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Behind the Headlines: Jews in Barcelona Are Active, but Divided Along Ethnic Lines

With the arrival of 94-year-old Alberto Arditti, the oldest Jew in Barcelona, a minyan is present and Rabbi Gabriel Alfasi, a Sephardic Jew from Morocco dressed like a Lubavitcher Chasid, opens the Sabbath service.

The sanctuary of the Maimonides Synagogue, with a central bimah and lighted by nine brass and crystal chandeliers, is for Sephardic worshipers. Upstairs is the much smaller Ashkenazic chapel, in use only during the High Holy Days.

In the same building are the offices of the Comunidad Israelita de Barcelona (Jewish Community of Barcelona), a mikvah, library, kosher snack bar and auditorium.

The community supports or supervises a Sephardic day school attended by 110 boys and girls, an impressive sports complex and a kosher butcher store.

When the building was dedicated on Rosh Hashanah in 1954, it marked a major milestone in the 2,000-year history of Spanish Jewry as the first synagogue erected on Iberian soil since the expulsion of the Jews in 1942.

Before 1954, the regime of dictator Francisco Franco allowed Jewish services in private homes, but worshipers had to obtain a separate government permit for each Sabbath service, recalls Leon Sorenssen, the community executive director.

Today, official registration figures list 485 heads of Jewish households in Barcelona, which Sorenssen multiplies by an average of 4.5 family members to arrive at close to 2,200 Jewish souls.

With a slightly larger figure for Madrid, and smaller numbers in a dozen cities, the Jewish population count in Spain stands at about 12,000.

Of the present Barcelona Jewish community, 75 percent is Sephardic and the remaining 25 percent Ashkenazic. The Ashkenazic community consists mainly of descendants of Central European refugees.

SOUTH AMERICAN JEWS DIDN’T AFFILIATE

The first wave of Sephardim arrived from Turkey and Bulgaria at the end of World War I, and now constitutes some 30 percent of the Sephardic community. The bulk of the Sephardim hail from Morocco, arriving in Barcelona after that country declared its independence from France in 1956.

About 500 to 700 Jews have never affiliated with the community. They come mainly from Argentina or elsewhere in Latin America and fled upheavals in their native countries in the 1980s.

Although the initial Sephardic immigrants have now produced two or more generations of Spanish-born descendants, they are still divided between the “Turks” and the “Moroccans.”

Intermarriage between Sephardim and Ashkenazim is a rarity, and between Jews and Gentiles practically unknown.

“Whenever we start worrying that a Jewish boy or girl is getting too friendly with an outsider, we send them to Israel,” says Sorenssen.

Through this and perhaps more idealistic motives, some 15 to 20 young people make aliyah to Israel each year.

The age distribution of Barcelona’s Jews has not been calculated, but the number of life-cycle events points to an aging but viable community. In 1993, says Sorenssen, there were six or seven circumcisions, four or five B’nai Mitzvot, an equal number of weddings and some 15 to 20 funerals.

Most of the Sephardic immigrants started as small shopkeepers or tradesmen, but their children and grandchildren, like those of the Ashkenazim, have gone to college and become professionals.

There are few millionaires and none of the immense contrats in wealth found in other Hispanic Jewish communities.

Considerable assistance in money and training programs has come from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which maintains an active presence in the city.

Anti-Semitism is all but unfelt because “most people here have never seen a Jew in their lives and have no idea what a Jew is,” observes Sorenssen.

“We sometimes get visits from high-school classes, and they’ll ask questions like ‘Why don’t you look different?’ or ‘Why did you kill God?’ Their ignorance is unbelievable.”

Names do not mean anything either, adds Sorenssen. “If your name is Moshe Cohen and your grandfather came from Turkey, then you’re considered a Turk, not a Jew.”

Sorenssen got his unlikely Scandinavian surname through his father, who emigrated from Germany to Norway, where he changed his name before moving to Spain. Leon Sorenssen’s mother is of Moroccan descent, and he considers himself a member of the Sephardic community.

The community’s young rabbi, only three months at the post, also comes from a Moroccan family, but studied at a Chabad yeshiva in Brooklyn. His all-black dress code reflects this experience and his congregants have jocularly lengthened his name from Alfasi to Alfasinsky.

Traces of the old Jewish community of the Middle Ages are found mainly at two sites. One is the name of the city’s landmark Montjuic, or Jew’s Mountain, main site of the 1992 Olympics.

More insistent reminders are found in the names of the narrow, winding roads and historical markers of the city’s Call, or old Jewish Quarter, within the Gothic Quarter.

It is said the world “call” comes from “kahal,” the Hebrew word for community, and a part of the wall that contained the Jewish neighborhood remains as part of an old house in the larger Gothic Quarter.

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