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.
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
, 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
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
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
we must read Cervantes again! Eitan stands near huge vats for olive oil.
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
tranquility and beauty of the outside patio resembling an oasis and the
unending space of the interior
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
removed Hebrew writing on the walls was uncovered, revealing that this
building too had been a synagogue,before being converted into a church.
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
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
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
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.
Behind 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.
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
that the reason our mezzuzahs are at a slant is to prevent them
from being turned into a cross
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.