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Being Jewish in Spain

The Alhambra

I’m just back home from two weeks in Southern Spain. I climbed hills and visited charming mountain villages. I saw exotic sights like the Alhambra in Granada, and the famous Mezquita of Cordoba. I drank coffee in town squares, basked in the November sunshine, and took busses down roads that seemed most unfit for busses to drive on. Yet there was one thing that was missing from my trip. Where were the Jews?

A church spire in the Alhambra in Granada

I went on a free tour in Granada. The city centre was touristy and clogged full of big groups and imported souvenirs. Our guide told us stories about the Muslim rulers of Spain, and how the Alhambra was the pinnacle of Islamic architecture in Europe. Walking through the narrow streets, we stopped outside of the Capilla Real - the royal chapel where the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella are buried. Our guide told us how they were the greatest monarchs. They re-conquered Spain, saving it from an era of Muslim rule, unifying the county and bringing forth their Golden Age.

The Alhambra

This was something I had never heard before. I had learnt about the bloodshed of the inquisition, and how Spanish Jews were tortured and forced to convert. I had learnt about how people were still tried for being accused of practicing Judaism in secret until 1818. I thought through all of my high school history lessons, all the Jewish history classes I’ve been to, and nowhere had I ever heard Ferdinand and Isabella being described in a positive light. Yet here I was, in a crowded square in Granada, surrounded on all sides by Spanish tourists lining up and paying for the opportunity to visit their graves.

The Alhambra

I’ve always learnt about the Spanish Inquisition as a single line in a larger Jewish history lesson, a singular event in 1492, but there was so much more. I didn’t realize the different stages. For example, Jewish books were rounded up and burnt in public squares, and Jews had to wear special clothing to identify themselves. Special laws were introduced about how Jewish people were able to interact with the larger society, and only then were they forced to either convert to Catholicism, or leave Spain, and tortured and killed for resisting. It was especially resonant learning all of this following my trip to Poland the week before.

The Synagogue in Cordoba

In Cordoba I visited the Jewish museum, which was full of stories of Conversos - Jews who converted to Catholicism and stayed in the Iberian peninsula. I learnt about how they made lavish public showings of Christianity, while coming home to bake matza and light Shabbat candles. Many people maintained these traditions through generations spanning hundreds of years. There are stories today of people who find out that they are secretly Jewish through family traditions that have been maintained for 530 years.

A Chanukiah at the Jewish Museum in Cordoba

All the while, there were vicious attempts to root out these Conversos. Anyone accused of practicing Judaism in secret would be tried, and often executed. In Spain, the week before Easter is known as Semana Santa, or Holy Week, and is celebrated by lavish public parades. Apparently this tradition was strengthened around the time of the Inquisition, and was very popular amongst converted Jews, who used it as an opportunity to very publicly display their apparent Christianity.

The Alhambra

Another part of Spanish culture which intensified at this time was the eating of ham. Forbidden in both Judaism and Islam, this was a common way to demonstrate one’s devotion to Catholicism. While at home people kept kosher in secret, anyone seen as refraining from eating ham immediately became a target for suspicion. Ham became an integral part of the Spanish diet.

Hanging hams in Trevelez

This is something that became very apparent to me from my first day in Spain - there is no escaping the ham. Even the vegetable options were usually full of ham. A nice veggie soup? Sprinkled with bacon. Egg salad sandwich? And a slice of ham. I found it incredibly difficult to find anything to eat that wasn’t full of pig. And every time I found myself eating fruit or plain bread in my hotel room because there was nothing else to eat, I knew that this was a struggle felt not only by the contemporary tourist, but by generations of oppressed Jews living here. It wasn’t simply that there were no vegetarian options available - there were no vegetarian options on purpose, as a way to root out people who dared hold on to their faith.

The Alhambra

And that’s just how it is. It is not the intention of every cafe owner and modern Spaniard to oppress Jews through their food options. These things have become so deeply engrained in Spanish society that people don’t even think about it. When my Granadina tour guide talked about Spanish identity and the virtues of Ferdinand and Isabella, she didn’t mean to ignore these histories, this is just the society she was raised in.

The Alhambra

I looked at her, her dark brown curls and deep brown eyes, and thought that she could so easily be Israeli. She could very well be the descendent of Conversos. In another timeline, her ancestors could have chosen to leave rather than convert, and she could today be living in Tel Aviv rather than Granada. Everywhere I went in Spain, I found myself imagining what it would be like if the Inquisition hadn’t happened, if Cordoba was still full of Jewish scholars. I found myself looking at the people around me and wondering what narratives had been erased out of their identities through all of these cultural shifts.

Inside the Mezquita in Cordoba

I found it quite jarring at the Mezquita in Cordoba. It was built in 785 CE, as a mosque for the city which was then a Muslim capital. The image I had of the Mezquita was of the iconic red and white striped arches. What I didn’t know is that the middle section had been cleared away, and a cathedral built right in the centre. The red and white arches contrast starkly with the detailed carvings of the cathedral ceiling. On one wall is the golden mihrab, intricately decorated with Arabic verses, and the other walls are filled with Mary and Jesus shrines. It’s called the Mezquita-Catedral - a dash bringing together two very different spaces into one. Yet every morning, it’s a Catholic service which takes place there. Regardless of the diverse history, it’s apparent that the building now functions as a Cathedral.

The Alhambra

All throughout my time in Spain, I felt this emptiness - there used to be Jews here and there aren’t anymore. It’s something I’ve felt before, in Poland, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Perhaps I felt singled out, because I knew that my Granadina tour guide and the woman sitting next to me on the bus didn’t feel this absence. They saw the historic synagogue of Cordoba as a beautiful piece of architecture. They walked by the statue of the Rambam, the lanes of the Juderia - Cordoba’s historic Jewish quarter - and thought nothing of the street names. They didn’t have to feel the emptiness.

The Courtyard of the Jewish Museum in Cordoba

At least in Cordoba there’s something to see. The Jewish Museum has a Magen David decorating the mosaic floor in the courtyard. The non-Jewish man who worked in the museum stood in the courtyard and sang songs in Hebrew and Ladino. There was a process of remembering. In Granada, there’s nothing. The old Jewish district - the Realejo - was destroyed. There is a Jewish Museum, but it’s open by appointment only. There was nothing to see of the vibrant Jewish community that used to live in Granada. By contrast, the Albaicin - the old Muslim district - is full of Muslims. There are shwarma shops and Arabic tearooms. And there is the Alhambra, which even though it’s essentially a Museum today, is exquisite, and lends an Islamic flavour to the entire city. It stands on top of the hill as a reminder of the history that used to be here.

The Alhambra

Friday morning I left Cordoba and set out for the mountain village of Jimera de Libar. It was two trains, and then a hike, to a relatively remote and unknown village. I transferred trains in Antequera, and made my way to my assigned seat for the second leg of the journey. I pulled out my knitting and was staring out the window, when all of a sudden I saw a sheitel, followed by quick conversation in Hebrew. The man had a beard and kipa, and was carrying a black hat box - the classic Friday morning indicator of frum Jews heading away for Shabbos.

The Mezquita in Cordoba

This is what I had been missing! The whole week I had been wandering around, learning about the Spanish Inquisition and desperately trying not to accidentally consume any pork, and I was missing the Jews! I sat and chatted to the Rabbi and Rebbetzin of Madrid, who were on their way to a Shabbaton in Ceuta, a Spanish city on the North African mainland. They told me about the vibrancy of the modern Jewish community in Madrid, and about living in this place where Jews had once been forced to leave or to hide. It was a really beautiful moment, and made me feel so much safer being in this place that had once been so dangerous for Jews.

A statue of the Rambam in Cordoba

And that was it. I learnt that there’s so much I don’t know about Sephardi Jews and their heritage. I saw some beautiful places belonging to both the Christian, Muslim and Jewish heritage of Spain. And I got a tiny glimpse into the people who are coming back to Spain, making it their home after so many years of Jews living in secret. And even though it may be difficult for Jews and Muslims to order a sandwich there, I know that there are people doing the important work, asking questions, and preserving the stories of the people who were once persecuted for their beliefs.

The Alhambra

The Alhambra

A street in Cordoba's Juderia

The Mezquita


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