Not the First (or Last) Jew in Spain
by Hilary Weissman
While studying abroad in Spain this spring. I found myself unintentionally making numerous trips to the southern town of Córdoba– it served as a stop along the way in order to make the most of my EuroRail pass at the end of the semester. Córdoba’s storied Jewish heritage manifested itself when my sister and I were lucky enough to find the Mazal Sephardic restaurant (pun very intended) during my second visit. We sampled pumpkin flan and raisin roasted chicken with rice before the start of Passover, which we later celebrated with a congregation from Madrid. Other than the saffron-spiced yellow gefilte fish, the seder experience felt very familiar, as I was lucky to have my sister there with me to celebrate, daiyenu. We were transported between two different worlds as the Rabbi delivered a sermon and led us through the Spanish haggadah, and then brought us right back to our hometown synagogue, it would seem, as soon as he began to sing in Hebrew. Even his inherent Jewish kibitzing couldn’t be lost in translation.
Learning from my guidebook to Jewish Spain that there are merely 5,000 practicing Jews in Barcelona and Madrid each, along with pockets of communities sprinkled along the Costa del Sol (the southern border of Spain) surprised me much more than finding what was left intact of their ancestors after the original Diaspora. Spanish Jewry left their mark through the Sephardic flavor that enriches Spanish history.
Among the many eye-opening experiences I had while studying in the Madrid province–language immersion, living on my own with seven girls from three different countries, trying exotic and native food, and crossing borders on my own–nothing was quite as charming as my interview and guided tour of the barrio, Alcalá de Henares’ ghost of a Jewish quarter.
You would only know you had entered the Madrid suburb’s Jewish quarter if you happened to catch the small plaques on top of the entryways, marking where the two synagogues were supposed to have been, pointed out to me by the owner of a small souvenir shop on Calle Mayor (Main Street). He said he would show me around the 15th– and 16th-century Jewish homes, lofted apartments over their storefronts, set apart by holes in the floors for the residents to see who was knocking at their front door below. If they knew the caller, they would throw their keys down to let their guests up. My tour guide shared some of his favorite Ladino music with me and, after I told him that our family had traced our lineage back to pre-Inquisition Spain, even let me in on the fact that my grandmother’s maiden name, Mirels, was probably Catalán (from the now-autonomous regions of Cataluña).
Though he claimed not to know much about the Jewish quarter, I spent the next two hours with him discussing the barrio, the architecture, religion, politics and current events. He told me about speaking with the Spanish ambassador to Croatia, who happens to be Jewish, and discussed the symbolism of the proximity of the old Jewish and Muslim quarters of Alcalá. The minor synagogue and the mosque were once across the street. Still, he said, “It became difficult to maintain the Hebrew religion and culture; the same happened with the Muslims—another 300,000 were expelled, and we never speak of this. In Alcalá de Henares alone the expulsion of the Muslims lost 10 percent of the population…but it’s not in the collective Spanish conscience like the expulsion of the Jews.”
After this conversation, I made sure to find the Jewish quarters that remain in several Spanish cities, like Toledo, Córdoba, and Seville. They are kept in various states—some only have rumored ties to Jewish communities and others are left in anthropological disarray, while a few have retained thriving historical proof of our ancestral fingerprints. Toledo, the most well known keeper of Sephardic heritage in Spain, boasts two of Spain’s three remaining pre-Inquisition synagogues, while Córdoba has the third. According to the Casa Sefarad in Córdoba, a colorful museum detailing the Inquisition and the journey of Cordoba’s native son, Maimonides, the 14th-century synagogue in Córdoba is Spain’s best-preserved synagogue, though it has fallen into disuse.
These interviews and trips were perfect supplements to the readings on the Jewish and Moorish coexistence and ultimate expulsion we studied in my Spanish culture and civilization class, in the form of history textbooks and historical fiction excerpts like “The Inquisitor” by Francisco Ayala, a story about a converted Jew who became a priest, confronted by his family and hidden past when they are presented before him to be interrogated. After all the nagging from my mother, grandmother, and every Judaica storeowner in Spain, I finally tackled The Last Jew on my commutes into the city with my newfound understanding of the context, and I think it is better this way, rather than drudging through it before my education abroad.