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Our Search for the Jewish of Spain

Story and photos by Rhoda Goodman

 We were very lucky. The weather in Spain from mid-October to the beginning of November 2014 was glorious and thus we never needed the umbrellas or raincoats crammed into our hand luggage. As usual, we were travelling with hand luggage only. Traversing Spain by train and one intercity bus, which was the most luxurious I had ever travelled on, certainly made us appreciate our lack of bulky luggage. All transport departed on time and ran efficiently. Everyone we interacted with in Spain was pleasant, helpful and kind, including taxi drivers, which was an added bonus.

We were visiting some main centers of 'Jewish Spain' which is somewhat of an oxymoron, given that there are now very few Jews in Spain. Yes, several thousand expats in total live and work in the two beautiful cities of Madrid and Barcelona, but there are just 75 Jews in Seville and 35 in Granada, where once Jews formed a much larger percentage of the population. Interestingly, a recent study found that 19.8 percent of Spaniards share a Y-chromosome haplotype with Sephardic Jews.

Obviously the expression 'Jewish Spain' refers to the long history of the Jews who had lived in Spain for centuries (it is believed from biblical times, but certainly from around 220 BCE when the Romans invaded Hispania), prior to the signing of the Edict of Expulsion in 1492. I had heard horror stories of life under the Inquisition and, indeed, preparing for our visit, I studied copious material on the Internet. Thus, not too many things that we encountered were really that surprising. However, now, several months after our trip, some experiences still remain etched in my memory.

Bernie Goodman with the statue of Maimonides in Cordoba

The medieval quarters of Toledo and Cordoba, once two major centers of Jewish life, have been preserved as tourist destinations. You will find Maimonides' statue, synagogues turned into museums and little tiles along the streets that were once Jewish streets, depicting menorahs or the word Chai or the word Sefarad, written in the shape of Spain.

In the larger cities, Seville and Granada, Jewish residence has been virtually airbrushed from history. To find the Jewish museums in both cities was a labor of love. When we did, eventually, find the museum in Seville we were fortunate to be invited to join another couple on a tour of the one-time Jewish quarter of the city - not, of course, that there is actually anything Jewish to see. However, the tour guide, a Jewish man of Moroccan descent whose grandparents had returned to Spain, was extremely knowledgeable and he brought that long-ago Jewish world alive for us.

We learned that Isabella and Ferdinand, who are revered in Spain for uniting the country under Christianity, were themselves both descendants of Conversos (forcibly converted Jews). They were introduced to one another by Jews, their treasurer was a Jew and many members of their Court were Jews. How quickly generations forget from whence they come! I remember being told by an Atlas Mountain guide in Morocco that the first monotheistic religion in Morocco was Judaism, embraced by the Berber people. And yet, when the Muslims of Spain invited the Berbers to help them fight the Christians, the Berbers, now converted to Islam, were appalled at how leniently the Spanish Muslims treated their Jews and began a campaign of persecution against them.

In Seville, during the building of an underground car park in the 1990's, a Jewish cemetery was uncovered. One sarcophagus has been preserved, sited behind a glass panel (opposite, by the way, parking space no. 9. You can park your car right up to the glass). The rest of the remains disappeared and, despite numerous enquiries, all knowledge of them is denied at the Town Hall.

In Seville, we also learned that all gypsies originate from northern India and Flamenco is a mixture of Indian, Jewish and Islamic dance. We saw a Flamenco show with just one Spanish guitarist, one Flamenco dancer and one singer in the Museum of Guitars in Seville, an intimate and magical experience and one highly recommended. In fact, Seville is the most beautiful city, alive and vibrant and well worth a visit just to experience its joie de vivre.

Granada, a university city, on the other hand, was a disappointment. Graffiti disfigured many buildings. The romantic notion I had of Granada (perhaps because of the song of the same name) was dispelled. We stayed in the old Arab quarter of the city, the Albacin, opposite the Alhambra Palace. Originally, founded by Jews and called Rimon, the city was renamed by conquering Arabs as Granata Al-Yahud. An Arab shuk spreads along the lower streets of Albacin and there are now five mosques in the city.

When we did find the Jewish museum, which is tiny and privately funded, the receptionist was a Spanish lady who had discovered her Jewish roots. She asked where we were from and her face lit up when we said Israel. Her gratitude at our presence was worth the whole trip. It was in the Granada museum that we found claims of Christopher Columbus's Jewish roots including his original name, Yona. There is indeed circumstantial evidence to support the likelihood that he was descended from Conversos but, as his heirs destroyed many of his private papers, it is inconclusive.

We found the Alhambra Palace less impressive than expected, but the gardens and the views are just glorious. Nevertheless, the Alhambra is the most visited site in Europe with 8,500 people every day queuing for the privilege, so perhaps our responses are unrepresentative. Make sure, however, to book tickets online and then redeem them in the Alhambra shop situated in the center of Granada, if the Alhambra is on your bucket list. 

Bernie Goodman laying tefilin in the Jewish Quarter of Cordoba

We eventually wound our way down to Marbella for a few days of relaxation and reflection. We found vegetarian or vegan restaurants in virtually every city (Happy Cow was incredibly helpful here) and had no trouble avoiding the ubiquitous pork products which were on sale everywhere except Granada (the Muslim population probably has something to do with this). Of course, the provision, (one could say over-provision) of pork products is another aspect of Spanish life which originates with Spanish Jewry. The eating or non-eating of pork products helped the Old Christians to identify which members of the New Christian community, i.e. converted Jews, were covertly practising Judaism. Cases abound of Jews hanged or tortured for not eating pork.

The biggest surprise to me was that the Inquisition itself did not officially end until 1834. The Old Christians believed that 'impure' blood, Jewish blood, would last for 20 generations.

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