The Jewish renaissance in Spain

A Spanish Internet radio station improves the image of Jews and Israel.

spanish jews 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
spanish jews 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This summer Madrid witnessed a historic first: an open-air klezmer concert in the gardens of the Palacio de Oriente, under the stony gaze of several of Spain's medieval monarchs. Some 500 people, including approximately 200 Jews, attended. Many sang and danced to the strains of Bulgarian violin and hassidic nigunim, courtesy of Radio Sefarad music editor Argentinean Jorge Rozemblum and his band, Klezmer Sefardi. This concert took place 515 summers after the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella had expelled the last remaining 200,000 official Jews from Spain. (Proper statistics are unavailable, but there are opinions that up to one-third of the country's population had converted from Judaism to Christianity in the previous centuries.) Casa Sefarad-Israel - a recently inaugurated Spanish Foreign Ministry project - hosted the event as part of its mission "to bridge the cultural gap between Spain and the Jews." Despite its ignorance of Jews and Judaism, Spanish culture is still proud of its history as Sefarad, where trigonometry was developed by Jewish scholars and the Greek philosophers were translated into Arabic and Hebrew, "and from there into Latin, setting the stage for the European Renaissance," says American historian Jeff Malka, author of Sephardic Genealogy: Discovering your Sephardic Ancestors and their World. And at a recent round table at Casa Asia - another Spanish Foreign Ministry project - "The X Factor of the Jews" was discussed, as participants tried to come up with reasons for the disproportionate number of Jews who have contributed to world history. Genetics? Book learning? Tradition? Moses, Jesus, Marx, Freud and Einstein were mentioned. The only conclusion reached was that it appeared illogical to mistrust and mistreat the Jews, says activist, writer and former member of the Spanish Parliament Pilar Rahola. Still, relatively few Spaniards actually know any Jews personally, or are aware that they do. The nation's capital houses only two, low-profile kosher restaurants, and the entire country's Jewish population stands at an unclear and only partly documented 20,000-30,000. Yet while statistics show Spain to be more sympathetic to the Palestinians than to the Israelis, the admiration of many white-collar professionals in Madrid lies with a country that can and does defend itself against terrorism. This sentiment was voiced by Esperanza Aguirre, the president of the Comunidad Autonoma de Madrid, at the opening of Casa Sefarad-Israel in June. The summer of 2003 marked an increase in anti-Semitic feeling in Spain due to public opinion over the second intifada. "There was no Jewish voice in the press here," says Jacobo Israel Grazon, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain. In 2003, he called a meeting with Argentinean-born media genius Solly Wolodarsky (instrumental in the creation of Israel TV and several resoundingly successful programs on Spanish TV) and Complutense University sociology Prof. Alex Baer. An Internet radio was decided upon. Radio Sefarad ( was born and its first program appeared on February 24, 2004. "We are not a community radio," says Baer, 36, "but a Jewish radio for Spanish speakers of all races and religions." He admits to being fascinated with the love-hate relationship that has existed between the Jews and Spain. "Israel is a touchy subject in Spain, still soaked with prejudice and stereotypes. These have lasted for centuries and don't disappear with 25 years of democracy. Radio Sefarad's mission is to contribute toward the 'normalization' of Israel and the Jews in Spanish public opinion," says Baer, who has worked with Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, the Gesher Association of Spanish Jews and as part of a media analysis group with B'nai B'rith. Radio Sefarad's director since the recent retirement of founder Wolodarsky, Baer recounts how in the summer of 2003 the Jewish Community of Madrid "went out into the streets to protest pro-Israel. This had never happened before, but we felt we needed no longer hide away in ghettos and we could be more outspoken. The radio is a continuation of this." He recently published a study for the Real Instituto Elcano, entitled "Tanks Against Stones: The Image of Israel in Spain," in which he discusses the fact that there is more general hostility toward Israel in Spain than in other European countries. Baer blames this on "the convergence of public opinion's identification of Israel with the US - generally disliked in Europe - and the fact that traditional Spanish-Catholic anti-Semitic stereotypes tend to rear their heads in the media." Nevertheless, when this summer the Jewish Community once more took to the streets to protest against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's "countdown," it was joined by members of most Spanish political parties, with the exception of the United Left. Radio technician and newscaster Jordi Galan Torregrosa, 26 - the only non-Jew in the Radio Sefarad team - recalls the prejudice and ignorance he witnessed as a child when a schoolmate wore a Star of David pendant. "Some kids said that he belonged to a sect. His name was David, he was probably a Jew."A musician and an art history graduate, presently studying locution, Galan Torregrosa says, "We do important work here by helping people get to know the cultural aspects of Judaism and get over the fear." RADIO SEFARAD'S audience is mainly in Latin America, Israel, the US, Gibraltar and, of course, Spain. Its programming includes music, live events, interviews with celebrities and politicians, art, history, cooking and humor. Canadian Solly Levy is a contributor who has a weekly program called The Time of Sefarad, broadcast in Haketia (Moroccan Ladino mixed with Arabic). The Research and Broadcast Center for Sephardi Culture from Buenos Aires has its own slot. The radio also hosts a weekly dialogue with Maite Rodriguez Velara of the Judeo-Christian Center in Madrid, whose library includes a complete set of Talmud and is used by university students and professors. Yet another close collaborator is Jorge Apizua, a security and defense consultant who discovered Radio Sefarad on the Internet, visited Israel in September 2006, and upon his return offered to do a weekly program on behalf of the Spain-Israel Solidarity Association. Casa Sefarad-Israel is soon, too, to begin its own program. One of Radio Sefarad's programs is entitled Footprints, and encourages listeners to send in their family names to discover if they are of Jewish origin. People with names like Alonso and Perez are only just beginning to have inklings that their families might have been conversos long ago. Listeners from all over the world ask about conversion to Judaism and these are always referred to their local rabbis. Madrid Chief Rabbi Moshe Bendahan says requests to know more about Judaism are divided into two categories: those who are sympathetic to Judaism, and those who are seriously interested in converting. The former are added to the community's cultural mailing list. Bendahan has a weekly Torah portion spot on Radio Sefarad. "I like the notion that we are able to explain our sources to both Jews and non-Jews," he says. His wife, Coty, a holistic healer, hosts The Art of Looking After Yourself. This program, as well as History of a Hatred, is conducted by the content editor, Mexican and US journalist Karen Anhalt Costilo, 32, who also manages Mail from Our Listeners and The Sephardi and Ashkenazi Kitchen. Anhalt Costilo says she received a letter from a young Catholic listener who enjoys Haifa-born graphic animator, graphologist and teacher Irit Green's Bible program so much, she recommended it to an Iranian friend, and they are both hooked. Radio Sefarad coordinates a weekly Jewish religious slot on Spanish National Radio, featuring Bendahan and Green. Green, 54, also conducts interviews in the Hebrew Corner. Her CV includes stints at Yediot Aharonot and work on a Pink Panther film in the UK, and the creation of training movies for the IAF. Since 2006, she has discovered medieval Hebrew writing on a wall in Avila, which led her to identify 34 graves, and some seventh- or eighth-century writing in Trujillo. Green also found a Hebrew script in a synagogue in Caceres, where the Jews are documented to have prayed on their last Tisha Be'av in Spain, hours before their expulsion. The English Corner is led by New Yorker Linda Jimenez Glassman, an English teacher at the Complutense University. During the Second Lebanese war, she visited Kibbutz Gonen (near Kiryat Shmona) and broadcast six interviews from there. Canadian Ariel Mercado, originally a Radio Sefarad listener, runs the French Corner. Budding playwright Adan Levy's (The Odyssey of Adam and Eve) specialty is an irreverent, avant garde program called Tohu Vevohu. He also provides the technical support to the team and has designed and edits TV Sefarad, which is a year old and still developing. The voice behind Eye on the Media is filmmaker Masha Gabriel, 32. She reads between the lines of the Spanish media and explains things from a Jewish and Israeli perspective. Together with Baer, she also gives news analysis, talks politics and runs a roundtable, all in her singular, witty style. "The great thing about our radio is that for many non-Jews who are pro-Israel, this is a real point of contact," says Anhalt Costilo. "The radio is a mini community," says Baer. "It is a meeting place for Jews and non-Jews. Jews often want to feel connected, but not necessarily to an official community. And there are increasingly numbers of non-Jews who identify with our culture and our ways." Known to the team as "our first listener," David Poza, 31, a Christian industrial engineer, was initially attracted to the klezmer and other music and now is "really connected" to the radio. "I think Radio Sefarad's work is very important in making more visible (or in this case audible) the Jewish presence here in Spain," he says. As Radio Sefarad celebrates its three and a half years on the Net, it is in the process of growing into an important portal to Jewish culture and to the reality of Israel at a time when increasing numbers of Spanish Jews are coming out of the closet, and even larger numbers of non-Jews are being given more than just a peek within. Stacey Menchel contributed to this article.