Jewish Mystery tour of Barcelona, Spain

Jewish Mystery tour of Barcelona, Spain 150 150 Sarity Gervais

As an observant Jew I am always drawn to the long and chequered history of the Jewish communities. I was fortunate to travel on a Kosherica cruise that departed from Barcelona. I spent five days in this city and still felt like I was just scratching the surface of exploring a new city.

Kosherica has an upcoming trip to the Canary Islands in February. It boards in Barcelona, Spain. For anyone interested in a city that’s beautiful, ancient and packed with remnants of Jewish history then keep reading. There are 10 places of significance that I think are worth listing. Since the ship boards and disembarks here, I’d advise you get to Barcelona a day or two early or stay after the cruise ends.

Barcelona is nestled on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, and is framed by green mountains on the other side. It is the capital of the independent Spanish region of Catalonia, with a population of 1.5 million. Its main intersection, Las Ramblas promenade, runs from the waterfront, and is filled with street performers, flower stands, shops and markets, overflowing with an exquisite array of fresh produce, fruits and vegetables glistening with ‘just picked’ colors and scents. A walk along Las Ramblas (plural, for the intersecting streets), can lead into a stunning variety of neighborhoods. It’s filled with architectural delights from Roman to Gothic.

There is a long and blood stained history of Jews in Barcelona, which began after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. There was an ongoing ‘Responsa’, the name for a body of written decisions and rulings given by legal scholars in response to questions addressed to them. It pertains historically, to religious law, constructed between the Babylonian Rabbis and those in Barcelona. Thus the integrity of the connection to the highest source of rabbinical studies was maintained.

During the 12th century, renowned Jewish Spanish traveller, Benjamin de Tudela, wrote of his arrival in a &quotsmall and beautiful city on the shore of the sea&quot and reported of a &quotholy Jewish community, with mighty princes of commerce&quot residing there.

Jewish learning flourished in the region. In the 13th century, one of our greatest and most important scholars, Moses Ben Nachman, also known as Ramban or Nachmanides, was ordered to debate a Dominican priest on the validity of Judaism versus Christianity. The debate was conducted in front of King Jaume I.

It was called the disputation of Barcelona and Ramban was so persuasive the King awarded him a monetary prize and praised his brilliance and courage. Then the King, who was obviously unusual in his thirst for knowledge and truth, attended a Jewish service in Barcelona’s Sinagoga Mayor.

By mid 14th century, a quarter of the population in Barcelona was Jewish, mostly crammed into the old Jewish quarter, El Call. Scholars, writers, merchants, bakers and bankers lived there, having significant influence on both Christian and Jewish commerce and intellectual expansion. Jewish population flourished and produced some famous scholars, as well as a great many people of wealth and influence.

On August 4th 1391, El Call was attacked, with at least 200 Jews murdered. The synagogue and Jewish properties were confiscated. This was the ominous start to what was to become one of the most horrific periods in Jewish history. Things became so devastating that about 100,000 Jews would leave, prior to the start of the Inquisition. About 4,000 of the Jews in Barcelona decided to convert to Christianity, rather than lose their positions of power and wealth. They did so ambivalently, many living a double life and practicing their true religion in secret.

The most ironic fact is that some of the reasons the Inquisition came about, is because Spain’s church leaders were furious and decided to use torture and any means to force the truth out of the new ‘Conversos’, the Jewish converts who forcibly accepted Christianity. A thing as minor as using olive oil rather than lard would give them away – and their obedient Christian neighbors made sure to report any such observation. Barcelona became a city without a Jewish population for hundreds of years, but in the end of 1800, Moroccan and Turkish Jews were the first to return. In 1909 the law prohibiting the establishment and worship in synagogues was overturned, and by 1918 a congregation of 100 or so Jews lived in the city. With the rise of Franco and the Spanish War, some 5,000 drifted to Catalonia, and Spain provided refuge for Jews, paradoxically, under fascist rule. In fact,none of the Jews who lived in Catalonia were shipped out for extermination, during the Nazi and fascist regimes. In the 1960’s, South American immigrants of both Sephardic and Ashkenazi origin immigrated to either Madrid or Barcelona to escape political repression. Speakers of Ladino were especially aided and encouraged.

Today Barcelona’s Jewish population numbers 5,000 and in 1954 the Communidad Israelita established the first free standing Jewish institution on the Iberian peninsula following Expulsion, with two places of worship: One representing the more traditional Sephardic Orthodox population, and the other synagogue caters to the Ashkenazi Jews. There is also a presence of Chabad, with the establishment of the Lubavitz Center of Studies.

In 1956 there was a huge influx of Moroccan Jews, returning to Spain, the land of their ancestors.

The community has a Jewish publishing firm called Rio Piedras, which specializes in the history of Spanish Jewry. The community runs Sephardic cooking classes, Ladino and Klezmer music concerts and an international Jewish music festival.

I heard of a deeply touching event, which happened in recent years and brought tears to the eyes of many, including myself. It concerns the &quotreturn, or rebirth of 5 Conversosa (forcible convert to Christianity), at the magnificent Sinagoga Mayor. Rabbi Ariel Edery read excerpts from a 15th century Siddur, written in ancient Catalan and Hebrew, which was discovered during an excavation under the foundations of the newly restored synagogue. This Shabath service, the 5 men, former converts to Catholicism, completed their re-conversion back to their original Jewish roots. They were called up to the Torah to chant their first Aliyot. The whole congregation was in tears as the men chanted. They all traced their lineage centuries back to Spanish Jewish ancestors


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Important Jewish sites:

1. In El Call, located at the corner of San Domdin, scripts dating back further than the 14th century, can be faintly made out, carved on the stonewalls.

2. Near the cathedral on San Jaume Square (I believe named after the King who defied the church centuries ago, by honoring Jews and their religion), there can be seen the letters nun, vet and taf on the worn bricks. The letters are so faded they must be pointed out if they’re to be noticed.

3. The restoration of the city’s medieval synagogue in the historic Jewish quarter is a must see for anyone interested in the rich history of Jews in this city. The excavated, rehabilitated and reopened grand medieval synagogue, is a must see for all Jewish visitor. One can ‘smell’ the history of our people, with its ground and first floor structures from 14th century, the 4. floors above from the 18th century. There is evidence of an underwater spring, which filled the congregation’s Mikveh. Further restoration display the fifth century ruins, a new Aron Hakodesh thus the recreation of Spain’s oldest synagogue.

5. Barcelona has the largest concentration of Jews in Spain, two functioning synagogues, an emerging academic investigation of past glory and historical reservations. It also has one of the most unique cross-pollination of the Jewish tribe, outside of Israel.

6. Carrer Marlet is a narrow, medieval passageway where visitors can only squeeze by one another. Like most of El Calls buildings, the majority of original constructions were torn down after the Expulsion but their materials were recycled in the city. The remaining structures where Jews once led their life are stark, simple and lack ornamentation in sharp contrast to the architecture of the magnificent city.

7. Mortjuic, Mountain of Jews can be reached cross-harbor cable from the seaside part of Barcelona or by bus no 61. It had a Jewish cemetery for at least a millennium. In 1956 a Jewish memorial was erected there, commemorating the Holocaust.

8. The Picasso museum is just outside Ell Call, rambling thru several gorgeous medieval palaces.

9. If there is any time left, a visit to Gerona is recommended. You’ll be transported back in time, to the center of Jewish learning in Spain in the 13th century. This is where Kaballa first made its appearance in Spain. This is where great scholars like Nachmanides contributed their genius to the development of mysticism.

10. Despite the lack of Jewish population in Gerona, the indentations on the doorposts are visible reminders of the mezuzahs once mounted there.

After this visit, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be adrift in an ocean of ancestral history, empathizing and rejoicing in the power of the Jewish human spirit.

Sarity Gervais