The secrets of the Sephardim

US professor gets Jerusalem medal for Jewish historical research in Zamora.

Prof. Jesus Jambrina poses next to the sign marking Zamora’s medieval Jewish cemetery, which is now a park. (photo credit: ALFREDO ALONSO)
Prof. Jesus Jambrina poses next to the sign marking Zamora’s medieval Jewish cemetery, which is now a park.
(photo credit: ALFREDO ALONSO)
The Council of Sephardi and Oriental Communities of Jerusalem granted a medal last week to an American professor who researches and publicizes the Jewish past of Zamora, Spain.
Prof. Abraham Haim, president of the centuries-old council, said that the Medal of the Four Sephardi Synagogues – minted by the Israeli Society of Medals and Currency – recognized the achievements of Prof. Jesús Jambrina in the preservation of the medieval Jewish quarters of the city of Zamora. It also recognized his work as “organizer of two outstanding international conferences,” in Zamora and Portugal (2013 and 2014).
The province of Zamora and the city of the same name are located northwest of Castile and Leon (close to the border with Portugal), two medieval kingdoms to which Jews fled to escape the Almoravide and Almohade Moorish invasions of the 11th and 12th centuries. Jews were also part of King Fernando I’s repopulation of the region in the mid-11th century.
After the Inquisition forced Jews into physical and spiritual hiding between the 15th and 19th centuries, there was scant awareness in Zamora of its Jewish history.
At the same time, since Jews also fled from Zamora to Turkey, Greece, Syria, Israel, North and South America, North Africa and other countries, many Sephardi Jews across the world know that their families hail from that Spanish province or other parts of Spain. Jewish names connected to Zamora are Aboab, Arama, Corcos, De Leon, Saba, Valensi and Habib.
Haim praised Jambrina’s creation of the Isaac Campanton Center to further the study of Zamora’s Jewish history.
The center is named for the head of the Zamora talmudic academy, now known as the greatest in the Iberian Peninsula in the last century before the Expulsion.
This and other information about the area was known to only a few until Jambrina’s groundbreaking conference in July 2013. Titled “Reencuentro e Historia de la Aljama de Zamora” (“Reencounter and History: The Medieval Jewish Community of Zamora”), it brought together a team of international and local experts in Zamora to share their knowledge of its Jewish past.
“I want to share this recognition with all the people who have made all our programming possible, and especially with the people of Zamora, who have been the majority attending our events.
This is an award for them as well,” Jambrina told The Jerusalem Post last week.
He added that it was important for him to express his gratitude for the welcome and support he received from the Zamora Municipality and Deputation, which were crucial in bringing the conferences to fruition, “and to the Vimioso Municipality and the Carçao Municipality in Portugal.”
Last year, an exhilarated Jambrina spoke to the Post, exclaiming, “We’ve done it!” The breakthrough event had united a team of dedicated researchers with a strong connection to the area. All the members of the conference were invited to the Deputation of Zamora, and Jambrina presented a proposal for marking Jewish sites in the city.
He said his interest stemmed from the knowledge that his grandparents, who had emigrated to Cuba in the early part of the 20th century, were from the village of Gema del Vino, a 10-minute drive southeast of Zamora. He grew up hearing about Zamora and the village, and when he began studying Sephardi history, he began delving into Zamora’s Jewish history. Yet when he finally managed to visit the city in 2010, he was puzzled that the places he knew by then to contain so much Jewish history were not signposted.
This reporter attended both conferences and was witness to the excitement of a number of local and international guests whose surnames, family stories and/or traditions had spurred them to search for their identity. Talks by experts uncovered, among other things, historical proof of dangerous border crossings from Spain to Portugal and back; customs from centuries ago still preserved in Spanish families; clues on doorposts highlighting where a mezuza should have been; and tips on how to recognize a cross made by a converso (forced convert).
The much-desired signposting of Zamora’s medieval Jewish quarters took place this past July at the second conference.
True to the promise it had made at the previous one, the city signposted several places of Jewish significance.
The first was the medieval Jewish cemetery.
In the presence of Zamora’s dignitaries, members of the public and the press, and conference attendees, Haim read a prayer for the souls of those who had perished and who had suffered during the Inquisition.
Jambrina told the Post that the medal would be formally presented in a ceremony in March 2015 at the Viterbo University campus. He said the medal was “an honor, and encouragement to continue this research work.”
When he began work on Zamora a few years ago, he admitted, he had never imagined “that it would fly this way.”
“But reflecting on it now,” he said, “I would say that a lot has been accomplished in a relatively short period of time.”
That, he believes, “is what the council is recognizing: two international conferences, signposting of Jewish quarters, starting a study center, and some other events.”
One of these other events was Zamora’s celebration of the first International Ladino Day – the last day of Hanukka – which was on December 5 last year.
By means of these academic interventions, Jambrina said, “Zamora’s Jewish heritage has emerged full-force in the field of Jewish Sephardic studies. It has now been established that this was one of the great cities of Sefarad, along with Córdoba and Toledo, in the context of the 15th century, related to Jews in the Iberian Peninsula.”
He expressed hope that the award, in drawing attention to Zamora, would help increase awareness of the Jewish heritage of the city, the province, and even the region of Castile and Leon among its residents and the wider public, “so that we all continue learning and expanding our understanding of this part of Spain’s history and culture.”
This past March, Haim presented the Medal of the Four Sephardi Synagogues to former Spanish king Juan Carlos, at the Zarzuela Palace in Madrid, in recognition of the recently passed bill granting Spanish citizenship to descendants of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492.