written by Doreen

Our tour of Jewish Spain was not only enjoyable but also a learning experience. Our guide, Shuki Brandwein, has extensive knowledge of the area and the periods we covered, and thanks to him it was an intense educational journey as well. We feel strongly that school children, and adults, in Israel should visit Sepharad in addition to Poland. It is an eye opener to learn of Sephardic Jewry that managed to develop Jewish philosophy, Hebrew literature and even overtook the sages in Babylon in prestige but at the same time also managed to be a viable part of first Moslem and then Christian society, without giving up anything of its Jewishness.
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Who doesn't know marzipan? Toledo is filled with shops selling all kinds of mazapan which originates in this city. The Inquisition, always on the look out for Conversos secretly practicing Jewish rites, didn't realize that mazapan was "matza pan", a substitute for bread and was their matzo.
Sepharad - Toledo

Sepharad - Toledo

Doreen stands in front of The Gate of the Jews which led to a bridge that crossed the Tago River to the Jewish Quarter behind the city walls. Jews settled here not long after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and survived the conquering Visigoths.
In 589 when the Visigoths embraced Catholicism they began to enact anti-Jewish laws. In 711 when the city was captured by Muslims Jews lived peacefully with their Moslem and Christian neighbours for 350 years until the reconquest by the Catholics.
Under the Visigoths and then under the Moslems Jewish culture flourished and became known as the Tor HaZahav, the Golden Age,  which then continued under the Catholics until the 14th century. Jews reached positions such as tax collectors, advisors to the regents, doctors, translators, scientists and foreign ambassadors, and even on two occasions Chief commander of the Army.

As we drove through the Plains of La Mancha we were amazed by olive trees growing from skyline to unending skyline. Spain is an olive oil superpower and it seems many of our 'pure' oils are blended with Spanish olive oil- which is delicious by the way. When we saw windmills on the hills  we recalled Don Quixote and his servant Sancho Panzes and said we must read Cervantes again! Eitan stands near huge vats for olive oil.
Sepharad - CordobaSepharad - Cordoba

 Sepharad - Cordoba

In Cordoba we visited the huge Mesquite-Cathedral. Built on the ruins of a former Visigoth church the mosque was built and expanded over a period of 200 years by four Moslems rulers. starting with Abd Rahman I who survived  a massacre of the Ommayids in Jerusalem by the Abbasids.  It could accomodate 25,000 worshippers.

The mosque has more than 850 columns richly decorated in alternating bands of coloreds stones and decorated with intricately designed stucco. The tranquility and beauty of the outside patio resembling an oasis and the unending space of the interior is hypnotic. 

In 1236 when Cordoba was captured by the Catholic Ferdinand III the centre of the mosque was turned into a huge cathedral that literally springs out and towers over the mosque. Islam dwarfed by Christianity.

A small chapel in Cordova was recently restored. When the old plaster was removed Hebrew writing on the walls was uncovered, revealing that this building too had been a synagogue,before being converted into a church. Built in 1315  its discovery made it into one of the few synagogues that have been identified in Sepharad today.  Eitan flowered on this journey, congenial and helpful and stands  among the geraniums in the Street of the Flowers

Sepharad - CordobaSepharad - Cordoba

Here Eitan and Doreen stand in front of a statue of Maimonides 1135-1204. Born in Cordova his family moved to Egypt because of pressure on Jews. He wrote the Mishneh Torah and Guide to the Perplexed and is considered one of the greatest Jewish sages. Well regarded both by Moslems and Christians, his fame has tuned him into a tourist attraction in Cordova.
We had a fascinating meeting at Casa Sepharad with Sebastian, who spoke eloquently about the traces of Jewish culture in Spanish life. He described these faint memories as a man who has lost two fingers but when he takes up a glass his five fingers  hold the cup. He is trying to teach about the Jewish heritage of Spain that has been virtually ignored by the Spanish, and battles with how does one recover these memories. Some say that 20% of the Spanish population carries Conversos blood. But most Spaniards are not religious and are not interested in the past. The Inquisition was only formally cancelled in 1869 and the Expulsion order in 1968. Most Spaniards had never seen a Jewish person for some 500 years.
Sepharad - CordobaSepharad - Cordoba

Sepharad - CordobaBehind Eitan is the beautiful bridge crossing the Tajus River with Cordova behind.

We continued to Caceres in Extramadura and at a stop for toilets at the municipality we loved the re-creation of Bethlehem, part of a Nativity scene. We were amused to see the man to right of the windmill (that's Spanish; no windmills in biblical times) roasting a pig on a spit.
Sepharad - Cordoba

On a walking tour of Caceres like in the other towns with a Jewish past, we again saw bronze markers with the Hebrew words Sepharad on the street, marking the boundaries of the ancient Juderias. The stone threshold of this house still bears the incision where a mezzuzah once stood.  We were told that the reason our mezzuzahs are at a slant is to prevent them from being turned into a cross
Sepharad - CordobaSepharad - Cordoba

On our way to Bejar we passed a fascinating geological formation where the Tajus River cuts laterally through a mountain. The river is older than the rising mountain which it wears down all the time.  This beautiful bridge dates back to Roman times.On the way we stopped at Monfrague to be fascinated by the tens of Black Vulture pairs that nest and hang out there.

Sepharad - CordobaSepharad - Montfrague

  Passing Bejar we arrived at Candelaria high up in the mountains. Because of its remoteness and poverty it has been virtually undisturbed for centuries.We wandered through the streets in the bitter cold with the wind coming off the snow tipped mountains above the village. Many houses have an extra half-door that served the dual purpose of enabling the main door to be opened in the hot summer, while allowing a breeze into the house. It also protected entry of bulls into the house when the bulls ran through the village. We were told that the houses that had crosses scratched into the lintels were houses of Conversos - having to prove their faith and be more Catholic than the Catholics. We learnt that converting did not bring relief, only brought new hardships, terrors, and the Inquisition. After a few generations, although families may have been aware of a Jewish past, they lived as Christians. But they were not allowed to  forget - even something as seemingly innocent as washing on a Friday or changing the bedsheets on a Saturday could be construed as keeping  Jewish traditions.
Sepharad - Candelario

In tiny Behar we visited the Jewish museum built by a former Spanish ambassador to Istanbul, a Bejar citizen. It seems that the ambassador went to a tailor shop to have a suit made. While speaking in French, the owner of the shop asked the ambassador if he spoke Spanish. They became good friends and when the ambassador was poised to leave Turkey the tailor confessed that he, David Melul, came from a Jewish family that had to leave Bejar at the time of the Expulsion. The ambassador sponsored the museum in David's honor.  The word Bejar sounds similar to Bacher and we are curious to know if there are links between our cousins and Jews from Spain centuries ago.

That night we slept at Hospederia Valle del Amboz in Hervas. It is a beautiful well appointed building that once was a convent. Even centuries after the expulsion there were laws against Conversos, including blood laws that isolated Conversos from the rest of Christian society. One man donated part of his property to the convent so that his Jewish blood line could be cancelled.

In the evening we went on a walk behind Paco and his band. Paco talked about the Jews who left Spain for Portugal but were persuaded to settle in Hervas. At the time of the Expulsion they too had to leave and many went to Portugal. There some converted, but when they wanted to return they found their houses occupied.

Sepharad - Hervas
On the last day before we arrived in Madrid we visited Segovia with its famed Roman aqueduct dating back over 2,000 years ago. Segovia was the seat of power and Madrid was built in the 1500's to protect it and Toledo. Madrid became the capital of Spain only in the late 1500's.
Sepharad - Segovia

Sepharad - Segovia

The church of Corpus Chrisi was the synagogue of Avraham Senior, Rabbi of the Jewish community and advisor to Isabella. He and Isaac Abrabanel had three meetings with Queen Isabella, trying to persuade her to prevent the Expulsion, including offering her substantial amounts of money. The clergy which was very powerful and in fact ruled the kings demanded that she execute the Expulsion order. Abraham Senior apologized to the Jewish population saying that he had done everything in his power to prevent the terrible decree, then he and his family converted to Christianity. Abrabanel had already lost his family and first fortune in Portugal and had started writing commentaries on the bible in Toledo, when he was called to Isabella's service to collect revenues and provision the army. Refusing to convert, he left with other Jews on boats for unknown shores and future at the very same day that Christopher Columbus set sail for India (presumably) with Jewish scientists, sailors and doctors.

At Alcazar, the Disney-like Segovian fortress, Eitan takes a fancy to a soldier in arms while I suspect that I've finally found my knight in shining armour.
Sepharad - SegoviaSegoviaSepharad - Segovia