Spain reverberates with echoes of long-vanished Jews

Spain reverberates with echoes of long-vanished Jews

Girona, Barcelona offer glimpses of past, revival of Jewish life

A view of Girona from the old Roman walls. Photos by Jennifer Altmann
A view of Girona from the old Roman walls. Photos by Jennifer Altmann

A steep climb through the medieval streets of Girona, in the northeast of Spain’s Catalonia region, leads to the ruins of a tower where a historic chapter of Jewish persecution and tenuous survival took place. In August 1391, the Jewish community of Girona — scholars and rabbis, artisans, students, and shopkeepers, who worshiped at the town’s three synagogues — was attacked in the “call” (the word for Jewish quarter, used only in Catalonia), killed if they refused conversion. They were likely targeted as scapegoats for the Black Plague that was claiming many lives as it swept through the country. (The alleged evidence — that fewer Jews were afflicted with the disease — was perhaps due to the fact that they traditionally washed their hands before eating.) Some Jews escaped the slaughter by taking refuge in the Tower of Gironella, a Roman fortress built in the 10th century; they managed to remain in the stone tower for 17 weeks before being driven out.

The story evokes the perseverance of the Jews of Spain, whose communities thrived for centuries before the 1492 order issued by the Inquisition offering dire alternatives: conversion or expulsion (with death for those who refused or were discovered to have maintained their faith despite outwardly converting). Today, the ruins of the tower have been transformed into the site of a wild garden that grows amid the ancient stone walls and archways overgrown with moss. In 1998, the garden hosted the first official celebration of Chanukah in Spain in more than 600 years, with Jerusalem’s chief Sephardic rabbi leading the ceremony.

Jewish life has slowly returned to Girona, a modern city with a charming medieval town, an hour northeast of Barcelona. In Girona — home to about 125 Jews — one can now find a Chabad House, converted from an antique shop in 2016. “The community was lost for hundreds of years, but today I make Tashlich here,” said Rabbi Avrohom Rosemberg, codirector with his wife, Chana, of the Chabad. As he walks through the town, shouts of “Shalom!” greet him. “When people see me, they remember me,” he said.

Rosemberg leads Torah classes and holds services every Shabbat and on holidays in a sanctuary tucked under stone arches. In addition to Spanish and Hebrew, siddurim are available in English, French, and Russian. Last year, 100 people gathered for a ceremony welcoming a new Torah scroll.

An archway in Barcelona’s call or Jewish quarter.

Tourists flock to Girona for its beauty, including the picturesque sherbet-colored houses lining the river bank; its delightfully sophisticated restaurants, several of which have earned Michelin stars; and for the chance to climb the 91-step staircase leading to Girona Cathedral, which was used as a setting for “Game of Thrones.” Visitors are also drawn to the ancient walled city at its heart, with its winding narrow streets and its call, whose boundaries can be seen in centuries-old maps (it is unsure whether the word comes from the Hebrew kehillah, community, or the Spanish calle, street). The Girona call is considered one of the best-preserved Jewish quarters in the world. Signs of the city’s Jewish past can be hard to spot, but occasionally a visitor will see a groove carved into a stone doorway revealing the long-ago presence of a mezuzah marking the entrance to a Jewish home. A recent excavation uncovered a centuries-old mikvah, identified by its Jewish code of law-mandated dimensions.

Girona’s Museum of Jewish History is within the Centre Bonastruc ça Porta, named for the city’s most renowned Jewish inhabitant, the 13th-century scholar, rabbi, philosopher, and physician Moshe ben Nachman (the Ramban or Nachmanides). The building itself in the 1400s housed the community’s synagogue. Among the museum’s treasures are several headstones with Hebrew inscriptions (after the expulsion, the non-Jewish residents often ravaged the cemeteries and used the markers for building). One reads, “The gravestone of the pleasant child Joseph, may he rest in Eden, son of R. Jacob, may his Rock and Redeemer guard him.”

Rabbi Avrohom Rosemberg in front of Girona’s Chabad House.

Some 65 miles away, Barcelona’s call — within its own Gothic Quarter, a funky enclave with cafes and shops formerly surrounded by Roman walls — offers an enchanting walk through narrow stone streets. The Barcelona call was once home to thousands of Jews. Visitors can envision what Jewish life was like on a visit to the Sinagoga Mayor, excavated in the late 20th century, a small museum in a building that may have once housed a synagogue. The Barcelona City History Museum displays pottery dug up on the sites of formerly Jewish homes; one is a fragment of a dish with markings to indicate it was to be used for meat.

Jews began returning to Spain in small numbers in the late 19th century. With the death of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, the country finally began to seek reconciliation surrounding the persecution and banishment of its Jewish citizens 500 years before. In fact, by this past September, some 130,000 Jews had applied to the government’s offer issued five years ago to confer Spanish citizenship, with no residency requirement, on the descendants of Sephardim who were expelled in the 15th century.

The ruins of the Tower of Gironella in Girona, where Jews took refuge from attacks in the 14th century.

Today, Barcelona has five synagogues and about 5,000 Jews and there are signs of revitalized Jewish life. The city’s Jewish Film Festival just marked its 20th year, and on one of the city’s most famous streets, La Rambla, you can dine on kosher paella at The Maccabi Restaurant.

And in 2018, the community celebrated the debut of Casa Adret, a Jewish cultural center housed in the oldest residential house in Barcelona. The center has become a venue to bring Jewish culture back into the mainstream, with activities that attract Jews and non-Jews who want to learn about a long-buried chapter in their country’s history; programs include lectures, performances, an annual book festival, and a popular series of food tastings from the Jewish diaspora.

Dominique Tomasov Blinder arrived in Barcelona in 1991 after growing up in Buenos Aires. An architect who leads walking tours of the city focused on Jewish life, she is watching the blossoming of Jewish identity in the city. “Jews have contributed to the development of this country,” she said. “We live in Spain again, and we are making history together.”

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