Traveling Jewishly: The Jews Of Catalunya, Then And Now – 2009
Last year, on the University Synagogue Jewish Heritage Tour to Spain and France, we traveled to Barcelona, Girona, Marseilles, Avignon, Carpentras, Aix en Provence, Le Chambon, Nice, Cannes, Monaco and Paris. We visited both Jewish and general places of interest and learned about Jewish life historically and today. Many of you have asked me to share my reflections on our Jewish journey, so, over the next few months, I’ll describe our experiences.
At one time, Barcelona and Provence were considered one region and they still share cultural similarities. After the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, the Iberian Peninsula suffered a “brain drain” and its great experiment in multi-cultural inclusivity, convivencia, was lost forever. It used to be thought that 10% of present day Spaniards were descended from Jews or crypto-Jews; today, however, through DNA evidence, the figure appears to be higher, perhaps 20%.
Barcelona’s Jewish population today is only 5,000, but the region produced great works of Kabbala and Talmudic scholarship in medieval times and its Jewish history goes back 2,000 years. Most people visit Barcelona for Antonio Gaudi’s spectacular architecture and to stroll the Ramblas. We enjoyed both, and Gaudi’s Parc Guell, and Batlló home were incredibly interesting, even if not to everyone’s taste. The beach is beautiful and the Columbus statue nearby is a reminder of how our world and theirs are connected. left one day after the Jews were expelled in 1492 and he may have had Jewish ancestry. There is no doubt, however, that his astronomy and navigation teachers were Jews like Abraham Zacuto and, in Girona, at the , the connection is well established.
One of the striking sculptures in the museum’s garden is by Israeli Frank Meisler depicting Columbus’ voyages. The museum, named after the Girona-born 13th century Nachmanides/Ramban, describes his life and that of other pivotal Jews who combined the professions of philosopher, Kabbalist, Biblical exegete, poet, rabbi and physician! They were blessed by “living in two civilizations” – Spanish and Jewish – and they integrated secular and religious learning. King James I rewarded Ramban for winning a debate against Dominican and Franciscan friars on the “truth” of Judaism, but a pending Church heresy trial forced Nachmanides to flee to Eretz Yisrael. The Jews were expelled from in 1391 – a full century before the rest of – and not allowed to “officially” return until 1902. Many left during the Spanish Civil War (anti-Franco sentiment was stronger in and the Catalunyan region than anywhere else in ) and, in recent years, Argentinean Jews have given the community, especially the liberal synagogue, Atid, new life.
Jews helped create the economy of in the 11th and 12th centuries, but little remains of that time in the Jewish neighborhood, the “Call” (based on the Hebrew word “Kahal” for community). One sees empty indentations on stone doorposts that once held (and partially hid) mezuzot, and there’s also a 1,000 year old Jewish cemetery on Montjuic (Mountain of the Jews).
The most exciting visit for us was liberal congregation Atid where we were welcomed warmly for
Shabbat. We made a (non-romantic) shidduch (match) of sorts – a one-degree-of-separation-Jewish-geography- connection when we discovered that University Synagogue member Chela Taleisnik’s niece, Dominique, and Matt, the son of David Sandor’s law partner, were both members of Atid. Ken and Roberta Bell, who were on the tour, also knew Matt’s parents, so Dominique and Matt, who have known each other for years, were now also connected through us. Atid’s rabbi was on vacation, so members led the service and Dominique gave a great D’var Torah/sermon in Spanish, Catalan, Hebrew and English! Ruti was asked to sing and I was asked to speak and everyone on our tour loved the service.
Girona (an hour away) is where Jewish history comes alive. One feels the echoes of greatness in a city that was once called “Mother of Israel” and was Europe’s first center of Jewish mysticism. In the 9th century, 300 Jews were invited to live in Girona near the Church to translate Hebrew documents for the priests, to pay rent for abandoned slum property owned by the Church (deserted earlier by Christians), to enhance the town’s economic growth and to experience Christ’s eternal rejection of them for rejecting him. The Church’s needs dovetailed with the Jews’ desire to live in the city, even if they were attacked by mobs, who were incited by priests, at Easter services.
I realized how self-protective and illusional history must be taught in when our city guide spoke of the “understandable” jealousy that Christians felt when Jews were “protected” by kings and bishops, when they moved to Catalunya. I asked: “Why do you think that the Jews needed to be protected in the first place? Why blame the victim?” Years ago, in , a similar guide said that the reason that a former synagogue became a church in 1492 was because “the Jews left.” Then I angrily replied: “Left? No, expelled and their property was confiscated!” Why is it so hard for people to face history honestly? Without learning the truth, people will continue to fulfill Santanya’s prophecy of repeating the cruelties of history.
Barcelona is a fun and picturesque city with warm people and lots of good “people watching.” Catalunyans are hard working, smart, proud and cultured. We wish liberal synagogue Atid, which means “future,” a great future in creating a progressive and more rational approach to Judaism with openness to others.
In the meantime, we American Jews must realize how truly blessed we are – living fully and freely in two civilizations – safe and secure, beyond the wildest imagination of our ancestors anywhere or at any time.
Rabbi Arnie Rachlis