Reflections from 1997 Tour

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1997 University Synagogue Tour To Spain

Returning To Spain: 505 Years Later – 1997

Dear Haverim,

Last month, I wrote about our University Synagogue tour to Morocco and our Jewish, general and political experiences there. After a week in Morocco, we were off to Spain. Our first few hours in Spain, however, weren’t really spent there at all. We arrived by boat from Morocco to Spain, but immediately crossed the border into Gibraltar, an enclave of British culture that Spain lost to England 250 years ago. It was refreshing, after a week in Morocco, to experience the “creature comforts” of the West and to literally stand at the center of the medieval world – simultaneously facing the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, as well as Africa and Europe. The St. Michael’s Caves were astoundingly beautiful, the Barbary apes were entertaining and a number of us enjoyed a visit to the synagogue, day school and mikveh of this 700 person Jewish community.

No doubt about it. Spain was part of Europe – very different from Arab Morocco – despite all of its Islamic architecture and history. We were ready for Europe. Once again, the weather was great, the scenery was now lush and there were grand sights and sites, such as the Alhambra in Granada with its Generalife Gardens – a delight to the senses and a tribute to Spanish aesthetics.

We experienced both sides of our American Jewish selves as we stood in the Hall of Ambassadors in the Alhambra, where the Edict to expel the Jews was signed in March of 1492, the same place in which, a few months later, Ferdinand and Isabella agreed to sponsor Columbus’ journey to the New World, the place in which Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat met for peace talks two years ago, the same hall visited by President Clinton two days earlier as he prepared for the NATO summit.

The night before, we had celebrated Shabbat dinner and July 4 with serenading Spanish troubadours, Hebrew singing, Israeli dancing and American flags and songs. We concluded our morning visit with our guide, Miguel, with a Shabbat morning service in the old Jewish quarter, and he joined us in reading and singing in a service of healing. Was he trying to tell us that he was of Jewish descent – after all, at least 10% of Spaniards are – when he spoke of hearing such prayers from his grandfather, as a child?

In the 15th century and beyond, Spain ruled the world from Europe to North Africa and, in the Americas, from Alaska to Argentina. At that time and earlier, half of the Jews of the world lived in Spain. Then, after 1492, only crypto-Jews remained, practicing Judaism secretly, for the penalty of discovery was death. Although Spain’s empire grew in size, exporting the Inquisition wherever it conquered, it never recovered its greatness in science, philosophy or finance once the Jews were gone. Spain’s experience is a lesson to any country about the destructive power of a state religion and the rejection of pluralism and diversity.

Another lesson for us. Just as the Spanish built incredibly beautiful cathedrals and, prayed in them while Jews were being burned and expelled, we, in our daily lives, run the risk of averting our eyes and closing our minds to the horrors of the world around us. It’s too easy to use religion to blind us, rather than to summon us, and Spain perfected the use of religion as an opiate.

In the Juderia, we gathered and sang the Sephardic hymn, “Avraham Avinu” and a few days later, we “spoke” the service in the El Transito Synagogue of Toledo, since singing wasn’t permitted, now that it’s a museum. We met many Israelis in Morocco and Spain, traveling as families and in groups and, from time to time, they would join us as we made our presence as modern, living Jews felt.

In Seville, we met Jacobo Hasan, a PhD in Economics, who, in his own words, “Isn’t religious.” Yet, he buys kosher meat in Malaga (200 km away), puts on tefillin each day and has created a synagogue for 25 families in an apartment in order to “defend the classic values of Spanish Jewish tradition.” Why did Jacobo “return” to Spain from Morocco? “For 500 years, we always had Spanish in our tongues and Spain in our hearts,”
he replied. Returning to Spain was a kind of aliya, a “Zionism,” with Iberia as Zion.

Spain is a lovely country in terms of natural beauty and architecture. Museums like the Prado and the Queen Sofia and Madrid’s Royal Palace are most memorable and impressive and the streets are filled with people of all ages strolling, eating in sidewalk cafes and enjoying life. People are friendly and relaxed, but they sometimes move at a slow pace that can be frustrating to Americans. Those who learn “to go with the flow” and “enjoy the adventure,” will get the most out of Spain – not just seeing places, but also understanding its social and cultural values.

In search of understanding Spain, we visited the American Embassy in Spain, as we had done in Morocco. (By the way, the American Ambassadors to both Morocco and Spain were Jewish.) We learned of Spain’s high unemployment rate (unofficially at 30-40%) and its dependence on the European Union to underwrite its welfare needs. Our government favors the present conservative government as friendlier to U.S. interests than the socialists, while dismissing our fears of a renewed and stronger Catholic Church. The Embassy officials were quite knowledgeable about Jewish history and gave us many unique insights. It was a special honor to be invited to tea at the Embassy, since these diplomats had just finished the NATO Summit that morning and needed a break and we weren’t a break. Not only were we the first group to be briefed after the Secretaries of State and Defense, Congressional representative and the President, but we were the only non-governmental group every invited to the Embassy residence for a discussion!

At the Madrid synagogue, we met the President of the community, Jacques Laredo, who described the 20,000 Jews of Spain (other estimates are only 6.500) as half Ashkenazic and half Sephardic with some tension between the groups. Jews, who can prove Spanish descent, are able to obtain automatic citizenship and Jewish civil servants don’t have to work on Shabbat. In 1992, the King and Queen joined Israeli President Chaim Herzog at the synagogue for a ceremony of reconciliation, and Spain and Israel have had diplomatic relations for over a decade.

The Madrid community, one of 13 in the country, has 7,000 Jews, a few synagogues, a cemetery, a county club, a day school, a mikveh and a kosher butcher. The school is so good academically that 12% of its students are non-Jews and its curriculum includes Spanish, English, French and Hebrew. There are 25 international Jewish organizations in Spain and all the money raised by its Federation goes to Israel. (About 500 donors donate one million dollars per year!)

Bar Mitzvahs and weddings, Israeli dancing, adult education, davening and celebration punctuate the calendar, and lifecycle events continue to yield meaning and pleasure. Jews, Muslims and Protestants have even banded together to fight for a share of the religious stipend that the present government automatically gives to the Catholic Church.

The twenty-first century will undoubtedly continue the major changes in Jewish demographics tragically begun over 50 years ago. North America, Israel, the former Soviet Union, France, England, Argentina and Brazil, in that order, will contain most of the world’s Jews and the rest of the world will likely lose its communities, as the young move to larger Jewish communities in search of marriage, professional fulfillment and the critical mass of people needed for Jewish life to be meaningful.

Like a visitor to Eastern Europe must have felt 50 years ago, our University Synagogue travelers witnessed a poignant moment in the history of Spain. After 500 years, a remnant has returned to the land of its ancestors. They are studying and praying, teaching and celebrating and protecting and advancing Jewish interests – just us all of us do in America, just as we have always done throughout history.

If our grandchildren and great grandchildren ever visit Morocco and Spain, they will see less of Jewish life than we did. But know this – no visit to a fellow Jew is ever in vain. Every traveler who journeys to a land with Jews not only becomes a witness and a teller of tales, but also brings friendship, concern, love and human contact to
our people. And that is no small mitzvah.

B’shalom,
Rabbi Arnold Rachlis