SEGOVIA, Spain (Sep. 24)
A group of cloistered nuns sat still inside a locked cage as a chamber-music trio played a Sephardic lullaby.
But when the singer sang “durme, durme” — which means “sleep, sleep” in Ladino — the nuns smiled through the iron bars at the children playing on the floor of the ancient synagogue.
The concert was held to mark the inauguration of the 12th century “Corpus Christi” synagogue, the only one of seven medieval synagogues still standing in this historic Spanish city about 60 miles northwest of Madrid.
The synagogue was restored in a two-year project that cost $243,000 in public money and enlisted some of the city’s top artistic talent.
The project is part of a plan to renovate the entire Juderia, the medieval Jewish quarter, said Clara Luguero, Segovia’s alderman for culture.
City records show that Jewish inhabitants of the Juderia at times outnumbered the city’s non-Jews in the medieval era, she said.
The Juderia “is part of our history and it’s important that our citizens get to know it,” Luguero said.
Around a thousand people, the overwhelming majority of them locals, turned out for the synagogue inauguration and tours of the Juderia, which were held as part of the recent European Day of Jewish Culture.
In Toledo, with its much more famous synagogues, only about 100 people showed up for the Juderia tours, according to Luguero.
“It was so interesting to discover all these synagogues and what they were for,” said Segovia native Rosa Velasco, who belongs to an association for the preservation of the city’s heritage.
Until now, Segovia’s Jewish history was virtually unknown to Spaniards. They know the city well because it was here that Queen Isabella the Catholic — who along with her husband, King Ferdinand, decreed the Jewish expulsion — was crowned.
Segovia is also one of Spain’s top tourist destinations because of its towering Roman aqueduct, an enduring marvel of engineering, and its late Gothic Alcazar Cathedral.
Even though the restoration of the Corpus Christi was publicly financed, the synagogue — like most restored shuls in Spain — remains the property of Roman Catholic ecclesiastical authorities.
It serves as a convent for Clarissa nuns — a cloistered order — and the building still bears the name of the church that was established inside its walls after the expulsion of the Jews in 1492.
A giant cross with a life-size Jesus figure still looks down on the stage.
However, the rows of white columns and Moorish arches carved with ornate palm motifs have been restored to their original splendor. The wooden ceiling and intricate woodwork on the balconies also have been rebuilt, and further work is planned on the outer walls and doorways.
“There’s got to be a lot more under here,” Velasco said.
“But since it’s still a convent, I think they’re trying not to find out more than they have to,” she added with a knowing smile.
According to the historian, the Corpus Christi synagogue was the largest of seven believed to have stood in medieval Segovia.
It was built by Joseph Iban Sosan, who was the “Almojarife” — or minister of the treasury — in the court of King Alfonso VIII in the latter part of the 12th century.
As often was the case with medieval Spanish synagogues, it was built by Muslim architects.
The ceiling and columns were destroyed by fire in 1898, but blueprints survived that served as a guide for restorative work carried out by three of Segovia’s most talented artists.
After the Corpus Christi, the tour of the Juderia wound through the narrow alleyways of the quarter, stopping at the locations of other synagogues and the home of Rabbi Avraham Senneor, one of the most famous apostates of the Inquisition.
Senneor’s residence is now a municipal cultural center, where an exhibit on Jewish life showed the hows and whys of Jewish ritual, from wearing tefillin to the chupah.
According to Segovia historian Valero Herrera Ontanon, another prominent Jewish Segovian was Jacob Cachopo, who raised funds for Ferdinand and Isabella’s conquest of Islamic Granada and is also believed to have funded Columbus’ voyage to the Americas.
Down a road called the Calle de la Juderia, an arch from another synagogue has been found behind the wall of a Catholic school and is preserved behind a plexiglass shield.
As she inspected the arch, Luguero, the city official, lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. She said, “I would love to see what’s underneath here.”