Barcelona, one of the loveliest cities in Europe, nestled on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, and not unlike the city of Haifa in Israel, is framed by green mountains on the other side. It is the capital of the independent Spanish region of Catalonia, with a population of 1.5 million. It’s main intersection, Las Ramblas promenade, runs from the waterfront, and is filled with street performers, flower stands, shops and markets, overflowing with an exquisite array of fresh produce, fruits and vegetables glistening with ‘just picked’ colors and scents. A walk along Las Ramblas (plural, for the intersecting streets, many of which lead into highly varied neighborhoods, filled with architectural delights from Roman to Gothic.
For Jewish travelers the most exciting thing is often the realization that the Jewish community is undergoing a rebirth, after a painful hiatus forced by on them by the Spanish Inquisition, public burning of all Jews who refused to convert to Catholicism and the expulsion of 100,000 Jews. There is a long and blood stained history of Jews in Barcelona, which began after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. There was an ongoing Responsa (A body of written decisions and rulings given by legal scholars in response to questions addressed to them. It pertains historically, to religious law), between the Babylonian Rabbis to those in Barcelona. Thus the integrity of the connection to the highest source of Rabbinic studies was maintained and created the base of a flourishing of Jewish learning. Diring the 12th century, renowned Jewish Spanish traveller, Benjamin de Tudela, wrote of his arrival in a “small and beautiful city on the shore of the sea” and reported that a “holy Jewish community, with mighty princess of commerce” we’re residing there.
Jewish learning flourished in the region. In the 13 the century, one of our greatest and most important scholars, Moses Ben Nachman, also known as Ramban or Nachmanides, was ordered to debate a Dominican priest on the validity of Judaism vs Christianity . The debate was conducted in front of King Jaume I. It was called the disputation of Barcelona and Ramban was so persuasive the King awarded him a monetary prize and praised his brilliance and courage. Then the King, who was obviously unusual in his thirst for knowledge and truth, attended a Jewish service in Barcelona’s Sinagoga Mayor. The Rashba, another great scholar served as the Rabbi of the Sinagpga Mayor for 50 years, writing thousands of Responsa, and prohibiting the study of philosophy and science by Jewish men before the age of 25. (1235-1310) By mid 14 century, a quarter of the population in Barcelona was Jewish, mostly crammed into the old Jewish quarter, El Call. Scholars,writers, merchants bakers and bankers lived there, having significant influence on both Christian and Jewish commerce and intellect. The population flourished and produced some great scholars and people of wealth and influence.
On august 4 th 1391, El Call was attacked, with at least 200 Jews murdered, the synagogue and Jewish properties were confiscated. Things became so devastating that about 100,000 Jews would leave, prior to the start of the Inquisition. About 4,000 of the Jews in Barcelona decided to convert to Christianity, rather than lose their positions of power and wealth. They did so ambivalently, many living a double life and practicing their true religion in secret. The most ironic fact is that some of the reasons the Inquisition came about, is because Spain’s church leaders were furious and decided to use torture and any means to force the truth out of the new Conversos. A thing as minor as using olive oil rather than lard would give them away – and their obedient Christian neighbors made sure to report any such observation.
Barcelona became a city without a Jewish population for hundreds of years, but in the end of 1800, Moroccan and Turkish Jews were the first to return. In 1909 the law prohibiting the establishment and worship in synagogues was overturned, and a congregation of 100 or so Jews lived in the city by 1918. With the rise of Franco and the Spanish War, some 5,000 drifted to Catalonia, and Spain provided refuge for Jews, paradoxically, under fascist Franco. In fact none of the Jews who lived in Catalonia were shipped out for extermination.
In the 1960s South American immigrants of both Sephardic and Ashkenazi origin immigrated to either Madrid or Barcelona to escape political repression. Speakers of Ladino were especially aided and encouraged.
Today Barcelona’s Jewish population numbers 5,000 and in 1954 the Communidad Israelita established the first free standing Jewish institution on the Iberian peninsula, following expulsion, with two places of worship. One representing the more traditional Sephardic Orthodox population, and the other synagogue caters to the Ashkenazi. There is a presence of the Chabad Lubavitz Center of Studies. Barcelona has become home to the very first Reform synagogue in Spain in 1997: the Communitat Jueva Atid holds Shabbat morning services and has 400 members, most of Argentinian immigres. In 1956 there was a huge influx of Morrocan Jews, returning to the land of their ancestors. The community has a Jewish publishing firm called Rio Piedras, which specializes in the history of Spanish Jewry. The community runs Sephardic cooking classes, Ladino and Klezmer music concerts and an international Jewish music festival. I heard of a deeply touching event, which happened in recent years and brought tears to the eyes of many, including myself. It concerns the “return, or rebirth) of 5 Conversos at the magnificent Sinagog Mayor. Rabbi Ariel Edery read excerpts from a 15century Siddur, written in ancient Catalan and Hebrew, which was discovered during an excavation under the foundations of the newly restored synagogue. This Shabath service, the 5 men, former Catholics, completed their conversion to the sacred religion of their forcibly converted ancestors. they were called up to the Torah to chant their first Aliyot. The whole congregation was in tears as the men chanted. They all traced their lineage centuries back to Spanish Jewish ancestors Jewish sites.
In El Call, located at the corner of sant Domdinscriptions dating from further back than the 14 the century, can be faintly made out, in the stone walls. Near the cathedral on San Jaume Square (I believe named after the King who defied the church centuries ago, by honoring Jews and their religion), there can be seen the letters nun, vet and tag on the worn bricks. The letters are so faded, they must be pointed out to be seen, and to that end community leader Dominique Blinder, an architect from Argentina. Started Urban Cultours.,began organizing Jewish tours.
The restoration of the city’s medieval synagogue in the historic Jewish quarter, has now added Barcelona to an important place to visit, aside from Toledo synagogues, the ruins of Rambam’s house and Girona, the medieval center of mysticism and kabbalistic studies, despite it having no functioning jewish community today. Barcelona has the largest concentration of Jews in Spain, two functioning synagoes, an emerging academic investigation of past glory and historical reservations. It also has one of the most unique cross pollinisation of the Jewish tribe, outside of Israel.
The excavated,rehabilitated and reopened grand medieval synagogue, is a must see for all Jewish visitor. One can ‘smell’ the history of our people, with its ground and first floor structures from 14th century, the 4 floors above from the 18th century. There is evidence of an underwater spring which filled the congregations Mikveh. Further restoration display the fifth century ruins, a new Aron Hakodesh thus the recreation of Spain’s oldest synagogue. Carrer Marlet is a narrow. medieval passageway where visitors can only squeeze by one another
Like most of El Calls buildings most original construction were torn down after the expulsion but their materials were recycled in the city. The remaining structured where Jews once led their life are stark and simple and lack ornamentation in sharp contrast to the architecture in the city. Mortjuic, mountain of Jews can be reached cross harbor cable from the seaside part of Barcelona or by bus no 61. It had a Jewish cemetery for at least a millennium. In 1956 a Jewish memorial was erected there, commemorating the Holocaust.
The Picasso museum is just outside Ell Call, rambling thru several gorgeous medieval palaces.
If there is any time left, a visit to Gironia is recommended to visit the center of Jewish learning in Spain in the 13 the century, and the place where Kaballa first made its appearance in Spain, where great scholars like Nachmanides contributed their genius to the development of mysticism.
Despite the lack of Jewish population in Geronia, the indentations on the door posts are visible reminders of the mezuzahs once mounted there
Love is the most powerful way to create profoundly tangible transformation in everyone who crosses our path. Yet we must be mindful to endow the self with pure, unconditional love and acceptance, which will result in an infinite fountain of empathy and joy, readily available to give others.
image credit: tripadvisor.com