Judaism has been making more news than usual in Spain this spring. Just this past month the Spanish government caught international attention by formally rectifying a longstanding historic injustice: offering citizenship to the descendants of Jews expelled from Spain by rulers Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 – an offer that could potentially cover up to a third of the world’s 13 million Jews and could very well eventually be taken up by hundreds of thousands.
On a more micro front, and related to that infamous expulsion and persecution, a small town in Burgos has also gotten international notice thanks to of a vote it’s planning in nine days’ time as to whether to change its name. Its name, you see, is Castrillo Matajudíos – matajudíos meaning “kill Jews”. Somehow I predict they’ll switch back to the original “Motajudíos” (“Jew Hill”). [Editor’s note: On May 25, the town did in fact vote to change the name, a measure which was finally carried out in June 2015.]
These are merely the latest twists in the centuries-long saga of the Sephardim, the Jews of Sepharad (as they called the Iberian Peninsula). Jewish presence here has been traced back to Roman Hispania, and there are suggestions there might have been trade links dating back to Old Testament times.
Ironically, given the religious and geopolitics of the Middle East today, the golden age of the Sephardic Jews was under the relatively tolerant rule of the Moors – particularly from the 8th through 12th centuries – giving rise to towering historic figures like the philosopher Maimonides (right). They fared rather less well after the Christian Reconquest, until that fateful year they were finally forced to either convert or leave.
But they left behind a rich, exotic architectural and cultural legacy across Spain, especially in the Juderías, the Jewish quarters of cities like Cordoba, Girona, and Toledo. And in recent years great efforts have been made to publicise this legacy and organise access to it with initiatives like Paths of Sepharad.
Several of Spain’s major Hebraic highlights:
Cordoba The Judería here is truly one of my favourite city old quarters in Spain, and its 14th-century synagogue is one of the country’s three best-preserved of its kind from the Middle Ages. There’s also a Casa de Sepharad, a fascinating cultural centre and museum. The International Sephardi Music Festival takes place here in each June.
Girona This highly appealing city in north Catalonia is home to El Call, the best preserved Judería in Spain (and one of the best in the world), restored in 1980. In addition to an evocative warren of narrow lanes, patios, and archways, the Bonastruc ça Porta Centre includes a fascinating museum of Jewish history and culture.
Seville The city’s most picturesque quarter, the Barrio de Santa Cruz, was once its Judería, and a number of its churches used to be synagogues. These days, apart from soaking up the picturesque atmosphere amid the winding lanes, whitewashed buildings, and little orange-tree-adorned squares, you can visit the Seville Judería Interpretation Centre.
Toledo Back in the day, this ancient city looming over the Tagus River was Iberia’s leading centre of Jewry, counting no fewer than ten synagogues and five Talmudic schools. Today, the two that survive (after having been converted to churches) are the 14th-century Sinagoga del Tránsito (above, which includes the Sephardic Museum) and the extremely Moorish-flavoured 12th-century Santa María La Blanca (top, thought to be Europe’s oldest extant synagogue).
There are plenty of others – the the lovely little medieval city of Besalú in Catalonia; Tudela in Navarre; Andalusia’s Lucena; the Galician town of Ribadavia; and so on and so forth. In fact, it could be said that Spain has one of the world’s more interesting menus of Jewish heritage tourism.
Allow me to leave you with a video montage interweaving images of some of these places with medieval Sephardic artwork, set to Quando el Rey Nimrod, a famous song in Ladino, the Sephardic dialect based on 15th-century Spanish with borrowings from languages such as Arabic and Turkish. Shalom…