Jews and Spaniards Come Together to Celebrate ‘by My Spirit’ Gala

For a moment there, Toledo thought its Jews had come back.

But the bustle of shopping, touring, praying, curious Sephardim in the legendary city was only a temporary sight brought about by the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of Spain’s Jews.

The concert and spiritual gathering called “By My Spirit,” which in its humble beginnings dreamed of 10,000 people streaming to Toledo, settled into a more intimate affair of 4,000 people, Jews and Spaniards, who despite the organizational havoc managed to retain the dreamy quality that originally propelled the idea.

Regular guests paid $200, while gold-ticket holders shelled out $1,000 (not including trip expenses) to listen to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, directed by Zubin Mehta, in the world premiere of the mournful Pasion Sefardi, written for the event by Israeli composer Noam Sheriff.

” ‘By My Spirit’ was always the star event of the Fifth Centenary commemorations,” said Manuel Sassot, the president of the Spanish government’s Sepharad’92 committee.

“Though the ceremony in Madrid’s synagogue last March 31 was the most symbolic, this is where contact is established between the Jewish and Spanish peoples,” Sassot said.

More than 1,500 people flew in for the program — the largest group was from France, with 800 people; 200 came from the United States, 100 from Israel, 60 from Belgium, 50 from Great Britain and smaller delegations from other countries.

The groups were scheduled to go on to Israel from here, to celebrate Israel’s 44th anniversary in Jerusalem.

Organizers Michele Bokobza, Richard Katz and David Silver were taking care of logistical details up until the last minute, doing things like scrounging for chairs for the spiritual gathering as guests, many clad in tuxedos and long dresses, had to watch the ceremony camping out on blankets or standing.

Queen Sofia of Spain arrived by helicopter and sat in the only royal chair available in the open-air concert.

Actor Gregory Peck, scheduled to be one of the concert’s hosts, cancelled 10 days before, and violinist Isaac Stern was unable to play because of an injury. Israeli violinist Gil Shaham played Mendelssohn’s No. 2 Violin Concert, instead.

Nonetheless, Joseph Sitruk, chief rabbi of France, said, “This event is not an organization, it is a dream. And this improvisation is part of what allows the force of the spirit to live the moment.”

Sitruk welcomed the Archbishop of Toledo and the Imam of Marbella as special guests, and two choirs — of the Great Synagogues of Jerusalem and of Moscow — interpreted Jewish songs and prayers.

Then the Hatikvah torch was lit and was used to light seven other torches handed to the ambassadors of the countries that received the exiled Jews 500 years ago: France, Greece, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Morocco, Turkey and Italy. These torches were taken to their respective countries, many of which held welcoming ceremonies.

The Concert hostess, actress Nuria Espert, who is the head of the Catalonia-Israel Friendship Association, said “As a Spaniard, it is a great pleasure for me to hear words of forgiveness, of future and of understanding, coming not from the offender but from the ones who suffered. Welcome back home.”

Among the spectators were eight members of a religious order called the Communaute de Beatitude, who received some of the few free tickets, since they had vows of poverty and could not afford them.

“We were very happy to share this moment of peace with the people of Israel,” Sister Genevieve said as the concert finished and, singing in Hebrew, she and other nuns greeted people with “Shalom and Lehitraot.”

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