500-year-old Torah installed in its Ark of the Covenant, the synagogue is now consecrated and can begin to function as a house of worship, although at present no congregation regularly meets in the synagogue. "The Torah has a message not just for Jews but for all the people of the world," said Miguel Iaffa, the 66-year-old retired businessman behind the synagogue's restoration. "We don't own this Torah, but it's our grand responsibility to care for it." In 1985, the Argentine immigrant discovered that a rubble-filled basement deep in the city's old quarter was also the remains of what was the central house of worship for Barcelona's thousands of Jews during the Middle Ages. Since then, he has served as the director of an association that bought and restored the building, and now administers it. The donation of the Torah, valued at US $30,000, was made by Lorenzo Rozencwaig, a Jewish attorney from New York, who bought it from a dealer in antique Judaica. It is the latest step in recovering and reviving Jewish Catalonia, uniting its past and its present. The synagogue has been receiving visitors since 2002 and in 2005 posted a record 20,000 visits, said Iaffa. About 15,000 Jews live in Spain, mostly in Madrid and Barcelona. Barcelona is home to three congregations - an Orthodox, a reform, and a Hasidic. The medieval synagogue that Iaffa has spent the past two decades nursing back to life will not serve any specific congregation. "An increasing number of Jews are coming to live in Barcelona, and they are insisting on their historic right to be here," said Iaffa. "We want to see it become normal for Jews to live here and to be considered as Catalans and not as foreigners." There has been a surge in interest in tracing the route of Catalonia's medieval Jewry, which stretches 70 kilometers northward from Barcelona to Catalonia's second largest city, Gerona. There, a medieval Jewish neighborhood has been painstakingly reclaimed and restored. Gerona and Barcelona were home to drastically different Jewish communities. Gerona was one of Europe's main centers of cabala, and some of the great cabalistic writers and teachers of the Middle Ages lived there. Barcelona hosted a community of rationalist scholars - and even today the city's rabbis are consulted for their lucid explanations of Jewish law and doctrine. The first written reference to Jews in Gerona dates from 890 A.D. The Jewish neighborhood thrived for over 500 years, although it was the target of periodic outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence. The last synagogue built in Spain was completed in Gerona in the mid-1400s, and today it is beautifully restored, housing the Centre Bonastruc ca Porta, with a museum about Catalonia's Jews, as well as a historical archive for scholars to consult. After 1492, Gerona's Jewish neighborhood was closed off, bricked over and obliterated from the city's collective memory until the late 20th century, when it was excavated and restored. The Centre Bonastruc, at its heart, was visited by over 100,000 people in 2005, according to director Assumcio Hosta. Some 24 kilometers north of Gerona is the small town of Besalu, an impeccably maintained medieval village with a lovely main plaza, where Jews thrived in the 12th and 13th centuries. The mikvah, has been excavated and restored. There are three guided visits a day to the baths. The town is planning to undertake a second round of excavations shortly, according to Mayor Lluis Guino. A scale model of the town's medieval synagogue is to be built at its original location close to the baths. The new respect for the Jewish past in places like Gerona and Besalu is drawing tourists and scholars from all over the world. Barry and Elaine Hershkowitz, who lived in Brooklyn until they retired and moved to Jerusalem, said they were "extremely excited" by their tours of the medieval Jewish neighborhoods of Gerona and Barcelona. "Even though our guides weren't Jewish, they were proud of what they showed us, and they made us feel very comfortable," said Barry Hershkowitz. "It has been wonderful."