Walking the Streets of History, Nearly Jew-Free

by Rabbi Wendy Spears

I had the privilege in August 2012 to take a long overdue family vacation. We travelled to Spain, visiting the cities of Madrid, Segovia, and Toledo. Considering the impoverished economy of Spain right now, there is an awareness that tourist monies are still coming in; they take really good care of their historical sites and museums. The high traffic sites are friendly to English speakers with curation cards in English at the museums, English-language restaurant menus, and tour guides who speak English. I highly recommend you visit.

It was very odd for me and my family to be in a place where there were hardly any Jews. I’ve never seen so many hams for sale; most of them come with the leg bone and hoof attached! The photo shows how enormous they are – bigger than my teen son’s head! My understanding is that there is a modern Jewish community in Barcelona, but not in Madrid, Segovia, or Toledo. In both Segovia and Toledo, there are places where Jews are remembered with various plaques and street signs.

We visited the Transito Synagogue in Toledo. The building served for many years after 1492 as a convent. It was destroyed by fire numerous times over the centuries (Spain seems to have had a problem with this; many places we went, not just Jewish sites, indicated they were rebuilt after fire destruction.) It is currently a small museum with a restored Jewish sanctuary. While it attempts to give a concise and comprehensive history of Jews and Judaism, it was clear to me that whoever curated the collection didn’t really have any direct experience with how Jews still exist in the world today. I was very uncomfortable, and certainly felt out of place.

In Segovia, a portion of the home of Abraham Shnei-Or (this is how the Hebrew reads; the English and Spanish say Senior) is preserved as a 2-room museum and gift shop. Shnei-Or was a friend and advisor to King Ferdinand, that same Ferdinand who helped to fund the voyage of Christopher Columbus (this being Columbus Day, I thought this post fits quite well). Shnei-Or attempted to convince Ferdinand to rescind the decree expelling Jews from Spain. The decree was written within days of the fall of Granada, last safe haven of Spanish Jews – a battle which Shnei-Or helped to fund for Ferdinand. As we know from history, Shnei-Or was unsuccessful. He remained in Spain, converting to Catholicism. He died in 1493. The museum reveals only a little of this tragic period in Spanish Jewish history; rather, it explains a few Jewish holidays and customs and shows a model of a synagogue.

So, it’s pretty weird to be a Jewish person in a place that views Jews and Judaism as a people and culture from far back in history. Jews came to Spain with the Romans, around the time that the second Temple was destroyed in Jerusalem – a span of nearly 1500 years. The country and landscape of Spain was a part of them and they were an integral part of it.

I doubt that many of the people we met in Spain had ever seen a Jew in real life. This man seemed puzzled to even see a tourist with a camera (Men and women alike carry large messenger bags and totes; they don’t seem worried about pick-pockets). It was worthwhile being there, walking the streets and seeing the views that Jews had seen prior to 1492. But it also felt weighty and sad, as if the walls and cobblestones were infused with the tears of Jews being forced to leave their country or become Catholics in order to remain. I really didn’t like feeling like an anachronism. I imagine there are many places in Europe where I would feel similarly.

So, as I remember Christopher Columbus today, I think how the expulsion of the Jews from Spain served to disperse Jews and Judaism to more places in the world. I think some good came from this disaster, but I wish it hadn’t happened. With all its historical wealth, I think Spain is poorer without Jews.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com

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