Wandering Jew: Blessings from Barcelona

Barcelona may not be known as a Jewish city, but remnants of its Jewish past still remain to be explored.

Wandering Jew: Blessings from Barcelona  (photo credit: Reuters)
Wandering Jew: Blessings from Barcelona
(photo credit: Reuters)
With a rich and varied Jewish history, Barcelona is a must for any traveler regardless of religious background. Before exploring this fascinating city, it’s useful to understand the events that shaped the Jewish community in order to understand the importance of the sites.
Barcelona is the capital and most populous province of Catalonia, as well as the second largest city in Spain. Before the Spanish Inquisition and the Edict Expulsion of the Jews in the 15th Century, Spain had one of the largest and most prosperous Jewish populations the world has ever known.
Archaeological evidence shows the existence of a sizable Jewish community in the province of Catalonia, dating back from as early as the beginning of the Common Era. Medieval Barcelona was 15 percent Jewish, with most living in the “Call”, or historic Jewish quarter.
In 1263 Barcelona was the site of a famous dispute between King James 1 of Aragon, who wanted to convert the Jews to Christianity, and Nachmanides, the foremost halahist of his age, who fought to validate Judaism. Nachmanides was declared the winner of the debate but he was eventually forced to leave Spain and went to settle in the Land of Israel.
The 14th century saw the destruction of Jewish life in Spain, and the decisive “pogrom” of 1391 saw the annihilation of the Jews of Barcelona. Many Jews were either murdered or forcibly converted. While the Jewish expulsion of Spain did not occur until the reign of King Ferdinance and Queen Isabella in 1492, all the Jews of Barcelona had either fled or converted years earlier following the pogrom in 1391.
Barcelona remained devoid of any Jewish presence for more than five hundred years, meaning that there are just a few Jewish sites to see today. Yet, the historic Jewish quarter still reveals a colorful Jewish past and there are plenty of markets to make a day here a truly worthwhile trip.
To start the day in the heart of historic Jewish Barcelona head to the old Jewish quarter “Call”, meaning “alleyway” in Spanish and potentially linked to the Hebrew words Kahal or Kehilla, meaning community. The quarter is located in the medieval part of the city between the Cathedral of La Seu, Plaça Jaume and Plaça del Pi, not far from the popular La Rambla promenade.
The main street of the Call was Carrer de Sant Domènec; this is where the main kosher shops were, and where people lived.
In the quarter there is the Center d'Interpretació del Call. This is a museum dedicated to the history of the Jewish Quarter. The house, known as the Casa de l’Alquimista dates back to the 14th Century, and was the home of Jewish weaver Jucef Bonhiac. The museum conserves rare period details in its architecture, including a glass section in the ground floor that allows visitors to see Jucef Bonhiac’s former wells and storage space.
The house is open everyday apart from Mondays, and is located at Placeta de Manuel Ribé.
The quarter is also home to an early 21st century Jewish discovery, the Mayor synagogue. Current records indicate that as many as four synagogues existed in Barcelona. The Major Synagogue has been restored, and the building is believed to date back to Roman times, making it the oldest synagogue in Europe. Documents that were found concerning the synagogue include a record form 1267, when King James 1 authorized the raising of the building’s height. Later excavations revealed the remains of Roman walls underneath the synagogue floor. The ruins date back to the reign of the Emperor Caracalla around the 2nd century.
This is a small synagogue where the main facade faces southeast towards Jerusalem. Inside there are two large glass windows with a menorah standing between them. And next to this is the scroll, which contains scriptures from the Torah. The ruins are protected by a glass surface, and you can walk around above them.
The synagogue is open all week, with varying opening times. Visitors are only allowed in the subterranean level. There is a suggested donation of 2 euros per person and the nearest metro stop is Juame I (Yellow Line).
After spending the morning exploring Barcelona’s long, and rich Jewish history there are a couple of kosher options for lunch. Firstly, El Corte Ingles on Avenida Diagonal 167 sells a wide range of Glatt kosher products, and they offer a delivery service. Secondly, there is the only kosher restaurant in Barcelona, Delicias on C/ Santaló 125 Barcelona 08021. Here they serve up traditional and Mediterranean food, and the average cost is 18 euros per person.
Unfortunately, beyond the Jewish quarter, there are few remnants of Barcelona’s Jewish past. However, there is the current community, and some good markets to visit for the afternoon.
Conveniently, the Jewish quarter is not far from La Boqueria, an open-air market off La Rambla. This is probably Barcelona's best-known market, and is perfect for sourcing ingredients for a fine meal or just wandering through. The food sold here ranges from fresh fruit salads to just-out-of-the-sea moving crabs and lobsters. And the odd sheep’s head can be found if you look hard enough.
A good market for a souvenir is the small art market that takes place every weekend at Plaça de Sant Josep Oriol. There usually aren't more than about 15 artists but they cover every style and medium, from watercolors to oils. The nearest metro line is Liceu (Green Line, L3).
Aside from markets there is also a visit to the current community center left to do. To get there head to Avenir 24, 08021. Here there is the CIB (Comunidad Israelita de Barcelona). This is a small building that houses a Talmud Torah, synagogue, mikveh, café and recreation area. The community serves around 3,500 Jewish residents and is quite mixed. The center is open to visitors, and holds services.
To end the day with some Spanish flavor, head tois La Caseta del Migdia. This jewel of the park is an open-air bar nestled under pine trees behind the Montjuïc castle. Although it requires a little walk, at night you have a view over the sea, and as sunset approaches samba music is played out while patrons lie back and relax in one of the hammocks.
To get there walk below the walls of the Montjuïc castle or follow the Passeig del Migdia, and watch out for signs for the Mirador del Migdia.
The Jewish Virtual Library contributed to this report.
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