Visiting Spain’s Jewish Past

One of my favorite things to do in my host city of Seville, Spain was to walk the streets of its juderia, the former Jewish quarter which today is known as the Barrio de Santa Cruz. It’s here that one will find the city’s narrowest streets and alleys, so narrow in fact that one will often have to hug the side of a building just so an oncoming car can pass. All life in the juderia ceased when Spain’s most famous monarchs, the zealous Catholics Isabel I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, expelled all Jews from Spain as set forth in the Alhambra Decree of 1492 (that year is not only about Columbus sailing the ocean blue as the children’s poem goes). My semester in Spain, in a city that was home to the second largest Jewish population in the Iberian Peninsula (the name given to the area comprising Spain and Portugal), taught me just how far back and deeply rooted Jewish history is in a predominantly Catholic country.

Centuries ago, Spain was home to one of the largest and most vibrant Jewish communities in the world. Jews first came to the Iberian Peninsula during Roman times, but it was not until Spain was invaded by Muslims from North Africa in the 8th century did they prosper in Spain. Under Christian and Visigoth rule, Jews faced discrimination and persecution. However, as the Muslims considered the Jews “People of the Book,” a term used to designate non-Muslim adherents to faiths which have revealed scripture, they were given special status. Jewish sections in Muslim Iberian cities flourished, many of them becoming notable places of learning and commerce. However, with the recapturing of Muslim Spain by the army of Isabel and Ferdinand, Jewish life in Spain grew bleak. Pogroms, organized massacres of people from a particular ethnic group, took place across Spain until the Jews’ expulsion from the country in the 15th century.

Most remnants of Jewish life in Spain from before the Alhambra Decree were either destroyed or taken over. However, small vestiges of it remain, primarily in the three cities that were the best examples of la convivencia (the coexistent) the name given to the period in history when Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived at peace with each other in Spain.

Seville: When Ferdinand II of Castile conquered Seville from Muslim rule, he forced the city’s Jewish population to the Barrio de Santa Cruz. The neighborhood contains countless snakelike streets and alleys, so it’s easy to escape from the crushing crowds of the nearby catedral (cathedral) although it’s probably not a good idea to wander the streets alone at night since more than one local confessed to me that on occasion even they sometimes get lost there. However, a daylight stroll will definitely help in bringing to life the ghosts of this historically rich and beautiful neighborhood. I would often pass by nondescript homes only for an open doorway to reveal a stunning garden patio complete with colorful azulejos (tiles). I tried to imagine the neighborhood when it was inhabited by the city’s Jewish population-the rabbi, the women with their heads covered according to religious doctrine, candles for the Sabbath being lit, the smell of baking challah bread  wafting through the air. Although it was hard to do so since the streets could be peaceful with only the sound of birds chirping, I also tried to imagine the death and destruction that came to the neighborhood, when its inhabitants were killed, its home razed, and its synagogues destroyed. One always equates the death and destruction of European Jews with the events of the Holocaust and yet almost 500 years earlier, it was happening in Spain, a country many people today would never guess had been home to such a significant Jewish population.

Things to check out:
-Plaza de Santa Cruz was built on the former site of the neighborhood’s main synagogue.
-Calle Susona
Legend goes that Susona, a Jewish girl, fell in love with a Christian knight. When Susona learned that her father and friends planned to kill several inquisitors, including her knight, she warned her love. A terrible reprisal was unleashed on the Jewish ghetto and Susona’s entire family was killed. She requested that her skull be placed above the doorway in atonement for her betrayal where it remained until the 18th century. Today, a ceramic tile with a skull rests above the door.
-Casa de la Memoria Al-Andalus.
In addition to traditional flamenco performances, it also offers Sephardic music concerts (Sephardic is a general term used to describe the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula.)

The sign basically says-In these places, the old “death street” contained the head of the beautiful Susona, who because of love betrayed her father. When he was killed she was mortified and upon her death had her head placed in front of the house as a testament to her betrayal.”

Toledo: At one time Toledo had the largest Jewish population in the Iberian Peninsula. Famed Spanish author Miguel Cervantes described Toledo as “the glory of Spain and light of her cities.” It’s thought to have more monuments per cobblestone street than almost any other city in the world. It was also considered to be the most representative of religious tolerance in Spain, the city’s many churches, mosques, and synagogues all within close proximity to each other, some sharing the same alleyways. I only visited Toledo for the day and it was on a group tour, so I left Toledo feeling disenchanted, not quite sure what Cervantez was talking about. However, when I do return to Spain, I’m anxious to visit Toledo again, this time on my own to hopefully discover the gems of the Ciudad de las Tres Culturas (City of the Three Cultures). Only three synagogues that date from before the Alhambra Decree survive and two of them are in Toledo.

Things to check out:
-Sinagoga del Transito
Built in 1366, the synagogue today is home to the Museo Sefardi which documents early Jewish history in Spain. It features a stunning sanctuary with mudejar plasterwork and a striking coffered wood ceiling. (Mudejar is a term that refers to any Muslims who remained in Spain after the Christian reconquest. Mudejar art is easily recongnizable by the perfect integration of the materials used, the specific techniques used to work them, and the motifs taken from Islamic aesthetics.)
-Singagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca
This served as the city’s main synagogue until the Jews were expelled in 1492. It was converted into a church around 1550, but today is a secular building.

Cordoba: Cordoba’s rise to fame and importance began in the 10th and 11th centuries when it was the western capital of the Islamic empire, rivaling even Baghdad. It was around this time too that Jewish life in Cordoba magnified in importance as well; in the 10th century Cordoba became the seat of Jewish learning, scholarship and culture. With the Christian reconquest by Spain, Cordoba was labeled a “scandal against Christianity” due to the prominent role it played in the Islamic empire; its non-Christian residents suffered greatly.

Things to check out:
-Casa de Sefarad (House of Sepharad)
A cultural project established through a private undertaking, the museum contains five exhibition rooms which tell the story of Sephardic Judeo-Spanish history, culture and tradition. The building it’s housed in contains architecture features from the 14th century.
The synagogue dates from the early 14th century and is adorned with carved Mozarabe patterns and Hebrew inscriptions. Although it was extremely small, it was still eerie for me visiting because it felt so real, so connected to what it once was centuries ago. I could truly imagine it being an active house of worship.
-Statute of Maimonides
Maimonides was one of Spain’s most famous Jews and a brilliant scholar.

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